Ketchikan's oldest bar celebrates its 80th birthday

Arctic Bar owners Paula Weisel and Kara Jones in the bar Friday by a mural painted by Snapper Carson, which was in the bar before the remodel two years ago. Photo by Hall Anderson

“We’re gonna go downtown, gonna make our rounds to a place where dreams come true, we’re going to the Arctic Bar, gonna play our guitar, gonna drink that happy bear brew — alright!”

“That’s the chorus to the Arctic Bar song,” said Paula Shan Weisel, who sang the tune with a huge grin.

Weisel, who co-owns the Arctic Bar with Kara Jones, says that the lyrics came from a band called 3 Man, a band which came out of retirement after almost a decade just to perform at the Arctic Bar’s 80th birthday party on Saturday.

According to Weisel, who has worked there for more than 30 years, the Arctic Bar is much more than just a local watering hole; it’s a home. And that is why Weisel, whose regulars often refer to her as “mama bear,” says the anniversary is so special.

During the celebration on Saturday they sold “baby Millers,” as Weisel called them, for 80 cents, along with little yellow plastic ducks filled with liquor. Patrons would use the ducks like a shot glass, tipping back the small bird’s beak to imbibe.

The bar was packed wall-to-wall with standing room only by 9:30 p.m. as customers, young and old, crammed into the bar to celebrate what has become such a special place to so many in the community.

Weisel glided around the room, offering up beers, hugging and greeting as many people as possible — all of whom she seemed to know by name.

It was 80 years ago in 1937 that the Arctic Bar first opened its doors, and its kegs, to the Ketchikan community. It has had an interesting history, and in that time has cultivated quite a local reputation for itself.

“We are the oldest bar in Ketchikan,” Weisel said. “We’re the ninth oldest bar in the whole state of Alaska, we’re number nine.”

She and Jones explained that the original Arctic Bar was located at the end of Creek Street and ended up washing away on Dec. 11, 1962, during a tumultuous storm.

“(There were) really high tides, really severe winds,” Weisel said. “… The Arctic Bar safe was found and they brought it up — they had divers go down.”

“When it washed away the whole (building) went underneath that orange bridge thing and then (the bar) relocated right after that,” Weisel added later.

But since their relocation, they have been in the same place, right on the 500 block of Water Street.

They have also since rebranded. Now known for their infamous “happy bears” logo, a jovial depiction of two bears mating, Weisel and Jones have certainly cultivated a persona around the bar.

“’Home of the happy bears’ came around — I named it,” Weisel explained. “I just kept looking at ‘em and one day I said, ‘home of the happy bears, Arctic Bar, home of the happy bears!”

Jones interjected, pointing out the fame of the logo as well.

“The actual logo came from Andy though, and that would have been the ‘70s or ‘80s,” Jones added, referring to one of the previous owners, Andy Taylor. “But, ‘home of the happy bears’ — that statement came from Paula.”

During the interview there was period of back-and-forth between Weisel and Jones as they reminisced on their bar’s past accomplishments, service to the community and all of the memories that went along with owning the establishment.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff for the community over the years — a lot — benefits, funerals,” Weisel said.

“Paula got Heart of the Community,” Jones interjected excitedly.

“… In 2008,” Weisel said. “And the bar, which is unheard of for a bar to get Business of the Year, but we got Business of the Year in 2009.”

“It’s either I got Heart (of the Community) in 2008 and Business of the year in 2009, or vice versa,” Weisel added smiling.

“Back in the day though,” Jones said, “right next door there used to be Taquan Air, and I’ve heard many jokes about people sitting over here (at the bar) and missing their flights.”

“Yeah, yeah, yep, (customers) used to jump off the deck a lot,” Weisel added, “but we don’t like them to do that anymore. If one of the kids didn’t come up I would — we would, …”

“Now we just tell them to jump on the promenade and that’s the city’s problem and not ours,” Jones broke in with a laugh.

The two also pointed out a mural across a large section of the back wall of the bar painted by a man named Lawrence “Snapper” Carson.

“The mural is old, it was done in 1969,” Weisel said, “by Snapper Carson.”

“And then in 2005, somebody had punched it — put a hole in it — so he came and fixed it up, and I asked him to put a couple happy bears in, so he did,” Weisel added grinningly.

It’s definitely not as crazy as it used to be,” Jones said. “Our business has changed, it’s not a bad thing.”

As things changed, one thing that remained constant was the concept of “family” that Weisel mentioned so many times throughout the interview.

“They call me the den mother now or mama bear,” Weisel said. “We’re throwing 21st birthday parties for our local kids that we had (their parents’) 21st birthdays for.”

“We didn’t want it just to be a bar, we wanted to give back,” Weisel said.

When pressed for a story from over the years that stands out to them, both Weisel and Jones seemed overwhelmed with the many options.

“We could tell you lots of stories,” Jones said.

“Some of them you could publish, some of them you can’t,” Weisel added with a laugh.

They settled on a humorous one, which not only illustrates the allure of the bar, but also some of its beloved quirkiness and its reputation as being “the sub bar,” as Weisel calls it. The story begins with a custom-carved tap handle fashioned into the shape of two bears mating; the signature logo for the Arctic Bar.

“It’s a tap handle that was made for us by a 91-year-old hand carver out of Ohio,” Weisel explained. “It’s hard to find someone who can do stuff like that. So (the beer) is called Happy Bear Brew — it’s made just for us by the Baranof Brewing Company in Sitka and it’s our signature beer. And the USS Albuquerque was here and they really liked (the tap handle) and they wanted to buy it.”

But the crewmembers of the sub, who had likely imbibed quite liberally that night, did not give up in their pursuit to obtain the hand-carved loot.

“I came in on a Friday and I knew the sub had left at 5 a.m. that morning, and as soon as I walked in the door I just knew something was missing,” Weisel said. “I didn’t know what yet, but I knew something was out of place. I’m weird about stuff like that.”

It was then that Weisel realized that it was her beloved tap handle that was missing.

“I called Kara, I couldn’t even talk I was crying so hard. She said, ‘Paula, I can’t understand you, I’ll be down,’” Weisel said. “So she came down, we did a police report.”

Weisel and Jones noted that the Ketchikan Police Department was helpful in getting it back and had managed to get ahold of the USS Albuquerque.

“The phone rang and it was the captain, and we had it all planned out how he would just, at his next port of call in San Diego, he’d just get it in the mail and send it back,” Weisel explained. “No problem, everything is good, … everything is golden.

“Then he asked me a couple of questions,” she added. “And they were questions he knew there was no way I could lie about or fib about, and as soon as I said the answers, his whole demeanor over the phone — you could just feel it — (changed).”

Jones said that a few of the crewmembers on the sub had told the captain “that (the tap handle) was given to them — well, I think they found it in one of the lockers first.”

Following the questions, which must have proven the guilt of those on the sub, the captain made a grand gesture to Weisel and the Arctic Bar.

“He said, ‘Paula, I am now turning my nuclear submarine around and I’m bringing it back to you,’ and I said, ‘Captain, you don’t have to do this,’ and he said, ‘Oh yes I do.’”

Weisel said the apology was profound.

“They sent back T-shirts and pictures,” Weisel remembered, “and one of the pictures was framed and it was of the USS Albuquerque coming up out of the water, and (the captain) had written: ‘To Paula and the Arctic Bar, thank you for all the memories — P.S. your bears sure enjoyed the ride.”

And since that day, and many decades prior, thousands of customers have also “enjoyed the ride” while relaxing and having a glass of Happy Bear Brew at the Arctic Bar.

Now, at 80 years old, the bar shows no signs of slowing, and the walls that hold in all the customers also hold in the many memories that make this local establishment what it is.

“Some day, her and I are gonna write a book,” Jones said.