Norwegian Encore arrives at the Mill at Ward Cove

The cruise ship Norwegian Encore arrives at the Mill at Ward Cove on Aug. 4. Staff photos by Dustin Safranek

After a year in which many Ketchikan residents hoped that the local economy would rebound after the cancellation of the 2020 cruise ship season, the number 8.6% stood out. That was the percentage of cruise passengers that arrived in Ketchikan in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.

COVID-19 remained the big story in 2021. Even after ships began arriving again in mid-summer, the number of ships and the passenger loads were well below the 30%-40% that most had predicted. It wasn't that many years ago that a season with 100,000 cruise visitors would have been a decent amount. But not in 2021.

Although it is not possible to come up with specific numbers, local businesses did report a significant number of independent tourists and lodge and hotel business was steady. But those waiting for a turnaround in the cruise industry were left looking ahead to 2022.

COVID-19 continued also to wreak a painful personal toll on the First City in other ways. By the end of the year, at least 15 residents had died from the virus. Thirteen of those deaths took place in 2021, according to state health officials. Alaska had been ahead of the curve as the first state to offer vaccinations to all adults beginning in March, but the Delta variant hit Ketchikan particularly hard in the late summer and early fall, with some days registering more than three dozen new cases. Most tragically, five residents of the Pioneer Home died in one week in early August.

Early August also saw another tragedy, when a flightseeing plane crashed on the way back from Misty Fjords, killing the pilot and five passengers.

Another story that only began to get public attention at the end of the year, was a spike in overdose deaths that claimed the lives of at least 20 residents, Fentanyl was believed to be behind most of the deaths.

Weather was also a big story in 2021, as a higher numbers of storms than usual hit during the year, with at least three having gusts above hurricane force. On the plus side, Ketchikan experienced a rare white Christmas as snow blanketed the area for much of December. And it was cold. The temperature hit 0 degrees on Dec. 25, making it the coldest Christmas Day ever in Ketchikan. It was also 0 degrees on the 26th, the coldest temperature recorded for that day in Ketchikan history.

In January, Eli Turner was the first baby of the year on the 6th, and Petro Marine announced that it was buying competitor Crowley Fuels. Crowley had previously purchased Anderes Oil in 2013.

In February, Canada announced it was continuing its cruise ship ban through early 2022. Later, U.S. officials moved to not enforce the federal law that required ships to stop in Canada at least for 2021.

The Tatsuda family announced that it was not going to rebuild the store that was destroyed by a landslide in 2020, ending 114 years in the Ketchikan grocery business.

Dr. Ernie Meloche received a hero’s send off from more than 50 people when he retired after 32 years of service in the Ketchikan Medical Center emergency room.  

In March, the day before "Spring Ahead" turned out to be the snowiest day in the First City since 2008 when more than 20 inches fell on March 13.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation announced the results of the monitoring of bacteria levels in local waters during the summer of 2020. Despite the fact there was no cruise ship season, bacteria levels were still higher than allowed for activities like seafood consumption and swimming.

Longtime Ketchikan resident Stan Oaksmith became the first Southeast Alaska resident to be awarded both the Wright Brothers Master Pilot and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic awards by the Federal Aviation Administration. Oaksmith was honored for his more than 50 years as a pilot and mechanic. Oaksmith flew for Simpson Air Service, Ellis Airlines and Ketchikan Pulp Company. He also was a commercial helicopter pilot.

Kayhi Senior Evelyn Nutt was named Alaska’s Distinguished Young Woman. Kayhi’s Morgan Elerding was first alternate.

In April, Ketchikan Police Chief Joe White announced he was retiring after 25 years with the department. Len Laurance, considered by many to be the “father” of the local tourism industry, died at age 88.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it had awarded an $18 million contract to an Anchorage firm to build a new dock facility on Stedman Street for the homeport of the NOAA ship Fairweather.

Police were investigating several cases of racist and Nazi graffiti that appeared near the Schoenbar Trail and the South Tongass Highway.

Ken Lewis retired after 41 years of captaining the airport ferry on its quarter-mile runs between Revilla and Gravina islands. It is estimated that Lewis made the trip some 300,000 times.

In May, Ketchikan High School held its 2021 graduation in person in the Kayhi Auditorium but no guests were allowed. For the second year, there was a downtown dock walk for the graduates. Evelyn Nutt was the valedictorian, and Morgan Elerding was the salutatorian. There were 103 graduates. Revilla Alternative High School had 25 graduates in 2021.

Officials announced that for the first time since 2017 there would be a King Salmon Derby in 2021. Then, after consulting with the state Fish and Game department over expected salmon returns, the derby was canceled.

Kayhi runner Rachel Knight was the state champion in the 400-meter dash in the state track and field tourney in Anchorage.

The Kayhi wrestlers continued their decade-long domination of Southeast with 10 wrestlers winning regional titles. Degan Linne went on to finish second in the 140-pound division at the state meet.

The Kayhi Girls softball team won the Region V Championship.

In June, Ketchikan residents watched — on TV — as Kayhi graduate Isaac Updike came within two seconds of making the U.S. Olympic steeplechase team at the U.S. trials in Oregon.

Also in the summer, residents "streamed" episodes of the TV series "Outer Banks," which features Ketchikan resident Rudy Pankow.

Residents also watched a long-running waterfront "drama" as a giant ship-carrying ship, the Red Zed 1, waited for weeks outside Ward Cove before the two Alaska Marine Highway fast ferries were loaded on board the trip to their new home in Spain.

In July, Ketchikan experienced a more traditional Fourth of July holiday with a parade, booths and other events, Jan Ross was the parade grand marshal.

The Blueberry Festival was held the first week in August after being canceled in 2020. Dock Street, Main Street and Mission Street were closed to allow the booths to be set up out of doors rather inside the State Office Building parking garage as in the past.

KFC Fire Chief Abner Hoage announced his retirement. Hoage also had served for the past year as the commander of the Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center, the main group that tackled the COVID outbreak in the community.

The Ketchikan City Council approved a new 20-year lease with PeaceHealth for the operation of the Ketchikan General Hospital. The lease has two 10-year options.

The first cruise ships began using the dock at the Mill at Ward Cove, heralding a major move to redevelop the former site of the Ketchikan Pulp Mill which closed in 1997.

On Aug. 5, a Southeast Aviation Beaver crashed into Painted Peak near Shoal Cove, killing the pilot Rolf Lazendorfer, 64, and five passengers, Mark Henderson, 69, Jacquelyn Komplin, 60, Andrea McArthur, 55, Rachel McArthur, 20, and Janet Kroll, 77, all from the Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship.

A group of Prince of Wales Island residents helped a young, 20-foot killer whale survive after it was stranded on area beach. The residents sprayed water on the whale until the rising tide allowed it to swim free. Pictures and videos of the event made national news.

Libby Oaksmith died in August of cancer. Local residents had bound together during her illness, even staging a full-sized carnival on Berth 4 to raise money for her medical expenses.

The Alaska Marine Highway announced that it planned to go back to serving Prince Rupert in the summer of 2022. Service had been stopped in late 2019 when the two countries disagreed over customs procedures.

In September, longtime city manager Karl Amylon died, less than a month following retiring after 26 years.

In October, Kayhi’s Mickey Lapinski won the Region 5 4A Cross-country title.

Local elections were held. Ketchikan Gateway Borough voters overwhelming approved a proposal to bond $6.6 million to improve baseball and softball fields in Ketchikan and also approved extending a sales tax on marijuana sales. Jaimie Palmer and Grant Echohawk were elected to seats on the Borough Assembly. Stephen Bradford, Nicole Anderson and Keenan Sanderson were elected to seats on the Ketchikan School Board. Janalee Gage and Jai Mahtani were elected to seats on the Ketchikan City Council. Dave Kiffer ran unopposed for city mayor. Approximately 17% of the voters in the borough turned out.  

Saxman announced that it was negotiating with a Wasilla-based store chain, Three Bears, to build a new full-sized grocery store on the Saxman Seaport property. Saxman also announced a multi-year plan to build docks and more visitor industry facilities.

Ketchikan held its first annual Filipino-American Festival at the mall. More than 600 people attended the event.

In November, Agnes Moran was named citizen of the year by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce. Moran spearheaded the renovation of the new Women In Safe Homes shelter, and also the expansion of the Overnight Warming Shelter and the homeless day shelter.

Arnold Natkong was arrested after allegedly robbing a local credit union. Officials say that he presented a teller at the bank with a note demanding $300.  

Longtime Ketchikan resident Ernie DeBoer celebrated his 100th birthday on Nov. 20.

In December, most holiday events went on as normal, but with social distancing and mask wearing. An exception was the Winter Arts Festival, which was cancelled. The boat parade enjoyed a rare calm, rainless day.

It was a generally quiet Christmas holiday season in the First City.

Snow, ice and single digit temperatures will make it so.