A Small Town Fourth of July

The unmistakable sound of a helicopter.  I see it, flying low, coming around the corner, trailed by an enormous American Flag fluttering behind.  This sight never fails to take my breath away, and signals the beginning of the Fourth of July celebration in my adopted hometown of Ketchikan, Alaska.

Ok, full disclosure here, it might actually be the pre-parade gin and tonic at the Soudough Bar that starts the Fourth of July celebratory feeling for me.  But still, it is a thrill when someone announces, “The parade is coming,” we emerge from the smoky smelling, dark building into the sunlight, or the rain, or the cloudy sky.  And there, we crowd by the door, drink now forgotten, and the helicopter comes around the corner leading the parade.

In Anchorage, every Fourth of July was spent, no questions asked, at the Family Cabin.  It was a trek to get there, but once we arrived it was all about the Family, the river and the campfires, places we spent most of our time. So, when we first moved here, we didn’t expect much and were surprised by this small-town Fourth of July, especially the parade.  In those days the cruise ships had floats, their on-board entertainment performing for us.  There were the obligatory politicians, followed by traditional emergency vehicles, forest service, marching bands, dance groups and many more clubs and organizations.  Every team imaginable had a float, baseball, softball, soccer, kids waving from bedazzled truck beds, walking along, tossing a baseball back and forth or balancing a soccer ball on their knees.  Kids who had visited Kanayama were dressed in kimonos, search and rescue volunteers walked with their dogs. What we found the most interesting though, were the class floats.

Generally big and rowdy, blasting music from whatever generation they had graduated from, the first float housed the current graduating class and each subsequent float represented another decade – ten year reunion, twenty year, thirty year, and the rest… forty, fifty, and maybe even sixty year reunions all on one float.  What a brilliant idea, having your class reunion over the Fourth of July Weekend.  No tracking  anyone down, if you are from Ketchikan, there is no question, you know when and where the reunion is!

As the parade passed we dashed over to St. John’s, where, for a number of years, we helped serve pie for the masses who showed up for the famous pie sale.  A piece of  homemade pie, a scoop of ice-cream and a cup of coffee for only a few dollars. I served coffee and the girls scurried around clearing plates for the next round of diners. Scott and I, active members of St. John’s at the time, signed up to do set up the night before.  We showed up and were handed a very detailed map for setting up the tables.  Looking at the map, logical Scott was sure there was a better way to enhance traffic flow.  We set up the tables and smiled, proud of our work.  Almost immediately, the church lady contingent showed up with pies in hand, tsk-tsked and insisted that we set it up like it “is supposed to be set up.”  We quickly and contritely set it up “right.”

After pie we went to the little *carnival.*  The carnival was a scattering of tents, mostly fundraisers, a few food booths maybe a ring toss and a inflatable jumping gym shaped like a castle.  Based on the line, we knew to eat at the Firefighters booth, classic faire food, corndogs for the girls, kielbasa for us, a few sprites and we were ready to jump.  Well, the girls were ready to jump and Sarah was ready to wander off with some friends she had made at school that year, so off we went!

We joined the line and the girls took off their shoes and they jumped and jumped and then Scott had to go in and get Gracie who would not come out… who we decided was ready for a nap so we headed home.

Round two of the celebrations meant heading back downtown for root-beer floats and


the Rotary Rubber Duck race.  Judge Keene in full robes and wig sat at the mouth of the Ketchikan river, ready to scoop up the first few ducks that made it down.  People drank floats, lined the river and the bridge practically groaned from the crowds.  That first Fourth of July, I did not know what a big role the whole duck thing would play in our lives.  For weeks leading up to the Fourth, my husband would be busy, busy, busy. Inventorying and numbering ducks, busy with the details and logistics of the duck race.  It meant duck costumes and duck floats, duck tickets always on hand and duck sales, both at the grocery stores and at the bars.

Duck race over, later that evening meant fireworks. Often it is too cloudy or rainy, but on those clear nights, it is my favorite and final part of the Fourth of July Celebration.  We drive down to the docks where cars are lined up two and three deep, it is the closest to a tailgate party that I have seen here.  Music plays, people wander the docks visiting, and yes, like a tailgate party, I have actually seen people barbecuing there!  We usually have a couple extra kids with us, and they find more friends and we pull out the camp chairs and three girls might pile on one chair and we wait expectantly for the party to start.  It is a wonderful show, from a barge in the Narrows, dotted with boats, it starts out slow, and takes it’s time to build an amazing climax.

We started our Fourth of July tradition here in Ketchikan when our girls were just babies in backpacks.  Later we watched them evolve to active particpants – Grace and Emma in yellow tutus on the duck float, Laura, home from Kanayama in a blue kimono, Sarah following the soccer float in KYSL gear, dribbling a soccer ball. Years passed and we watched each girl’s graduating class float, and if-you-can-believe-it, we even watched Sarah’s ten year reunion float!

One by one the girls stopped returning in the summers, which is fine, they are creating their own traditions like barbecues with in-laws, weekends at a beach cabin with friends, and we started some new traditions of our own.  A gin and tonic in the Sourdough?  A drink on a friend’s deck? Maybe not this year, because even that has changed and I miss some of those friends, and it is rainy and cold, but I might watch that parade!





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