By Simon Gonzalez
It’s no surprise that online search results for the best things about Wilmington contain a few common themes: the beach, the river, the weather, the outdoors. That’s what drew most of us non-natives to the area.
So when Outside Magazine included the city among the contestants in its 2016 “Best Town” contest, it should have been a no-brainer. Especially since, in the 64-town online competition modeled after the NCAA basketball tournament, we were in the “beach bracket.”
It further should have been a slam-dunk when we were paired against Ketchikan, Alaska, in the first round.
Should have been, but the magazine’s readers and online voters thought otherwise. In a stunning upset, we lost. Not just lost, but were trounced. Ketchikan advanced with 57 percent of the vote.
OK, so “stunning upset” is a little over the top. This wasn’t the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviets in 1980, or little Leicester City winning the championship in England’s premier soccer league this season. And the results were based on Internet balloting and dependent on getting the word out to vote, not an objective analysis of the contestants.
But still. How in the world did Wilmington lose to Ketchikan — especially in the beach town bracket?
I’ve been to Alaska. I love Alaska. America’s last frontier is a spectacular place, full of breathtaking natural scenery. Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I’d move there in a heartbeat — as long as I could come back here in the winter.
I’ve also been to the beach in Alaska, on the shores of the Cook Inlet outside the little town of Soldotna. It was in June, at a time when folks here are running around on the sand in swimming trunks and bikinis. We needed jackets. And a fire.
Ketchikan is a little further south, practically in British Columbia, so it’s a little more temperate. But in the last week in April, when the first round of the magazine’s contest was held, it was 49 degrees there. It was 83 at Wrightsville Beach. Summertime temperatures are typically in the high 60s, and it receives about 160 inches of average annual precipitation.
In other words, it’s not what comes to mind when you think beach town.
The Alaskan town of about 8,000 people is on the water. It’s named after Ketchikan Creek, which runs through the town and empties into the Tongass Narrows, which runs to the Gulf of Alaska. And it does have a sandy/rocky beach. But because of the cool temperatures, searching for marine life in tide pools is a more popular activity than swimming and sunbathing. Again, probably not what comes immediately to mind when you think of a beach town.
In fairness, Ketchikan sounds like a lovely place. The town’s tourism website states, “Ketchikan is truly the beginning of the last frontier. Set at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s famed Inside Passage — a network of waterways that snake through some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness in the world — Ketchikan is best known for three things: feisty salmon, idyllic scenery, and an incredibly rich Alaska Native culture.”
The Ketchikan tourism page on TripAdvisor says, “the city is the gateway to Misty Fjords National Monument, an area so beautiful, it is known as ‘The Yosemite of the North.’ With steep valleys formed by glaciers and lava flows left by volcanic activity, Misty Fjords offers gorgeous views of natural formations, all reflected in the calm waters of Pacific inlets.”
It must be a great place to visit, to hike, kayak, fish, and simply take in the wonder of God’s creation. But still, not what comes to mind when you think beach town.
Ketchikan’s voters didn’t have long to enjoy their victory. Their town lost in the second round to Bellingham, Washington, which in turn was beaten by Ludington, Michigan, in round three. Ludington prevailed in round four, winning the beach bracket and advancing to the final four.
Ludington is a harbor town on the shores of Lake Michigan. No offense to anyone from the UP, but really? It’s not exactly a beach town either. The forecast high this week is 66.
So congratulations to Ketchikan for beating us in the first round, and well done Ludington for making it to the final four out of our bracket. Best of luck the rest of the way.
As for us first-round losers, instead we don’t need to worry about voting in the last couple of rounds and trying to become the “Best Town.” Instead, we can get outside to enjoy some surfing, standup paddleboarding, kayaking, boating, fishing, cycling, running, hiking, or just spend a relaxing day at the beach or down by the river — you know, all the things that make this such a great area but apparently were missed by Outside Magazine’s subscribers.
Hmm, wonder if there’s a “best-kept secret” competition coming up.