This is our third trip to Alaska. We first visited Alaska in 1980. As budget-minded tourists, we used the Alaskan ferry system to travel around to the various areas we wanted to visit.
Our second visit was in 2011 where we revisited some favorite spots as well as some new ones. Travel Itinerary: The Alaskan Coast in 11 Incredible Days – Active Boomer Adventures. The highlights were
- A morning kayaking with whales in Glacier Bay;
- An all-day cruise up the magnificent Tracy Arm; and most incredibly,
- A day at Brooks Camp, watching inherently anti-social bears try to adapt to each other as a means of catching and devouring the salmon required to sustain them through a long, frigid Alaskan winter.
On this visit, we started our adventure with a seven-day, six-night boat journey with Alaska Dream Cruise from Sitka to Juneau. No, it wasn’t one of the huge, multi-thousand-plus passenger ships that sail during the night and disgorge its masses into cities during the day. We chose a small, 50-passenger ship that gave us an opportunity to explore much smaller, more sheltered, more intimate sites than is possible on large passenger ships. It also permits activities such as kayaking that are not feasible on big ships.
And, other than its origin and destination points, the ship forgoes stops in the string of small, tourist-clogged, shopping streets of coastal cities on the main channels and allowed us to explore nature at sea level and on wilderness hikes, rather than from the deck of a large ship.
This is the first of multiple blogs about our trip.
We started our journey in Sitka. Sitka is Alaska’s oldest city. It is located on land on which the Tlinget people had lived for more than 10,000 years. Vitus Bering Initially explored the area during his 1741 Russian-financed exploration. Through the late 18th century, independent Russian fur hunters, trappers, and traders exploited the area and enslaved Tlingots to hunt for them. In 1799, the Russians formed the Russian American Company and formally settled here. The company not only managed the fur trade but also managed the entire Russian-American territory from Alaska down to Fort Ross California.
The Tlingits revolted and reclaimed control of their lands in 1802. Russia reconquered the area in 1804. They grew Sitka into the largest city in and the capital of Russian America. They managed Sitka until 1867 when Russia was engaged in the costly Crimean War. Needing money, coupled with the hunters having largely decimated the population of profitable sea lion and sea otter furs, they sold the territory to the United States for then then-controversial sum of $7.2 million, or about two cents an acre! You may remember learning about Stewart’s Folly in school.
Sitka was built on a foundation of logging, gold mining, fishing, and fish canning. Then came the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush towns of Juneau (which became Alaska’s capital in 1906) and Skagway. Sitka now relies primarily on tourism and fish canning to support its population of about 9,000.
Although the Russians are long-gone, much of the city’s charm comes from a vestige of its initial Russian heritage:
- St. Michael’s Cathedral is an onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral that was faithfully reconstructed after a 1966 fire (which destroyed much of downtown) destroyed the original. The lovely chapel contains several religious icons, which were saved from the fire.
- The Russian Bishop’s House is a huge, 1842-era structure that is the oldest Russian building still standing in the city. The building’s exhibits trace the Russian history of Alaska, the critical role of Bishop Innocent in befriending and converting Tlingits to the Russian Orthodox religion, and the evolution of the church in Alaska during Russia’s rule.
- Russian Blockhouse, a replica of a guard tower that was once part of the Russian-American Company fortress wall;
- Russian Cemetery, a 200-year-old overgrown plot with headstones carved from the ballast of Russian ships, and
- Princess Maksoutoff’s Grave, a tomb commemorating the first wife of the last Russian governor.
Other remnants of the city’s Tlingit and Russian history include:
- Totem Square, with a 1940 totem pole intended to represent the city’s history;
- Baranof Castle Hill, a park that originally served as a Tlingit lookout point before becoming the site of a Russian Fortress and the site of the 1867 ceremony in which Russia sold the Alaskan territory to the United States;
Additional Sitka Stops
Sitka also has other historical treasures:
- Sheldon Jackson Museum. Jackson served as the director of education for the Alaskan territory from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum is a fascinating ethnographic based on the foundation of his collection. While it focuses primarily on the Tlingit culture, it has representations of many Alaskan clans. The collection focuses largely on the everyday life of the people as well as containing many examples of the “curiosities”, or artistic representations of local art that was produced especially for late 19th-century tourists and collectors. It is located on the former campus of Jackson school, which operated for about 90 years, progressing from high school to boarding school to technical college and then to a four-year university before becoming a community arts and culture center.
- Sitka National Historic Park portrays the Tlingit culture and has a primary focus on totem poles. Its film talks about the history and creation of totems. It has a gallery devoted to the most historic of totems that explains how totems are carved, painted, and maintained. The museum also has a one-mile Totem Trail that displays and explains about 20 totems of various styles intermixed with views of the scenic bay. The exhibits describe and provide examples of the four primary types of totem poles:
- Crest poles record the ancestry of a family;
- Legend poles portray folklore or historical events;
- History poles portray the story of a particular clan; and
- Memorial poles commemorate an individual.
Prior to departing on our cruise, the cruise company took us on a tour of some facilities that display and provide care to some of the region’s most iconic animals. These are the:
- Fortress of the Bear, a refuge that rescues, raises, and educates the public on bears. It primarily houses orphaned bear cubs (especially coastal brown bears but also a few non-endemic black bears) that would not have otherwise survived. While the bears are still wild, they cannot be reintroduced since they have never learned how to survive in the wild.
- Alaska Raptor Center, which takes in injured raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, and osprey) and rehabilitates them for reintroduction into the wild. Those few who are unable to survive in the wild are kept as educational and display birds to help the public learn about them;
- Sitka Sound Science Center focuses on the coastal marine environment and species. It has a small aquarium representing life in a coastal kelp forest and “touching ponds” in which you can view up close and touch a range of anemone, starfish, sea cucumbers, and shellfish. Its primary function, however, is as one of the state’s many salmon hatcheries. It has a ladder on which salmon that were hatched and imprinted to this hatchery return to spawn. The females who are ready are humanely killed (they die anyway shortly after the spawn) and their eggs harvested. Sperm from the males are then used to fertilize the eggs which are incubated and hatched. The fry are raised until they are ready to be released (about 6 months for pink salmon and chum and 18 months for Coho). While they release more than 90 percent of those that hatch, only about 3 percent eventually return (in about two years for pink and chum and three years for Coho) to spawn. Most of the rest either die in the ocean or are caught by fishermen, especially by the more than 400 commercial trawlers that ply these waters.
The city also has its tour of tourist shops that go beyond the normal tee-shirt and souvenir stores to include an artist’s cooperative, Tlingit art and crafts stores, and all manner of Russian Christmas shops and one specializing in Russian books and religious icons. And for something totally different, check out the Sitka Fur Gallery for its $5,000 Alaskan timber wolf throw rug and $65,000 full-length lynx fur coat.
After all of this and a short wilderness hike through the island’s narrows, we boarded our ship to begin our cruise of exploration.
- Ludvig’s Bistro. We had a nice dinner consisted of a cup of Ludwig’s famous, somewhat peppery clam chowder with potatoes, chorizo and herbs, local spot prawns in a spicy tomato-based sauce, and grilled Yakutat scallops over prosciutto and marsala wine sauce. A bottle of Albarino complimented the meal.
- Bayview Pub. We had a quick lunch of grilled rockfish burger on a pretzel bun and a pint of very hoppy local Harbor Mountain IPA.
- A final lunch consisted of pickups from several places. We began with a Coho salmon salad on a baguette from Ludvig’s Chowder Cart at the Science Center and added in food from two food trucks serving at the city’s July 4 weekend celebration. These were a reindeer hot dog (very similar to a pork dog, although perhaps a touch gamier) and a spot prawn and mango ceviche which sounded much better than it tasted.
For the night before we were on the boat, we stayed at the Aspen Suites Hotel. The hotel is in a great location but nothing in Sitka is far away. Coffee and tea is available in the lobby day and night. The room itself had 2 comfortable queens (no kings). It was a good room and good staffing and was probably the best in town.