Absolutely Amazing Alaska
Cruising The Southeast : Sitka
2nd –5th June 2016
Sitka. 57 39.59 N / 136 05.81 W
Flying into the small town of Sitka was quite surreal. Having come from the blistering summer temperatures of the low country of Georgia, we were now staring out the window of our Alaskan Airlines 737 at the snow covered mountains of southeastern Alaska.
Nestled on the western side of Baranoff Island, picturesque Sitka is flanked on the east by majestic mountains and to the west the Northwest Pacific Ocean.
There are only a few roads running through and around the town, none of which lead outside Sitka’s boundaries. The surrounding wilderness forms a huge dead-end barrier to any sort of land travel This isolated seaside community, like may others on this coastline, is only accessible via commercial aircraft if the town is big enough to support an airport otherwise, you come via sea plane or boat.
Sitka sprouts a population of just 9,000 hardy souls and is home to an awesome number of deep sea fishing vessels, the likes of which you see on television programs like “The Deadliest Catch” and these trawlers are massive. The majority of people here are employed in the fishing industry or it’s related services In fact Sitka is one of the busiest fishing seaports in the United States.
With two days to spare before we were off on our Alaskan Adventure aboard Heli Mai, we rented a car and settled into our comfy digs at the Eagle Bay Inn.
My sister Helen was joining us for the trip and was flying in later in the afternoon. Having a set of wheels gave us time to checkout the lay of the land before heading back out to the airport for her arrival. Having the car also meant that the chore of provisioning the boat would be a whole lot easier and would also give us the better part of two days time to visit some of the out of town attractions before our 8am departure Sunday morning.
But first, a snapshot of history.
Sitka, in the days way back when, was inhabited by the native Tlingit people who called this area Shee At’ika, anglicized to Sitka. The Tlingits were a peaceful race who fished and lived off the land for over 10,000years. Then in 1741 the area was discovered by a Russian expedition. The Ruskies, who at the time occupied much of current day Alaska had pretty much killed off anything with fur on its back during the colonial fur trading days.
A few years later the powers that be, decided to move their operations from up north to down here. They marched in and in true bully fashion took over and renamed the town to New Archangel. To say that this did not impress the Tlingit one iota is an understatement if ever there was.
1802 saw the Tlingit’s saying enough is enough and their warriors rose up and destroyed the original settlement of Old Sitka, killing many of the Russians in the process. A few tears later the pesky Russians returned en-mass and bombarded the Tlingit fort. Knowing it was a loosing battle the natives surrended and deserted their home, moving camp to a neighbouring island. Over the years to come Sitka became the major seaport on the Pacific coast. Sea otter pelts were the dominant export to Europe and Asia however salmon, lumber and ice were also exported to Hawaii and California.
After the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867, Sitka remained the Capital of the territory until 1906 when the seat of government was moved to the new and present day capital of Juneau.
Today Sitka is one of the main stops on the well trodden Alaskan cruise ship route, but the towns roots are still embedded with both Russian and Tlingit history.
Days two and three in Sitka had us out and about early to take in as much as possible. First up was a visit to the Fortress of the Bear, a habitat for rescued and orphaned ubanized black bear cubs. Without the hard work and dedication of the staff employed here these cubs, many of who are now adults would have been euthanized.
After spending an hour or so listening to the guide and watching the bears being fed and interacting with one another, and believe it or not they love eating oranges, it was time to head to the Alaskan Raptor Centre to have a close encounter with national emblem of the USA, the magnificent Bald Eagle. You just don’t realise how big these birds really are until you get up close and personal. They have a wingspan of between six and eight feet! That makes them a really big bird.
Situated on twenty five acres of lush spruce and hemlock forest, the centre rehabilitates injured birds of prey to release them back to the wild. While some make the cut and get to soar the thermals once again,those whose injuries prevent them from ever getting airborne again live out their days in the care of loving handlers. Each year the centre treats around 200 injured birds including a variety of owl, eagles, falcons and hawks.
So enough with the animals. It was time to check out the town itself. Wrapped up like bunnies Helen and I hit the pavements. There were plenty of shops catering to the tourists, selling any number of mementos ranging from fur coats and tee shirts to Russian Christmas tree decorations. It was nice to pop our heads into some and warm up for a bit but there were some must see historical places to see as well. We started with St Michaels Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church smack bang in the middle of the main street, literally. The onion shaped domes and spires dominate the Sitka skyline and inside is a treasure trove collection of religious art, some of which dates back to the 17th century.
Next up on our walking tour was the Russian Bishops house. This dates back to the mid 1800’s and is one of the few remaining examples of Russian log architecture in the western hemisphere. The house is adorned with period furniture, a small chapel and as you’d expect, a host of Russian icons.
With map in hand we ambled up a rough stone pathway and steep stairs to Sitka’s highest point, Castle Hill. The sweeping views overlook the township, harbour and onto the mountains beyond. Originally the Tlingit Fort, many years later this was the site of the handover of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867.
Plenty of hiking trails wind in and around the outskirts of the town with many leading through lush rainforests areas, and along the rocky waterfront and parklands. Scattered along some of these trails are colourful century old totem poles erected by the Tlingit natives. An encounter with wildlife of the bear variety on these trails is not an uncommon event either we ‘re told.
By late afternoon it was time to head down to the marina and move into our new home aboard Heli Mai. That evening we met all the other boaters in our flotilla and had a detailed briefing aboard Deception, the lead boat in our newly acquired family. Tomorrow we’d be doing some serious provisioning for the next 19 days as well a s having a hands on lesson on how to drive and dock our new home, after all this wasn’t quite GWTW. Liam got the hang of it pretty quick and passed with flying colours. He particularly fell in love with using the bow thruster. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!.