Going to Sitka was more than a daytrip for us!
Note: this is a longer post because we were in Sitka for multiple days.
We were looking forward to our long weekend trip to Sitka - and it didn't disappoint! We left Boise in mid-August on a Thursday morning and arrived at Sitka's Rocky Gutierrez Airport in time for lunch that afternoon! We were met by our fantastic host, Mick, who not only provided a place for us to stay but a car to drive around the island! (You'll hear more about Mick and his adventures later.)
Where is Sitka and what is there to know about this beautiful town in Southeast Alaska?
Sitka is a city-borough that sits on the west side of Baranof Island and the south half of Chichagof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of the Pacific Ocean. Looking out from Sitka, you can see Mt. Edgecumbe, a 3,202 foot dormant volcano on the southern side of Kruzof Island. Even though it last erupted 4,000 years ago, Mick told us of the greatest April Fool's joke in Alaska's history, when in 1974, someone ignited 70 old tires that had been dropped into the crater.
The Russian Bering-Chirikov expedition arrived in Alaska in 1741. Between 1799 and 1867 the Russian imperial government established sites in Alaska to take advantage of the fur trade. The principal colony for this Russian enterprise was Sitka.
A decrease in income from the fur trade caused Russia to abandon the Alaska colonies. The end of Russian America came in 1867 with the sale of Alaska to the United States, even though multicultural interactions are still a very important part of Sitka.
Today, Sitka is a thriving tourist center, with unforgettable views, memorable cultural experiences, and a mild climate in comparison to the rest of Alaska. Drawn by the beauty of this area, thousands of tourists arrive almost daily by cruise ships at the Old Sitka Dock, now the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal. Visitors to Sitka will see how deeply nature and ancient native culture are part of this island community.
In addition to being part of the tourist industry, Sitka is also home to the 6th largest port, by value of seafood harvest in the United States. Near Sitka, you will find all five species of Pacific salmon!
You may find more than salmon, halibut and crab in the waters off Sitka! Our host, Mick, told us of a group of men (including him) who gather early each morning at a local spot for coffee. One of the men likes to row his boat from his home to meet the group for coffee. Early one dark morning, as he was rowing to coffee, he spotted what looked like a seal in front of his boat. He kept glancing at it, wondering why it was keeping next to his boat. Then, he heard, "Mornin' Jim" coming from the seal! He jerked his head to get a better look and saw that it was his neighbor, swimming next to him. "What are you doing, Ted?!?" he asked. Ted looked up at him and said, "Why, I'm swimming to work." He learned that his neighbor who worked at the Coast Guard station across the water, swam to work most days! Now remember, this is a place where the water temperature is in the mid-50-degree range, and this man was swimming in the dark across a channel of water from Sitka to Japonski Island! ("Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent".)
Sitka is also the base for the U.S. Coast Guard's premier search and rescue service for Southeast Alaska. Air Station Sitka's area of responsibility represents the most demanding flight environment for Coast Guard aircraft operations, with mountainous terrain, severe weather and great distances between fuel and landing sites. The Sitka Coast Guard base is also the home port for a 225' cutter, with the mission of servicing navigation buoys in her area of responsibility, law enforcement, homeland security, as well as search and rescue duties.
A little-known fact about Sitka is that even though it has a population of around 9,000 people, it is the largest city by total area in the United States, with a consolidated land area of 2,870.3 square miles and total area including water, of 4,811 square miles - all while only having approximately 11 miles of road!
Part of Mick's business was building some of those roads in Sitka. Years ago, he was building one of those roads from gravel he dredged up, and that still had clams in the gravel. At night, the bears would come and dig up the clams in the road for their dinner, and the next day Mick and his crew would need to resurface the road where the bears had been digging up their dinner!
I'm Here - Now What?
Here are some of the places we visited during our short stay in Sitka. For more information and things to do in Sitka check out Visit Sitka.
Russian Bishop's House
Bishop Innocent arrived in Sitka in 1841 as leader of the Orthodox Church in Russian America. He also had a strong interest in Native cultures of the area. The house, as a result of his efforts, became a center of learning and culture in Russian America.
The Russian Bishop's House was completed in 1842, and included a public reception area, the bishop's private quarters, a chapel and school.
The house is a prime example of Russian wooden architecture with tight-fitting wooden joints that are sturdy and weatherproof, and also included gravel, sand and sawdust insulation. They used available materials such as paper to cover seams and sailcloth to cover the logs in the ceiling and walls. The fireplaces provided radiant heat and shared a common flume. Because the walls were so thick, the doorways were carved to be able to reach the door handles. (Click on each picture for captions.)
The house was turned over to the National Park Service in 1972. A sixteen-year project was undertaken to restore the house to its original appearance, as it was in danger of collapsing. The restoration was completed in 1988 and continues to be a place to see the cultural history and heritage of Sitka. (The Wandering Wizard worked on this restoration.)
For more information visit National Park Service Russian Bishop's House.
Saint Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Sitka was the center of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of North America between 1840 and 1872, and continued after that as the Seat of the Diocese of Alaska. St. Michael's Cathedral was built between 1844 and 1848 and was funded by the Russian America Company. It is an excellent example of Russian Architecture.
The church is filled with historical items, and is as much a museum as a church. To learn more about the history of this church, visit the church website. Here you will also find the times the church is open to visitors.
Fortress of the Bear
One of the most popular places to visit is the Fortress of the Bear. The naturalized setting is about 5 miles from town and is next to the Tongass National Forest. This is an educational bear rescue center and the mission of this organization is best read in their mission statement.
Here, you can be as close as 25 feet from Alaska brown bears! There are naturalists on site who are happy to answer your questions and share their knowledge about the bears.
We enjoyed watching the different personalities of the bears as they roamed through the grass, lazed in the ponds and ate cantaloupes!
Alaska Raptor Center
Even though we live in an area where we see many raptors almost in our backyard, including a Peregrin falcon that nests next to our house, we wanted to see this center. The primary goal of the Alaska Raptor Center is to rehabilitate birds and send them back into the wild. They treat and release over 200 birds a year. You are able to see some of the birds in the Center's recovery area. There are also resident raptors, who are unable to fly or care for themselves, if they were released.
Hours of operation and more information about what they do can be found on the Alaska Raptor Center website.
Back in town, we climbed the stairs to Castle Hill (Tlingit: Noow Tlein), which is also the American Flag-Raising Site and has been renamed the Baranof Castle State Historic Site. This site was formerly the site of Tlingit and Russian forts, and is now a National Historic Landmark and part of the Alaska State Parks system.
It is also at the top of a steep climb! But the view, when you get to the top, is worth the climb! You can look over the city and the harbor from this 60 foot rock outcrop close to Sitka Harbor.
Sheldon Jackson Museum
Just a short walk from town along Lincoln Street, there is a museum with an extensive Alaska Native cultural collection that was gathered by Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary and General Agent of Education for Alaska. The collection is well worth seeing! Another interesting feature of the Sheldon Jackson Museum is the octagon building itself, which was the first concrete building in Alaska, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Totem Park (now known as Sitka National Historical Park)
Sitka National Historical Park (formerly known as Totem Park and Indian River Park) is close to town. The visitor center showcases the history of the Alaskan people with a small museum and a short film to provide historical background. The totem poles throughout the park are beautiful, and the trails provide a chance for a relaxing stroll through the trees. Here is more information about this beautiful historical park.
Harrigan Centennial Hall
We didn't get a chance to visit Harrigan Centennial Hall, which houses the Sitka History Museum and also a visitor center, but we were told many times throughout our visit that this beautiful building located right on the harbor in downtown Sitka, often hosts a variety of events and multi-cultural experiences throughout the year.
Exploring Around Sitka
We spent a lot of time exploring the area around Sitka. Here is some of what we saw.
Yes! There are bears! We saw a lot of signs warning us about bears, but we chose to follow the advice on the tire cover!
Blue Lake & On The Way to Blue Lake
We saw a number of very tall waterfalls on our way to Blue Lake.
On the way to Blue Lake:
A nice roadside park.
A steep climb with great views - even on a cloudy day.
Just a few pictures of downtown Sitka - there is a lot more here to see and do!
Getting Ready to Go Home
We also brought home a box of halibut. When Mick heard that we were buying halibut to bring home - instead of going out fishing - he told us about how he went fishing with his father-in-law. According to Mick:
His father-in-law said, "Hey! Let's go fishing." So, Mick grabbed his pole and his fishing gear and met his father-in-law. His father-in-law looked at him and said, "You don't need all that gear." And they headed to the bar that his father-in-law owned, where they grabbed a case of whiskey and headed to the boat. It turns out you can "catch" more fish by trading a case of whiskey with the local fishermen than if you spend a day out on the water!
We have so many other stories from Mick, that we will probably publish a link to a separate page so others can enjoy his colorful tales from Sitka!
And don't forget about geocaching in this beautiful area!
It was hard to leave this beautiful island. There is so much to do here!
Here are some views of Sitka as we left.