Sitka’s Alaska Raptor Center attracts 36,000 visitors each year, and volunteers from around the world. Alison Gardner
There is a present-day town in Alaska first settled 10,000 years ago. If that isn’t crazy enough, this same townsite in the mid-1800s was the sophisticated, wealthy capital of Russia’s North Pacific colonies and it was nicknamed “Paris of the Pacific.” Adding some unlikely contemporary facts, this destination of less than 9,000 residents today, accessible only by sea or air, is the largest incorporated city in the United States with a total area of 4,811 square miles. And here’s the clincher … in the year 2013, the prestigious Smithsonian Institution declared this tiny gem to be the ninth most culturally-rich small town in the entire United States of America. Welcome to Sitka!
Perched on the west side of Baranof Island and protected from the Pacific Ocean by an island-studded sound, Sitka, or New Archangel as it was called under Russian rule, is worthy of a week’s exploration. No matter whether a visitor’s interests are cultural or natural, there is a rewarding balance of attractions between its authentic dual heritage of Tlingit native culture and well-preserved Russian history, and a chance to get very close to nature by land and sea.
Visitors have a variety of day-trip choices for cruising Sitka Sound in search of marine wildlife. And you don’t have to search very hard! I spent an afternoon on a small wildlife watching boat, hardly pulling away from the wharf before salmon were leaping out of the water all around us, as they headed for their river spawning grounds. This ritual salmon return attracted plenty of sea lions and seals looking for a meal that only required an open mouth!
Further out in the Sound but still not 15 minutes from shore, the captain turned off the engines so we could hear as well as witness half a dozen 45-foot humpback whales lazily diving and surfacing while enjoying a feast of krill and small schooling fish. When we first boarded, the captain had cautioned that “a lot of whale watching is whale waiting,” but this day there was absolutely no waiting. With Mt Edgecumbe, the town’s classically-shaped dormant volcano, benignly looking on, Sitka Sound was picture postcard, blue-sky perfect that day.
The volcanic cone of Mount Edgecumbe and a diving humpback whale illustrate the dramatic scenery and natural adventures the area promises. Lione Clare
Cruising close to one of the region’s giant kelp beds, the afternoon closed with the sighting of over 50 sea otters wrapping themselves in the kelp fronds to keep from drifting into open water while they dosed in the sun. Their luxurious fur was the source of immense Russian riches until the animal was hunted to extinction on this coast. Today, the otters’ reintroduction is an inspiring conservation success.
Kayaking guided tours between islands are a popular choice for active vacationers. Jocelyn Pride
I’ve always had a soft spot for volcanoes: Sitka is overlooked by one of the most picturesque. You may simply admire 3,102-foot/945-meter Mt Edgecumbe from a distance, or for active nature enthusiasts, the mountain has a well-marked seven-mile/11 kilometer trail to the top, with guided day-trips available. For additional exploration around Baranof Island, there are also ocean kayaking rentals and a network of popular walking trails for which maps are available.
Most people coming to this part of Alaska want to see grizzly bears, a much taller order than viewing sea life as it turns out. A rewarding alternative, and probably a safer one than meeting grizzlies in the wild, is to visit the Fortress of the Bear , a grizzly bear rescue center five miles out of town where you will learn about the challenges these animals face today. You will also get some amazing close-range photos though families should take heed of the sign on the elevated observation platform: “Bears should only eat fish, berries, roots and grasses. Please do not place children on railings.” The implied message is red-light clear!
The Fortress of the Bear is an inspiring rescue center for orphaned grizzly and black bear cubs. Peter Gardner
Still on the rescue theme, the Alaska Raptor Center has been on the front lines of eagle rehabilitation and education for decades, with a 17 acre indoor and outdoor facility offering hours of observation, expert commentary from naturalists and a great gift shop to support the cause. You won’t want to rush through the experience. This is one of the premier raptor hospitals in North America, attracting 36,000 visitors from May through September as well as volunteers from the world over.
With a declining fur trade and fears of Britain’s naval seizure of its Alaska colony, Russia offered to sell the territory to the United States for US$7.2 million in 1867. That was equivalent to US$121 million in 2015 dollars. At the time, there were plenty of Americans who protested what they called “Seward’s Folly” after the U.S. Secretary of State, William Seward, who negotiated the deal with Russia. However, the real wealth of Alaska, its oil and commercial fishery, have amply repaid the questionable deal it appeared to be in 1867.
Baranof Castle State Historic Site overlooking Sitka’s downtown waterfront is where all 586,412 sq mi or 1,518,800 sq km of Russia’s Alaska territory was officially signed over to the United States. It is also where the 49-star United States flag first flew after Alaska became a full-fledged state in 1959.
Just as nature is a virtual surround sound while visiting Sitka, so too is the dual cultural heritage that residents are proud to share. Few of us can recount our family history back more than a couple of generations, but to the Tlingit people, thousands of years past are a vivid image and the traditional stories they uphold are a significant part of who they are to this day. Successful native businesses, whether they are waterfront accommodations like Totem Square Hotel, Alan Marine Tours’ Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest day tour, Sitka Tribal Tours’ comprehensive cultural tour, a native-owned art gallery or a multi-generational performance of song and dance by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers at their finely-decorated clan house, all these illustrate the diversity of experiences for visitors. They also indicate the engagement of indigenous people in the life and economy of this community.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum of Tlingit and other native heritage in Alaska is a premier collection in the world. And the scenic coastal trail of Sitka National Historical Park introduces visitors to a parade of stately Tlingit and Haida totem poles (see left and right) standing guard along the route. A stroll on the park’s quiet wooded paths, with the distinctive call of the ever-present raven echoing through the forest, is the perfect way to contemplate this lasting memorial to a rich cultural heritage.
Equally vibrant is the Russian colonial heritage brought to life by attractions like the Russian Bishop’s House authentically-restored and furnished by the National Park Service, and the dazzling performances of the New Archangel Dancers going strong since 1969. The roll call of 30 performers are justifiably proud of their repertoire of 40 folk dances and authentic costumes, right down to the last button, braid and apron. “None of us is a pro dancer,” one of the leaders assured me, “and none of us is Russian.” You could have fooled me!
The New Archangel Dancers and St. Michael’s Cathedral recall Russia’s colonial presence in the region. Roberta White
If there is a star in Sitka’s Russian heritage crown, it must surely be St. Michael’s Cathedral, the earliest Orthodox church in the New World. Its green domes and golden crosses are a landmark in downtown Sitka, and the richly-decorated interior makes for an inspiring visit whether for a service or a tour. Today, 90% of parishioners of this active community church are Tlingit, clearly indicating that the Russians went home after they sold Alaska in 1867, but their faith did not. Sitka is a small town with more than its diverse share of visitor activities, attractions and services.
You can walk everywhere or drive there in ten minutes at most; after all, there are only 14 miles of paved roads on Baranof Island. In fact, renting a car is not a useful thing to do during your visit. Sitka is just far enough removed from the direct north/south Inside Passage route favored by major cruise ships that only one cruise line makes regular summer visits. Visitors usually arrive by air or by ferry. This means that the town is more authentic, not overrun with thousands of day visitors during the summer months, and that businesses are open year round and locally-owned, not cruise-company owned and seasonal.
The Sitka Tourism website offers suggestions and expert planning.
Restaurants and cafés abound, ranging from fine dining establishments like the Channel Club and Ludvig’s Bistro to home-made soup-and-sandwich waterfront eateries like the Larkspur Cafe where you may start with fresh salmon chowder and finish with gluten-free walnut double chocolate cake or expresso custard!
Accommodations range from full service hotels like Totem Square Hotel to intimate bed & breakfasts, like Ocean View B&B which has been welcoming guests from around the world for 23 years. Highly recommended by Frommer’s Guide as one of “Alaska’s Best” B&B’s, the accommodations lack for nothing and the breakfasts are exceptional. Owners, Bill and Carole, know how to make guests feel so welcome and well serviced that it’s tempting to just sit on the deck or patio and take in the Sitka Sound view while watching bald eagles soar.
If you plan to take a highly-recommended small-ship expedition cruise of one week or more out of Sitka, add extra days to experience for yourself the magic of this traveler-friendly community. Please check out our brand new Alaska small-ship cruise companion article.
Interested in other Alaska feature articles in our Travel Article Library? Read about the adventures of two independent seniors navigating Alaska’s Marine Highway System through the Aleutian Islands. Check out Alaska’s capital city, with a spotlight on what to do and where to stay around Juneau, and go on an adventurous helicopter and ice-trekking tour of Juneau’s Mendenhall glacier.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.