If you’re visiting a rainforest, expect rain. Our travels this summer include ten days in the southeast Alaska rainforest, starting in Sitka, which sees wet stuff fall from the sky two out of every three days. Except when it doesn’t. We got lucky – just a little mist on day 3 of our visit, which means we enjoyed gorgeous mountain and water views.
There are two types of tourists in Sitka – those who come to fish (most visitors), and a handful of outliers like us. Fishing is big business. The waters around Sitka contain all five salmon species, as well as trout, char, rockfish, lingcod, halibut, and shellfish. The city of Sitka (population 8,500) owns seven small boat harbors with a total of 2,068 registered boats, including 610 commercial fishing vessels. Boats of all types and sizes were everywhere, along with vacationing groups of fishing buddies having the time of their lives.
Why Sitka for us? It’s a cute town with an intriguing past. A quick (and oversimplified) history lesson:
- The Tlingit people are indigenous to Sitka (and throughout southeast Alaska and British Columbia), dating back at least 10,000 years when the glaciers began to recede.
- All was well until Russia “discovered” and claimed ownership of southeast (and other areas in) Alaska during the second half of the 18th century. The main attraction was an abundant supply of sea otters, whose fur was highly valued by China and other global trading partners. Sitka became the capital of Russian America in 1808. (Click here to read about our visit to Russian America’s most southernmost settlement – Fort Ross in California.)
- Tensions between the Tlingit and Russians in Sitka ran high and erupted into bloody battles from time to time. Not surprisingly, the Russians used their powerful weapons to defeat the Tlingit, who exited the area for a number of years but eventually returned and forged an uneasy coexistence with the Russian settlers.
- After decimating the sea otter population, Russia lost interest in her American colonies and unloaded the whole of Alaska to the United States in a fire sale – $7.2 million, or about two cents an acre. (Remember Seward’s Folly from U.S. history class?) The transfer ceremony took place in Sitka in 1867.
- Sitka served as the capital of territorial Alaska until it moved to Juneau in 1906. When Alaska became a state in 1959, the first U.S. flag with 49 stars was reportedly raised in Sitka.
Sitka does a good job conveying its history through storyboards located throughout the town, as well as at a number of attractions that provide in-depth information. Pretty sure we saw them all during our three-day visit. Here are a few highlights.
Sitka National Historical Park
Alaska’s oldest federally designated cultural and historic park commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka between the Tlingit people and Russian fur hunters. “The Voices of Sitka” video and an array of artifacts – both Tlingit and Russian – provided a good overview of local history.
The park also features the Totem Trail, a 1-mile loop through the rainforest that contains an impressive collection of totem poles (about 20 currently) donated in the early 1900s by villages throughout southeast Alaska. Because totems deteriorate naturally over time, most are replicas.
Hand-carved from large cedar trees by native Alaskan artisans, totems exist to preserve history – family stories and important events. They were stunning!
Sitka Historical Museum
We also paid a visit to the Sitka Historical Museum, another excellent resource for learning about the local area. No photos, but I loved this quote that conveyed the Tlingit perspective on the sale of Alaska to the United States:
“In 1867, Russia ceded its possessions in Alaska to the United States. Russia had colonized less than 1% of Baranof Island, but the United States claimed it all. These countries bought and sold land they did not own and excluded us from the negotiations. The Treaty of Cession called us uncivilized, denied us land rights, and refused us citizenship, but it could never extinguish our connection to our homeland, Sheet’ka.”
Food for thought . . .
Russian Historical Sites
Russian Emperor Paul I had a clear vision for Russia’s American enterprise: “To use and profit by everything which has been or shall be discovered in those localities, on the surface and in the bosom of the earth without any competition by others.” Wow. In other words, pillage and plunder.
Although the goal was to extract resources rather than to create a sustainable settlement, Sitka became a proper community over time, with families, schools, museums, libraries and churches. We visited a few buildings and other sites that have survived.
Russian Bishop’s House
The Russian Orthodox church was an important part of Russian America colonies. The bishop’s house was completed in 1843, sold to the National Park Service in 1972, restored over the next 15 years, and opened to the public during the late 1980s.
The first floor was used for church offices and as a school for Alaska Native children. Today it contains information and artifacts from the Russian America era.
The second floor included the bishop’s living quarters, a public reception area, and a small chapel, which is still used on occasion by the local Russian Orthodox congregation. Visitors can see the upper floor by going on a free guided tour with a park ranger.
St. Michael’s Cathedral
St. Michael’s (Russian) Orthodox Cathedral occupies a prominent space right in the middle of downtown. Completed in 1848, the church burned down in 1966 but was rebuilt in the original style. Members hold regularly scheduled services here, but we were unclear about its availability for visits by the public.
Russian Block House
The fortified Sitka settlement had three blockhouses, or watchtowers, during the Russian America years. All three are long gone – this replica dates back to the 1960s.
We made a quick visit to the site, which includes two other structures of note.
Over the years, we have developed an affinity for meandering through old cemeteries in places we visit, as they add a personal dimension to the formal history. The Russian Cemetery in Sitka, which dates back about 200 years and serves as the final resting place for around 1,600 individuals, was unlike any of our previous experiences.
At first glance, the cemetery appeared to be abandoned and well on its way to being reclaimed by the rainforest. However, we also spotted headstones for people who had passed within the past couple of years, so we just don’t know.
Although fascinating to spend an hour walking through the cemetery, we didn’t learn anything new. Much identifying information was in Russian. Plus many headstones were missing or in ruins, while names, dates and other information had long disappeared from others.
Fortress of the Bear
Let’s switch gears and talk about bears!
Located 5.5 miles outside of town, Fortress of the Bear currently has five resident brown bears and three black bears. It’s a rescue center that takes in orphaned cubs, nurses them back to health and provides a long-term home.
Like many states, Alaska lacks a bear rehabilitation program, so orphaned cubs are routinely euthanized for lack of an alternative. Fortress of the Bear founders Les and Evy Kinnear opened the center in 2007, and it’s a labor of love for them. Their ultimate goal is to work with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to someday release rehabbed bears back into the wild.
We met Les on our visit, and the passion he has for the bears is palpable. He’s clearly hands-on, but the center also employs trained bear specialists.
Visitor amenities at Fortress of the Bear consist of viewing platforms, a handful of education exhibits and a small gift shop. It’s not fancy, but the owners understand that more visitors equals more charitable donations, which is how they keep the bears fed and the doors open.
Here are a few photos of the brown bears from our visit.
And the black bears:
What a delightful and uplifting day!
It’s impossible to visit Sitka in the summertime and not notice the flowers (and the pollen). Big and beautiful blossoms everywhere, both cultivated and wild:
Our time in Sitka was grand – a memorable way to start our 2021 Alaskan adventure.