Memories of an Alaskan Jewel
Sitka, Alaska is a town I remember fondly. I spent the spring and summer of 2009 working for a charter fishing lodge. I didn’t have a lot of time off, but when I did, I seized every minute to explore this Alaskan gem of a town, and it’s surrounding country side.
Sitka is located on Baranof Island. It used to be the Russian capital of Alaska, but since Seward’s folly in 1867, it has no longer carried the title. Before the Russians, the native population of Tlingit (pronounced Klink-et) and other tribes thrived throughout the many islands of the region.
Today, Sitka is largely a fishing community and a host to the hordes of tourists that visit in the spring and summer months. The population is roughly 8500 people, making it Alaska’s 4th largest city (taken from 2005 census). This number swells in the summer from the tourists and those helping the locals cater to the tourists. The downtown is an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants full of souvenirs for the discerning tourist. My two favorite stores were Harbor Light Bookstore and Kenny’s Chinese Restaurant. Both are excellent sources of fiber. Sitka is also home to the Theobroma chocolate factory. This small chocolatier makes excellent chocolate bars, my favorites being the Dark Midnight Espresso and the Dark Dementhe.
The whole Island has 14 miles of paved road. I only filled my van up with gas once the whole summer I was there. The gas stations didn’t post a price, and I didn’t ask because I really didn’t want to know. One thing about Sitka, is that anything you see on the island was shipped here. All the sand, timber, concrete, windows, lights, food etc. all came from somewhere else. That’s why it’s an expensive place to live.
Sitka has the feel of a small town. It doesn’t have many chain franchises to speak of, so if you need hardware, you go to the hardware store. If you need drugs, you go to the local pharmacy or the skate park, depending on your needs. If you need food, you go to the grocery store. It’s kind of refreshing in that way. When I visit a town, and stay there for a given period, I usually try to split where I shop at. For instance, Sitka has 3 grocery stores. I’d take turns on which I was going to shop at. That way, most people in the local economy will get some of my business. This makes me feel better for some reason.
You can get to Sitka by air or by sea. I drove up and took the ferry from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Alaska’s Marine Highway is a very reliable way of getting around Alaska, and a good way to get a feel for the land. It takes longer, but the scenic beauty of the Inside Passage made it my favorite choice of transportation getting to the island.
The Alaskan people are as interesting as the landscape. There seems to be varying degrees of how “Alaskan” Alaskans present themselves on a given day. After observing the locals for 5 months, three types of people jumped out at me. There are regular folks, the Die Hard Alaskans and a mix of regular and Die Hard. The following is a list of common traits of the Alaskans I observed while living there. Naturally, this does not apply to everyone living in Alaska, so please don’t be offended if you do or do not fit into my stereotypes.
Winking: Alaskans when jesting with you will often wink at you, sometimes they will do this several times in a single sentence. A famous example would be ex-governor Sarah Palin on the campaign trail. At times it’s hard to tell if they are winking or have a nervous tic. I’ve learned it’s best to leave winking to the locals, and to try to ignore it. Winking back could lead to trouble, especially if the recipient of the wink is not a member of the opposite sex, sometimes it’s hard to tell what sex you are dealing with, especially among the Die Hards in Alaska.
Owning fire arms: It’s not uncommon to see people carrying high powered rifles around town, which is understandable with all the bears and tourists running around. Upon mentioning I was going for a hike, I was immediately surrounded by locals offering me firearms for my protection. I respectfully turned them all down, much to their disapproval and disappointment. Alaskans love their guns. This is another reason not to wink back at them, you never know how much fire power a typical Alaskan is carrying.
Dogs: A typical Alaskan has at least 3 dogs which they take with them everywhere. Dogs are treated as members of the family, and the dogs take advantage of that. A lot of dogs and their owners kind of look alike in after awhile, I don’t say this as an insult, merely an observation. During the summer, I was fortunate enough to be adopted by Scout, a co-worker’s dog. He was a great dog, and I’ll talk more about him in another entry.
Footwear: An Alaskan has one favorite piece of footwear. Xtratuffs are a great boot made of olive green rubber that reach to just below your knee. They are waterproof, warm and comfortable (providing you buy the felt insoles). When working on or around boats they are indispensable. They are also fashionable. I own a pair of them myself, and I can vouch for their high value.
Vehicles: Regulars mostly drive pick up trucks, van’s or other 4 wheel drive vehicles. Die Hards drive the biggest pile of rusted metal heaps you’ve ever seen. These “vehicles” look like they are homemade, and often are. Mufflers are considered an unnecessary extravagance, and are looked down upon. It often takes a half hour of cursing and cajoling for a Die Hard to start their vehicle. Once the vehicle is running, it takes a few laps around the block to properly warm it up. Once warm, it’ll backfire like a pistol shot every 300 feet (or was it a pistol shot?), and lurch it’s way to the driver’s destination. When a vehicle is on it’s last legs, they are taken down to the local marina and abandoned. The marina parking lot has several of these heaps left there, piled high with ignored parking tickets.
Die Hard Alaskans generally are coarse in appearance. They have full beards, long hair, old clothes, accompanied by several mangy, unruly dogs. Rough looking vehicles and decrepit boats are the norm. Regulars look normal and own decent vehicles and boats and are harder to spot, but look for someone who winks and wears Xtratuffs. Alaskans, when in comparison to the Khaki clad, aimlessly wandering riff raff that stumbles ashore off of the cruise ship, will stick out like a sore thumb. All of the Alaskans that I have met, have been very nice people, and interesting to talk to. It takes a lot of gumption to live in Alaska, and I respect them for it.
What I really like about Sitka is the scenic beauty in every direction. There’s not a bad view in town. Looking west, you see Mt. Edgecombe the dormant volcano rising 3201 feet above the ocean making it one of the obvious local landmarks. To the east the rugged mountains and glaciers of Baranof Island’s interior tower above the town. To the north and south, the islands and seascapes of southeast Alaska stretch to the horizon. The views are full of spruce covered mountains and islands. Glaciers poke out sporadically. The ocean is a constant presence, dominating the senses with its command of your hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The local vegetation grows full, lush and green in the short summer. The trees and forests include a healthy mix of Sitka spruce, cedar, alder brush, and poplar trees. Local plants include blueberries (which aren‘t as sweet as the berries found in the lower 48), salmon berries, devil club, and a variety of other plants and wildflowers. It’s amazing how quickly spring turns to summer. It seems like overnight, the plants produce the full foliage of summer.
There are creeks and rivers that run through town from the mountains and glaciers. Indian River, Sawmill, Granite, Cascade, No Name and Starrigavan Creeks meander there way down from the mountains to the ocean. The water is crystal clear and ice cold. Sitka gets it’s water from Sawmill Creek; the source being blue glacier. It’s GREAT water, so very refreshing and pure. The clear mountain water is very beautiful. The rapids and waterfalls are bright white, the result of highly oxygenated pure water. In the late summer, pink salmon begin there spawning run up these creeks and rivers for their last hurrah. The biomass of fish can easily be seen from bridges, it’s really something to see. All of this easily catchable fish brings in bears who find this an easy source of food. Eagles also take advantage of the fresh fish, shifting their feeding habits from diving and catching herring from the ocean to plucking uncaring salmon from the rivers. When the spawning is done, the fish die and float back down to the sea. The stink of rotting flesh pervades the senses, making the creeks a good place to avoid this time of year.
Sitka has a wide variety of wildlife living among it. Grizzly bears have been known to stroll down town, probably looking for a souvenir to take back to the cubs. In fact, the week after I left one was seen lumbering around downtown. During my summer, I never saw a single one, though all my co-workers saw quite a few of them. Kind of ironic, as I was probably the one person who really wanted to see one, and all I found of them were a few foot prints and a lot of scat. Other common sightings around Sitka include: Sitka black tailed deer, sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales, dahl porpoises, eagles, ravens, a wide variety of sea birds, robins, Swainson’s thrushes, squirrels, and dogs. Cats can be found down by the marina. I would love to be a cat at a busy marina. There’s so much going on, and fish smells, and boats to explore that my curiosity would constantly be piqued.
My two favorite parks in town are John Brown’s beach, and Totem Park. JBB (as I call it) is located on the north end of Japonski Island, access via the coast guard station. It’s just a small rocky beach with old volcanic rock outcrops, but it’s a great place to listen to the ocean swells tumble over the rocks and watch the warm sunset. A very pleasant seascape with Mt. Edgecombe and myriad small islands surrounded by the shifting ocean. Gulls, eagles, and ravens soar effortlessly through the air, and the occasional fishing vessel will chug by, ready to unload the day’s catch. The tide pools are very healthy, full of orange and purple common sea stars. The air blowing in from the west is clean and healthy. This is a great place to relax.
Totem park is part of Sitka Nat’l Historical Park. The park has two parts, the cultural visitor’s center, and the path that meanders through a spruce forest, dotted with examples of the large totem poles. My most memorable walk occurred on an overcast, gray, misty day. I was walking silently through the park, my steps muffled by the damp earth. In the tree tops, a raven convention was being held. Their squawks, clicks, grunts and whistles was an overture, and a pleasant ambiance for my walk. The raven is represented on many of the totems. In Tlingit culture, the raven is a very important symbol, known as a trickster, benefactor or a rascal. Knowing this, made my walk all the more special. I was an unannounced guest to the raven rendezvous.
Sitka has plenty of hiking trails, most of them climbing up high into the nearby mountains. In the spring as I looked at the prospective hiking trails, I made a goal of visiting them all. Sadly, I didn’t reach that goal, only missing one trail, that being hiking to the summit of the local volcano (Mt. Edgecombe).
The hiking in Sitka is excellent. There are at least a dozen hikes I can think of, varying in length from an easy quarter mile to arduous and steep alpine climbs covering well over 8 miles. I tended to go up into the alpine, loving the tremendous views that rewarded the ambitious. My favorite hikes are the Harbor Mt. to Gavan hill trail, the Mt. Verstovia/Mt. Arrowhead trail, and the Indian River Falls trail. I would have loved to hike the Mt. Edgecombe trail, but I was working the day a group of friends took a boat to the island and hiked it. Hopefully, I’ll do it this year.
Hiking in the mountains surrounding Sitka is hard work. It was hiking straight up a rock wall in areas, and the switch backs are never ending and brutal. I happily put myself through the difficult hiking though. It was great exercise, and the views on top were phenomenal. I finally got to see a meadow of wildflowers on the steep inclines. I loved the sheer vertical world of the mountains. I was quite happy just plunking myself in a meadow of wildflowers and watching the “Sitka Channel.”
Sea Kayaking is plentiful around Sitka. The relatively calm, protected inside passage provides endless opportunities to those inclined to paddle. I went out on a warm, calm summer evening and found it very peaceful. I like kayaking, it gives you a different view that you can’t achieve on land. Sea life will ignore you as just another boat, where, if they spied you on land, they’d quickly fly or swim away, thinking you a predator.
While I foolishly didn’t bring my mountain bike last year, this year I am certainly bringing it, as Sitka is made for bike travel. As I’ve said, there are only 14 miles of paved roads in town, and biking is a great way to get around. There are also many gravel roads and trails to follow like the Green Lake Rd. Starrigavan Valley Trail and the Harbor Mt. Road. I can’t wait to get my bike out next year and see even more of the island than I saw in 2009.
As you can see, Sitka is a great place to make a base camp for outdoor adventure. I’m glad I was able to spend a summer there exploring its secrets and digging it’s natural beauty. Alaska is America’s last great wilderness, and Sitka can provide a great jumping off point for your adventures. I hope to go back again this summer, and live in this beautiful town once again.