(Part III of a six-part series on travel to Southeast Alaska)
In Sitka, we didn’t have any friends to impose upon, so we were forced to find commercial lodging. It was a daunting task, seeing as how we failed to note that our time there coincided with the world renowned Sitka Summer Music Festival. Members of the lodging establishment were evidently in cahoots because every room in town was priced at $235. Except one, a B. It had been a B&B but no longer serves breakfast. The price was great for the roomy apartment, and it was equipped with an excellent kitchen that enabled us to fix our own breakfast (and lunches). We were able to save enough to rent a car and travel every inch of road in that island community.
Sitka, with its 9,000 people, is on the west side of Baranof Island, meaning that it fronts on the Pacific Ocean, not the Inside Passage. It is a place of stunning beauty; we used to think Juneau was the best but it takes a second place to Sitka. Photos we made in and around Sitka surpassed most we took in other places, except maybe Glacier Bay.
If you see nothing else in Sitka, you must visit St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It’s hard to miss, since the main streets of downtown are routed around it, and the onion-domed structure is nestled in a bed of brilliant flowers.
After Vitus Bering’s voyage in 1741, Russian fur traders seeking sea otter pelts settled Sitka. Called “Anooshi” by the Tlingits who lived there, the Russians established “New Archangel,” which remained the capital of Russian America (not without conflict between the Tlingits and the Russians) until it was sold to Alaska in 1867.
When you enter the onion-domed structure (it’s open to the public with no specific admission charge, but don’t be a cheapskate — donate) the gold iconography, paintings, ancient books and religious artifacts will take your breath away. The air is thick with the smell of beeswax candles and that wonderful incense you remember from your childhood. Nostalgia reigns.
To put the cathedral into perspective, stroll through the Russian Bishop’s house. It was home, school, palace, and the center of authority for the Orthodox Church in Russian America where Bishop Innocent reigned until 1850, when he was elevated to archbishop and returned to Yakutsk, Russia.
Just down the road from the Russian Bishop’s House is the oldest national park unit in Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park. It lies along the beach of Sitka Sound, just beyond the city’s docks and Centennial Hall. In the quiet of the rainforest, two miles of trails carry us among 18 totem poles based on original poles that were displayed at the St. Louis and Portland Expositions of 1904 and 1905—100 years after the last major battle between the Tlingit Indians and the Russian settlers, and on the site of the fort where the fighting occurred. As we peek through the trees, we can see a cruise ship docked offshore, its lighter boats carrying cruisers back and forth to the town. Sitka is one community that chose not to allow cruise ships to dock downtown, or set up their own company stores. Instead, the town is a showcase of local art and artists.
Not just visual art, either. Sitka is the home of the Sitka Summer Music Festival, an event that brings world-class musicians to Alaska to perform chamber music in what festival promoters call “rarified paradise,” and we won’t disagree. We lucked into a performance at Centennial Hall by the Arianna String Quartet. It was a brown-bag lunch affair (one of four “Bach’s Lunches” during the month-long festival); no charge, just don’t rattle your sandwich wrapping during the performance. Pianist and composer David Wiley joined the quartet for some of the pieces. Not sure whether it was the music or the mantle of mist on the mountains outside the windows that had Suzanne misting up, too. The backdrop of the range of cloud-shrouded mountains is a powerful sight.
Below our rainy mountainside perch, we see a bay of silver water, and above, a silver sky. We watch the small fishing boat slide across that glass-like surface; a tiny squirrel frisks about our feet.
We took in as many of the outdoor recreation offerings as we could cram into three days: whale watching, walking, bird viewing, and exploring parks, beaches and campgrounds. I’d like to think much of this was reconnoitering for a return trip of longer duration.
There are many delights to be had for the Sitka visitor, but the overwhelming feature of the place is its incredible beauty. At the risk of offending fans of Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, Gustavus, Glacier Bay, Skagway and all the rest, we’d have to say this: should you be able to visit only one place in Southeast Alaska, make it Sitka.
We left its silver skies, silver water, and silver mists aboard state ferry MV Chenega catamaran and headed north through the silver rain to Juneau.
Part IV Juneau: Walking with ravens (and other friends)