Alaska had been at the top of my “travel to” list for years but the 49th state had eluded me until I finally boarded a flight to Sitka last summer. Not sure what to expect, I was greeted by an unpretentious town that is part rugged, part quaint, two parks quirky and surrounded by the most pristine nature imaginable. My idea of heaven. Luckily I traveled with someone who grew up and still has family there so I had the extra luxury of a built in tour guide but exploring Sitka and the surrounding area is very possible with a little planning.
Sitka is located in Southeast Alaska on the west side of Baranof Island, one of the many islands in the Alaskan Panhandle. That means you will arrive by plane, car ferry or as many people do, on a cruise ship. It is considered one of the largest cities (by population) in Alaska but I’d like to point out that in this case, the term “large” means under 10,000 people. The downtown has flecks of Native Alaskan, Russian and Gold Rush history, it embraces its natural setting and wraps itself along the coastline and harbor while affording amazing views of Mt. Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano located on nearby Krusov Island. A low elevation and ocean effect means Sitka remains fairly temperate throughout the year compared to other parts of Alaska but no matter when you go, expect rain. As in, you might hear a local refer to Seattle as a warmer, sunnier destination.
One of the things that surprised me most was how much history and culture can be found in Sitka. Originally a Tlinget (Alaskan Native) settlement, Russians began to arrive in the area around 1800, to trap sea otter for their pelts and to settle what to them was new land. Wars were fought but eventually the Russian’s stayed and Sitka became one of the most important ports on the West Coast for a while, which explains why so many places in the area still have Russian names. In case you are ever on Jeopardy, Sitka is where the ceremony took place to lower the Russian flag and raise the U.S. flag to signify the Alaska Purchase. If you end up in town, more information about Tlinget and Russian history in Sitka can be found at the Sheldon Jackson museum, in Totem Park’s interpretive center and the Russian Bishop’s House. If you’d like to see an Alaskan Native dance performance at the Sheet’ká Kwáan Naa Kahídi, that is also located downtown.
Something I had expected but that still astounded me was how lush the island is and the sheer amount of wildlife. Thick, mossy forests blanket the island and bald eagles almost seemed common, flying gracefully or perching in tall tree tops. Ocean birds like cormorants, kingfishers and puffins were also plentiful. I soon found out that puffins, while cute and graceful, can be an annoyance to fishermen as they dive underwater and “fly” with their wings to steal the bait off your fishhook as soon as you cast it. Sea otter have made a comeback since Russian trading days and mink and river otter can also be found on the island and rivers. We did get to see some humpback whales as we rode out towards a wildlife bird sanctuary called St. Lazaria, however, we missed the pod of orca that were wandering fairly close to shore one evening.
That brings me to the two biggies of local Sitka wildlife, one of which is salmon. You can’t go far in Sitka without hearing, seeing and likely tasting salmon which isn’t a bad thing. Bears depend on them, native alaskans depended on them for as long as they’ve inhabited the area (and some still practice susistance living and depend on the Salmon runs) , the ecosystem depends on them and the local economy still depends on them. If you’re in Sitka, a new educational program called “Salmon Tours” is a multi-hour tour discussing the life cycle, fishing history and a tour of a salmon hatchery leaves from downtown Sitka in summertime. If you’re more interested in doing than learning, there are plenty of charter boats that offer daily fishing excursion for salmon as well as other types of fish such as halibut. I don’t consider myself much of a fisherman but being on the open water, working hard to catch dinner was thrilling and very rewarding when we sat down for a delicious and fresh meal.
The other biggie is literally massive, these are the coastal brown bears which inhabit Baranof Island. At one point, I heard the bear population density on the island is somewhere around 1.25 per square mile which means chances are good at some point you’ll see one if you spend time in Sitka, just hopefully not up close. Sitka Bear Report is a fantastic page on Facebook for tracking bear sightings in the area. The people of Sitka seem to live happily in close quarters with the presence but grizzly bears but you definitely need to have awareness of them, particularly if you will be hiking or going beyond the downtown. Even in downtown, bears have been known to turn up behind a coffee shop to munch on wild-growing salmonberries. The best defense? Knowledge. Hike in groups, make noise so that you don’t startle a bear, if you can see the bear in good detail you’re too close, don’t think about approaching a bear or and definitely don’t approach or get too close to a cub. Bear spray can be purchased at any camping store, carry it with you and be ready to use it. Some people choose to carry firearms for defense however that isn’t realistic for most people who are flying in for a vacation. In all, use caution and good judgement, be prepared and don’t let the idea of bears stop you from exploring.
Things to do
From downtown Sitka you can access historical buildings, Alaska’s smallest National Park a.k.a. Totem Park, a museum, a raptor center, shopping, restaurants, or just go for a leisurely stroll. There are a variety of restaurants and bars in this area, some with amazing views and serving very fresh seafood. There are also plenty of stores in this downtown area, ranging from inexpensive tourist tokens to functional camping supplies to fine native art work. My personal favorite would be the knitting store where they sell homemade jams, salmonberry and spruce tip being my favorites. There are also some great coffee shops and book stores if you’re looking to sit and relax while the rain passes. You can also take one of the few main roads to either end of town, either by bike, taxi or your own vehicle, in order to access hiking trails, campgrounds and wildlife viewing areas which I highly recommend. There is even an intense, long distance, cross-island trek that can be done over several days but is best to have a guide if you’re going to attempt it.
Sitka was recently voted one of the “20 Best Small Towns to Visit” by Smithsonian and if you have an interest in nature, culture, wildlife or history you’ll find something that interests you. It isn’t easy to get to, you have to make it a point to get to Baranof Island but tourism is a hefty part of the economy and they are welcoming, there are variety of accomodations. If you are expecting Las Vegas-style nightlife you’ll be disappointed but they did just have the first Tedx Sitka event last summer and there are plenty of other “small town” actives like the Sitka Seafood Festival, Alaska Day celebrations and farmer’s market plus bars to pass the evenings people watching while meeting the local characters. As mentioned, Sitka is an island so everything that they have, food or goods, either needs to be transported in or sourced locally. That means things like food, lodging, gasoline, etc. aren’t cheap but if your primary focus is getting out in nature and enjoying the local culture, you can get by without breaking the bank and you’ll love every eagle-screaming, bear watching and salmon fishing minute of it.