To reach Sitka, the last stop on our southeast journey, we once again rode the ferry. This time our ferry was smaller and faster, which after traveling this section, makes perfect sense. We steamed through narrow corridors with names like the “Straight of Peril,” mountains rising on either side as blue-green water churned out behind us. We saw humpback whale blows puff and disappear, and we marveled at how the sun can make things seem to glitter after days of off and on rain.
The solarium was smaller and wet, so we fluxed between our reclining, cushioned seats inside and standing on the back deck to feel the sun, the gush of cool, coastal air, and the salty spray that smeared on the lenses of my sunglasses. But honestly, I was just happy to need my sunglasses!
We arrived in Sitka to an unbelievable blue sky, making the white tipped mountains and green crusted islands all the more vivid. It is a small, compact community, like most of the southeast it is squeezed between the mountains and the sea, and boat harbors line the edges of the downtown like water parking lots.
During our time in Alaska we have been the recipients of so much generosity and kindness from friends, friends of friends, and strangers, and in Sitka we were lucky enough to have family friends who not only put a roof over our heads, but took us out for a boat tour on our first night.
We motored into a long, tree-lined, mountain-circled, cove, spotted a humpack whale, visited the hatchery, and back in open water, we had ring side seats to watch the coast guard helicopter practice rescue maneuvers. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to drop a metal basket onto the deck of a boat without crashing it into everything. Talk about skill.
For the next two days we had rain, off and on, but it didn’t stop us from exploring. My highlights from Sitka:
Downtown- It is small and cute with little shops, a nice book store, restaurants, and several historical sites (mostly Russian) that showcase Sitka’s complicated past. Although it isn’t flashy, I liked visiting Castle Hill (do not be mislead there is not an actual castle on the site), rather it is a high point in town that was used by both the Tlingit (the natives who first inhabited Sitka) and the Russians as a fort, and the location where the USA finalized the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Sandy Beach- Tide Pools! We looked up the tide chart and timed our visit to see star fish, sea anemones, mussels, sand dollars, and gooey-ducks. I love spotting the unnaturally bright color of a starfish wedged halfway under a rock. Tide pools are like a treasure hunt, and I was a happy hunter.
Totem Park- Set along a wooded path, the totems in this park were brought to Sitka in 1906 after being displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The totems, like those we saw in Ketchikan, illustrate the stories and history of the people who carved them. I particularly liked a brightly painted one near the park’s visitor center (pictured above).
The Raptor Center- At the front desk I met Tootsie (above), a Beanie-baby sized owl who would never get any bigger, and I knew I was going to really, really like this place. And I was right. The Center has three many goals: rehabilitation, education, and research. Our tour included a look at the rehabilitation area and a chance to see the permanent residences of the facility who, for one reason or another, can not be released back into the wild.
Our favorite quirky story about the residents came with the introduction of the captive ravens. Seemly to prove the point that they are as smart and mischievous as their reputation indicates, the ravens at the Center have made a deal with the wild ravens living near by- food for shiny objects. The wild ravens bring the captive ones coins and shiny ribbons and any other glittery object they can find, and in exchange, they are provided with food. The birds are bartering.
Whale Park- Although we did not see any whales here, it offers pretty views, and just a little ways down the road a gravel pull off became our go-to lunch spot. From the car we could see the water, the mountains, stay dry, and have the binoculars close at hand. During lunch we spied on fishing boats that passed through, saw a Stellar sea lion playing in the water, and watched eagles dive and dip over our heads. My kind of lunch break.
Mt. Verstovia- A steep, straight-up-the-mountain kinda hike, this trail promised views on top of views. Unfortunately for us, rain, fog, clouds, and eventually snow, limited the views, but the trail was still neat. Climbing up, you could see out through the trees to the spotted islands that dot the water around Sitka one minute, and the next, a wave of fog so thick you could almost taste it, would roll in and the world around us would disappear. It was like watching the horizon melt into the white-noise of fog. A book on Sitka that we saw said it was like hiking into the clouds. I agree.
My favorite part about the southeast was the feeling of awe that often I felt, like when hiking Mt. Verstovia. When the natural world, wild and untamed, seemed to edge out my presences as a person. The way the land and the water merged in breathtaking battles, the abundance of wildlife, and the way the people who live there seem to thrive on this fringe. A beautiful (wet) corner of Alaska.
But I must admit, I was happy to see the warm, sunny sky of Fairbanks when we got home.
We took way, way to many pictures (over 500) during our nine day trip so today I thought I would present the next leg of our journey in pictures.
Our Juneau, Alaska photo journal:
The M/V Columbia.
Wonderful visit to the Alaskan Brewing Company!
The view from Mt. Roberts (Juneau below).
Bald eagles at Auk Bay.
One of the many harbors, plus the mountain reflection. Makes me happy.
Whale Tail: Step 1
Whale Tail: Step 2
Whale Tail: Step 3
Beach walk on our drive “out the road.”
Mendenhall Glacier. Love. Love. Love.
View of the Mendenhall from the west glacier trail.
Lake feed by the glacier, near our campground. Great views in our own backyard.
Steaming to Sitka!
We arrived in Ketchikan, AK in the late afternoon, after a “milk run” plane ride. Meaning we stopped everywhere on our way: Fairbanks to Anchorage, Anchorage to Juneau, Juneau to Sitka, and finally Sitka to Ketchikan. Needless to say, I was happy to be off the plane, ready to begin our adventure.
Ketchikan is on an island. A small dot of civilization on a wild, rugged coastline. The town itself is a mix of industrialism and tourism. These two seemingly opposing sides of the coin geographically split the town. From the airport ferry drop-off to downtown we walked through two different world. Outside the downtown, the city is framed in metal shipping containers and warehouses and commercial fishing boats, rusted and twisted by harsh weather. It felt gritty and real. The transition to downtown was striking. Fresh paint, bright signs, little shops, and looming over the harbor, giant cruise ships that swamp the town in loads of people when they dock. The strange thing is the two parts seem to merge and separate seamlessly. I liked the juxtaposition of it all.
The little downtown was cute, and tiny, but my favorite part was seeing Creek Street. Not because I wanted to shop or the salmon where running, but because my grandparent’s had been there, many years before, on their own vacation. I had seen the picture my Gram took of the shops lifted up over the water by stilt-like wooden beams, and I wanted to merge the real version with her picture. Memories laid on memories. And it lived up in the live version. A quaint, walking-only street, floating in the air over water.
We only had a short visit in Ketchikan, but to me, these were the highlights:
- Ward Lake- our pretty (but loud) campground. Nestled in a valley ward lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains and features a walking trail that circles the lake. On the trail, green draped trees towered over us, twisting towards the sky like sleeping giant. Sitting by the lake, in the shadow of the mountains was a beautiful place to eat our first dehydrated dinner of the trip!
- Deer Mountain- a local called this the “standard” hike, and I can see why. With a quick rise in elevation after just a few short miles, it offers spectacular views. I loved both the hike through the temperate rainforest (more green- I may be obsessed!) and the ocean/mountain views at the top. We didn’t get all the way up, about 500 feet short of the summit, because the snow was still very heavy, but it didn’t impact the beauty. We could see out over another distant island, and on the farthest horizon, snow covered Canadian mountains. Water drifted like dark ink between the green and white pockets of land making the world seem like the wide screen opening of a movie. Pretty, pretty.
- Rotary Beach- our first ocean stop. Here I loved the piles of sun bleached drift wood stacked in haphazard designs, the rocky crests of tide pools, and slow lapping of the stunted ocean waves. We ate lunch here, smelling the thick aroma of salt and drying seaweed, and later came back for a nap/break. It is such a different kind of Alaska leaning against the smoothed wood, sitting in sand, scanning the sky for eagles.
- Totem Bight State Historical Park- the totems in this park are as impressive as I imagined they would be. A gravel path weaves through the woods to an open area with totems looking out towards the ocean. I loved the intricate designs, paint colors and patterns, and the stories they tell through symbols. A remarkable history. Most totems are made of red cedar because it resists rot and for the height, isn’t as heavy as other kinds of wood. Standing beside one of the massive totems made me feel toy-solider-small.
- Settlers Cove- our second camp ground, snug against the rock shoreline with a waterfall pushing fresh water out into a new salty world. And it was quiet. Thankfully. So quiet. Here we also hiked, Lunch Falls Loop, with nice view of the waterfall and the river, more green on green, and the howling of ravens that sounded so much like monkeys it felt like we had slipped into the jungle. Dinner on the rocks looking out at the ocean.
Bright and early on our last day we boarded the ferry. Best way to travel ever! The solarium, a covered outdoor deck complete with overhead heaters and chase-lounge chairs, was our spot. We put our sleep pads and sleeping bags right on the chairs and watched the scenery float by while snug and warm.
Steaming to Juneau!
Last week Lucas and I went on a nine day adventure to Southeast Alaska. It is a place of extremes: overwhelming mountain and ocean views coupled with intense weather and an abundance of wildlife. In moments of sun or clear skies, it was beautiful, like seeing a cloud of sparklers at night, almost magical. But other days, it was wet and foggy, which was sometimes eerily striking in its own right, and sometimes equally frustrating. I have never been so glad to own a good rain coat.
*Map courtesy of http://montessoriborealis.wordpress.com/about/
It was a traveling trip. We flew into Ketchikan, AK, a small town of around 14,000 people, and the southern most city on our trip. We spent two nights camping and touring this area before hopping on the Marine Highway, the state ferry system that connects this roadless corner of Alaska. Our ferry, the Columbia, passed through the even smaller towns of Wrangell and Petersburg, before we reached our next destination, Juneau. The state capital, and home to around 31,000 people, Juneau is nestled in a narrow straight with mountains on all sides. Here we explored and camped for three nights before getting on a new ferry, the Fairweather, for our final boat ride to Sitka. It is a small town, around 8,000 people, on the outer edge of the southeast, surrounded by little islands that dot the ocean like gum drops. We spent three nights here, staying with a family friend. I loved the sinking immersion of being in one region for so long and seeing how the little communities that stretch out across this part of the Alaskan coast are so similar and yet so different.
One of my favorite unifying factors was the Tongass National Forest, part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world that stretches 1,000 miles along the coastline of the Pacific. All the places we visited were dripping in green for this exact reason. On several of our hikes in the southeast, moss and lichen were so invasive it covered every inch of the forest floor, wrapped up around the trunks of trees, and hung like gnarled green hair from the limps above. A snow globe of green. After months of white on white, it felt almost like falling into another world.
In addition to the forests, and the snow capped mountains towering over them, the ocean and the culture it creates seem to tie this part of Alaska together in a way roads never could. Fishing is life here, whether as a profession, for food, or for fun, boats and harbors are more plentiful than parking lots. Access to the water expands the reach and scope of life in the southeast making the small stretches of land populated with people feel much bigger than they look. And of course, I never get tired of seeing all the marine life that thrive in this isolated place.
I can’t possible write about our whole trip in one blog, so this is the introduction. Welcome to the southeast. More to come in the next few days.