The Final Stop in the Southeast: Sitka, AKPosted: June 5, 2012
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.