Saturday, September 7, 2013


For a few days in late August, I played tourist, although I promise I did not ask anyone, standing on the waterfront or on the Allen Marine boat I took on a tour,  what the elevation was, or if the water was salt water, or if postcards mailed from Sitka needed foreign postage.

But what I did do was explore the old Russian capitol of Alaska, walking for miles, seeing historic sites as well as enjoying the magnificent scenery, the wildlife, the food, and a break from work.  While I do enjoy seasonal interpretive work, there is a point, close to the end of the season when almost all of us are losing our momentum, looking forward to the end of the season, and not wanting one more ridiculous question.   My timing was perfect.  In fact, I think all seasonal employers would be wise to give a break about a month before the end of the season to refresh the staff.  Probably not practical, but my unpaid break served me well.

As a child, my father used to take us to Fort Ross on the California coast and talk about the Russian American Company and its impact on Alaska and its outpost in N. California.  He was fascinated by that bit of history and ended up reading extensively on it and then on Russia of the period.   In my other visits to Alaska, Sitka didn't fit the itinerary but I've wanted to visit.  This was my chance and I was not disappointed.

The setting is spectacular.   The Russian history is evident in St. Michael's Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Church right downtown.  A downtown fire in the 1960s burned the original church and many other buildings.   Volunteers rushed to the church and saved most of the icons and furnishings.  And the church was rebuilt in its original location.    Other Russian reminders are the  Bishop's House which is original and retains much of its original furnishings, the hill where the flags of Russian and the US were exchanged, the site where the Tlingits attacked the Russians and briefly prevailed.  

Detail from St. Michael's in downtown Sitka

Windows on the Bishop's House, part of the National Historic Park

Russian cemetery with block house replica in the background

I took the St. Gregory, part of the Allen Marine fleet, on a wildlife tour of the area and saw both sea otters (they are not found near Ketchikan as this area lacks the kelp beds the otters require), several humpback whales, and eagles nest with two immature eagles present.   I do see humpbacks and eagles in Ketchikan but I don't get a chance to photograph them when I am working as the naturalist, so I was able to shoot to my hearts content.   The only disappointment was when a small tour boat, illegally, chased one of the whales, going way too close and scaring it off.   But we did see a couple of others.

A "raft"of male sea otters

Humpback Whale and the setting

Whale executes a deep dive, this photo and next two

This small charter boat chased the whale and approached too close.  Both are in violation of marine protection act.  It also scarred the whale away, ruining the chance for our boat, which was a legal distance to enjoy a longer period of watching this magnificent mammal feeding.

I had a super meal.  My boss in Ketchikan told me I should make reservations to eat at Ludvig's in Sitka.  Great recommendation.  Food was excellent, service out of this world, nice atmosphere.  All in all a great experience.

Ludvigs is a tiny, Mediterranean style restaurant featuring local fish.
Two days I wandered through the National Park site where totem poles are set within the rain forest.  One day was clear, the other day was definitely rainy, but it was needed.   The creeks were so low that salmon were beginning to die, not as they should after spawning, but before as the water was too shallow and too warm.    But the delight of standing on a bridge and watching the live fish still working their way as best they could, was the appearance of a mink.  

wet mink in salmon stream

Salmon normally die once they have spawned.   But this year many were dying before they could spawn due to low water level and water temperature.   Ketchikan got a nice rainfall before I left, but Sitka didn't get that rain.  The area did get rain my last day there, the day after this photo was taken.

The women's track team from the high school uses the trails in the National Park

Several years ago I spotted a job opening for an interpretive guide at the Raptor Center in Sitka. I applied, but the day I sent off that electronic application I got a call from Yellowstone offering me a job there.   But when I talked to the Raptor Center later, I was encouraged to consider it another year.   Then this year, it turned out they had enough returning staff that they were not I went looking for other jobs and the naturalist job in Ketchikan was the result.   But, while I was in Sitka I visited the center. 
    I enjoyed performances of  Russian dancing by the New Archangel Dancers.  This group began years ago.  When no men were interested in joining, they decided that women would dance both parts and it has been that way for years.   More recently, men realize these volunteers are having great fun and have wanted to join, but the women decided since the men were so negative about their plans years ago and they have succeeded without them all this time, they would continue as an all women's troupe.    I followed that by Tlingit dancing, which involves all ages.   I also attended a superb piano and cello concert at the downtown center which was only a few blocks from my lodgings.   The backdrop for the stage is a huge glass wall looking out over the water and mountains.   
Naa Kahadi Dancers.   As soon as children are able to walk they take part in the dancing.

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New Archangel Dancers

My lodging was a tiny cabin with kitchenette.   On the ride there, the taxi driver (I flew into the airport) told me it had once had a different purpose in a different location.  There is no red light hanging above the door today.   But the elementary school is across the street and the first day of the year was while I was there.   Kind of fun to watch all the kids arriving, the parents accompanying the younger ones.
My little cabin in Sitka.

View of harbor, two blocks from my lodgings

 The location was two blocks from the Bishop's House which is part of the National Park system and where I had an excellent private tour by a young interpretive ranger.  It was a block the other way to a grocery store, the concert was close, the main street and the harbor were close.  The Sitka National Historic Park was about ten blocks and the trails through the park took me to the other side and another few blocks walk to the Raptor Center.  Along the way to the park was the Sheldon Jackson Museum which houses an incredible collection of native artifacts from all over Alaska.  This was once a large boarding school for native children.  Part of the grounds are now a summer arts camp for young people.

View as I walked near Ludvig's Restaurant.

Evening at the harbor, just two blocks from my lodgings

Mt. Edgecomb is an inactive volcano which faces the town of Sitka