Sitka is nestled at the foot of glacial carved mountains facing the Pacific Ocean on Baranof Island and lies at the heart of the largest temperate rain forest in the world, the Tongass National Forest.
The current name Sitka (derived from Sheet’ká, is a contraction of the Tlingit Shee At’iká which meant “people on the outside of Shee” (Baranof Island.) Archeological investigations indicate that people lived on Baranof Island over 8,000 years ago and the Tlingits at least 4500 years ago.
Russians arrived in Sitka in 1799 led by Alexander Baranov, the governor of Russian America, forcing their way into the region. In search of fur riches, the Russians settled in the area. The fragile trading relationship between the Tlingits and Russians was interrupted by battles for years until 1821 when open resistance by the Tlingits ended.
On March 30, 1867, the United States reached an agreement to purchase Alaska from Russia for a price of $7.2 million. Alaska was difficult to defend and Russia was short on cash due to the costs of the war in Crimea, and the colony was no longer profitable after the sea otter population was wiped out. As the capital of Russian America, Sitka was the site for the ceremony in which the Russian flag was lowered and the United States flag raised. Critics of Secretary of State William H. Seward’s deal to purchase Alaska called it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.” Opposition to the purchase of Alaska subsided with the Klondike Gold Strike in 1896. Alaska, admitted as the 49th state in 1959, is known as “America’s Last Frontier” because of its distance from the lower 48 states and because of its rugged landscape and climate.
The Nieuw Amsterdam arrived in Sitka on May 16th. With 29 excursions to choose from and only 9 hours in port, 🤔 there was much deliberation during the weeks before our cruise. We decided on “Best of Sitka – “Otters, Raptors and Bears” a 5-hour excursion combining on-the-water touring with visits to the Alaska Raptor Center and Fortress of the Bear.
We saw a humpback whale surface and dive several times. I finally gave up trying to take still photos because I missed too much. Switching to video and letting it just run worked better. Here are two 5-second clips of the humpback whale.
The next two short videos are of “Patches”, a gray whale with a distinctive white patch on her body. She is tagged and tracked, and a favorite of the crew.
Dominating the view westward from Sitka is Mount Edgecumbe, a volcano over 3,200 feet high that has been dormant for about 9,000 years. In February of 2023 (yes, just a few months ago) scientists at the observatory noted magma moving deep below the volcano. That doesn’t mean there will be an eruption anytime soon, but it does raise the volcano’s status to active and the threat level to high risk. 😳
One of the most famous April Fool’s jokes ever played was here in Sitka. In 1974 Oliver “Porky” Bickar, with friends, hired a helicopter to carry 70 old tires tied into two, 150-feet long rope slings up to the Mt. Edgecumbe’s crater. Setting them alight, they threw the tires into the crater creating a large plume of black smoke. Porky sprayed a giant sign in the snow – APRIL FOOL. Not wanting to cause a real panic, Porky notified the FAA, fire department and police about the prank. However, he forgot about the Coast Guard. The USCG helicopter flew over Mt. Edgecumbe to investigate and saw a giant spray-painted “APRIL FOOL” in the snow.
The day was calm, perfect for a boat excursion in such beautiful surroundings.
On the way back into Sitka, the green marker had sunbathers. It was getting crowded.
Before departing, our guide pointed out the murals on the sides of an industrial building on the waterfront. In 2006 a crew of artists painted two 100 ft. long “wild fish” murals on this cold storage building. Ray Troll, a very famous Alaskan artist, was joined by other artists and a couple of talented high schoolers to create this gigantic work.
The next two parts of our day focused on wildlife in the air and on land. First, we went to the Alaska Raptor Center. With a focus on rehabilitation, education, and research, the center specializes in raptors but treats any injured wild bird, providing medical treatment to over 200 injured birds each year. The Alaska Raptor Center was established in 1980 in the backyard of two concerned Sitkans, starting with one injured bald eagle. The effort grew, and volunteers treated eagles at their homes until 1983. By 1991 the Center had grown so much that it moved to its present location on 17 acres bordered by the Indian River.
Their goal is to heal, rehabilitate and release all of the injured birds, but some, like Spirit, in the video above, are injured too severely to fully recover and survive in the wild. These birds may join the Raptors-in-Residence team, helping to teach the public about the habitats and characteristics of raptors.
The last part of our excursion was a visit to the Fortress of the Bear, also a rescue center. The state of Alaska has no bear rehabilitation program in place, and orphaned cubs are routinely shot by the Department of Fish and Game for lack of an alternative. Fortress of the Bear was founded by Les and Ivy Kinnear who spent five years converting a pulp mill facility into the rescue center, complete with security and bear management systems, nutritional assets, veterinary requirements, and safety criteria. Their mission is to rescue cubs, bring them back to health and provide a long life full of enrichment. It is against the law to return the bears to the wild so they either remain here or are sent to zoos.
A close encounter with Alaskan bears in the wild was not on our list of things to do on this trip, so getting this close in a secure environment was ok.
We decided to explore the town of Sitka before heading back to the Nieuw Amsterdam. The weather was just too beautiful (again!) to end the day. The main street is easily walked with shops, etc for visitors and locals.
I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find souvenirs to bring back to the grandchildren. Something more authentic than t-shirts and touristy junk. Here in Sitka with the Russian heritage and past, I chose Matryoshka dolls for the girls. The Russian Matryoshka doll, also called a nesting doll, is well-known symbol of Russia around the world. The shop imports a huge variety of dolls created from European linden-wood, hand-painted by individual Russian artists, often depict Russian fairy-tales, Russian peasant art, Russian religious art, Russian families in period costume, and the Russian outdoors and nature. Prices range from under $50 to over $400 with some sets as high as $1,000, museum quality.
It was hard to believe that another day had come to an end. Another day with educational and exciting adventures, AND all sunshine! It is supposed to be quite rainy in this part of Alaska.