Sitka, Alaska: Whales, Eagles, Bears, and History

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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.  

Sitka is located on the outer coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage. We were approximately halfway in our travels between Vancouver in the southeast and Anchorage in the north. Sitka is the only community of any size that is located right on the outer coast of SE Alaska.  It is accessible only by sea and air transportation. 

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.

Sitka waterfront

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.

Easy boarding! The St. Eugene (tourboat) was nestled on the dock near the Nieuw Amsterdam‘s bow.
A side note, because we find these things interesting – These curious metal semi-pentagonal shaped things on the ship’s lines are guards to prevent rodents from sneaking along the docking lines to stowaway onboard.
Al is enjoying the upper deck of the St. Eugene. It was going to be another gorgeous day on the water!
The St. Eugene traveled out and around Krestof Island.
Mountains reflected in the calm water.
Spruce trees on rocky islands.
We saw quite a few bald eagles. Al was always one of the first to spot an eagle in the spruce trees. The zoom on the camera can’t get any closer than this.

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.

A humpback whale taking a dive.
And again.

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.

Thar she blows!
Best video of Patches. She stayed around for a while, showing off.

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. 😳

Fifteen miles west of Sitka sits Mt. Edgecumbe on the southern part of Krusof Island.

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 original April 1st, 1974 photo of Mount Edgecumbe “erupting.”
Photo courtesy of Ed Cushing
Porky is gone now, but his legend lives on forever!

The day was calm, perfect for a boat excursion in such beautiful surroundings.

So calm – look at that reflection!
Mt. Edgecumbe in the background beyond the little islands.
We passed by Bieli Rocks (a small rocky island) that has memorial crosses on the top of it honoring those who lost their lives at sea. It is said that there is almost always a bald eagle there. And there was.

On the way back into Sitka, the green marker had sunbathers. It was getting crowded.

Is there room for one more???? I am sad to say that he was not allowed to join.
Captain Brandon docks the boat back in Sitka. The tide was lower so the ramp was much steeper.

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 cold storage facility on the waterfront was beautified in 2006 through the combined efforts of the community and donated funds and grants.
A closer look at the murals.

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.

The focus on rehabilitation, education, and research made the Raptor Center a fascinating place to visit. Although spotting bald eagles in the wild is thrilling, this added a whole new understanding and closer view. Closer, for sure.

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.

Outside the Center there are trails through the 17 acres of rain forest.

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.

At first I thought the bears’ manmade home was less than ideal, but after listening and watching the bears more (from a safe high walkway) I can appreciate the Fortress’s mission.
How to raise an orphan bear cub, safely and securely.

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.

Pretty relaxed and chill here.

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.

St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, constructed in 1848, is the first Orthodox cathedral in North America. Burned to the ground in 1966, the church was restored to its original appearance, except for the clock face which was purposefully painted white instead of the original black.
This house, right in Sitka, is pointed out as the house in the 2009 movie, The Proposal, a romantic comedy film starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The story is set in Sitka Alaska, but the movie was actually shot in Rockport, Gloucester, and Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Which makes me question if this house is in the film at all. I think I have to find this movie to watch.
Still enjoying the sunny day, we grabbed a bite to eat at a food truck. Fish tacos at Ashmo’s.

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.

I liked the idea of including a story book about the nesting Matryoshka dolls. (No, this set is not museum quality, not even close.)

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.

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