Monday, September 9, 2013


Sitka, on Baranof Island, is located on the outer coast of Alaska's Inside Passage.  Like most Southeast Alaska communities, Sitka is accessible only by air or by sea.  Most visitors arrive in Sitka on a cruise ship.

Disembarking from my cruise ship I was welcomed by a "Little Drook", appropriately adorned in his cossack costume.  The drook, (Russian word for friend) is the symbol of the Sitka Visitors' Bureau.  This reminder of Russian-heritage warmly welcomes the visitor to a splendid bit of isolation---Sitka, the oldest town in southeastern Alaska.


Sitka, an Indian word meaning "by the sea", is one of Alaska's most scenic, most historic, and most popular cities.  Once known as the "Paris of the Pacific", Sitka was the port where the Russians discovered Alaska in 1741.  The first trading ships of the Russian-American empire found protection within Sitka's sheltered offshore waters.           

Russian explorers once described Sitka as an area "near the entrance of a large sound surrounded by forested mountains beneath the towering majesty of a cone-shaped peak."  The description still fits.  For decades to follow, Sitka served as the capital of Russian-America.


"Seward's Folly", the misnomer given to America's purchase of Alaska, should have been labeled "The Czar's Folly".  In 1867, all of fur, gold and oil-rich Alaska was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million dollars.  By comparison, a rustic hotel, in downtown Sitka, was completed in the late 1970's at a cost of $7.5 million...$300,000 more than the total purchase price of the entire state of Alaska.  Now that's inflation!            

Try to catch a performance of the New Archangel Russian Dancers who take their name from Sitka's designation as the capital of Russian America.  More than a hundred years ago, Sitka was New Archangel, capital of Russian America.  Taking their name from history, the New Archangel Dancers are preserving Sitka's heritage through the art of dance.  

A group of colorfully costumed local women whirl through the intricate steps of authentic Russian folk dances from a repertoire that includes dances representing Russia and surrounding areas.  Their costumes, which lend both color and authenticity to this remarkable entertainment, include the vibrant floral prints of Russia, the plaids and braids of the Ukraine, the Georgian gowns and the earth tones of Armenian folk wear.


A visit to the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center is very interesting.  The Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center is the largest wild bird treatment center in Alaska.  This unique facility is a wildlife hospital, dedicated to public education, wildlife rehabilitation and research.            

The Raptor Center offers close-up encounters with local wildlife.  The Center combines veterinary expertise and volunteer efforts to nurse back to health hundreds of injured or sick birds of prey including bald eagles.  While the center makes every effort to return the raptors back to the wild, a few never recover flight and remain as Raptors-in-Residence,  a part of the center's education program.         


St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a landmark of the days of the Russian founder Alexander Baranof, was restored in 1976 after a fire destroyed the original church in January, 1966.   Beneath its carrot-spire and onion-dome, this gray frame historic site houses a priceless collection of icons and works of art which were saved from the fire.  One of the world's finest collections of Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical art treasures are on view in the Cathedral.


Dr. Sheldon Jackson's fine collection of native Alaskan artifacts are housed in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, the first cement structure built in Alaska (1895). The museum features Russian relics, historical documents and an outstanding display of Alaskan artifacts.  

You can taste the flavor of the Gold Rush in The Pioneers' Home, fronted by a 13-foot statue of The Prospector.  The Prospector, a 13-foot statue molded from three tons of clay and covered in bronze, commemorates the old gold miner.  An old pioneer, William "Skagway Bill" Fonda, served as the model for the statue.          

The Pioneers' Home, and its native Alaskan gardens, are located on the site of the old Russian parade grounds overlooking the harbor  It is interesting to talk with the residents, rugged old "sourdoughs" who pioneered this last  frontier.  On one side of the home is the old Russian Cemetery, dominated by a replica of an old Russian Blockhouse.  Some of the oldest names in Sitka history are on the crumbling "Russian grave markers. There is a gift shop on the lower level of the Home stocked with the handicraft of these senior citizens of our 49th state.



To the other side is Castle Hill, commanding a sweeping view of the city and Sitka Sound.  This historic land was the original site of the early stronghold of the Kiksadi Clan of the Tlingit Indians.  It was then followed by a succession of Russian "castles".  The last one, "Baranof's Castle", was built in 1836 and burned in 1894.  The old Russian cannons are still emplaced on this site where the flag of Czarist Russia gave way to the Stars and Stripes on October 18, 1867.  It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962.

Sitka National Historical Park, or Totem Park, protects the Indian Fort site and commemorates the 1804 Battle of Alaska between the Russians and the Tlingit Indians.  Stroll along the original spruce and hemlock needle-padded trails leading to the site and view one of the finest collections of totem poles in the world.  Among them is the Fog Woman, tallest authentic totem in the world.             

St. Peter's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church is of special note to Jewish visitors because of the Star of David in the round glass window in the front of the church.  One version of the window story is that a cross was ordered for the window when the church was built some 100 years ago. When the window finally arrived in Alaska, 3 years after it was ordered, it mistakenly had a Star of David in its center.  The congregants were so happy to have an unbroken window that they decided to keep it as it was.     


In Sitka, the picture-postcard port that is a living reminder of the days of Imperial Russia's reign over Alaska, you'll lose yourself in the centuries-old tradition of both the Russians and the Tlingit Indians.  In every nook and cranny of this history-filled port of call,  there are reminders of its rich and vivid past.            

If only the rainbow-colored totem poles, so intricately carved by the Tlingit Indians, could talk.  Who knows what they could possibly tell us?

JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant affiliated with The Travel Authority, Mariemont/Cincinnati, Ohio office.

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