Stepping off an Alaska Airlines prop jet and onto the Sitka airport tarmac, I squinted in the brilliant sun. The surrounding snow-capped peaks, jagged cliffs and velvet green valleys shone with Technicolor beauty. Red fishing boats chugged merrily on the turquoise sea. A soft morning breeze carried the scent of ocean brine, fish and pine — the whiff of adventure.
I’d come to the Alaska Panhandle to visit my youngest son Tim, fresh out of college, who had taken a job at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp as a facilities manager. Now, in a role reversal, he had planned our trip, excited to share this new place. On my first night, a full moon burst through my window at the Gold Rush-era Sitka Hotel, casting a silver path across the quiet bay.
Sitka, an island community accessible only by plane or boat, is all about water — the rivers, the harbor and the vast Sitka Sound, where a few humpback whales stay year-round. (Most head to Hawaii.) “On a quiet day, you can hear them exhale from more than a mile away,” Tim told me. “When they come up to the surface, their tails wave at you, like mermaids, before they head back down.”
There were no whales on the morning that he and I kayaked the bay, gliding into coves, around tiny islands, over giant, fuzzy starfish and bright green sea anemones, and through wide ribbons of dark seaweed. Sea otters followed us, tumbling, flipping, giggling, floating on their backs and dipping playfully.
We beached on Japonski Island, named by the Russians in the 1800s for the Japanese fishermen who were once stranded there. Our outfitter, Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, had packed us a lunch of smoked salmon on thick slices of homemade bread, chewy ginger cookies and fresh lemonade.
We hiked through grassy dunes to find abandoned World War II bunkers and rusty equipment, a haunting graveyard of machinery. This shore was once America’s only defense installation in the North Pacific and now marks the entrance to the port.
Russians and bears
Once a vibrant center of international trade in fur, whale and salmon, Sitka was the gem of Russian Alaska and served as its capital (the name means “people of the island” in native Tlingit). In 1799, the Russians built a fort on Baranof Island, naming it for the first governor of Russian America, Alexander Baranov. After several years of bloody conflict with the Tlingit people, the Russians established the Russian-American Co. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Sitka remained Alaska’s capital until it moved 100 miles northeast to Juneau in 1906. In the center of town, St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral’s pale blue onion dome reflects the colors of sea and sky. Every Sunday, St. Michael’s offers services in Tlingit, Slavic and English.
Sitka’s shopping district is crammed between the town’s two stoplights near the harbor. We strolled through the Sitka Fur Gallery, which displayed a $5,000 sable jacket; a fudge shop with T-shirt-clad stuffed bears; the Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co. (the only U.S. sea-salt source); and the Harbor Book Shop, a warmly lit warren packed with Tlingit literature and travel guides. Its back door opens to a coffee shop. Standing in line one morning, I overheard conversations in French, German, Russian and Japanese, just as travelers would have in the 1800s, when Sitka was dubbed “the Paris of the Pacific.”
Alaska’s fourth largest city, Sitka is home to 9,000 humans and 4,500 bears, with the world’s first bear-cub orphanage, Fortress of the Bear. “Bears are as intelligent and responsive to humans as most dogs,” reads the brochure. Four brown and five black bear residents lounged in the ponds, scampered up tree limbs and chased, tumbled and wrestled one another. Once rehabilitated, the bears will head off to the Bronx Zoo and sanctuaries in Montana and Texas.
Viewed from a distance, these bears behaved like huge adorable teddies, but every time we left town, Tim grabbed a can of bear spray, even to bike along major roads.
Silver Bay is a challenging bike ride, with dips and swoops on a wide path above the cliffs. It leads to the Eastern Channel, home of Medvejie Fish Hatchery and Silver Bay Seafoods. In this sprawling fisherman-owned processing plant, fishing boats pull in and dock to unload. Near the shore, the water was glasslike, reflecting the cloudless sky and surrounding peaks. “It looks like the eagles are swimming upside down,” Tim said as we watched their reflections.
Riding back, we pedaled into the Alaska Raptor Center — 17 acres of protected natural habitat. The facility includes treatment rooms, classrooms, labs and a hanger-sized “flight room” where eagles regain their flight abilities before being released into the wild. In this enormous aviary, the huge birds swoop around trees, pluck salmon from a man-made waterfall, preen their feathers and squawk.
Nearby, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp draws more than a thousand middle and high school students, from across Alaska and the U.S., to classes in photography, ceramics, dance and music. Every July, the camp co-hosts the Sitka Arts and Science Festival with programs, workshops and lectures open to all. Adjacent to the campus, the Sheldon Jackson Museum is home to a vast collection of artifacts from each of Alaska’s native tribes, considered the best in the state. On display are coats, boots and bags of woven fish skin (lingcod) — beautiful and oddly contemporary.
The morning we visited, a young tattooed Tlingit artist was restoring a totem pole laid across a work table.
“Totem poles tell our legends and show our values,” he said, pointing to the carved figures — a baby riding on the back of a whale, a woman crouching on the shoulders of a bear. “The humans and animals — orcas, salmon and wolves — are all stacked on top of each other; they depict how interconnected all of us are.”
Catch and release
Salmon feeds Sitka’s economy as well as the locals and tourists. Eighty percent of the United States’ salmon comes from Sitka’s two processing plants; sport fishermen head out to the ocean for king and coho salmon June through August, and return to the Lower 48 with coolers of frozen fish. On every restaurant menu in Sitka, you’ll find salmon collars, salmon steaks, salmon tacos.
Tim knew exactly where to find the best seafood lunch. Ashmo’s food truck rumbles in around 11:30 a.m. daily, and we were always among the first in line. “The regular?” a pretty blonde at the truck’s window asked, handing over a dish of creamy smoked salmon mac and cheese. For me, the salmon collars were hard to resist. This bony cut from near the gills was marinated and grilled to be gingery-sweet and finger-licking fabulous.
Not surprisingly, the sport fishing is world-class. Our fly-fishing guide, Travis Pilling, returns each year from San Diego to work at Sitka Alaska Outfitters. The tall, rangy redhead, a blend of empathy and enthusiasm, taught us first-timers to toss out the fly in a 10 to 2 o’clock motion. We pulled on waist-high waders and boots and tramped down to a swift-moving river.
“More elbow, less windup, more flick,” Travis shouted. “Now, jig-jig the line back in.” Fat salmon lolled by, refusing to strike, although my fly hit a few on the head. These were pink or “humpie” salmon, named for their arched backs. As the sun dipped and shadows lengthened, my mind floated downriver with the clouds. Tim’s casts were effortless, and he soon caught fish after fish, unhooking and setting each free.
When I finally felt a strike, the rod nearly flipped from my hands. The salmon ran 60 yards, bending my pole low. I reeled the fish in, let it out, then in, and pulled it to the net Travis held. I slid my hand under the fish’s belly as Travis worked out the hook, and lowered the fish back into the water. “The fish’s gills must fill with water to retain balance,” he said. “Otherwise, she’ll drown.” With a flick, the fish was off. These salmon are swimming upriver and back to their birthplaces. A crucial link between the ocean and freshwater environment, they transport nutrients back into the rivers and keep the ecosystem in balance.
For our last night, Tim had secured a reservation to Ludvig’s Bistro several weeks in advance. This homey, softly lit place off the harbor evokes an Italian bistro with saffron walls and copper-topped tables and is always packed cheek-to-jowl. The menu of local fish, shellfish, vegetables, berries and hearth-baked breads is thoughtfully crafted and nicely matched to West Coast wine and local brews (such as Sitka Spruce Tip beer). Chef/owner (and former fisherwoman) Colette Nelson has earned stars from the New York Times and Fodor’s. She named the place for her beloved, late wolf hybrid, inspired by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
We celebrated our last night in Sitka, chatting with two women at the next table and our waitress, a Milwaukee transplant. When Colette stopped by, I gave her a pound of hand-harvested Minnesota wild rice. In return, she slipped us a small jar of her salmonberry jam.
The next morning, waiting for our plane to be called, I bought a Russian matryoshka. Like the pretty nesting doll, Sitka is many layers — wilderness, history, culture and science — all snugly packed into Baranof Island’s majestic shores.
Minneapolis writer Beth Dooley co-authored “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.”