The countdown continues — 148 days to go!
My focus today is Sitka (our second port stop). We’ll hit this charming town on August 9. Sitka was originally home to the Tlingit (pronounced Klink-it) Native Americans, then the colonial capital (named New Archangel at the time) of the Russian empire, and the one-time capital of Alaska. It’s now a commercial fishing center, not as tourist-y as Juneau and Ketchikan (cruise ships only started visiting Sitka regularly in 2013), and the Alaska State Trooper academy is here. Yes, I took a photo with one of the troopers on a previous visit. I love this little town (population about 9,000). If I were moving to Alaska, Sitka would be it for me.
We’ll be the only ship in town (yay!) and have 8 hours to wander and explore. We’ll be at the Old Sitka Dock, which means no tendering (boo – taking the 15 minute boat ride to town is one of my favorite things to do.) The OSD is about 5 miles north of Sitka, and it’s about a 15 minute (free) shuttle ride to downtown. Once downtown, many of Sitka’s attractions are within easy walking distance – Castle Hill, Sitka National Historic Park, St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House. And lots of weathered house, colorful fishing boats. You’ll get a real feel for a working harbor town!
Although we arrive at 8:00 a.m., get up in time to get out on deck and watch our approach. There will be some gorgeous views of Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano.
If history is your thing, consider these:
Sitka National Historic Park (https://www.nps.gov/sitk/index.htm) – a small visitor center with information and exhibit on native culture with easy walking trails. Do walk the short forested trail that follows the shoreline. Lots of totem poles and great views. You can pretty much do the whole thing in a hour or so, depending on how many photos you stop to take!
The Russian Bishop’s House (http://www.alaska.org/detail/russian-bishops-house), which has been restored and is home to Russian-American artifacts (everything from animal pelts to religious icons!), photos and information.
Castle Hill – or more properly, the Baranof Castle State Historic Site (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/southeast/baranofcastle.htm). It’s here the documents were signed that officially gave Alaska to the U.S. back in 1867. Walk to the top (there’s both stairs and a trail) and you’ll be rewarded by great views. No castle (actually it was the Governor’s mansion though he never lived there) – that was destroyed by fire in 1894 – but some old cannons and flags and lots of information. Russian artifacts are still being found here. Not a must-see, but great to do if you’re into history or if you have a little extra time, and it’s free.
St. Michael’s Cathedral. Smack dab in the middle of town, the contrast between this peaceful holy place and the souvenir shops across the street always amuses me. The church is small, but has some lovely old icons (including one miraculous one), religious items and artwork. There’s a small donation/fee to go inside ($5 dollars).
The Sheldon Jackson Museum (http://museums.alaska.gov/sheldon_jackson/sjhome.html) crams so much into a small space, that you can spend hours here. And I did. What I enjoyed about this museum was that artifacts were grouped by category, not by culture. It’s fun to compare Tlingit, Aleut and Inuit (Eskimo) tools, clothing, toys, etc. Since most of the collection was acquired around the turn of the century (the 1900 one, not the 2000 one – lol) you can see the impact of the Russian/European culture on the materials and styles on the native population The staff is amazing – take time to talk and ask them questions. In my opinion, this is a must-see.
Wildlife and nature:
Must mention whale watching. Sitka is (in my opinion) the best place to whale watch – not because there are more whale, but because in addition to humpbacks and orcas, seals, sea lions and birds, there’s a great chance of seeing sea otter and puffins. Book a ship’s excursion or directly with Allen Marine (http://allenmarinetours.com/). Or if you want to go all out for a personal experience, take the Esther G Sea Tours and Taxi (https://www.puffinsandwhales.com/). Captain Davey is passionate naturalist, extremely knowledgeable and a born storyteller. If it’s related to Sitka Bay and its wildlife, he knows it. Small boat (6 people), so no trying to take photos around other people’s elbows and heads. His 4 hour tour includes the St. Lazaria Island Wildlife Refuge.
For bear watching, there are two good options. The first is guaranteed – Fortress of the Bear (http://www.fortressofthebear.org/). This is actually a bear-rescue organization that takes in orphaned bears. Raised platform walkway so you can see them eat, play and interact with the human caretakers. And given that bears are messy eaters, there are plenty of eagles hanging around too. You can combine this with the nearby Alaska Raptor Center (https://alaskaraptor.org/) which treats and rehabilitates injured birds (eagles, owls, hawks, falcons).
The other option is driving or taking a tour to Herring Cove. The bears hang out here in August and early September to feast on salmon. Some lovely views too!
And if none of that floats your boat (ha ha), there’s hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and so much more. I’ve scratched the surface here, so hop around the web and do some investigating!
We spent today aboard a ship nearly devoid of passengers, as most of them went ashore to spend the (overcast but dry) day in Sitka. There is something to be said for roaming about with a ship nearly entirely to ourselves – quiet, peaceful and lots to see.
We saw no whales from the ship, but there were several seals, heads periodically bobbing above the water. If they managed to catch themselves something to eat, down would swoop the seagulls, hoping for a scrap to scavenge. Also swooping in for a piece of the (salmon) pie, were eagles. One poor seal had to fight off 3 seagulls and 2 eagles to keep his breakfast.
A never-ending parade of boats — fishing boats heading in and back with their catch, tour boats picking up and returning passengers, personal boats with owners and the occasional dog running into town with errands — we saw it all from the Sea View pool (best vista on the ship!).
Almost felt guilty eating lunch with all the activity in the water around us. Almost but not quite!
And my drink today
Then back to the cabin to relax for a bit (because we’d worked so hard today) before changing for dinner. We’ll be checking out the new Sel de Mer.
Tonight’s Dining Room menu
It was a windy and wet day in Sitka. There were plenty of folks that made it to the gangway, turned around and came back aboard the Maasdam. Karin had arranged for a private car with Sitka Tours, and so Karin, Karen and I headed off the ship where we were hit with a downpour and wind. I think we were all soaked by the time we reached the terminal building. Lots of rain ponchos flapping uselessly in the wind.
We were met by a wonderful driver, Carlos, who took us anywhere we wanted to go. We decided to go from end to end of the 14 mile road system in Sitka, before settling in for lunch and a bit of shopping. It was actually much less windy in town than it was at the dock, though just as wet. A mild day, about 58, so it much like being home in Seattle. Although the reports from home were sunny and warm.
We came back aboard the Maasdam about 2:00 and the wind was gusting right along.
It was quite an exercise in skill to get us out of Sitka. With the winds continuing at 40+ miles per hour, the bow was being pushed toward the dock, and images of the Celebrity ship crashing into the dock at Ketchikan flashed through our minds. I’m thoroughly impressed by the caliber of all HAL captains, and Capt. Arnott is no exception. He cut the rear thrusters and slowly, slowly inched the ship backward using only the bow thrusters, turned the Maasdam around and off we went.
We are going to be taking a slightly different route to Victoria, swinging into the Dixon Entrance and Hecate Strait south of Ketchikan and going inside the Queen Charlotte Islands rather than outside as originally scheduled. We’ll be fighting a headwind all the way, and it’s doubtful we’ll arrive at Victoria on time on Sunday. With the head wind, we’re only doing 14 knots, and that just isn’t fast enough to get us there on time. But weather can change, so we’ll see. Although rumor has it that the Westerdam (? or whichever HAL ship is supposed to be in Sitka) is skipping Sitka tomorrow due to the weather.
Our get-together (the second to last) was quite bouncy, and it wasn’t because of the free bottle of wine we were given to apologize for our wet cabin this morning. The ship is really rolling, listed to one side as the wind pushes against the hull. We opted not to go to the Pinnacle Grill tonight as I’m not sure I want to stagger down the hallway or watch my Pinnacle Grill dinner go sliding across the table.
So it’s very nice to grab a few light nibbles from the Neptune Lounge (I could get used to that!) and picnic in our cabin, with my fanny seated firmly on the bed!
The docking process in Sitka – being a first for all concerned, I’m guessing – was slow and careful (as it should be), but we were docked and ready to go ashore by 7:00.
Again we were blessed with beautiful weather – sunny and mid 50s. Sitka and Sitka Sound are lovely. Even though we docked a fair ways out from the center of town (considering there’s only 16 miles of road on the whole island, it isn’t really far to anywhere!), I like watching working boats, marinas and mechanical things.
Karin and I took a ship’s excursion, the Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest with Allen Marine. The St. Tatiana picked us up at the dock so we didn’t have to take the free shuttle to town. So up to the top of the St. Tatiana we went, and pretty much stayed up there the whole time. We saw sea otters, seals and humpback whales. Okay, actually it was the same whale (named Domino) who obligingly showed up 4 times, and hung around each time for everyone to snap his pic before showing us some tail and diving and resurfacing 6 minutes later for another photo op.
And after we left Sitka, heading south for Ketchikan with Baranof Island on our left and open ocean on the right, we saw at least a dozen whales heading north, slapping the water with their fins, spouting and flipping us some tail. Quite the send off!
Only in Sitka for 6 and half hours, but we still waited to hop on the tenders until after the first crush of people had left to catch their tours. We had no plans, just to go ashore and see some more of Sitka (which I think is my favorite city in Alaska).
As we stepped off the ship, we ran into Angeline More of More Taxi who had taken us around on a fabulous tour last time we were in Sitka in May. It felt like old home week to see her again. We chatted as she took us up to the Sheldon Jackson Museum and got caught up on the last couple of months.
Sheldon Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who collected and preserved native artifacts. He donated and helped raise funds to build the museum, the first concrete structure in Alaska, completed in 1897. The museum has over 4,000 artifacts, mostly collected between 1888 and 1900, from all of the native groups in Alaska. I love this little museum that is stuffed full of cool and unusual things.
After leaving the museum, we walked down to the Russian Bishop’s House, completed in 1843. Upstairs it was Bishop Innocent’s private quarters and chapel, while downstairs were church offices, a school for native children, and a seminary for native clergy. Lots of Russian Orthodox artifacts, and although being run and maintained by the National Park Service, it still has a hallowed feel.
A couple of houses down the street is the Sitka Rose Gallery, which offers native crafts, jewelry, paintings, etc. for sale. We stopped in and did a little shopping (only a little, honey, I promise!)
Then to the Dock Shack for a very late lunch – they have a wonderful seafood chowder and great halibut fish and chips – and as the rain, which held off all day, started to fall, we caught the tender back to the ship. Another latte, another mediocre score in team trivia (do you know what the mascot of McDonalds was before 1953? I do now!)
Our last stop in Alaska and we head south now, in the misting rain, with a day at sea tomorrow.