Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Consider yourself lucky if your ship stops here. The lack of a cruise ship dock (all but very small cruise ships anchor and use lighters to send passengers ashore) and a slightly off the beaten path location make for a much more mellow downtown environment than you will find in other major Alaska cruise ports. Additionally, Sitka is easily your most historic port.
When Juneau was woods and snow and Ketchikan was a summer village of the Tlingit people, Sitka residents enjoyed theater, fine wines, and all the riches that the sea otter trade provided her Russian residents. It was a trade based on the unwilling participation of the native people. In the Aleutian Islands, for example, the Promyshlenniki, as the Russian fur traders were called, had no qualms about destroying villages if the Aleut residents didn’t catch and skin sea otters for them.
At Sitka, the proud Tlingit people cared little for the Russians, and in 1802 they destroyed the first Russian outpost, north of the present town site. Two years later the Russians returned with three ships and many Aleut mercenaries in kayak-like bidarka boats. Finally routing the Tlingits, the Russians reestablished Sitka on the site of the Tlingit village, Shee Atika. For much of its Russian history, Sitka’s leader was Aleksandr Baranov, who established schools for the Tlingits and made Sitka the trading capital of the northwest coast. These were prosperous years when Sitka was the busiest port on the entire west coast of North and South America. Fortunately for the Americans, the Russians’ enlightenment didn’t extend to conserving the valuable fur resource, for once the sea otter had been slaughtered almost to extinction, financial reverses made the Russians willing to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million, about 2 cents an acre, which they did in 1867.
After the Americans took over, Sitka slowly evolved into a sleepy fishing and logging town until World War II when the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians triggered a massive navy operation near where the site of the present airport, with a huge influx of sailors.
In more modern times, Sitka’s economy pretty much depended on the big plywood mill out in Sawmill Cove, and commercial fishing. The closure of the mill in 1992 was a substantial financial blow. But instead of languishing, Sitka experienced sort of a slow renaissance based on the arts, and to a lesser degree, tourism.
Today, having missed the booms and busts of the gold rush, Sitka, way out on the ocean side of Baranof Island, is the cultural center of Southeastern Alaska. Yet Sitka offers more than museums and vistas: Go fishing; If you have any inclination to try for a salmon or halibut, Sitka is an excellent place to go out on one of the charter vessels. The city’s unique position on the outside coast and the strong runs of king and silver salmon make the chances of getting a fish here very high. Such a trip is also an opportunity to see close-up the dramatic coast of Alaska and its sea life and wildlife.
Jet boats: Advances in vessel design and propulsion at Sitka’s Allen Marine have made an unusual experience available here: the high-speed jet boats. Propelled by water jets (essentially large pumps) rather than conventional propellers, these impressive craft allow passengers to travel quickly to places such as Salisbury Sound, 25 miles north of town. The abundant wildlife populations make it likely you’ll see a whale, bear, or sea otter (today protected by federal law).
The Sheldon Jackson Museum: In his travels through the state as education agent, Dr. Jackson acquired a remarkable collection of native art and historical artifacts. Even if you have seen other such displays, you will find this collection unusually complete and worth seeing. The Aleut and Eskimo exhibits are particularly fascinating, with material such as rain gear made of walrus intestines.
Sitka National Historical Park: If you didn’t get to Totem Bight or Saxman at Ketchikan and want to get a good view of totem poles, this is a close-to-downtown opportunity to do so. Set among trees in a dramatic walk along the shore, the 15 totems are “recarves” of poles collected from Prince of Wales Island at the turn of the century. Cedar totems have a life of about 100 years outside exposed to the elements.
The Russian Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Cathedral: Both downtown, these are culturally rich elements of Sitka’s Russian period. The Bishop’s House is the original 1842 structure; the cathedral is a replica of the one destroyed by fire in 1966 (much of the artwork was saved).