6/21/19 The Sitka Hotel, Sitka, Alaska
There are three unique but interwoven stories to be told about this town. Although people could, and have, written books about the town, I only have three days here so making my small attempt at capturing this town will be modest. I’m still working on understanding the other two, historical stories, about Sitka, so I’m not quite ready to write about them yet. But I do think I have a pretty good understanding of the modern-day town so I can put down in words, my impressions.
We’re in southeastern Alaska – the panhandle – on this segment of the trip. The ecology has been the same throughout all of our stops – this is the maritime coastal forest. Everything you see in the panhandle displays one of two ecological systems. The mountain tops, which are everywhere, are pretty much barren, covered with tons of snow and the source of the glaciers which make this part of Alaska famous. They are treeless and, at best, sport stunted shrubs, and maybe some moss and lichen. At their altitudes (including many above 15,000 feet) nothing but glaciers can grow. At the lower elevations, the climax forest is a dense, wet rain forest of Sitka spruce, and western hemlock, with a scattering of cedar, and near rivers, maybe some black cottonwood trees. The heaviest rainfall on the North American continent occurs here amounting to more than 200 inches per year in some spots, turning into massive quantities of snow at the higher elevations.
We’ve seen four towns in the southeast ranging in size from Gustavus, struggling to survive with barely 400 people, up to Juneau, Alaska’s current capital, home to around 40,000 souls. Skagway has a winter-time population of just around 1200, but, supporting a million or more cruise ship passengers, it bustles with several times that in the summer.
Sitka, comes in with a nice number of around 8500 people. Although cruise ships do stop here, we haven’t seen as many of them, nor are they as big. Maybe Sitka, being on the outside edge of the Inside Passage, isn’t as attractive. Sitka certainly doesn’t harbor the jewelry stores of Juneau, with their street hawkers trying to maneuver you into the store to sell you overpriced trinkets. Nor does it present you with defined set of characters, dressed to play their roles, like Skagway does with the gold-rush. Yes, you can tell when the cruise ships are in port, but the town seems to do a better job at absorbing them. And despite its rich history, there is no obvious need to put on a show to entertain people with it. In fact, the only person I have seen ‘in costume’ here in Sitka, is someone leading a tour of, you guessed it, cruise ship passengers (you can tell them because they all wear lanyards with ID badges identifying their ship – it is like a large company lunch room!)
So, yes, Sitka is a tourist haven, but somehow it doesn’t seem to worship them. Maybe there is more of a balance in the economy. Fishing seems very important here and although a lot of it is sportfishing boats, chartered for ocean-going catches, a good number of these boats appear to be commercial. Unlike Skagway, for example, commercial fishing seems alive and well.
The Park Service has a definite presence here, with two locations in the town that are part of the Sitka National Historical Park, it doesn’t have a big enough presence to cause resentment like it does in Gustavus. There are multiple museums in town operated by the state, and the town, and in one case, a private organization. So there is much more of healthy balance here without the dominance of one cultural entity.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how much happier things are in Sitka are the restaurants. We have eaten at four different places here, and are adding another restaurant tonight. The food has been terrific at all four of them and, surprisingly, the prices are not outrageous. Sitka is easily the best bargain for food of any of our four towns. Joan has eaten salmon at least twice and a seafood marinara dish – every time she says it is the best fish she has ever had. I, of course, am allergic to fin fish, but I’ve enjoyed a reindeer sausage at Beak, Persian style lamb meatballs at Ludvig’s, and a reindeer stew and a bison chili here at the hotel. All of these meals have been excellently prepared and reasonably priced, running at least ten dollars less per entree than at our other stops.
There are a couple of places that might be worth seeing outside of town. There is a Bear Fortress that rescues injured bears and nurses them back to health before releasing them into the wild. And the town of Old Sitka (where the Russians originally settled) is several miles north of here. But mostly everything worth seeing in town is right here IN town. The National Historical Park is less than a mile from our hotel and all of the restaurants we’ve wanted to go to are right out the door. St. Michael’s Cathedral, and the Old Bishops House, are less than a half-mile away. If we might want to visit something outside of town, there is a town bus available. Sitka is a walkable town and there are several beautiful places to stay right here.
Sitka has history, and I will be talking about that in the next two posts. The ‘modern era’ might start in 1867 when the U.S. bought Alaska for 2 cents/acre from Russia. The deal was signed right here in Sitka. The Russian flag was lowered – apparently with some difficulty – from a flag pole raised on top of Castle Hill which is a mound overlooking the bay that happens to be right outside my window. Sitka was named the capital of the territory.
After the purchase of Alaska, the US didn’t do a whole lot with it for quite a while. Gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1896, and while that definitely affected the town of Skagway, it didn’t have much effect on Sitka at all. Maybe it served as a resupply port of sorts on the way up from Portland, Seattle, and British Columbia. But mostly, that traffic went by way of Juneau which explains why the capital was moved there in 1906.
Fishing and Lumber were the mainstays of the economy until recently. In 1959, Japanese investors started an effort to extract paper pulp from the Tongass Forest (one of the world’s largest forests), but that was closed in the 1990s. Fishing has always been important and commercial fishing employs 18% of the workforce. The port of Sitka is the sixth largest in production of seafood.
Today, the dominant industry is probably tourism, but as I’ve said, Sitka isn’t overwhelmed by it, like other panhandle towns. Sitka, although our last stop in the panhandle, has become our favorite.