I’m visiting the largest city in the USA. No I’m not in New York. I’m in Sitka, Alaska. There are fewer than 9,000 people living in here, but the city’s boundary takes in almost 3,000 square miles, making it America’s largest by area. And Sitka has a few more surprises up its sleeve. It used to be part of Russia and today it still feels very different from the rest of the country. Everywhere you go you’ll notice both Russia’s influence and the importance of the original Tlingit people, who first settled here 10,000 years ago.
Sitka is on an island on Alaska’s Pacific coast and was recently named as one of the twenty top small towns to visit in America. Tonia Roux of Sitka’s tourist board has reason to be proud of her town. “Sitka is an amazing community. We hear from people that it’s one of the most beautiful places that they have ever visited,” she smiled.
I arrived at the ferry terminal of the Alaskan State Highway. It’s not a road, despite the name, but a lifeline ferry network linking Southeast Alaskan communities. You can’t get to Sitka by road – there’s only 14 miles of tarmac highway on the island. You can only visit by sea or air. Arriving by water is the best way to appreciate Sitka’s stunning setting, amongst soaring Sitka Spruce trees which run down to the Outside Passage shoreline. The view is framed by high mountain peaks including Mount Edgecumbe. The snow-capped peak of this dormant volcano rises almost 1,000 metres.
Later I caught up with local radio broadcaster Ken Fate who perfectly captured my first impression of his town. “Sitka is in one of the most beautiful geographical settings in the world,” said Ken. “You get the impression that it’s right next to the mountains, which are covered with trees, and you’ve got hundreds of islands just off the coast. It’s just gorgeous.”
There’s a friendly, small-town feel to the main street and 22 of its buildings are listed on America’s Register of Historic Places. Instead of chain stores, there are upmarket galleries, fur shops and the brilliantly named chocolatier, Chocolate Moose. Ken told me, “For the most part they are all stores that need to be attractive to both the tourists and to people who are here all year round. A couple close for the winter but most remain open.”
The windows of Grandfather Frost’s Russian Christmas Shop are filled with brightly coloured nesting dolls – a reminder of Sitka’s Russian past. The Russian trader Baranof sailed here in 1799 and snatched the settlement from the native peoples, naming it Archangel. But the original residents weren’t happy and soon attacked his fort. He retaliated with reinforcements and declared it the capital of Russian America.
The gold, logging, shipping, fishing and fur trades brought huge wealth and earned Sitka the nickname, ‘Paris of the Pacific.’ But Russia sold the state to the USA because of financial problems in 1867. A 60-foot high rock outcrop, Castle Hill, was at the centre of many of important events in US and Alaskan history, according to Hal Spackman from Sitka’s Museum. “Castle Hill is a place where they lowered the Russian flag and hoisted the American flag,” said Hal. “They had the ceremony there and every year we re-enact that on Alaska Day.”
Despite 150 years as part of the USA, Russian connections remain strong. There are still relatives of the original Russians living in the town and a lot of the Alaskan native people are related to them in some way. “The Russians brought Aleut people here and they had a lasting influence,” said Hal. “So were there any Cold War issues?” I asked. “Probably the opposite,” replied Hal. “The Russian people view Sitka as an interesting place, important in their history. When you talk to a Russian about Sitka their eyes light up and many want to visit.”
Tonia Roux of the tourist board says the town’s appearance has been shaped by its Russian past. “If you’ve not seen a Russian Orthodox cathedral, with its ‘onion’ domes, then you can experience one at St Michael’s Cathedral here. It’s still a working church. The majority of the congregation is Alaskan native because they have been here since the 1800s.”
The church was constructed by a Siberian-born priest, who had followed the fur traders from Russia. He wanted to convert residents to Christianity. Sub Deacon Herman told me that there was some resistance. “It wasn’t until a flu epidemic that things got better. They were trying to use shamanism to heal themselves and it wasn’t working. The Russians had Western medicine, so the locals finally gave in and that healed the relationships as well. Many priests left Alaska during the Russian Revolution but locals kept the church going. Services are now predominantly in English but there are still some in Russian and the native Alaskan Tlingit language.”
Today visitors can tour the church and admire the lavish gold-decorated interior, which includes a huge chandelier. But what you see today is actually a reconstruction. “The church burned down in 1966,” the Deacon explained. “The steeple caught alight and it started burning from the top down. But everything inside was saved. Hundreds of locals rushed to the church and removed items including the chandelier, which weighed 700lb. The rescuers spoke of the building collapsing around them as they pulled out the artefacts. It took ten years to rebuild but they had the original blueprints, so it’s an exact replica. People who visited before 1966 say they can’t tell the difference.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about the Tlingit people, the area’s first inhabitants, you can admire twenty totem poles set in temperate rain forest just outside town. Their carvings use local wildlife shapes, such as eagles, to identify who carved them. Every pole has its own phone number – you can call it to discover its heritage! “They are beautiful woods and there’s a beautiful river,” Ken enthused. “You can walk for around two miles without retracing your steps.”
Sitka’s gold mining industry is long gone, but recreational and commercial fishing remains important. I spoke to Ashley Moore, operator of Ashmo’s, the popular taco food van on the main street. “Even though I work with fish I don’t get tired of king salmon. I could fish for it all day long!” he told me. You can book a trip to catch king salmon, Pacific halibut, Alaska rockfish and ling.
The Sitka Sound Science Centre is a not-for-profit salmon hatchery that you can visit to learn about the local marine wildlife. Director Lisa Busch showed me around. “Alaska is the only state in North America that has sustainable salmon written into our constitution,” said Lisa proudly. “We feel strongly that wild caught salmon is the best. It’s good for the environment, it’s the healthiest and it’s the tastiest to eat – it’s delicious!”
The Science Centre offers a chance to see how salmon hatcheries differ from fish farming, which is banned in Alaska. “We raise salmon to a certain age – a bit like a pre-school for salmon,” joked Lisa. “Then we send them out into the blue yonder. They live their life in the wild.” There’s an impressive skeleton of a killer whale on display too. “It was found by a couple of local boys on an island near to town. They came back very excited,” said Lisa. “School pupils helped to get all of the oil out of the bones and it was then put back together.”
The centre aims to connect the whole ocean ecosystem and you’re encouraged to put your hands in the touch tanks. “Everything is local. You can see things like this sea cucumber at our tide pools,” explained Lisa. “They’re edible and are sold into the Asian market although they’ve also been a delicacy here too. The native people say ‘when the tide is out, our table is set!’” There’s lots of good seafood for all budgets in Sitka. “Fish and chips is good because it’s local stuff,” Ken told me.
If you’d like some great American diner food, do what the locals do and visit The Nugget. It’s in an unusual location – at the local airport. It’s across a bridge, on a small island. There’s good local beer on tap around town too. Rick and Suzan Armstrong have operated the Baronof Island Brewing Company since 2010. Rick used to travel for business but was unable to carry beer home when the restrictions on carrying liquids on planes was introduced. So the couple set up their own brewery and tasting room, open in the afternoons.
“We missed craft beer, made with love, and so we decided that was something Sitka needed,” explained Suzan. The beer is good and features some distinctive local tastes. “When we have spruce tips available we make a spruce beer,” Suzan told me.
Sitka is a well respected arts enclave. It’s home to a nationally recognised fine arts summer camp but there’s a lot for visitors too. “It’s a really strong art scene and is quite charismatic as well,” Tonia explained. “We have ‘Arty Gras’ in March. That’s several weeks of wearable art shows, arts activities, classes and plays running at the same time as the fine arts camp. We also have the Sitka Summer Music Festival. World-renowned chamber artists come here for a full month. There are evening concerts and free lunches where you can take your sandwiches.”
But for many people, Sitka means outdoor pursuits. Ashley recommended hiking to the top of Mount Verstovia, which looks down over the town. It’s a difficult trail that climbs 3,300 feet and passes through sub-Alpine meadows and high ridges, where bald eagles soar overhead. Ashley’s brother Nathan suggested hiking in the woods. “The scenery out here, the forest, is really beautiful.” But he also warned to be prepared for encountering bears. “Stay out of the rivers when the salmon are running upstream because it attracts the bears. There aren’t a whole lot of maulings here, but they are unpredictable animals.”
Bear sightings are quite common in Alaska, something I know from personal experience. Only a week earlier, while I was walking along a suburban road in the state capital, Juneau, a bear walked out of the woods around thirty feet in front of me. It scared the living daylights out of me, but thankfully he just took a look at me and carried on walking.
Nathan explained how to identify the different types. “You have your inland grizzlies, which are smaller, and the brown bears. The coastal brown bears are huge, because they have so much food and they kind of run the show. You have to respect them. I would say if you see a bear keep away from it. Don’t treat it like it’s a sideshow.”
“You don’t want to startle them especially if they have cubs around,” warned Nathan. “You’re in trouble if you find yourself between a mother and her cubs! The trick is to make sure they know you’re there. I put up a Bluetooth speaker on my backpack and play music or I talk while I’m walking. If they hear you they will stay away.” People also take bear spray which is like a mace and is available in large cans to spray and deter the bears if they attack you. Bears should be expected. Ken had told me earlier that, “You can walk from my house and within minutes you’ll see a grizzly bear.”
If you want to see these beautiful animals, but don’t want the surprise, you can see grizzly’s and browns that are being rehabilitated at Fortress of the Bear, just outside town. I met with Claire Turner and instantly recognised the accent. She relocated with her husband Chris from Devon when she completed her studies in animal behaviour at Exeter University.
“I really developed this passion for bears during my studies, but it’s tough to work with them in the UK. So we decided to go further afield and ended up here in Sitka,” explained Claire. Fortress of the Bear is a small, not–for–profit rescue organisation dedicated to homing orphaned black and brown bear cubs from across the state of Alaska. Claire said the alternative for the cubs is grim. “When the mother bear comes down to a town or village and she gets into trouble, such as being hit by a car or she eats plastic waste, then the state will normally euthanise the cubs. There is no program in place to raise the cubs and get them strong and in a good enough state to release them back into the wild. It’s a shame and a waste of an amazing Alaskan resource,” said Claire.
Claire and Chris volunteered for two months in 2012 and fell in love with the project. Chris told me, “It’s so much fun being out here and watching these bears and seeing how they interact with each other. Bears are very smart animals and require a lot of stimulation. We spend much of our time inventing new food and toys to keep these guys amused. They are really agile and dexterous.”
I got to hand feed the bears too. They were really gentle – taking the food from my hands using their lips. As I fed the bears Chris told me, “They have been proven to be more intelligent than dogs. They know their names and they can follow certain commands. They open their mouths when we ask them, so we can check their teeth. And we can make them stand up on command to check their hips. They are very intelligent animals. Being in the wild and being mainly solitary they have to be problem solvers.”
There’s another popular wildlife centre just down the road. “If you are only in Sitka for a day, the Alaska Raptor Center is worth a visit,” Tonia told me. It’s an animal rehabilitation facility where they provide medical care to bald eagles and other birds of prey that have been injured, before releasing them. I was surprised to walk in and find a northern pygmy owl, named Petie, sitting next to the reception chair. He had suffered a broken wing so can’t fly very well.
Each year 25,000 visitors are able to get close to the birds and enjoy the owl display. We wandered outside to talk to Debbie Reeder, the director of the centre. “I think people really love our mission,” she told me. “It gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling. We rehabilitate birds and return them to the wild. We also have 25 permanent residents birds. People get to meet them and learn more about them.” And although the centre specialises in birds of prey, they will treat all kinds of birds. “We’ve had everything from hummingbirds to swans,” said Debbie.
We were standing on a raised decking area looking down towards the forest and river. I could see three bald eagles and I was keen to hear their story. “All those birds are missing part of their wings,” said Debbie. “One of them collided with a power line when it was young. Two of them are gunshot victims. The birds will be rehabilitated as far as they can. But when they are missing part of a wing all we can do is feed them every day and make them happy,” she added.
They didn’t seem concerned about the presence of people. “They realise very quickly that we are not going to hurt them. We don’t get any closer – people stand at the deck rail and watch.” The centre is open all year round and offers organised tours from May to September.
Davey Lubin has been in Sitka for 34 years. He grew up just outside Washington DC and fell in love with the area when his parents brought him to Alaska on a trip in 1981. He’ll take you out on the sea or into the countryside to spot incredible sea or birdlife. “This is a wildlife paradise,” he beamed. “There is so much here – several species of whales that we regularly see, porpoises, seals, sea lions, amazing seabirds including puffins. There are eagles and other raptors, like peregrine falcons as well as bears, deer and salmon of course. We also have sea otters, land otters and mink.”
But Davey is clear about his most memorable wildlife sighting. “I went on an evening trip and we were the only boat out on the sound. There was a humpback on its own, feeding on the surface. It was a smooth ocean with amazing evening light and the mountains were all lit up pink with the glow from the setting sun. Every time it lunged up with an open mouth, a harbour porpoise would dive through its jaws. We watched this for a long time.” Another important species to spot in the area are the killer whales. “Once we saw them trying to take down a humpback. That was a powerful experience.” said Davey. “We’ve seen them take sea lions and porpoises and play ping-pong with birds!”
In addition to boat trips, Davey is permitted to take people ashore in the National Forest and State Parkland. Almost all of the land is public, created in 1907 by Teddy Roosevelt. “It’s the largest National Forest in the whole of the United States and covers 17 million acres,” explained Davey. Davey has a website PuffinsAndWhales.com where you can get more details of his tours.
Everyone I spoke to clearly loves this beautiful island. And it’s not surprising. Ken told me, “This area rivals any of the most beautiful places on earth. It attracts people who want to spend their lives in a remote and beautiful place. And they’ve created a really special community. People stop and smile and talk and help each other.”
While many people experience Sitka on a short shore trip from the many cruise ships that ply the Alaskan waters, I’d say that it’s worth discovering at your own pace. Come and stay for a few days. Tonia told me that their busiest months are from May to September, when the cruise lines are in, but there are year-round activities on offer. Some communities in Alaska are heavily focused on the summer season. Shops shut and people move out in the winter. Sitka is open and operational throughout the year.
The fastest way to reach Sitka is by flying the ten hours from the UK to Seattle, then catching a connecting two-hour flight to the city. Alaskan State Highway ferries link Sitka with a number of towns along the Alaskan coast.