Jerome Shea       December 21, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Grab your toothbrush—we’re hitting the road again. Unlike Belize, you won’t need your swim trunks, because this time we are going “North to Alaska.” Specifically, we are going to Sitka, one of my favorite places in all the world.

How does Shea know about Sitka? Because our son-in-law went to school there, at Sheldon Jackson College (now defunct). He stayed on, and he and our daughter started their married life there, on Monastery Street. Our two granddaughters were born there, and nursed by grizzly bears (ok, I made up that last part).

Sitka fronts the Pacific on the Alexander Archipelago, that string of islands in the southeastern part of the state that hugs Canada. With 8,000 people, it is the only settlement of any size on Baranof Island. The rest is mountain wilderness. The climate is very much like Seattle’s: a couple of relatively sunny months that freak out the citizenry, and the rest overcast and rainy. In the summer there are about 18 hours of daylight, in the winter, 18 hours of dark. It’s a gloomy place, more black and white than Kodachrome, but there are those who love it.

Sitka was the capital of Russian Alaska. In a famous battle, the Tlingit Indians under their leader, Katlian, chased the Russians out, but the Russians, avid for sea otter furs, fought back and re-established the town. Today there is the old Russian fort, the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Michael (rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1966), the Bishop’s House, and other reminders of early days.

There are bears in the woods and whales in the bay and you almost can’t get there from here. The airport does accommodate Alaska Airways jets, and there is the “Marine Highway,” the Alaska State Ferry Service. But it is costly and time consuming to get anywhere. There are two dead end roads out of Sitka: Halibut Point Road goes north about 16 miles and Sawmill Road goes south about 10 miles. Sitkans are always aware that they live on an island.

Sitka snapshots. Right downtown is the Sitka National Historical Park, which everybody knows as Totem Park because of the several magnificent totem poles that line the trails through it. Forests in Sitka are temperate rain forests. That means moss everywhere, fallen trees rotting patiently, ferns covering the forest floor. Everything on the verge of dripping. I have run many miles in Totem Park. Farther along on Sawmill—but before you get to Whale Park—and next to a restaurant dumpster, is the trailhead for Mt. Verstovia. Mt. Verstovia is only a couple of thousand feet high, a good two-hour slog. The one time I hiked it was in the fog, and I will never forget that magic. From the top you look down on Sitka harbor, Japonski Island where the airport is and, over on Kruzof Island, Mt. Edgecumbe, a ringer for Mt. Fuji.

Bear bells are standard equipment when hiking in Alaska and I dutifully rang mine every hundred yards or so, hoping mama bear would hear it and fade into the brush—that’s the idea, anyway—and we would have no awkward encounters. I never have come upon an Alaskan brown bear (aka the grizzly bear, the very aptly named ursus horribilis) and I count that a blessing. In the lobby of the Rocky Gutierrez Airport is a huge stuffed grizzly, posed feasting on a moose carcass. Believe me, the sight of a grizzly, even a safely dead one, will set your knees knocking.

A few years ago, we all converged on Sitka for Christmas. The sun would come up around 10 in the morning and begin to set about 3:30. It was a kind of pearly darkness, though, which you could navigate through. Every morning about 8 I would head for the little Baranof Street Market (taking a shortcut through a cemetery) and get yesterday’s Anchorage paper, some fruit for the girls or (if I thought I could get away with it) some donuts. A wonderful, contemplative way to start the day. One afternoon, son Dan and I made a pilgrimage to the Russian Cemetery, a different cemetery and much older. It occupies a heavily forested hill just north of Old Sitka. Sitka spruce, upright and fallen, are the order of the day along with the moss and ferns. Graves are sunken and skewed in earth that hasn’t been dry for a thousand years. Gravestones are often broken and barely legible. It is a truly sepulchral place, a place of long thoughts.

Well, after that whiff of mortality we hied ourselves to the Pioneer Bar down on Katlian Street (wouldn’t you?) and a couple of hours later we tottered home in the rain, brimming with Holiday cheer.

Hope you are, too. Happy Holidays.

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