Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sitka: Russia’s Colonial Capital of Alaska, Now Largest City in the U.S.

Tuesday, July 27

Sitka, with Mt. Edgecombe in background
How’s this for a jolt back to civilization … we saw our first automobile in more than two weeks when we cruised into Sitka.

I had high expectations for this scenic and historic stop. My biggest disappointment … we didn’t allow ourselves more time to explore.

Sitka Harbor
Sitka has it all. An exotic Russian history. A rich Native culture. A beautiful setting among forested islands, with a view overlooking Mt. Edgecombe, a dormant volcano. There’s a dynamic arts community here … spanning Russian, native and American heritage. A great harbor. And LAND … with 4,710 square miles, it's the largest city in the U.S. by area.

It was named capital city of Russia’s colonies in 1808 (specifically because it was the center for fur trade in the region), and as a consequence, is where Alaska’s history as a U.S. territory began. Which leads me to a question I’ve been asking ever since we landed in Alaskan waters … why did Russia ever sell this amazing piece of land called Alaska to the United States back in 1867?  In hindsight, I’m sure they’ve kicked themselves up and down for that transaction as well … especially during the Cold War era.
Holland America's two ships in Sitka harbor

With a population just shy of 9,000, Sitka, like most cities in Alaska, thrives on tourism. But it’s not as obnoxious as Juneau or Ketchikan. For one, the cruise ships have no docks in town. They anchor in the channel and shuttle passengers in, which I suspect cuts down on both the number of cruise ships that come in as well as tourists.

Totem in Sitka National Historical Park
Second, Sitka recognizes the importance of its history and culture, and puts its colonial/native pedigree to good advantage. It boasts more than 20 locations on the National Register of Historic Places, including seven National Historic Landmarks.

We particularly enjoyed the 107-acre Sitka National Historical Park. 100 years old, it’s Alaska’s oldest national park area, and on Thursday afternoon we walked the 2-mile trail that runs through its rain forest along the beach of Sitka Sound and the banks of the Indian River. The trail sits on the site of the 1804 attack by the Russians on the Tlingits (retaliation for the 1802 massacre by the Tlingits of the Russians), and is lined with, 18 beautifully carved totems, each commemorating historical evens, family ancestors, clan stories, or individual clan members.

Russian orthodox church
We also visited the Russian Bishop’s House which is filled with artifacts from Russia’s territorial occupation and fur trading era in Alaska. It is sadly striking to consider how much blood was shed over sea otter pelts.

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Engelenbak is a custom-built 62-foot steel trawler ... designed to cruise anywhere in the world.