Sitka, Alaska: An Island Apart
We took a 2-1/2-hour plane trip south from Anchorage to explore Sitka, the capital of Russian America in the early 1800s. The municipality covers most of Barankof Island, which rises from rain forests along the coast to snow-capped mountains in the interior.
For more than a century, from the 1740s until the 1860s, Russian fur traders, priests and settlers plied the coast of Alaska, setting up trading posts from California to the Bering Sea. Despite conflicts with the local native Aleut peoples, the Russian put down roots, creating permanent settlements flush with schools and Russian Orthodox churches and priests
The capital of this tenuous Russian outpost was Sitka, where the Russians repeatedly clashed with the native Tlingit people living there. The Russians brought in their true believers, including Bishop Innocent who oversaw his religious duties from a large house overlooking the bay.
In a replica of the original Russian Orthodox Cathedral, gold- and silver-encrusted icons speak of the glory of the past.
Weakened by the Crimea War, Russia had to sell its territory and, in 1867, held a formal ceremony in Sitka to hand it over to the United States.
The Russian legacy in Sitka, along with its lush rainforest environment, make it an interesting place to spend a few days. A National Historical Park now covers the site of an ancient Tlingit village and native totem poles emerge from the fog-covered forests along the path.
The year-round residents of the city have shown grit and imagination, carving softly sloping trails around the perimeter of town and steeper, stiffer challenges on the mountains that drop into the sea.
My brother-in-law Jerome visits Sitka frequently in his role as a member of the board of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The camp has restored several buildings of a former college and runs a vibrant summer program for children and adults with dance, music, painting and pottery.
The marina brings in pleasure boats as well as fishing boats that provide the economic backbone to the place. An occasional cruise ship docks in the waters off-shore and come onshore to view the sights.
In the distance, Mt. Verstovia, a dormant volcano looms.
During four days in Sitka, a notoriously rainy place, we found slivers of sunlight every day on the trails beneath its mountain peaks.
Biking in the Shadow of Giants
The solstice is fast approaching in Alaska and the days are virtually unending. We took advantage of the sun-filled days to bike across the Denali highway from Paxson to Cantwell, a 135-mile gravel-and-rock road that passed some of the most spectacular mountain vistas I have seen in Alaska. I drove the rig and the car with the bicycle rack, offering a rest and cooked meals along the route for all.
We drove five hours from Anchorage to get to the Denali Highway, determined to get some road time in before sunset. The four set off on the road at 8 p.m., pedaling uphill from forest to tundra until they caught up with me 12 miles ahead.
The intrepid cyclists, Mark, his two sisters, Janis and Margo, and his brother-in-law, Jerome.
The next day we continued west, against a backdrop of the Alaska Range and Amphitheater Mountains. The region was dotted with archeological sites from the hunting grounds of the first people who roamed there 12,000 years ago. Along with the craggy rough peaks, we found graceful trumpet swans swimming in beautiful lakes along the way.
There were a half-dozen or more places to stay overnight or get a meal along the 135-mile trip.This sod-and-horn-covered shelter was one of the places, next to the quaint Sluice Box bar.
We stopped at a couple of places to get water, including the Alpine Creek Lodge, where you can go out hunting and trapping in the wilderness year-round. Mark settled for a ping-pong tournament and handily defeated the father, the son and his best friend.
Bob, the 14-year-old son of the lodge owners, proudly showed off the muskrat and ermine pelts that he had trapped and put up for sale at the lodge.
Back on the road, the gravel got even more rocky and one of the tires blew a persistent hole. Roadside assistance amounted to whatever tools we had.
The isolation and sheer natural beauty all around us made this three-day journey extraordinary.
Unaware that we had busted a tire on our tow car we dragged it for miles down the highway.
As we look back, the busted tire appears as a small calamity on a breathtakingly beautiful road trip.
Life in Alaska
We’ve settled into the hillside home of my sister- and brother-in-law that overlooks Turnagain Arm on the south side of Anchorage. Here's the view from our kitchen.
Janis built the house by hand on a piece of property that bumps up against a state park with a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean and the snow encrusted peaks of the Alaska Range.
We’ve parked the Sprinter van in the yard and taken up residence in a small apartment that Janis and Jerome renovated for us. Here’s the gorgeous view from our place.
Wildlife is abundant around the neighborhood. Janis caught a photo of this black bear family munching on new leaves and shoots nearby. Needless to say, whenever we go out for a walk, we bring bear spray.
A moose calf recently gave birth to two babies near the house and when the dogs saw the moose, they started barking like crazy. This angered the protective mama moose, who charged at the dogs sending them flying, then she trotted off with her newborns. Check it out in the slide show below.
The dogs, Mack and Nelly, took a rest after that scare.
During long, long days with sunlight until nearly midnight, we have plenty of chances to get outdoors. One day we climbed a mountain ridge in the state park above Anchorage, then walked to the next couple of peaks.
We’ve had a few sunny days but it has been largely a cold and cloudy month. The seeds planted outside are slow to germinate and the seedlings barely grow at all. On May 28th, snow and hail fell in the heart of Anchorage.
Once the sun comes out, all the plants grow at the fastest rate I have ever seen. Check back in a couple of weeks to see more of the garden production!
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.