In a state with so much emphasis on “the new,” it was nice to land in Sitka, where everything is old. Old land, old traditions, and ancient history. Man has been in Sitka for more than 8,000 years, and it is through oral history and documents from later settlers that we learn why this island along the Inside Passage is indeed a special place to visit on a family vacation.
Sitka’s geography is unique; settled on the west side of Baranof Island and the outer coast of the Inside Passage. Like Juneau, Sitka is accessible by air or sea, making it a charming example of survival of the Alaskan fittest. People rely on the Alaska Marine Highway System and Alaska Airlines for off-island sojourns, or on their own boats (almost every family owns at least one) for shorter excursions for fishing, camping, or visiting smaller communities dotting the coastline.
History practically whispers from every street corner in Sitka; from the carefully-preserved artifacts of Sheldon Jackson Museum to the beautiful but imposing view from Castle park, Sitka’s past indeed designated its future, and a visitor can’t help but become enraptured by the city’s legacy.
Sitka the city sprang up at the hands of Russian fur traders who landed in the area in the early 1800’s and were eventually walloped by the Tlingit natives who already resided in “Shee Atika” facing the sound. These Russians wanted both the land and the otter pelts that were the lifeblood of the Tlingit, and battle after battle, described admirably by the National Park Service at sites throughout the city, was fought to determine who would get the real estate. Eventually, though, everybody settled down to a rather uneasy existence together and, when the Tsar of Russia sold Russian America to the United States for a paltry $7 million, the community changed from fur-frenzied to a bit more diverse in its industry. The Russian and Tlingit influence, however, remains strong and bright today.
To see Sitka with kids, one needs only to begin at Centennial Hall off Harbor Drive downtown. Sitka is blessed with a number of walking paths, and Harbor Drive leads one right next to the Hall, where maps, totems, and a short video about Sitka’s history will provide a nice starting point. Plus, the marina is right next door, and our daily walks took us down and around the docks, looking at fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbing in their slips.
Continue east along Lincoln street and the harbor, letting kids play on the marine animal statues in the grassy strip while grownups take in the Russian Bishop’s House. This building is the site of a former orphanage and still has furnished living quarters inside, along with a small chapel. Admission is $4 for adults (I would spare the kids unless they really enjoy old houses, as it is quite lovely but fragile inside). Further east on Lincoln Street is the former Sheldon Jackson College campus, now closed except for special events, but housing the incredible Sheldon Jackson Museum, visible from the street. Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who felt compelled to integrate white ways into a heathen Tlingit people, but made a few friends along the way, leaving behind a fantastic display of his personal collection of artifacts, including drawer after drawer of Tlingit silverware, totems, ivory, and beads. Kids will enjoy trying their hand at basket-weaving or stamping, and the exhibits of Native Alaskan clothing and boats is quite impressive. Not a large museum, the facility takes up the rotunda of the original building, perfect for soon-to-be restless kiddos. Kids 18 and under are free, adults are $4. The museum is part of the wonderful Alaska State Museum list. We took a bit of time to run around the grassy quad and toss a frisbee before heading to our next adventure right across the street.
For a look under the sea, stop by the Sitka Sound Science Center across Lincoln Street from the college campus and meet the nearly all-volunteer staff who work hard to preserve and protect the health of Sitka Sound. A small facility and fish hatchery, the Center nonetheless provides an in-depth look into the importance of a healthy ecosystem beyond terra firma; an 800-gallon touch tank lets kids gently prod sea stars, sea cucumbers, chitons, and other beautiful examples of southeast Alaska’s briny depths. Outside, large tanks hold hatchery fish waiting to be released and a small stream provides returning salmon a spot for spawning and harvesting of eggs by hatchery staff and a host of volunteers (including many of the town’s children) in the fall. Admission is by donation ($5 is average), making this a worthwhile stop.
The beach is Sitka’s crowning glory for kids. When the tide is out the time is right, and AK Kid fairly frothed at the mouth to be able to turn over rocks and fling kelp every which way. Fortunately, low tide provides a perfect rocky trail of sorts to the Sitka National Historical Park, or simply “Totem Park” to the locals. Alaska’s oldest, and smallest, National Park, Totem Park is mysterious, beautiful, and a must-do. Established in 1910, Totem Park commemorates the Battle of Sitka that tok place on the point of land where the placid Indian River meets Sitka Sound. It only takes a little bit of imagination to travel back to the 1800’s and witness fierce fighting among the dense Hemlock and Spruce trees. Scattered among the trees (and so fun to find) are a collection of totem poles brought to Sitka by District Gov. John Brady in 1905 from all around southeast Alaska. Those poles needed a home, the park needed some artifacts, and everybody clearly won. Hike the loop trail, taking care to notice gnarled trees and spiny Devil’s Club among the totems, and listening for the chattering of eagles perched high above, waiting for salmon spawning in Indian river. It’s magic.
There’s more to our Sitka adventure, so stay in touch with AKontheGO to read about the incredible New Archangel Dancers, the Alaska Raptor Center, Native Tours, and a super family-friendly hike near Halibut Point. Oh, and the bears. We can’t forget the Fortress of the Bear.