Discover uncrowded Alaska in Sitka

A long-lost local discovers Sitka's secrets by visiting it over and over again

St. Michael's Cathedral
Photo: Larry Ulrich

Water is everywhere in Sitka. It’s in the rivers, the rain, the Sound. But as beautiful as it all is, the ultimate spot is Silver Bay. The bay is so still that reflections make it look like bald eagles are swimming upside down in the ocean. A few humpbacks stay here year-round, forgoing the trip south to Maui made by most of Alaska’s whales. You can hear them exhale from more than a mile away. When they do finally appear, their tails cut the surface in the shape of folding hands.

No whales today, though. I wait, scanning the horizon until my skin is as wet as the rain-forest air. As I search, I notice the ravens in the tops of trees, making a sound like drippy faucets.

It makes me wonder what else I haven’t yet noticed. So it’s back in the car and on the road, where I pick up a hitchhiker who’d been camping in the woods for a week. He’s 20 years younger than I am and armed with a high-caliber rifle, not an uncommon sight in these parts.

We know the same people; we had the same teachers in school. Sitka never changes, but everything changes. He knows better spots for picking berries than I do, and when I drop him off, I get to see one of the new traffic lights. It’s oddly exciting. 

Sitka, I’m thinking today, is a town built like a matryoshka doll, histories nesting inside histories. Which does leave one question: What’s the smallest doll inside, the one everything else is based on? If the Russians built their church out of water, what did the Tlingit, who knew the place best, do with the landscape?

So I drive to the only place I can think of that answers that: Sitka National Historical Park. Totem Park, as locals call it, is a 10-minute walk from the cathedral. But that 10 minutes is the difference in how the Russians saw the land—something to conquer and then mirror before it was too late—and how the Tlingit saw it: as home.

Long ago, I went on a thousand dog walks in this park. Walked with the first girl I ever truly loved, a girl who, when we talk about Sitka now, both wishing we had even more reason to go back, just says, “It’s too beautiful, too green, too fresh, too real.”

I follow the trail that leads along the shoreline—a low mudflat in low tide—and into the forest. It takes a minute to notice the forest is looking back. First in glimpses, the carved bears, eagles, orcas, wolves. And then they’re suddenly as clear as a whale’s exhale. The Tlingit vision of the landscape, carved in cedar totem poles.

Totem poles are not religious, they’re legends, tales, the history of the place and how you should live in it. And this, I realize, is my Alaska: no snow and ice and polar bears, but something carved into the very way I think about the world. Glimpses of truth and wonder seen through rain and clouds and forest shadow.

I walk, not caring if the next eagle I see, whale I see, is real or wooden. Not caring if I’m in a church or on the beach looking out at water that looks like a church. No matter. I’m walking in beauty. 

WHAT TO SEE & DO IN SITKA

St. Michael’s Cathedral. Follow the noon bells to the center of town and, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a peek of the two bald eagles that roost atop the church’s cross, in near-perfect imitation of the classic Byzantine eagle iconography. $5 donation; Tue–Thu or by appointment; 240 Lincoln St.; (907) 747-8120.

National Historical Park. The best way to experience Sitka’s towering totems is along Totem Trail. The short hike winds through dense spruce forest to the mouth of the Indian River, where salmon come to spawn from July to October. The visitor center can set you straight on wildlife viewing and totem carving. nps.gov/sitk

Sitka Summer Music Festival. Bach and Beethoven match the jaw-dropping views of Sitka Sound from Harrigan Centennial Hall, the venue for the festival. Afternoon concerts are free on Thursdays, or watch the moonrise during one of the weekend performances. From $25; Jun 7–Jul 6; sitkamusicfestival.org

Larkspur Cafe. Lots of restaurants serve salmon chowder, but nowhere else will it come out this creamy and delicious. (The secret ingredient? Mashed potatoes instead of flour.) The soundstage at the back of the restaurant is the broadcast center for the local radio station upstairs. $$; 2 Lincoln St.; (907) 966-2326.

Reindeer Redhots. Your intro to Alaskan street food should be the reindeer hot dog at this corner stand. The gamy-smoky snack goes down even better when touched up with add-ons like chili and sauerkraut. Look for the red-and-yellow umbrella. $; Lake St. at Lincoln St.; reindeerredhots.com

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