Go West Old Man - Fall 2005 travel blog

Sitka bay

rehabilitating eagle

salmon spawning

typical totem pole

Tlingit dancers


After two days of bobbing around in the frigid sea looking at ice and snow, we are in the big city of Sitka, population 9,000 with 16 miles of road. Our guide told us that the first traffic light had only been installed a week ago and she was so excited she stopped even though the light was green. This is my first chance to blog live and I am so excited to be connected I can hardly sort out my thoughts.

We visited the Raptor Center here today. It started as two guys trying to nurse an injured bald eagle back to health and now is an extensive facility with a medical lab, recovery area, and aviary for those birds who are too severely injured to be rehabilitated. Those birds that can recover and be sent back to the wild are isolated from human contact as much as possible and we viewed them through one way glass. One of their favorite foods is ratcicles, frozen rats imported from the lower 48. At one point in the tour I held a deer bone in one hand and an equivalent eagle bone in the other. It's hard to imagine that a bird with such fagile architecture can kill with such power.

Then we went to Sitka National Historical Park, the smallest national park in America. It boasted an extensive collection of totem poles and historical artifacts from the time when this part of the world belonged to Russia.

The final stop was the Sheldon Jackson Museum assembled by a Presbyterian minister who also started a college here. He had a huge collection of Eskimo clothing, tools, jewelry, weapons, etc. I was especially fascinated by a tea cup and saucer, woven out of grass to look like the real thing imported from Europe. Behind the museum flowed a river crowded with salmon struggling to swim upstream to spawn and die. Bodies of fish that lost their strength before those final few miles, littered the stream bed. Or perhaps they had already reproduced; after this final task salmon die. Gulls worked the shallows, shouting with glee as they enjoyed an easy meal from nature's bounty. We wondered if the bears were hiding in the bushes nearby. It would have been easy to reach down into the water and catch the fish with our bare hands. Our guide said that they would no longer be good to eat. Their bodies were already breaking down in the fresh water as they swam.

Sitka is unique in that it still retains evidence of the time when it was the center of Russian America, the oldest permanent settlement on the west coast of North America. Trappers of sea otters made their fortune here, long before the discovery of gold brought more crowds north. The Russian Orthodox church occupies a postion of prominence on the main street and is decorated with typical Russian iconography. Although most of the original buildings burned down, the dormitory which housed the Russian clergy is now a national historic site. And for the less serious tourist, many gift shops sold laquered boxes, amber, and other typical Russian trinkets.

At the end of the day all the ship's passengers gathered in the clan house for a native dance show. Indians in Alaska have it much better than their cousins down south. Perhaps because Alaska became a state in more enlightened times, there are no reservations here and Indian culture and language are alive and treated with respect. The dancers ranged in age from 75 to newborn and they appeared to have great fluency in their native Tlingit language as well as English. Some of their costumes were decorated with buttons, something their ancestors must have acquired and made their own in fairly recent times. It was good to see that they could be successful in the mainstream without losing their identity. We walked back to the boat wet, but happy. Sitka gets 100 inches of rain a year, but we were glad the downpour waited until we were inside dancing.

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