Monday, August 22, 2016

Vacation mind, Sitka, Alaska

Brown bear at Fortress of the Bear
I like vacation.  You wake up in a beautiful place, you sort of know what direction you are headed but you have time to be distracted by anything else that presents itself.  You can stop to see the view, or you can keep going.  You can go out to the bear rehab center, or you can go to the Sitka National Historic Park, or you can see the Russian Orthodox Church. Those are the kind of choices we had in Sitka, Alaska.  We did all three.
Sky and Winnie in Sitka
We got there from Juneau by way of a four and a half hour trip on the Alaska Ferry. An hour after we got off the ferry, we walked along the ocean front from downtown Sitka, trying to figure out why we kept seeing fish leaping out of the ocean.  A local man explained that these pink salmon were trying to loosen up their eggs in preparation for spawning at the fish hatchery.  Plop, splash, went another pink salmon throwing itself up in the air.

The trail led to a path through the woods. The quiet closed-canopy forest with large Sitka spruce and Western hemlock trees was soothing. Eighteen Tlingit and Haida totem poles and house posts were spaced along our walk. During the ferry ride, Winnie had been cooped up in the RV (not exactly cooped since the RV is spacious), so we all enjoyed stretching our legs. Lynne and I learned about the Tlingit and Haida cultures while we were at it.

We did a bit more wandering that afternoon. We actually went to part of a Russian Orthodox vesper service on Saturday night.  The Russian Orthodox church was resplendent with gold, lots of precious chandeliers, iconic paintings and an aging bearded priest in a long flowing gold robe.  The service was intoned (chanted), in a style that I had heard before in the Episcopal church, and highly stylized. The words being chanted were read out of a printed liturgy.  I enjoyed the visual richness, and I was interested to see threads of commonality with Episcopalian ritual. We didn’t stay for the whole service, but I was glad to get a glimpse of this remnant from the time when Russian people occupied Sitka.
Two brown (grizzly) bears playing at Fortress of the Bear
More to my taste was Fortress of the Bear, a cleverly named facility at the east end of the fourteen miles of paved road in Sitka. Fortress of the Bear re-purposes several huge old waste water treatment cisterns to provide sheltered spaces for orphaned bears: six brown bears (aka grizzlies) and three black bears from three different sibling groups. They all have been given human names, so you have this feeling of being close to wild animals while simultaneously feeling like you are watching your pets play. The bears have ponds, toys to float around with, multiple spaces to go into and camaraderie. The black bears (in a separate enclosure from the brown bears) have the stump of a tree to climb up. People have constructed platforms above the bears, so we of the two legged species can safely observe examples of four legged creatures that are bigger than we are.   Like you, I am sure, I would prefer to spontaneously see bears in their natural habitat, but since bears, and most wildlife, run away from people when they can, the chances of seeing bears playing, eating, swimming, and relaxing in broad daylight like this are slim-- except at Fortress of the Bear.  The above pictures are brown bears, which is what they call grizzly bears on the coast. 

This next picture shows the black bears.  Watching the black bears gracefully climb up the stump and stand on their two hind feet made a big impression on us.  Don’t try to get away from a black bear by climbing up a tree.
Three brother black bears at Fortress of the Bear

Sitka is a nature oriented place, and so our next stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, which was yet another chance to see eagles and other raptors up close.  They had an impressive rehab aviary for those eagles who are expected to recover and could be returned to the wild.  They also had many long term residents who are well cared for and, when possible, used for educational presentations.

One of the other choices we had in Sitka was where to camp, and even though we had reserved a site in the wooded Starragavin campground, we ended up staying at the Sitka municipal RV park, right on the waterfront, with this lovely view out the window.  I enjoyed watching the boats leaving the marina and returning from the day on open water.

The view from our RV

And here are some houses built on small rocky bases out in the water.
Looks like a boat is the only option for leaving this house

My biggest impression of Sitka—gosh, it is way away from everywhere.  It faces the Pacific Ocean from the west side of Baranoff Island. The only way to get there is a four to eight hour ferry ride from Juneau, or a plane ride.  Of course, Sitka is a haven for fishing.  It is filled with marinas, and fishing conversations include terms that I had to look up: long-lining and leasing halibut percentages of catch (which I still don't understand).  Only 14 miles of road are paved in Sitka.  We drove it from end to end, enjoying the Whale Park at one end and Starragavin Park at the other, the museum at Sitka National Historic Park in the middle, a good restaurant (Fly Inn Fish Inn) but then what? Sitka is a long way from stores, theatre, medical expertise, …but then again, that’s why I went there.  I wanted to see what it is like to live in a naturally beautiful place, without the traffic congestion and noise of our more populous home, and I did. 

Up next: 36 hours on the Alaska Ferry from Sitka to Prince Rupert, BC.

View from the ferry as we approached Sitka 

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