Shaking it up in Sitka, Alaska…

To say that Sitka, Alaska wasn’t on my radar just a month ago is an understatement. In fact, while I’d been to Anchorage when I was 21, and vaguely understood that it is a vast, beautiful state, I had no plans to vacation there for the foreseeable future. So how’d I get there? Here’s what happened: Prompted by my mom, I had visited the Newport Aquarium back in June, seeing a traveling exhibit with she and my sister. We all really enjoyed it–the exhibit was a collaboration with a paleobotanist and an artist who were also featured in several movie shorts at the aquarium theater. The twosome were smart, funny and seemingly approachable–the paleonbotanist born and raised in Seattle. My sister and I reasoned that we could likely invite them out for beers and enjoy an evening of intelligent conversation and laughs. Well, maybe not. After a little research I figured out that Kirk Johnson is actually the Sant Director of the Smithsonian and his colleague Ray Troll is a legendary artist living in Ketchikan. I’d have to be content with buying their book “Cruisin the Fossil Coastline”. Stick with me here…I swear this story leads somewhere….

I bought the book and while reading it, I went on and on (and on) to co-workers, friends, and family about fun fossil facts, most of which originated in locations I’d been to sometime in my life. For example, I had visited the Webb School in Claremont where I saw an old friend who was an instructor at the school. Or the Tom Condon Paleontology center which I’d visited on an adventurous day trip out in the John Day area. The book really resonated with me.

The last section of the Fossil Book highlights Alaska. I still wasn’t planning on going ANYWHERE actually. For those of you who know me, I’ve stayed pretty “local” this last year or so, trying to support my mom, boyfriend and also remaining conscientious of COVID. But I was starting to feel like I needed a little fun, and then Sam (boyfriend) announced he was heading down to Costa Rica for a short business trip. I periodically jump on Alaska Airlines website to see if there are deals which I did that day. There weren’t, but I placed “Ketchikan” in the search and found flights to be really affordable and SHORT! Ketchikan is where Ray Troll (artist of the Fossil Book) has a gallery. Hmmmmm, sure heard some cool things about Alaska in their book! With a little more research I felt that Sitka offered a few more things I’d like to see on this totally “fictional” trip I might take. However, I texted my sister to see if she’d want to go and she did! I booked it. All of this…the idea to go there, asking my sister and booking the flight and Airbnb happened in about 10 hours total. We were headed out in 11 days!

Beth and I landed in Sitka on a showery, majestic Monday, early afternoon. It was one of the coolest landings I’ve had and quickly realized we were in for a great week. Honestly, from the time we landed, everything just “flowed”. We found a taxi easily and the 8 minute drive gave us a sense of how close everything is in Sitka “proper”. Huge mountains overlook the downtown and our cottage was nestled, basically, in the middle of everything and two blocks from the waterfront, between town and the Historic Park which we walked to on average of three times a day. Our first walk toward the park was nothing short of magical. It led us along the waterfront (Sitka is on the ocean) and we “ooohed and ahhhhhed” at all the things…the Sheldon Jackson museum we were looking forward to visiting, the Sitka Sound Center, the JILLIONS of salmon flopping around in the harbor, and the bald eagles!! I swear you could practically toss a frisbee and hit a bald eagle. There was a boardwalk trail that led us off the sidewalk and then BAM, we were at the Historic Park. This park is technically considered the sight where the Russians and Klingits battled, however the big draw are the totem poles of the Klingits and for us, the wildlife. Seeing this landscape for the first time, we were in complete awe. Words aren’t effective here. You really have to see it for yourself.

A very big highlight of our trip was that we happened to go during peak salmon spawning season. I’d love to take credit for this act of genius but honestly, it was a “blind squirrel stumbling on a nut” situation. It was a dynamic that impacted our entire visit–the salmon themselves were incredible and the wildlife they attracted made it all the more exciting. Grizzley bears! On the plus side, grizzlies were present. On the down side, trails were closed because grizzlies were present… but this was a short-lived encumberance. We asked a few rangers and found we could hike both the Cross Trail and the Indian River trail (bear spray recommended). A bit of history here…. I lived in Missoula, Montana for a decade–much of the time living either adjacent to, or very near the Rattlesnake recreation area which abutted the Rattlesnake Wilderness. I’m comfortable with the presence of bears. In fact, once I had two black bears “bear hugging” (doing it) in my yard for 45 minutes. But I’d never seen a grizzly out of captivity. It was high on my bucket list.

Beth and I walked a LOT in Sitka. The first full day we hiked about 3 1/2 hours on the Cross Trail which converged onto the Indian River Trail, in addition to the “town” walking. The trails were unlike any ecosystem I’ve seen, and jaw-dropping! By the time we finished, our legs were cooked. Still no bear sighting, though lots of scat. After a few days of hiking we were ready to get in a sea kayak and let our upper body do the work. We were remarkably fortunate to go on a day predicted to be stormy but instead was ideal, with glassy conditions. There were just three of us in tandem kayaks and a single guide. The tour was designed well–basically we paddled 7 miles out and then took a skiff back to the harbor which allowed us to see a lot more of the beautiful islands and passages surrounding Sitka. Our guide Emily, was very knowledgeable as a paddler (reading currents/tides) and with the local wildlife. We learned all KINDS of new things about everything from Starfish to Bald Eagles. AWESOME!!

We also wanted to learn about the culture of Sitka, which led us to the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the Sitka Sound Center. Both were great– obviously in their own way. At Sheldon Jackson we saw many artifacts of the Klingits and learned a great deal more about their unique culture. There, I met a visiting artist, Stacey Williams who is not only a student but a teacher of weaving with cedar bark, spruce root and textile. Stacey is from Ketchikan and knows Ray Troll who she informed me “is a hoot”. In fact, she raved about Ketchikan in general…next on my list. The Sitka Sound Center was essentially a single room with aquarium tanks for viewing, and a few for “touching”. On the walls, compliments of Ray Troll, were descriptors of various sea creatures and fun facts. I learned a bunch!

We explored a ton, but it wasn’t until the last night that I, (stupidly) walking alone in the park, almost at dark, saw a grizzly. It was fishing in the river and I was on the bridge. Fairly close but not TOO close. I was on cloud nine walking back to the cottage. My sister who I’d rarely been separated from on this trip was happy for me, but really wanted to see one too. We vowed to get back to the park first thing the next morning for a “last chance” before flying out in the afternoon. That final morning we saw TWO grizzlies, one downstream and one upstream from the bridge. The downstream bear took off almost immediately but the upstream (bigger) one hung out for a total of about 40 minutes! It was quite the experience…one I’ll never forget. Side note, the griz had poor mannners. I was taught to clean my plate. This guy took one, maybe two bites out of each fish and then walked away. Geesh! On the other hand, this gave the scavenger animals plenty to eat.

It seemed, just two hours before we flew out that our trip was complete having seen everything we had, including grizzlies!! However, we decided to go downtown one more time and while doing so, my sister spotted whales. Orcas! Six of them actually, and they put on a little show for about 10 minutes right there in the bay. The four sea lions closer to shore didn’t want to be upstaged apparently, so they were particularly active too. This was just unreal.

Now, I’m back from our adventure but still feeling the “afterglow”. It felt like the universe was conspiring to give us the perfect vacation. I’ve traveled to some really great places in my life, but duration of a trip doesn’t always size up the experience. This was truly a trip of a lifetime. What is also cool is HOW I found my way to Alaska which was the “Cruisin the Fossil Coastline” book. I described this dynamic because it seems I’ve found a new topic to be excited about–the history of the earth and what came before us crazy humans. It’s opened my eyes to a fun new interest, and who knows WHERE that will lead me in future adventures. It’s fun to consider.

As always, thanks for listenin’… and if you’re interested in going to Sitka, feel free to hit me up. In the meantime, maybe I’ll see ya out there on the frisky ripples. Some key places we went to in Sitka:

Sitka National Historic Park

Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures

Sheldon Jackson Museum

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