Many cruise ships stop in Sitka during the summer Alaska cruise season, including the Holland America Westerdam on the cruise I took with extended family. Sitka sits mainly on Baranof Island and partly on neighboring Japonski Island, with the two islands connected by a bridge. Sitka lies on the outer coast of the inside passage on the Alaskan panhandle in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, accessible only by air or sea.
As the glaciers receded from the area about 10,000 years ago the Tlingit people first settled the land. Russians came in the late 1700’s. The changeover ceremony in 1867 after the Americans purchased Alaska was held in Sitka. The town still has Russian architecture near the tender dock, though the prominent Cathedral of St. Michael is a reproduction built in 1966 after the original burnt to the ground.
Sitka has a lot to see quite close to the cruise ship dock for people who just want to get off the ship and see things on their own. We did not book anything through the ship there, wanting to get to the Fortress of the Bear and Raptor Center on our own. At the tender dock just as passengers come ashore a number of people waited with signs for various activities. Shuttles waited to take people to town who wished to start at the far end and stroll back toward the ship on their own.
Right away we saw someone with a sign for Fortress of the Bear and signed up immediately. We had waited for a tender to shore until we thought they would be open, but found out that on cruise ship days they actually opened earlier than their official time so we could have come an hour sooner and been nearly the only ones on the bus. Ours still did not have very many people, but the bus after came quite full. The person with the sign said that their shuttles did not officially stop at the Raptor Center, but some drivers would. The driver said they all did. I had asked on facebook prior to the cruise and they had said none of their shuttles stopped at the raptor center anymore so we felt quite pleasantly surprised to find out that they did. We had thought we’d have to take a cab, but since we did not see any it was very good that we didn’t need one. The raptor center is walking distance from the tender pier where our boats docked if no-one in your party has walking limitations, but too far for people with mobility issues to walk.
At a lecture my sister and I had attended on the ship, the presenter had said to go visit the old Russian Cemetery, but would not say what sort of interesting feature we would find there. While within walking distance from town, it was not a short walk, nor an easy one, meaning only those able to walk quickly on varied terrain including hills should attempt it. My sister had zipped up castle hill next to the tender dock before we took our tour, but my parents and I just walked to a nearby marina. We saw a pedicab waiting for passengers. Not having time for it just then, I asked the rider if he went to the graveyard. He said he would, but it involved a steep hill.
The bus let us off in town on the way back from the raptor center so we had a bit of a chance to see some of the architecture of the old Russian buildings. Before we made it to the church that dominated the skyline at the end of the street my sister took off on her own to go find the cemetery. The road back to the dock went past castle hill, which while steep, was not very large and we hadn’t done a lot of walking so we went up to the top. It had options of steeper or less steep pathways and lots of flowers to see along the way.
At the top we found…….not much. Just a few old cannons and some signs. Seriously shouldn’t castle hill have a castle on it? Reading some signs posted around the top we found that the closest thing to a castle had been a politician’s house people called the castle. Tlingit natives had structures there before the white man came, as the view from the top gave them quite a strategic advantage spotting any approaching enemies. That advantage made the hill popular with the subsequent Russian residents of the area, who displaced the Tlingets to claim the hill for their own.
At the bottom of the hill we found another pedicab, this one with a native Tlinget girl on the bike. She took us to the back side of the cemetery to an area special to the locals, though not the place where the graves are that we had intended to see. We had quite an interesting ride with her. Tlinget people are all either raven or eagle, she was an eagle. She found salmon berries and Sitka spruce to forage on along the way. Apparently driving a pedicab works up an appetite.
On our way out of the woods we came across some people who said the eagle we had seen on our way in sitting by the little old wooden fort thing there had some sort of injury and they had called the raptor center to come and get it. The raptor center people arrived about then, so I went around to the other side to see the eagle as quickly as possible, which without actually being on the little building as the eagle and raptor center people were involved a detour on a path going the opposite way, down some stairs, and around about half a block on the nearby road. By the time I got there hoping to take a video of the people catching the eagle, it had flown to the roof of the nearest house and the raptor center people had left because if it can fly they don’t take it.
Back down at the pedicab our driver took us back to the tender pier, stopping right at the end of the line of people waiting to get back to the ship so we could just get right in line as we got off. We tipped her well as there was no actual charge for the ride, they just work for tips.
Later my sister said she found the graves. While not entirely sure what the person in the lecture meant by this graveyard being a must-see, she said it was unusual. While most graves sit in neat rows in a large expanse of shortly mowed lawn, these sat among trees in the woods. The townspeople let nature take its course, and as tree roots grow larger some of the graves get wonky.
Sitka has a variety of things to do. The area offers hiking, biking, boating, museums, wildlife watching tours, native dancers, fishing, kayaking, historical buildings, shopping and much more. The visitor’s bureau has a page on their website of things to do in a day for tourists such as cruise ship passengers that just have a few hours to visit.