Tuesday, August 3

Sitka


Sitka was the capital of Russian America until Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867. It was founded by Alexander Baranof in 1799 who ruthlessly supplanted the native Kiksadi Clan of the Tlingit people. However, the Tlingit struck back in 1802, burning the Russian settlement to the ground. Baranof retaliated in 1804. He returned to the area with four ships, cannons and landing party of more than 150 men. Initially the Russians were unsuccessful and the battle for Tlingit Fort raged for days. Eventually, the natives ran low on supplies, particularly gunpowder, and were forced to abandon their fort under the cover of darkness. The town of Sitka soon rose in its place.


The site of the 1804 battle is now Alaska’s smallest national park. It’s a wonderfully picturesque woodland crossed by trails along which 18 totem poles have been erected. Most were first displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Exposition in St Louis before being moved to their present location. I spent a pleasant hour wandering the park, before heading off to the Sheldon Jackson Museum. I particularly wanted to see one exhibit; the infamous raven’s helmet worn by Chief Katlian during the 1804 battle.


The Russians came to Sitka for one simple reason; sea otters. The otters were highly prized for their rich, dense fur. Otter lack fat layers to keep them warm and thus are dependent on their fur’s insulting qualities. As a result, the sea otter has the densest fur of any animal in the world. Intensive hunting during the late 1700s and early 1800s brought the species almost to extinction. It was estimated that by 1911 less than 2,000 animals remained. Today, diligent conservation efforts have restored their numbers to above 150,000.


This morning we went in search of sea otters around coastal islands near Sitka. The experience was unforgettable. Sea otters are very social creatures and will often gather in large groups, or rafts. We came across several such groups on our tour. It was a breath-taking experience watching these cheeky animals spinning somersaults and happily floating on their backs. I could have watched them for hours. We also saw an occasional single otter rolling around in the middle of the sea, or dining on captured shellfish.


We later came across two humpback whales engaged in yet another unique feeding display. They were tail-slapping. This involves whales flicking their tails into the air and slapping them swiftly onto the surface of the sea. This stuns fish feeding below the surface, making them easy prey for the hungry whale.

You won’t believe this. Just as I finished typing this paragraph I glanced out the window of our cabin and saw another whale engaged in a tail-slapping display. Garry and I are becoming quite proficient whale watchers. We spot several on a daily basis from the comfort of our balcony.


The remainder of our day in Sitka was spent visiting many of its Russian-influenced highlights. The most prominent of these is St Michael’s Cathedral, a wooden Russian Orthodox cathedral in the centre of town. The current building dates from 1976. It’s a faithful reproduction of the original building destoryed during a fire that swept through the town's business district in 1966.


This earlier structure had stood for almost 120 years; housing priceless treasures such as gold and silver Russian icons. Fortunately, these were saved from destruction in 1966 by residents who braved the advancing flames. However, the most impressive item saved was the stunning chandler that hangs from the ceiling of the main dome. The locals clearly had plenty of time to complete their salvage.


I also ventured up a small hill behind the cathedral to visit Princess Maksoutoff’s grave. She died in 1862 and was the wife of the last Russian governor. She was the last Russian royal to be buried in Alaska before the territory was sold. Her grave is one of three sitting on a empty grassy knoll. A large sign-post makes it clear that this is a Lutheran cemetery, as a few metres away lies a fence line marking the start of the Russian Orthodox cemetery. Heaven forbid that anyone would confuse the long-dead Princess with the wrong Christian faith.

We ventured out to these islands to see colourful puffins bobbing about in the sea

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