Rural Life in Sitka District Alaska

Sitka District Alaska: the sixth in a series on the best sections of North America in which to pursue rural life, including population, jobs and crime, real estate and taxes, and education and health.

| September/October 1987

Cream of the country: Sitka District, Alaska. The continuing series of the best sections of America to live a rural lifestyle. (See the Sitka Alaska photos, map and chart in the image gallery.)

Rural Life in Sitka District Alaska

Odd as it may seem, I first became intrigued with Sitka, Alaska, during a 1981 visit to Helsinki, Finland. While leading a Scandinavian Ans and Crafts tour for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I met Irene Shuler, who enchanted me with vivid descriptions of her home in southeastern Alaska: Mt. Edgecurnbe, the long-extinct volcano framed by her living room window; the bald eagles landing on the small strip of beach beneath her house; the otters swimming nearby; the beautiful reminders of Sitka's Russian heritage; its rich Indian culture . . . and, of course, the rain.

Then, in 1984, in Kathmandu, Nepal-of all places-I met Magdalena and Calvin Spiegle, she a retired nurse and he a fisherman, who also made their home in Sitka. The pride and affection with which they spoke of their town and the house they had built tucked back in the dark green foliage of spruce and cedar reawakened my desire to experience their sea and mountain world. Finally, last September, I arrived in this paradise perched on the western side of Baranof Island and fell in love with a tiny piece of a mighty land.

An Ocean-lsland World

Seventy-three percent of the glacially sculptured, scenic landscape known as south Alaska's Panhandle is contained in the Ton-gass National Forest—at 16.8 million acres, the largest in the U.S. The area is a blend of water, mountains, forests and a confusing maze of some 1,000 islands. The Sitka District includes two of the biggest and westernmost of these, Baranof and Chichagof islands, and is bordered on the north by Icy Strait, on the east by Chatham Strait and on the west and south by the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding the two main islands are hundreds of smaller islands, including Yakaobi Island to the north and KruzofIsland (adorned with the Fujiyama-like 3,271-foot Mt. Edgecumbe) that helps form Sitka Sound.

This 4,500-square-mile landmass can only be reached by air or water. Its largest town, Sitka-called New Archangel when it was the capital of Russian America-has a population of just over 8,000, which makes it the fourth largest city in Alaska (though if you include its environs, Ketchikan to the south is slightly larger). The Sitka District's remaining population of around 1,000 is widely scattered among a few communities and lumber camps that break the solitude of the Baranof and Chichagof wildernesses. At Port Alexander on the southern tip of Baran of, about 100 residents work mostly at fishing and at a nearby fish hatchery. On the island's eastern shore is the town of Baranof on Warm Springs Bay. Developed as a health resort around 1910, its family-owned store and fueling station now serve fishermen and recreational boaters.

Tenakee Springs, with hot springs baths and a population of 154, sits on the eastern side of Chichagof Island and has been a quiet wintering spot for fishermen and miners since the turn of the century. Primarily a retirement community, it "booms" in summer when citizens ofJuneau and Sitka visit their summer homes—some are remodeled dwellings built by the original Finnish settlers. In addition to the inevitable fishing, the isolated community is supported by a logging camp at Comer Bay, directly across the inlet.

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