The People of Sitka Alaska

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Foods from the forests and oceans grace the tables of most Sitkan families.

The people of Sitka Alaska are warm and friendly. They’ll take you in and feed you and find you a place to stay. They’ll forgive your foibles and accept you for what you are, rather than for your station in life or who you know.

When I asked some of them, “What keeps you in Sitka? Why is it special to you?” the usual response was, “It’s my home. I belong here.” And nearly everyone mentioned the land itself, the beauty, the proximity of the ocean, the forest-cloaked mountains close behind the town. Some went further still.

Candy Rutlege, who is currently mourning having to leave Sitka Alaska to take a position as assistant manager of the Alaska Pioneers Home in Anchorage, said: “The whole world is accessible to me from Sitka. Of course, that’s true everywhere, but I think it’s more of a state of mind here. People travel. They travel to foreign countries; they travel in the backwoods of southeast Alaska. I believe that the average Sitkan has a wider world view than the average inhabitant of a similar size community elsewhere.”

George Hicks, a commercial troller and alcohol counselor, lives on his boat in ANB harbor in Sitka with his partner, Tess Heyburn: “I came to Sitka Alaska because my kids are here. After 15 years in southern California, I longed for the Alaskan lifestyle. We enjoy life in the harbor. Someone will drop by the boat with an instrument, and I’ll get out my fiddle or accordion, and the next thing you know, we’ve got a jam session going. If we get tired of the fishbowl aspects of living on the boat, we untie the lines and head for a quiet bay nearby.”

Clothilde Bahovec came to Sitka Alaska in 1960 as an occupational therapist with the Public Health Service hospital and later became a second grade teacher in the Sitka schools, retiring from the system several years ago. In 1985 she was honored by the Alaska Women’s Commission and the Older Alaskan’s Commission for her “contributions and services to the people of the State of Alaska”: “I signed up for a two-year tour of duty with the PHS, but before I was here a month, I knew I was home. I’m comfortable here. I can go anywhere I like, day or night, and feel safe. And it’s amazing to me that there are so many artists.”

Then there’s my husband, Kaye Dethridge, who always wanted to go to Alaska, even as a child. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and was assigned to the Alaska Communications System in Juneau. In 1977 he came to Sitka as a lineman on a construction project: “I like the fact that in ten minutes you can be in the wilderness. The fishing is great. From my living-room window I can watch ducks, geese, gulls, shorebirds, eagles (maybe 15 or 20 at a time), the mink on the woodpile and the otters, herons and other wildlife. I like the climate, too. It’s amusing, in the middle of winter, to see that the southern United States is knee-deep in snow and we’re having 45 degree weather.”

Of course, not everyone is an enthusiast. “You can’t drive anywhere. I miss the highways,” you hear. “If you don’t hunt and fish, go boating or hike, there’s nothing to do,” they say. “My kids can’t play out in the rain,” one mother lamented. (She’s moving to Tennessee.) “I can’t wait to get somewhere where the sun shines,” another young mother says.

Personally, the rain doesn’t bother me. If you’re going to be out in it, you merely don a wool jacket, boots and a raincoat. And though I understand some become depressed by a lack of sun, when I look out the window on a wet spring day, the many shades of green are vibrant and put a lie to the idea that rainy days are dull and colorless.

I also like Sitka’s fresh food. Gathering it is an important aspect of many people’s lives. We particularly enjoy the seafood. Last week, we luxuriated in the first razor clams of the season from a beach on a nearby island. Our guests also enjoy the canned smoked red king salmon that we put up last summer, and greens picked from the beach 50 feet from the house.

But I guess the thing I like most is that, as in all of Alaska, the people are individualists. They enjoy being able to live life their way, while still being a part of the fabric of this special place.

Irene Shuler moved to Sitka Alaska in 1956 at the age of seventeen.