Rural Life in Sitka District Alaska

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View near Sitka.
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The Sitka District centers on two large islands.
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Alaskan facts and figures chart.
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Alaskan facts map.
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Sitka today, between mountain and sea.

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.

On Chichagofs north coast is Hoonah, with a rapidly rising population now at 677. It was a permanent village of the Hoonahs–a subgroup of the Native American Tlingits–long before the Russians arrived. Known as “the place where the north wind does not blow,” it was once a rich fishing area. The fishing has since declined, and the village’s Huna Totem Corporation now hopes to develop timber holdings it received under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In 1971 this act gave Alaska natives, who make up about 13% of the state’s population, $962.5 million and 40 million acres of land as compensation for loss of territory historically occupied by their people.
A few miles south of Hoonah, the Mount Bether Bible Center, a Christian community, is primarily agricultural. By enriching the soil with kelp, shells and refuse from Hoonah’s fish-processing plants, it’s able to market its excess produce as far away as Juneau.

On Lisianski Inlet on Chichagof Island, the 180 residents of the small fishing village of Pelican-the jumping-off spot for the West Chichagof- Y akaobi Wilderness-are hoping that the proposed nickel-copper mine at nearby Bohemia Basin on Yakaobi Island will someday be developed. Built mainly over the water on pilings, Pelican’s board¬walk runs in front of one store, a few cafes, a steam bath, the library and Rosie’s Bar and Grill.

And, finally, there are the 28 residents of Elfin Cove near Fairweather Grounds, the largest offshore salmon-fishing banks in all of southeast Alaska. Elfin Cove’s safe, snug harbor is the summer home of a fish-buying barge that ices down mounds of salmon for shipment to processing plants elsewhere.

A few other Sitka District citizens live on tiny, privately owned islands, and some find homes on houseboats they have towed from one quiet cove to another.

The fact is, a piece of private earth is ex-pensive and hard to come by in a state where 80% of the land is government owned and another 10.9% belongs to native corporations. In the Sitka District, less than 5% of its 4,500 square miles is in private hands. For this reason, we hesitated to use it as the subject of “Cream of the Country,” but residents don’t seem to mind that most of their houses sit on fairly small lots on narrow strips surrounded by public lands and the sea.

“That means all this is mine,” one Sitka resident said, sweeping his arm to take in the spectacular landscape. “I prefer it that way to No Trespassing signs. We may not have large gardens or a lot of acreage around our homes, but the sea and the wilderness are ours to ‘farm.’ “

And, like the ancient Tlingits, many present-day Sitkans provide much of their own food by hunting and gathering.

Riches From the Past

Though Sitka is only a 20-minute flight from Juneau, one hour and 20 minutes from Anchorage and one hour and 50 minutes from Seattle, thousands of people first view the town from the sea. Between the beginning of May and the end of September, cruise ships and Alaska Marine Highway ferries, plying the peaceful Inland Passage, a total of some 350 stops here. (The ferries arrive eight times weekly during the summer–four times a week in winter.) Their passengers pour into this beautiful port–tucked under Harbor Mountain–the only community in the Alexander Archipelago that fronts on the Pacific Ocean. Sitka’s name comes from the Tlingit word Sheetka, meaning “on the outside of the Shee,” their name for Baranof Island.

There’s much to fill the short time a seagoing tourist might have in this former Russian capital, where the first foreigners to come ashore in Alaska arrived in 1741. The downtown is dominated by Castle Hill, the site of the October 1867 transfer of Alaskan sovereignty to the United States and once the 10-eation of the Russian governor’s residence. Long-silent cannons, embossed with the Czar’s eagle, still overlook this distant outpost. In the center of the clean, flower-filled downtown area, a Russian Orthodox cathedral with an elegant onion dome-like those found near St. Petersburg, but built here of Sitka spruce covered with dark gray clapboard-stood for 118 years. A fire that started in a nearby building destroyed it in 1966. Fortunately, the town’s citizens had time to save its bejeweled eucharistic vessels, vestments, chalice covers and many icons, and they soon rebuilt the edifice, using blueprints of the original building. Regular services are still held for its active Russian Onhodox congregation.

The Russian Bishop’s House, a national historic landmark and built in 1842, has recently been restored. Besides having once been a residence, office and private chapel of Veniaminov (later a famous metropolitan of Moscow and chief among Russian bishops), it additionally served as an office, archives, school, servants’ domicile and seminary for training Native Americans as Russian Orthodox priests. After the Russians pulled out, this unique building-one of the few Russian log structures remaining in North America-fell into disrepair for many years.

The Centennial Building overlooks down-town’s Crescent Harbor, one of four picturesque boat harbors, whose boats house many of Sitka’s residents and fishermen. This multipurpose facility is used for an exhibits, meetings, conventions, the Sitka Summer Music Festival and regular performances by the New Archangel Dancers, who produce over 200 shows a year of authentically choreographed Russian, Byelorussian, Moldavian, Ukrainian, Georgian and Armenian folk dances. The building also contains the Isabel Miller Museum with a wide range of Russian artifacts, including a model of Sitka as it looked in 1867.

White monuments dot a grassy hill over-looking the town. This is the Sitka National Cemetery, the first such cemetery west of the Mississippi, with graves dating back to 1867.

Russian graves–including that of Princess Maksoutoff, wife of the last governor of the Russian colony–can also be found nearby.

Just to the south of downtown, the Sheldon Jackson Museum-established in 1888 by a Presbyterian missionary and educator is the state’s first and longest-functioning museum. It sits near the campus of Sheldon Jackson College, originally a school for Tlingit Indians and now offering bachelor of arts degrees and certificates in teacher education. The museum houses some of the finest native artifacts and Russian relics found in Alaska–many collected by Sheldon Jackson as he traveled throughout the territory. Its gift shop sells the craftwork of today’s Native Americans, many of whose ancestors made the Sitka area their permanent winter home for centuries before the Russians arrived. Some of these pieces are fine works of art and are priced accordingly.

The 100-acre Sitka National Historical Park–Alaska’s oldest and smallest national park–is just a ten-minute walk from downtown.

This seaside retreat was the site of the Battle of Sitka in 1804, the last of many conflicts between the Russians and the Tlingits. (White stakes outline the Indians’ fort, which the Russians burned.) Demonstrations of beadwork, silverwork and woodcarving can be seen at the Southeast Alaska Native Cultural Center here. And one of my most pleasant memories of Sitka was a solitary stroll along the park’s needle-strewn paths.

Sea vistas peek through the thick stands of giant spruce and hemlock trees, and the trails are guarded by towering, colorful totem poles-replicas of those gathered from the Haida and Tlingit villages of Prince of Wales Islands, and brought to Sitka after the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. (The originals have been stored away to preserve them.) This area, since the earliest days, has served as Sitka’s “lovers’ lane” and was a favorite walk of Alexander Andreievich Baranov, the city’s founder and governor from 1799 to 1818.

Life Today in Sitka District Alaska

Sitka holds on tightly to its rich heritage, but it’s also a vibrantly modern area.

“While I work at my computer,” notes Irene, who runs a secretarial service from her home, “I watch my friends fastening hemlock branches to the beach at low tide to col. lect herring roe-just as it’s been done for centuries.”

There are amenities like tennis and racquetball courts, tanning parlors and indoor swimming pools. Businesses provide many of the same goods and services you’d find in a fashionable Boston suburb. There are fine restaurants, a cafe’ serving homemade pastries and imported coffees and teas, the usual supermarkets and well-stocked bookstores and libraries. However, you won’t find a shopping mall, and when Sitka’s first fastfood restaurant, a McDonald’s, opened a short while back, it was a local event with even detractors unable to resist stopping by for a hamburger.

Arriving in Sitka at night via a flight from Seattle, I wasn’t surprised to find pouring rain, for the area is known for its wet, mild winters and its wet, mild summers. However, I was surprised–on the five-minute drive from the airport to Irene’s seaside house just
north of the center of town–to find myself soaring across graceful, 1,225-foot-long O’Connell Bridge–the first cable-stayed, girder-span bridge in the United States–that connects Baranof and Japonski Island and which replaced, in 1972, the small ferry that used to ply between the two islands.

Upon arriving at the pleasant home Irene shares with her husband, Kaye Dethridge, her two cats and–from time to time–a variety of house guests, I saw a note she had written to herself on the refrigerator: “Remember to take time to look out the window.” The next morning, I wondered why she needed a reminder, because 16 miles across Sitka Sound rose the classic, symmetrical majesty of Mt. Edgecumbe. The changing play of light and shadow on the russet-colored volcano was endlessly fascinating-a view enriched by gulls fighting over fish on the rocky beach below, an occasional eagle swooping down to steal their prey, the swift passing of a float or Coast Guard plane taking off or landing close by and the more leisurely passage of boats both large and small. I could have sat for weeks watching this scene, but there was a wonderful world awaiting me outdoors. What’s more, after another day of drizzle, the sun broke through with a blinding brilliance and continued to shine from deep blue skies for the next five days, uncovering the often cloud-wrapped, snowcapped peaks surrounding the area and bringing temperatures into the warm 70s.

They were full and enriching days. With Kaye’s nephew Bruce (a vocational teacher who was then between jobs) as my guide, I saw the usual Sitka sights, visited the two fish-processing plants that were handling black cod (sable fish) at the time and met some of the young people who worked there to finance their summer stay in Alaska. We also spent morning hours over coffee in the Pioneer Bar, listening to the local talk of seasoned fishermen.

Commercial fishing on Baranof and Chichagof islands, while still a main source of income, has declined over the years. Whaling stopped in 1923. Herring are no longer in demand for fishmeal and are primarily harvested for bait and roe to be exported to Japan. But a fairly large fleet of seiners, power trollers, hand trollers and long-liners still manage–despite a strict government fish-management system–to make a good living catching black cod, Pacific cod, lingcod, halibut, red snapper and all species of salmon.

In addition to the plentiful saltwater fish, residents’ diets often include colorful sea life from the ocean floor: Dungeness, tanner and king crab; buner, littleneck and a few razor clams; rock scallops; abalone and octopus. Hunting blacktail deer, bear and mountain goat is popular, and the abundant lakes and streams are filled with such freshwater species of trout as steelhead, rainbow, cutthroat and Dolly Varden.

I had no time to hike the miles of trails that cut through the wilderness, but Bruce and I drove south on a section of the 13.1 miles of state-paved road that runs north and south out of Sitka to aptly named Blue Lake, one of the more accessible of these mountain jewels. (There are only another 5.5 miles of paved roads and 14.9 miles of gravel roads in the Sitka area–though you’d never know it by the number of vehicles here.) This drive took us past wispy waterfalls and one of the area’s main employers, a Japanese-owned pulp mill that was dealing, at the time, with a very American strike by its workers.

On our return, we stopped at the Islands Community College to take a look at their community gardens, which-this late in the year-were starting to go to seed. Because of the excessive rain, many Sitka growers make use of raised beds and are most successful with salad and leaf crops, carrots, peas, beets, asparagus, garlic, salsify, Jerusalem artichokes and Oriental vegetables. It’s legal, too, to keep livestock–such as rabbits, poultry and goats–within the city limits as long as they don’t create a nuisance.

We also drove back over to Japonski Island to enjoy the view of Sitka and to watch some citizens tow in a few of the many logs found floating in the water, to be cut up for winter fuel. (Though each head of household can harvest 10,000 board feet from the national forest each year, I was surprised to learn that most of the lumber used in Sitka is shipped up from Oregon.) Japonski-in addition to the Sitka airport-contains the Coast Guard Station, Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital (serving mostly Alaska’s Native Americans and other Federal program beneficiaries), Mt. Edgecumbe High School (a boarding school), the Sealing Cove Boat Harbor and the future site of the Islands Community College.

Another day, Irene and I took the road north to pick salmon berries and some of the many mushrooms that abound in the area. We stopped at the Starrigavan River, so thick with spawning salmon that it looked like a fish subway in rush hour.

Near the river was Old Sitka, the site of the first fort raised by the Russians, which was wiped out in a massacre in 1802. The paved road ended in the junglelike foliage of the Starrigavan Campground, in whose wet, spongy ground cover we found the mushrooms–Fried Chicken (Hydmun repandum) and Spreading Hedgehog (Clitocyve multiceps)–and the berries we were seeking.

Later that afternoon, Bnlce, Kaye, Irene and I traveled the steep, gravel road to the top of Harbor Mountain for a picnic in alpine meadows with an unparalleled view of the region, while nature showed off one of its more splendid sunsets.

Sitkan life takes place as much on the water as on land, so another day was spent entirely on Sitka Sound’s deep blue waters with Bill Foster, a high-school biology teacher who runs a charter fishing service in the summer. We headed north to view two young eagles whose nest in a dead tree hung off the shore of Crestof Island, then stopped to collect a few crabs from Bill’s previously set pots. While viewing another side of Mt. Edgecumbe, we journeyed out to St. Lazaria, a 65-acre volcanic island that wind and surfhave carved into other-worldly rock formations. This national wildlife refuge is home to birds of21 species, including tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets, ancient murrelets and more than 600,000 storm petrels.

Turning south, we dropped anchor at Goddard, home of Sitka’s hot springs. Once ashore, we negotiated the slick wooden walkways over muskegs to two rather primitive bathhouses–the only structures remaining from a onetime private health spa that’s now owned by the city of Sitka. While we soaked in wooden tubs in steaming water up to our necks, we had a view of our boat bobbing in the idyllic cove down below. It was perhaps then that I seriously began to wonder whether it might be possible to make a living in the area.

And, as I discovered, that can be a problem, because Sitka’s–and most of Alaska’s–cost of living is among the highest in the nation. Though salaries are substantial (Alaska teachers are the best paid in the country), jobs are scarce, as ate home rentals. On the average, a loaf of bread costs $1.53; a dozen eggs, $1.09; a pound of hamburger, $1.69; one-half gallon of milk, $1.76 and a gallon of unleaded gas, $1.24. Medical care, while excellent, is also expensive. There are good opportunities for artists and craftspeople who can take advantage of the tourist trade as well as for entrepreneurs who can provide a service Sitka is lacking. However, one should be well financed upon arrival and should visit (probably in both summer and winter) to see if the climate, both economic and meteorologic, is agreeable.

When I left in the early-morning darkness for my return home, it was raining again. But as the plane rose above the clouds, the rising sun brushed range after range of snowcapped peaks and deep fjords with brilliant pink and rose hues. As far as the eye could see, this landscape was undisturbed by man-and I knew I would be back. Maybe just for a summer. Maybe for keeps.