Alaska II – Sitka

September 8, 2008 – A ‘wake up’ call in Juneau

I have been asleep in my room at the Alaskan Hotel for a couple of hours when I hear someone step up to my bed, and feel a hand on my shoulder. I had scheduled a wake up call for 6 AM, so my first thought is how it is that they would actually come in to the room. When I turn over, no one is there…

I look at the time and think it says 7:07 AM (which means I have just missed my ferry) but when I sit up and look again, the time is actually 2:07 AM. The sensation of warmth from that touch lasts for several hours …

At 4 AM, I feel someone nearby and hear a female call out for ‘Sarah’. I again turn over to find no one there. The visitations are not uncomfortable, but are enough to keep me from going back to sleep.

Then, close to 5 AM, a man on the floor above me starts a horrid, painful sounding cough with bouts every 10-15 minutes. I remember the recommendation from an Alaskan friend that I get vaccinated against whooping cough, as there had been a recent outbreak in Juneau. It’s the one thing I forgot to do …

I exit the hotel an hour later, foregoing a shower in the shared bath down the hall, and hop straight into my cab. This cabby is recently from Spokane, but originally from Northern Idaho, and looks and sounds like the Cable Guy. He was very conversant and I feel badly that I don’t have a larger tip to give him.

I walk into the ferry terminal, sleep deprived and flustered because there are two boats at the dock and a singular agent who is not very friendly. I take off my coat, sit down, and realize I don’t have my briefcase, which includes my wallet and ferry ticket. AAARRGGHH! I’m unbelievably lucky that the cabby is still outside. That minor crisis would set the tone for much of my visit to Sitka…

At 7 AM I board the Fairweather, a 213-foot shuttle that feels like the Victoria Clipper. It’s a newer boat, very boxy, with airplane style seats but no passenger deck outside. The torrential rains of yesterday have calmed to a drizzle.

The first thing I do on board is miss dropping my wallet in the toilet by about 2 inches. Breakfast is oatmeal and coffee. There’s no fresh fruit, and lunch choices are oatmeal and microwave meat sandwiches. I forgo lunch.

This part of the passage is filled with small islands, covered with pines that grow right down to the edge of the water. The seas are choppy with 3-5 foot swells, and when the Captain tells you to stay seated, he’s not kidding. In a couple more hours, we have sun breaks and rugged mountains are coming back into view. By 10:30 AM, the surface of the water is like glass, and the scenery is too beautiful to get any sewing done. There’s lots of kelp beds here, and I see a pair of six foot water spouts and the briefest glimpse of a small tail.

Time passes very slowly here. After four and a half hours, we land at Sitka. A big white tour bus turns out to be the hotel shuttle I’m looking for. The drive to the hotel is 15 minutes through a mix reminiscent of residential Vashon Island and industrial Longview.

The Sitka Hotel is another historic building (circa 1939). It’s centrally located, with a laundry facility and an elevator. It is advertised as a vintage hotel with Victorian charm, but there’s no charm here. The common areas are poorly decorated in mismatched post-WWI motifs. My room is noisy and lacks window screens, a pretty important feature here in Mosquito Land.

I drop off my bags and head out to a coffee shop that a friend had recommended. The fire station next door is responding to a transformer pole that has caught fire, and the entire city is blacked out. I find the coffee shop, but their their cash register is out of commission because of the black out, and they weren’t willing to use pen and paper to record a cash transaction.  I pay a ‘tip’ for the glass of water they offered. Starving, I set out looking for food.

About a third of the downtown shops are closed, no one is accepting cash for food, and the galleries that I am able to find are non-receptive to my hats.  I brighten up when I find a stairway that leads up to Castle Hill, the most historical site of the city. 

Castle Hill was originally a Tlingit village, taken by the Russians during the War of 1804. It became the site of Baranof’s Castle, the residence of Russian American Company officials and is most well known as the spot where Russia transferred Alaska to the United States on October 18, 1867.

Castle Hill is the best vantage point in the city, and it was interesting to note that centuries ago, it actually sat on the water…

While looking for food, I find the Bishop’s House.

The Bishop’s House is an unassuming log building built in 1843 by Finnish shipwrights for Saint Innocent Veniaminof, the first Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska. It is one of only four examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. Most of the original structure is still intact, and the basement has plexiglass plates over sections of the wall which allow you to see the original construction.

I appreciate the signs in the empty corners with descriptions like “Here once stood the iron cookstove.” There is also a well laid out garden in front of the house, showing the types of flowers and vegetables that were grown during Bishop Innocent’s tenure here.

Courtesy of Alaska.org

Saint Innocent was born as John Popov on August 27, 1797, in Siberia. At age nine he entered the Irkutsk Theological Seminary, where he remained for eleven years, learning carpentry, furniture making, blacksmithing, and how to make musical instruments and clocks.

At the age of seventeen, in recognition of his outstanding achievements at the Seminary, his last name was changed to Veniaminov, in honor of a late bishop. He married and in 1824 arrived in Unalaska for missionary work. He learned the Aleut language, developed an Aleut alphabet based on the Cyrillic, and translated services and Gospels into the native language.

Ten years later, Bishop Innocent and his family were transferred to Sitka. He learned Tlingit language and culture, and when a smallpox epidemic hit the area, he convinced many of them to be vaccinated, which saved many lives and gradually earned their respect.

He designed St. Michael’s Cathedral and oversaw its construction. He built the original clock, and carved the bishop’s throne, which sits under the dome of the cathedral. He died in 1879 in Moscow as its Metropolitan, the senior-most position for a bishop of the Russian Church. He was canonized in 1977 and became one of the four Saints of Alaska.

My next stop is St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, a beautiful stone church built in 1899, and near the Bishop’s House. One of the two unusual features is the rose window with the Star of David at the center, an error by the window maker when the piece was mail-ordered 100 years ago.

The other unusual feature is a Victorian style cage in the side yard, containing a 5-foot tall tree. A nearby placard explains that this is the Glastonbury Thorn: “By legend, the walking staff of Joseph of Arimethea was planted in Briton during the first century. The shoot in the cage was planted here in 1999…it’s presence commemorates the work of Anglican missionaries carrying the gospel of Christ halfway around the globe.”

I continue on to the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a large octagonal building with specimen cabinets in the style of a Victorian anthropologists’ study. There are a several artifacts I had not seen elsewhere, including several dogsleds, bird-skin pouches, a sinew spinner, a herring rake, a beautiful silver raven spoon, and two horn ladles with hollow 3-dimensional totems carved into the handles. The light here is so low that I had to ask if the power was still out. When you pay your admission, you are handed a mini mag light so you can better see inside the cases.

By the time I leave the museum, the power has been restored, but now most of the town is closed, due to the power outage and the cruise ship leaving town. At 4:30 I find a Chinese restaurant at the marina. In spite of me being the only customer, they’re ‘out’ of the first two things I try to order, so I settle on a chicken salad, which arrives as a plate of deep-fried chicken bits laid on a thin bed of greens, drizzled with too much “special sauce”. I am starting to hate Sitka.

Back at the hotel, a rowdy couple starts yelling in the hall and then walks in to my room (and back out again when I tell them they have the wrong room). Five minutes later, there’s more pounding on the door – an angry night manager who accuses me of not paying for my room. After presenting my receipt, Mr. Angry figures out that I have the wrong key, but makes that out to be my fault as well. GEEZ! He gives me the key I am supposed to have, which turns out to be a better room, larger, cleaner, with screens on the window, and a bit of a view. No apologies though…

I decide to redeem the day by getting out to see the rest of the historical sites. I am now very happy that my ferry schedule has been adjusted. I can hardly wait to leave this awful place.

I find the grave of Princess Maksoutov, the first wife of the Russian governor at the time of the Alaska transfer, and lay a fern frond and a buttercup on her headstone. I can’t get into the Russian Cemetery because the fence is locked. The area is overgrown and not being treated with the respect such historical graves are due.

Across the street is the burial site of St. Yakov, the first Native priest ordained in Alaska. Beyond that is the Russian Blockhouse, a replica of the original which was part of the stockade that marked the boundary between the Russian and Tlingit territories. It sits atop a rock outcrop, which I come close to falling from as I circumnavigate the backside of the blockade. This day has been absolutely fraught with near disasters!

A walk across the O’Connell Bridge to Japonski Island brings me to a park on the edge of the marina, where I discover a monument commemorating the Kaisei Maru, a Japanese sealing vessel that sunk in the 1890’s after being seized by the U.S. for poaching. The sailors were imprisoned for about a year before being released, but the captain committed suicide.

I walk up to the Visitor Center to see the New Archangel Russian Dancers, but the center, which had been open earlier in the day, is now locked up and tonight’s performance cancelled. The Indian Dance Center is also closed. I look for a movie theater, but there isn’t one. The library is about to close, so I head back to my hotel. Geez, this place. I can hardly wait to leave…

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