July 4 – We arrived in Sitka in the morning, about as well rested as we could be given that we slept on small couches. Our first priority was to find a campsite since it was the Fourth of July and we were sure everyone in town would be out camping. There were two campgrounds to choose from. One, which had been completely redone in 2002, was near the ferry terminal (7 miles north of town) and charged $16 a night. The other, whose entrance sign was destroyed in an avalanche in 2002, was 10 miles east of town and free. Knowing that campgrounds are usually ugly for their first few years of life (things have to get weathered and underbrush has to grow back) we went to Sawmill Creek (and sure enough there was no entrance sign). There were two sites left, one of which was very nice and had been vacated about an hour before we arrived. The site offered a view of 4 waterfalls in the mountains above and was rather large. We dropped off the cabinets and set up the tent to keep other people from taking the site and then headed into town to join in the celebration. On the way we stopped off at the Whale Park – a park built on a straight where whales were often spotted. We looked for a while, but saw nothing. Upon arriving in town we were dismayed to find out that the fireworks had been shot off the night before and that there was really very little going on. There was a “fair” at the elementary school that was running for the whole weekend with games and lots of food booths. There was also a parade at 2:00 and a Coast Guard helicopter rescue simulation at the harbor. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day so we walked the main drag looking for ice cream (there were ice cream toting cruise ship tourists everywhere) but found none. So we went over to the schoolyard for lunch at the fair. Stacie was elated to find a vendor selling fresh cooked Dungeness crabs and immediately wolfed down a ½ crab. Dave found a teriyaki on a stick booth. The parade was the next stop and it was a typical small town parade – anyone who wanted to put their car in or walked carrying a flag. The school marching band was there, but they played the theme from the “Flinstones” cartoon instead of patriotic music. One of the highlights of the parade were the Coho Queens (yes Robin, they’re Alaska’s answer to the sweet potato queens). With the parade over and nothing else to do we went back to the schoolyard for some fry bread with everything on it.
We returned to the campsite and started setting up, but we decided that it was such a nice day that we should go paddling so we changed clothes and went back to town in search of a boat ramp. There was one behind the visitor’s center and we took advantage of it. The city name, Sitka is derived from the local Indian’s word Shee-Atika, which means city behind little islands. Sitka, one of two cities on the enormous Baranoff Island, is surrounded by a cluster of a hundred or so small islands which protect it and make it an ideal harbor. In the distance we saw a lighthouse and we headed for it. We later learned that it was not an original, but instead was built by a retired dentist in 1977 (apparently he thought that there should have been one there). We continued to paddle amongst the islands and suddenly Stacie let out a scream. No, she hadn’t flipped over, she had seen starfish under her kayak (the visibility was amazing, usually around 15 feet). Stacie was simply amazed to see starfish as she put it, “in the wild” (thankfully we were in our kayaks, safe from potential attack). After looking for a while we paddled on and saw a large collection of birds on a rock. They patiently allowed Dave to circle them, taking pictures and then after he had pulled away they took off as a flock and headed straight for Stacie, splitting into two groups and going around her. Having had our dose of nature for the day we paddled back to the ramp and pulled out the kayaks. It was well after 7pm, but on a sunny day it stays light out until at least 11 (sunset isn’t until 9:30ish). We headed back to the campground and finished setting up our site. Claiming the site in the morning was a good idea – people were setting up their RV’s in the parking lot, there were no campsites left in town. We had a Fourth of July BBQ of our own – burgers and chips.
July 5 – We got a late start in the morning (the previous day’s kayak trip meant we didn’t finish with dinner and clean up until after 11). We toured the “Russian Bishop’s House” in the morning. The house was built by the Russian American Company to house the Bishop for the Alaska area (this Bishop was granted Saint status in 1977). The house had been used continuously by the Russian Orthodox Church up until the Park Service acquired it in the late 60’s. The second floor of the house had been restored to original condition while the first floor was filled with exhibits. The chapel on the second floor of the house is still used by the Church and most of the icons were brought by the Bishop from Russia in the 1800’s. For lunch it was back to the schoolyard. Stacie had crab again. After lunch we headed over to the Sheldon Jackson Museum, on the grounds of Sheldon Jackson College. Sheldon Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who during his travels collected a tremendous amount of Indian and Eskimo “artifacts” ranging from fishing hooks to baskets to clothing to kayaks. The museum, while small in appearance, used its space well and exhibited a considerable amount of varied material.
One of the things that we had wanted to see were a local dance group that performed Russian traditional dance and another group that performed native dance, but these groups only performed when there were cruise ships in town. Not being able to see dancers, we headed up to the other campground because it also had several hiking trails, including one that went around and above a tidal wetland and supposedly had excellent educational signage. We started on the trail and were greeted by a hand scrawled “trail closed” sign. Apparently this trail (which was built in 2002 when the campground was rebuilt) was closed to have major portions of boardwalk handrail replaced. The other trail at the campground was the Mosquito Cove trail. We doused ourselves in OFF and started hiking. The trail was a 1 ½ mile loop which went along the coast to a protected cove and then into the forest and some more of our favorite stairs. Having gotten our daily dose of stairs, we headed for camp where Stacie enjoyed a Salmon steak dinner and Dave finished off the hamburgers from the night before.