July 6 – We started the day at the Forest Service’s visitor center and partook in their totem walk – a guided tour of the totems on display at the park. Unlike the totems in the other parks we had visited, these were not carved in the 30’s by the CCC. The totems that originally stood in this park were authentic, but not from the Sitka area. In 1903 Congress appropriated some money to have Alaska participate in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Loius. The territorial governor decided to round up a display of totem poles to sent them to the exposition. The poles were gathered with the permission of tribal leaders from abandoned villages (where the poles were rotting into nothingness) and were to be placed in a permanent exhibit after the exposition. When the exposition ended, some poles were in such bad shape that they were sold. The remaining ones were sent the next year to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. After that, the poles returned to Alaska and were set up in the totem park in 1905. In the late 1970’s it was decided that these poles (which were between 100 to 200 years old) were severely worn and in danger of being lost. Copies of these poles were commissioned and those are the poles on display. Some of the original poles are on display indoors and the rest are in a shed out back. The visitor’s center also included a variety of displays on native life and crafts.
We then decided to get in some bike riding and rode over to Castle Hill, the sight of many fortifications dating back to the first Russian occupation of the area. There was never an actual castle, rather a large governor’s house was built on the hill and that’s how it was named. Our next stop was lunch at the schoolyard. Stacie’s crab vendor was not there (although she swears she wasn’t going to have some) so she had a Navaho taco (fried bread topped with taco fixin’s). After lunch it was off to the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, a not for profit center that cares for injured raptors of all kinds (although they’re known for their work with bald eagles). Animals that can be returned to the wild, are. Those that can’t fend for themselves are treated and then placed in breeding programs or at zoos all over the U.S. (they’ve even sent a pair to Dollywood). The center was nice and there’s no better way to get an up close look at an eagle! Still waiting for a day when dancers would perform, we headed back to camp and hiked the Beaver Lake trail. This trail was another case of creative naming – the trail should have been named the mountain goat trail. Yes there were stairs left in some spots, but the trail was a very steep zig zag up the side of a mountain. After 20 minutes of climbing we reached a point where we had an excellent view of the outhouse at the campground. Finally, the mountain gave way to an easy walk through muskeg meadow along a boardwalk to Beaver Lake. The views from the meadow were spectacular! At the lake there was a small rowboat provided and we went for paddle (since we certainly weren’t about to carry the kayaks up there). We enjoyed the views for a while and then headed back down to camp. It had been another clear day and for the first time we saw the tops of the mountains around us and the sun caught them beautifully as it set.
July 7 – The morning started off well enough – the sun was trying to break through the clouds and the birds were chirping (granted they start at around 4 am) but then tragedy struck. Dave left the bag with his last two breakfast cookies on one of the cabinets to get something from the truck and upon returning found Stacie trying to figure out why the bag was on a stump in the middle of a berry patch. Then she spied the culprit – one of those cute little squirrels that she loved taking pictures of had stolen breakfast and was up in a tree chomping away on a chocolate chip cookie. We recovered the bag (we didn’t want the little guy to get fat) and placed a curse on his home.
There were two cruise ships in town so that meant each dance troupe was giving two performances. We saw the 10am performance of the New Archangel Dancers. The group is all female (they say that when it was founded 30 years ago the local men weren’t interested) and gave a nice show (but don’t get us started on their lighting design or production values). There was a brief break halfway through the performance to show the Alaska state flag and sing the state song. The flag has an interesting story. On a trip to Washington, DC it was pointed out to the territorial governor that Alaska’s flag was not on display in the Capitol with the flags of all of the states and other territories because Alaska didn’t have a flag. Upon returning to Alaska, the governor organized a flag design contest open to school children. Of the 142 entries received, the winning design was submitted by a 13 year old native boy who had lost both parents and was in a group home. A few years later a poem about the flag was written and shortly thereafter music was written for it and it became the state song. A traveling exhibit featuring many of the designs along with the winner was at the Sheldon Jackson museum.
The next performance of the native dancers was a few hours away so we ambled up to the St. Michael’s Cathedral (another attraction only open when cruise ships are in town). The original cathedral had burned, but heroic efforts by the citizens of Sitka had saved all but one of the icons that were inside. The present day cathedral was built of fireproof materials using the original plans. We then ambled over to the Russian block house which was a recreated look out post made of logs, nothing special. We were getting hungry and the festival of fry bread was over. Stacie had overheard a few people talking about a hole in the wall Mexican place just outside of town. We gave it a shot and as is the general rule with Mexican, the worse it looks on the outside, the better the food is. After lunch we saw the native dancers who also told a few traditional stories. Stacie even got to dance with them (another resume credit). Since we weren’t able to hike the estuary trail a few days earlier, we decided to kayak the area instead. The only catch was that it was a tidal area and we could only get in at high tide which was at 7pm. While we were waiting for the tide to rise we worked on web pages (we hadn’t yet had a day of heavy rain). We launched the kayaks at around 5:30 and paddled over to Mosquito Cove (which we had been able to hike to). There we saw salmon jumping and large 18 armed starfish (in the wild). We then headed for the estuary and floated in with the tide. There we saw juvenile crabs and fish. We paddled up the stream that fed the estuary and found a school of small spotted trout hiding in a deep spot under some trees. It was after 7 so we headed back to the beach where we had launched. We had timed the tides perfectly and were swept out of the estuary with no effort at all.