Sitka, Alaska, is a town rich with history, wildlife, and scenic beauty. Situated on Baranof Island on the outer waters of Alaska's Inside Passage, it is accessible only by air and by sea. Sitka has fewer than 9,000 residents, but it plays host to tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers between May and September every year, thereby acting as an important cultural ambassador between Alaska and the rest of the world.
A Bit Of History
It's hard to tell the players without a scorecard -- Sitka has a rich, complex history involving indigenous tribes, Russian traders, and Americans.
Most of what we know about the area begins with the 1700s, when the inhabitants were a Tlingit clan known as the Kiks.ádi. It is from these early inhabitants that present-day Sitka gets its name, a contraction of "Shee Atika": "Shee" referred to the island we now call Baranof, and "Atika" meant "on the outside of." The Kiks.ádi Tlingits lived in relative isolation in the settlement they called Shee Atika until 1799, when the first Russians arrived under the leadership of Alexander Baranof, manager of the Russian-American Company.
While relations between the Kiks.ádi and the Russian traders were warm initially, they grew strained due to vast, cultural differences. In 1802, the Tlingits attacked the Russians, who fled. But there were still otter pelts and other valuable resources to be exploited, so the Russians returned under Baranof armed for battle in 1804. A bloody six-day conflict ensued, ending when the Tlingits silently withdrew under cover of night. The Russians renamed the settlement New Archangel. Russian Orthodox Church clergy soon took up residency and fortress-like structures systematically replaced clan houses atop a shoreside hill, a site later known as Castle Hill.
Enjoying The Water
Today, Sitka's economic base relies heavily on tourism. There are a host of ways to enjoy the scenic and protected waters around Baranof Island. Kayak rentals, with or without a guided tour, are one way to get up close and personal with the marine life. If that's not close enough, diving in a warm and cozy dry suit is another option.
If you'd rather let someone else do the driving, boats of all sizes and types, including at least one company with semi-submersible crafts, also offer tours. Fishing excursions are another option.
Most visitors make their way east along the waterfront to the Sitka National Historical Park, with its totem pole replicas and history museum. There, you'll also find two separate 0.75-mile trails under towering spruce trees.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a travel writer who makes her home in Washington State. She visited Sitka in the summer of 2005, and writes a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com.