We did not book an excursion in advance for Sitka. I really wanted to walk around the National Historical Park and it is easily accessible from where the shuttle drops you off in the middle of town. There is also an Alaska Raptor Center and Fortress of the Bear where you can see a lot of animals who were rescued and rehabilitated. There were quite a few people on the boat who opted to go to these places and really enjoyed it. Personally, I wanted to see my wildlife in the wild.
It took a good 15 minutes to walk to the Sitka National Historical Park, but you walked right next to Crescent Harbor through a waterfront park. You can see several places on your walk such as the Russian Bishop’s House (which was closed when we were there), St. Peter’s by the Sea Episcopal Church, St. Gregory Catholic Church, Sitka Fine Arts Campus, Sheldon Jackson State Museum, and the Sitka Sound Science Center. We also walked by a salmon hatchery and you can see all the salmon together which is impressive.
The Sitka National Historical Park has a building with two exhibitions, a theater with a short history of Sitka, and walking trails. We watched the video of the history of Sitka and it outlines how Tlingit, Russians, and Americans formed the town. There are still many Tlingit that live in the area. One exhibition focuses on the tribe and the other has examples of traditional totems. These exhibits help you identify the different animals represented on each pole. Outside the building, you can chat with artist in residence Tlingit wood carver Tommy Joseph. You can also check out the totem pole that he is currently carving.
The Totem Trail is a mile loop in which you can view 15 different totem poles by both Tlingit and Haida artists. This tradition started in 1901. Therefore, some of the poles have deteriorated and there are replicas in their place. They are working on saving as much of these poles as they can and you can see parts of them in the exhibition inside.
The walk through the temperate rain forest is lovely. There is a warning about bears when you first enter the woods. Sadly, we didn’t see any. The totem poles are public records, displays of identity, and clan pride. There are crest poles which display the ancestry of a family, legend poles show folklore or historical events, history poles, which recount a clan’s history, and memorial poles of individual clan members. I was excited that I could figure out which figures were ravens, wolves, eagles, and sharks. The sharks were my favorite.
One thing I didn’t know about totem poles is that they are not completely round. The backside is concave. When they are erected, they place some wood inside to keep it upright. The trails are right next to the water, so we did take a few moments to admire the views of fishing ships when we were on our walk.
After walking the trails, we decided to stop at the Sheldon Jackson State Museum on the way back into town. This is the oldest museum in Alaska and its first concrete building. It is an octagon shape and has been in use since 1897. It has over 6,000 Alaska native artifacts from across the state. The octagon shape compliments the museum experience. They have cases with windows on either side around the outside of the building and in the center there are totem poles and drawers filled with interesting artifacts.
I found the museum to be very interesting. They grouped the artifacts by tribe/clan and you could see the differences in their tools and other items depending on where they lived. On the walk back to the center of town, we briefly stopped at a church and to view the Russian Bishop’s house from the outside. The downtown area of Sitka is filled with cute shops with a variety of items to purchase. There was a reindeer hot dog stand on the street selling a $11.99 reindeer dog! We searched for a food truck that had excellent reviews, but it was not out that day. I found a clothing shop with inexpensive shirts and purchased one. We walked all around the harbor, but did not climb up to Baranof Castle Hill. My husband checked out the St. Michael’s Cathedral while I shopped and the inside was different from other churches I have visited.
We decided to head back to the ship for lunch. We were pleased with our choice to wander around on our own. We could have easily walked to the raptor center from the park or booked a tour when we exited the shuttle from the port if we had changed our mind after arriving in town.