“Are you sure you don’t need a map?” the guy at the rental car agency asked me, while looking confused.
“Still 7 miles of road one way from downtown, and 7 the other, right?” I ask.
“Pretty much. But there’s a new traffic light. We have two now.”
There weren’t ANY traffic lights when I left Sitka, with a determined vow on my lips to never return. Just like every kid from every small town ever. And like most of them, within a few years, I was back. To be fair, this was my first time back in 6 years. Since I had set off from this tiny sliver of the Alaska Panhandle, I’d taken every excuse possible to not return – until now. Not because it’s home – everyone I cared about is long gone. I came back simply because it’s the spot on the map where the world makes sense to me.
I wheel my bag across asphalt, the air around me thick with the familiar scent of ocean, fish, boat oil, and trees. I find my car at the end of the lot, and I can definitely tell I’m back in Alaska because it’s speckled with eagle poop.
See a place for the first time, and you’re never sure you’re looking at the right things – landmarks, sights, and popular trails. Live in a place, and you see the things that have become your life without a second thought. But come back to where you once lived, and it sneaks up on you, it surprises you, and it shows you what you missed before.
Walking through downtown, I was constantly reminded of not only my past and my childhood – but my very favorite part growing up: remembering the history in Sitka.
Each Sunday, services are held in English, Tlingit, and Church Slavonic. Listening to the languages made me realize my love for diversity, everywhere I go.
Outside, the blue-gray domes blend into the sky’s dripping clouds – the ones that hide the mountaintops most of the year. Tourists call the weather here rain; locals call it Sitka sunshine.
I forgot how water is literally everywhere in Sitka. It’s in the rivers, the rain, the Sound. But as beautiful as it all is, the ultimate spot is Silver Bay. The bay is so still that reflections make it look like bald eagles are swimming upside down in the ocean. A few humpbacks stay here year-round, forgoing the trip south to Maui made by most of Alaska’s whales. You can hear them exhale from more than a mile away. When they do finally appear, their tails cut the surface in the shape of folding hands.
I took the time to sit back and realize that ironically – Sitka, is a town built like a matryoshka doll, histories nesting inside histories. Which does leave one question: what’s the smallest doll inside, the one everything else is based on? If the Russians built their church out of water, what did the Tlingit, who knew the place best, really do with the landscape?
I decide to take a drive to the only true place that could possibly answer that question: Sitka National Historical Park. Or as the locals call it, Totem Park! It’s literally a 10-minute walk from the cathedral. But that 10 minutes is the difference in how the Russians saw the land — something to conquer and then mirror before it was too late — and how the Tlingit saw it – as home. It’s similar to Pocahontas when she sings “Colors of the Wind”.
My favorite memory of Totem Park was when my family and I were walking all of our 8 dogs, and I somehow got separated from everyone else. My grandma’s dog Misty and I were lost together for about 4 hours… you could imagine the relief I had when I finally found my mom running toward me, crying. I didn’t even know I was lost! It’s so easy to do that there.
I follow the trail that leads along the shoreline — in low tide — and into the forest. It takes a minute to notice the forest is looking back. First in glimpses – the carved bears, the eagles, the orcas, the wolves. And then they’re suddenly as clear as a whale’s exhale. The Tlingit vision of the landscape, carved into cedar totem poles.
Totem poles are not religious – they’re legends and tales, the history of the place and how you should live in it. And this, I realize, is my Alaska: no snow and ice and polar bears, but something carved into the very way I think about the world. Glimpses of truth and wonder seen through rain and clouds and forest shadow.
As I’m walking, I’m remember why nature is so important to me. Why it’s my happy place, when I’m in any mood really! Anyone can fall in love with Sitka’s wilderness, everything from the Russian cathedral to Totem Park, from the eagles in the sky to the salmon in the water, everything has found a beautiful harmony to simply coexist. And you can’t help but feel completely relaxed and content. This is why I miss my home.
Sitka is a place I feel everyone should visit, at least once in their lifetime! We’ve really got it all!
WHAT TO SEE & DO IN SITKA
St. Michael’s Cathedral: Follow the noon bells to the center of town and, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a peek of the two bald eagles that roost atop the church’s cross, in near-perfect imitation of the classic Byzantine eagle iconography. $5 donation; Tue–Thu or by appointment; 240 Lincoln St.; (907) 747-8120.
National Historical Park: The best way to experience Sitka’s towering totems is along Totem Trail. The short hike winds through dense spruce forest to the mouth of the Indian River, where salmon come to spawn from July to October. The visitor center can set you straight on wildlife viewing and totem carving. nps.gov/sitk
Sitka Tours: Sitka Tours provides something for everyone . . . Russian History, Dancers, Native and Early American Cultures, Bears, Raptors, Salmon Hatchery, Whale Watching, Sea Life Touch Tanks, and scenery galore! They provide both individual and group tours – it’s the most local way to experience Sitka, for sure! $$; http://www.sitkatoursalaska.com/index.html. (907) 747-5800
Sitka Summer Music Festival: Bach and Beethoven match the jaw-dropping views of Sitka Sound from Harrigan Centennial Hall, the venue for the festival. Afternoon concerts are free on Thursdays, or watch the moon rise during one of the weekend performances. From $25; Jun 7–Jul 6; sitkamusicfestival.org
Larkspur Café: Lots of restaurants serve salmon chowder, but nowhere else will it come out this creamy and delicious (the secret ingredient? Mashed potatoes instead of flour). The soundstage at the back of the restaurant is the broadcast center for the local radio station upstairs. $$; 2 Lincoln St.; (907) 966-2326.
Reindeer Redhots: Your intro to Alaskan street food should be the reindeer hot dog at this corner stand. The gamy-smoky snack goes down even better when touched up with add-ons like chili and sauerkraut. Look for the red-and-yellow umbrella. $; Lake St. at Lincoln St.; reindeerredhots.com
Have you moved from your hometown? What do you miss, and what don’t you miss?