Our Alaska Cruise

September 2006

The Cruise

Special Pages

Sitka, Alaska

N 57° 03.2'
W 135° 19.8'

Finally, after 55 years of life, I had made it to the largest city in the United States of America.

When I was born, Sitka was owned by the USA, but it was not part of a State yet. That happened later on January 3, 1959. Alaska was followed by Hawaii, which became a state the same month that I turned eight years old: August 1959.

I was in the third grade when I saw a picture of President Eisenhower holding the new 50-star flag in My Weekly Reader, a children's magazine.

You might be thinking to yourself, "New York is the largest city in the US," but you would be wrong, at least in the amount of land it takes up.

Sitka is huge! The actual incorporated city has 2,874 square miles in it, and its incorporated borough includes an incredible area of 4,811.5 square miles! (New York is a paltry 303 square miles for the city and 786 square miles total.)

At the same time the entire of State of Alaska is as under populated as was the entire area now occupied by the USA when Columbus discovered the New World. In 2002 it is estimated that there were 643,786 people living in Alaska. (For perspective; the city of Portland has 556,000 people in it, and with the surrounding metropolitan area there are over 2 million people.) Alaska is over twice as large as the State of Texas, which means it is nearly uninhabited by our normal standards in the USA today. But it is beautiful country and people just don’t know what they are missing!

Besides being large, Sitka is also located on an island; well actually it takes up all of one island (Baranof Island) and part of another (Chicagof Island—which sounds like it perhaps should be in Illinois somewhere ).

In 1741 the Russians began poking around the area, and the first Russian governor of Alaska, Aleksandr Baranov (or Baranof, as all the landmarks spell it), built a fort in 1799 just north of where Sitka sits today. It is called "Old Sitka" now, but it was Fort St. Michael then.

Not surprisingly the local Tlingit Indians weren't too happy about that and they destroyed the fort in 1802. Just as unsurprisingly, the Russians didn't like that, and they returned in force, ending all resistance by the Tlingits in 1804 with a final battle on the location where the Sitka Historical National Park sits today.

That same year Novo Arkhangelsk (“New Archangel”) was founded, and Baranov moved the headquarters of the Russian-American Company there.

Things came to an abrupt change in 1867 when the US purchase of Alaska was formalized and the ceremony took place here on Castle Hill on October 18 of that year.

Novo Arkhangelsk just didn't roll of the American tongue as well as it had the Russian tongue. They didn't have any American or Canadian discoverers to name the town after, like they later had for Juneau. So they started calling it Sitka. This name was also from a foreign tongue, but it was short, crisp and easy to say. The word came from the Tlingits, who called the area, "The Outside of Shee." (Baranof Island was "Shee" to them.) That boiled down to something that sounded like "Sitka" to the Americans, and that became the accepted name.

Sitka remained the territorial capital until Juneau took over in 1906.

Sitka (SIT)

Sitka Airport is located on Japonski Island. Japonski is Russian for Japanese, and some Japanese fishermen had been stranded on it during the nineteenth century.

Alaska Airlines supplies the only jets that land here (from Juneau, Ketchikan, Seattle/Tacoma).

The approach for the end of the runway nearest our ship is at 290° (with North being 360° or 0°). If you were looking down on it from above, you would see a big 29 painted on the end. Naturally the other end is 180° degrees out at 110°, and it is marked with an 11, as you can see on the map.

The runway sports hazards such as:
  • Rocks washing up on the runway during storms (the field elevation is officially 21 feet above sea level),

  • High winds from the Pacific hitting its exposed position, and of course

  • Birds that are always in the air in large numbers.

Portland (PDX) Airport is 30 feet above sea level, and located right beside—almost on—the Columbia River, but it is far more protected by mountains from crosswinds. Winds are almost always flowing from or towards the Gorge in a pattern that matches the main airstrip direction.

Dotti and I have landed several times on a runway that could match the conditions of Sitka: the runway at Henderson Field on Midway Island. While there was no boulder problem—we were surrounded by a protective water level reef—everything else matches pretty closely with Sitka. The Gooney birds were plentiful and they would do a lot of damage to a jet engine (of course the reverse was even more true), and there were open seas for 360° around. It's elevation was a mere 13 feet above sea level. We had a Marine fighter crash there once, but fortunately the pilot and co-pilot were able to punch out in time, and the only thing damaged was the plane and some turf beside the runway.

The O'Connell Bridge was in our sight for most of the time we were in Sitka. It was opened in 1972, and provided the only road (Harbor Drive) to Japonski Island, where the Sitka Airport is located. The bridge has a total length of 1,255 feet and is what is known as a "cable-stayed bridge." As it turns out this was the very first one built in the USA for vehicular traffic. We have seen another many times, in Kennewick, Washington, named the Ed Hendler Bridge. We always thought it was a pretty bridge, and its 2,503-foot length runs over the mighty Columbia River. But, unlike Sitka, Kennewick is not a sight that tree lovers would enjoy very much, in spite of the magnificent river flowing by.

The O'Connell Bridge at first looks like it might be a suspension bridge, like the Golden Gate Bridge. But it is not. There are four towers but the cables running over the top of them are taut, and don't sag like the cables of a suspension bridge. Also the cables go directly to the deck of the bridge. (The suspension cables for the Golden Gate Bridge go from anchor points at the end of the bridge, up and over each of the towers and over to anchor points on the other end of the bridge.)The cables on a cable-stayed bridge spread out like a fan, and hold the bridge deck up directly. I think the design is very aesthetically pleasing.

Port Call: Sitka!

September 21, 2006

The weather for our day in Sitka was very pleasant. With a light breeze, the temperature stayed within the average normal for both the high and low. For the time we were in the Sitka area, air temperature rose to 55°F and only fell to 48°F. The mean temperature was 51° and we were within 4° of that all day long; and we were all very happy with that!

It is easy to tell that I was comfortable all day, just from looking at the pictures; I was wearing my coat, but it wasn't zipped up.
  • It was cool enough to let us comfortably walk briskly but,
  • Not so cool so as to chill us when we stopped.
  • It wasn't too bright but,
  • It wasn't raining either.
If I had to choose one set of weather conditions to live in forever, it would be pretty close to these. It is very representative of the Pacific Northwest during my favorite three seasons: fall, winter, and spring.

When I first got up I did some work on the pictures we had already taken, and made sure that our cameras' memory sticks were cleared off and empty for the day, and that the batteries were fully charged. (I have never forgotten the Second DWLZ Conference when I had found to my horror that my battery had not charged when I plugged it in because it turned out to be a "switched" outlet it was plugged into, and the switch got turned off. I had to do all my photos for the Saturday Night Runway Show sitting next to a power outlet, with my camera plugged in, just so I could take pictures. Oops! I certainly wouldn't be able to do that in Sitka, so I double checked the batteries in both Dotti's and my cameras and the spare battery in my pocket.)

Dotti and I had breakfast in the room about the time we pulled into Sitka. I had put the tray in the bathtub to clear some space for the coffee carafe and our cups. The hot coffee was very welcome when I went back and forth between our outside veranda to take pictures and back into the room. My little Olympus camera was on the dresser, and that is the camera I took ashore with me each day. It takes fairly good pictures, and it is small enough to fit easily in my shirt pocket.

Sadly, we lost the penguin the first night ("He's dead Jim!"), but we created a safe haven, and animal refuge on the back of our sofa! Here our our elephant and the rabbit could live (perhaps exist is a better term, for how much living can you do as a towel?) in peace and safety. All four of us were all really impressed with the little towel animals we found in our rooms each night, and they gave us considerable enjoyment.

The camera is looking to the southeast into the narrow entrance of Camp Coogan Bay, surrounded by the Tongass National Forest. On the far left is the 1725-foot Sugarloaf Mountain, which is hundreds of feet taller than the more famous 1296-foot mountain of the same name sweating in Brazil. Not only that; it is a lot prettier, being all covered in green.

The sky is gray, and would remain that way for most of the day; but this day we were to have less rain in Sitka than we had during our time in Juneau, and we had hardly noticed it during our visit to the state Capital.

In the foreground is the site of the Sitka Historical National Park. This is the location of the final battle between the white man and the Tlingit Indians in 1804. (See sidebar.) The white men were Russians and they are the ones who founded Sitka, Alaska, but as you know from reading the information packed sidebar, they didn't call it that.

Climbing high behind the park, and the buildings beyond it, is the start of a ridge that runs up to what is locally known as Mount Verstovia. The name comes from the Russian word Verst — meaning 3500 feet in distance. So, a mountain standing about 3,500 feet could earn the name. Mount Verstovia Trail, a challenging hiking trail, leads up this ridge. It sure would be nice to spend some time here hiking!

This land extends out into the water from the Sitka Historical National Park. The seagulls have taken quite a liking to this area.

The Park remains on the right in this picture but on the left we are moving towards downtown Sitka. Crescent Harbor with its tender dock, and associated sailing boats, protected by a stone seawall is just becoming visible in this shot.

Here we see a wider view, which includes the area that we would be visiting for our port call. The park is on the right, while a more complete—though admittedly small—view of the marina in Crescent Harbor lies in the center, and downtown Sitka is on the left.

The hill just left of center is Castle Hill, the last landmark that we would visit for the day. It stands 60 feet tall, and at one time was a very busy place, with government goings on being a daily routine. It then stood right up against the water, dangling its toes in the waves. But land fill has pushed it back, and it must content itself with its memories of the good old days. On the extreme left, politics aside, we see the east end of the O'Connell Bridge. Trust me, we will be seeing more of that bridge during our visit with Sitka.

Once again we are looking at Crescent Harbor, and the design of the seawall is interesting. It forms an enclosed area that would block heavy waves coming in from the Pacific. The opening into the area looks like a portion of a maze, where boats would enter, traveling more or less west, until they clear the inner wall and then they could turn into the docking area and move to their station. A truly safe harbor in time of storm; and I'll bet they get some doozies here in Sitka!

Looking up at the bridge, where not too much is going on, now that we have dropped anchor. The sky is just peeking through the clouds, but that won't last. Clouds are going to be our constant companions on this day. But, since they didn’t drop rain, we didn't mind a bit.

Perhaps I should say, any more rain. Looking at the forward part of the Promenade deck below, clearly some rain earlier has left a shiny coating. But we are willing to let bygones be bygones and enjoy the dry day ahead.

The ship's bow is pointed right at Sugarloaf Mountain. Clouds are layered, with the high ones forming a ceiling, and the lower ones draping themselves over the shoulders of the peaks of the Tongass Forest, like mink stoles. The sun is breaking through the clouds enough to cast a beautiful reflection across the water, and if there is one thing that I miss most about being at sea from my Navy days, it is seeing the sun and moon doing just that.

There was an eerie sort of otherworldliness about this view. It seems like condensed Pacific Northwest: a distilled and more pure version of what I so much love about the area where we live. The mountains, the clouds, the water, and especially the trees all say, "Welcome home!"

And speaking of home, as we turn more towards the west, there are some homes on the islands off our starboard bow. The islands are not all individually named but they are part of the Tongass National Forest. The Gilmore Islands and Whale Island are here, and it must be a wonderful place to live for the lucky ones who do. One house is just visible on the water between the clump of trees just right of center, and the second clump, leading into the larger island.

Pulling back a bit, and turning more towards the west, we can see more of the islands. Other dwellings begin to come into view, and a power boat streaks across the water heading towards Sitka. Does the driver live in one of those houses, and is he heading in for work, shopping, or fun?

In the sky, to the left the suggestion of a brighter day is teasingly held out by the thinner clouds on the horizon, and a gull is gliding above the bay. Here in Sitka, it was hard to ever take a picture that included the sky in it, without a catching a picture of at least one bird in flight.

Putting the zoom on the house we could just barely see earlier, shows that they have nice deck around the home, and a ramp that leads down to the "driveway." Since there are no bridges to the islands, and no roads to use even if you had a car here, boats are the "cars" for these folks.

It is hard to miss the idyllic setting for this home, but also note they have built on stilts. This gives a bit of vertical "slack" in case of high tides and storms ganging up on this location. Water can pass under the house, without taking it away and making splinters out of it.

At the time this picture was taken, the tide was on the rise, and it was up 2 feet from low tide, which had occurred just over two hours earlier. High tide would be up 7 additional feet up from where it is now. My guess is that high tide would just about coincide with the top of the dark coating you can see on the rocks below the house.

On a quiet day like today, high tide would do little more than raise the loading dock at their "driveway" up 9 feet from its lowest point and make the ocean appear a bit closer to those sitting on the deck. But on a day when the wind is lashing the sea into high waves, the distance from normal high tide and the top of the rocks becomes too small for comfort and even safety. By adding the stilts, a path is created for the water to pass by harmlessly, keeping the homes high, and dry, at least on the inside.


In February 1987, I returned home to Virginia Beach after a seven month Navy cruise. Dotti and I left the kids with some friends for a night, and we checked into a hotel on the waterfront.

The Atlantic was up and it was angry. The wind was whipping by in a gale that would have made an old house moan and creak. We moved out onto our deck and bundled up in blankets, much as I'll bet the owners of this home would on such a dark and stormy night, and watched the waves crash and bellow below our safe perch. It was one of the most enjoyable nights of my life. There is nothing like sharing a stormy sea with the one you love, when you can see it from a safe perch, and I will never forget it.

Continuing to turn towards the west, and towards our starboard side, more of the islands are visible and two more homes are showing off their owners' amazingly good fortune in where they get to live.

They are sheltered from the wind pouring in from the Pacific by the trees, avoiding the direct gale when it passes by. Waves will crash on Whale Island to seaward and be broken up before reaching these landing docks. But the lucky people can still see it all through their windows, or better yet, from their decks!

Ramps run down to the water, so they can "run to the store" and even some infrastructure is visible, with the pedestrian walkway that leads into the forest on the left. Imagine living on an island, surrounded by mountains, and forests, and only a short boat ride from beautiful downtown Sitka, Alaska. Maybe the closest Wall Mart is in Anchorage, but who needs it when you live in paradise?

The closer we get, the better these homes look. You can step out your door and take a hike in the woods, or a ride in the Pacific. Or you can throw a line from your deck and do some fishing. At night you can crank up the wood stove, or fireplace, and share the ocean sounds with the one you love. A good book would be much better sitting here with the cry of gulls ever in your ears. Just shut off the generator and fire up the hurricane lamps, it is going to be a great evening!

I found myself returning to this spot many times during the cruise. This is the forward most part of the Verandah Deck, and our staterooms were not far from here, just a few doors down the passageway on the starboard side. This location was not only easily accessible to us, it provided a great view.

We have continued moving clockwise, and the camera is pointed due west, and off the starboard side of our ship the islands are coming to an end. That is the Pacific Ocean you see out on the horizon.

It is funny how we all live different lives, often without thinking about it. This man is probably doing a normal and routine thing, as he cruises along in his little boat pulling a much smaller motorboat. For me that would very much out of the ordinary and quite exciting. Sure, I've been in many boats of different sizes, and spent unbroken months living on a ship, but my life doesn't include a morning "drive to work" in a boat. This man's may. It is hard to visualize replacing cars with boats for so much.

I wonder what he was thinking as he passed by. Was he concerned with his bills, or was he planning out how to work around some other problems, or was he just looking at the water and thinking how wonderful life can be?

Of all the towns and cities in the Alaskan Panhandle, only Sitka is located on the Pacific Ocean. From where our ship was parked, we could look out to sea, with nothing between us and the Alaskan Peninsula but the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Beyond the Alaskan Peninsula, which sticks out into the Pacific like a scimitar, the next land is Russia, from whence came the men who founded Sitka.

On the right is the south end of the Sitka (SIT) Airport runway sticking out into the water. (See Sidebar for more on the Sitka Airport.)

Here's another guy in his boat moving across the water. In the background the runway continues on its path towards the terminal. What appears to be another island off in the distance is really still part of Japonski Island, where the airport is located.

The glaciers of the past have really cut the land into odd shapes, and then man has been active as well, helping to shape the land.

The Sitka Airport runway continues on along in the background, disappearing into the trees and the distance. Japonski Island dominates this picture as it stretches across the entire field of view.

The O'Connell Bridge is the only road to the island for cars and pedestrians. There once was a ferry system in place but the bridge was completed and dedicated in 1972, making the ferries unnecessary.

The O'Connell Bridge (see sidebar) is in the photo's center. Japonski Island and the Sitka Airport are on the left, and downtown Sitka is on the right.

As I was taking these pictures, all at once I heard the sound of a small plane's engines winding up. I couldn't see the plane yet but I could tell it was getting ready to take off, but from where?

Plane Under Bridge

Plane Out From Under Bridge

Lifting Off

Water Plane
Under Bridge
Skimming Out
From Under Bridge
Just lifting Off
In the air

A closer look

getting higher and closer

In the air
leaving bridge
Closer Look Getting higher
and closer
off the starboard bow

Eye Level Straight ahead

Alaska Airlines Landing

Off th
Starboard Bow
Eye Level
Straight ahead
Alaska Airlines
Landing at SIT

I wasn't expecting to a see a plane taking off out from under O'Connell Bridge, but there it was. I had heard that water planes were common in Alaska, sometimes being the only transportation into certain out of the way areas.

The final picture above was of a jet landing on the Sitka Airport runway on the right. Between the planes and the birds, the sky was a pretty busy place!

Castle Hill is in the center of this shot of the Downtown Sitka area. On the ship you can see the launches, or what Jim and I would call "Liberty Boats" from our Navy days. Those are the boats that would be taking us ashore and bringing us back once our visit was over. It was about time to put them into the water.

One boat is in the water now and away, and a second one is wet as well, getting set to get to work. You can see the hoist and cables, now dangling empty, that had been used to lower one of the boats into the water.

Off in the distance, at the base of the bridge was the docking point for our launches. Our visit was not too far off!

A close-up of launch number 12, with the name of our ship painted on the hull. The driver sat about where you might expect, if this were a British car, looking out the front windshield while sitting on what would normally be the American "passenger" side.

The passengers sat well below the driver, at the side window level. The boat rode smoothly and even in choppy waters (see Ketchikan) it was a comfortable ride.

Our ship has become an island, and now the launches have become our cruising vessels. One of them is making its way ashore, as Sitka waits patiently for our arrival.

The O'Connell Bridge takes center stage in this shot, but it is the loading dock and ramps down and to the right of the main span of the bridge where we would be heading. Soon our launch would be parking there and we would be walking up those ramps for ourselves. We were getting excited to be on our way.

This is the entrance to the marina, the passage through the stone seawall, for sailboats to enter.

The city, backed as it is by mountains and clouds, feels totally natural here in Alaska. Even though I was only a new visitor to this beautiful State, I felt right at home here.

What could seem more at home in Alaska than a gull in flight, sweeping past the evergreen forest behind it? What a beautiful sight!

And speaking of beautiful sights, here are the two lovely ladies that Jim and I will be privileged to share the day with in Sitka, Alaska.

Coffee in hand, with Dotti reading the ship-provided information brochure for this port stop, the girls are intent on finding the best places to shop, and they have already had a day's practice in Juneau.

I don't know if Sitka is quite ready for what is about to happen to it.

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