Monday 15 August 2022 – Today, the Silver Muse visited Sitka for a brief sojourn; arriving at 0900 and leaving at 1600. The ship was anchored out in the harbour, meaning a tender was the only way to get ashore. (Even if we’d scored a land-based mooring, we’d have been in the cruise terminal, five miles out of town, so there was little practical difference.) Our scheduled excursion when we booked it was a “Waterfall and Champagne Toast Hike”. By this morning, it was called an “Exclusive Rainforest Waterfall Hike”. In any case, our instructions were to assemble in the Venetian Lounge (normally used for cabaret, presentations and films) at 0835 because we had a special early tender to take us ashore. As usual, I was concerned about the weather because I don’t like being rained on and rain is not good for my camera. The forecast was not optimistic, but then none of them have been, so that offered no practical clue.
We had a swift early breakfast, once again sitting out on the rear of the ship to help us judge the conditions. It was a little cool, but not actually raining, and actually the view was rather nice – many, many fishing boats
against a backdrop of small islands, some of which had evidence of habitation.
However, by the time we boarded the tender, the weather had changed. I didn’t find that the view I had of the driver offered much hope for a rain-free day.
When we got ashore, it was still raining and the outlook was gloomy.
However, Silversea’s efficiency meant we had a quarter of an hour to wait for a coach to take us to our hike’s starting point, and by the time we climbed on board, things had cleared considerably.
We were driven some seven miles along the coast, to Herring Cove, and when we set off for our hike, the rain had stopped. Eric, our guide, gathered us round for some introductory remarks,
including such topics as: what to do when we get charged by a bear (let him handle it and don’t run away); avoid the plant called Devil’s Club
because leaves and stems have barbed spikes which will cause you real discomfort and which are very difficult to remove; and watch your step, because the locals are dog-loving, but, more importantly there might be banana slugs on the path – their slime, when it comes into contact with water (e.g. on the sole of your shoe) turns to glue, so it’s not wise to tread on them. We did see a couple, such as this one, which was sporting “chocolate chip cookie” colouring.
That said, Eric explained that the local, Tlingit, natives knew that Devil’s Club plant leaves could be made into a tea which was therapeutic treatment for lung problems, and roots, bark and stems also had medicinal value which is currently being scientifically investigated; and the banana slug’s slime, as it trailed along, trapped and dispersed seeds and pine cones which promoted further forest growth. Not all bad, then.
Although it wasn’t actually raining, we were in rainforest, and Eric showed us what that meant for the local vegetation. Much new growth comes from old stumps
and some trees that grow this way can throw roots round the stump they grow from and eventually overwhelm it.
To English eyes, it’s a weird woodscape
but there are many undeniably attractive sylvan scenes
and occasional glimpses of the sense of humour of the locals who maintain the tracks and look after the forest.
It’s clear that there’s a solid maintenance effort along the trail
though there are places where nature has made her own pathway for hikers as well.
The river which flowed alongside much of our walk is a delightful accompaniment.
In places the trail was quite steep
(you can spot Eric way up the trail)
but overall it wasn’t a hard as the Mount Roberts trail we’d done a couple of days ago – better maintained, less muddy and, most importantly, shorter; we climbed just 186m before we saw the Bear Mountain Falls
(sorry – difficult to do the view justice in a photo, but a lovely sight). At this point Eric produced the aforementioned champagne and we all drank a (very small) toast – can’t have drunken tourists stumbling about the rain forest!
We retraced our steps to the bottom of the hike and were taken back to downtown Sitka. Rather than take an immediate tender back to the ship, we decided to go for an amble, with the main objective being the Totem Park. The route took us through downtown Sitka
where the totem pole influence was difficult to miss.
Another key influence from history is clear to see, in the shape of the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is central in downtown Sitka.
The Russians first came as a consequence of Tsar Peter I’s Great Northern Expedition, which spilled over into Alaska. The Russians wanted to exploit the area to expand the Siberian fur trade, but when they expanded to south east Alaska, the Tlingit resisted this expansion because they already had deals with America and Britain. It didn’t end well; in 1802 the Tlingit destroyed the Russian outpost north of modern day Sitka and in response the Russians returned in 1804 and fought to establish a new settlement, which was contested by the Tlingit for many years until a settlement was eventually reached in 1867.
On our stroll through the downtown area, we stopped off to get some reindeer dogs at a recommended place
and ate them sitting opposite a local ukelele band
who did their best, bless them, to overcome the ukelele’s fundamental drawbacks when harnessed as backing for popular songs.
There are some undeniably attractive buildings and some other quirks in Sitka
(let’s complete the set, here….)
(oh, the dolphin is in front of the Episcopalian Church and, in the competitive nature of these things, there’s a Catholic one close by).
There’s a very extensive marina
and even a local salmon ladder, part of the Science Centre Hatchery, which we watched a few fish try to climb; but somehow we didn’t find Sitka as attractive as we had found Skagway, I’m not quite sure why. Sitka has the amenities and the facilities but somehow, it seemed to us, lacked the charm.
However, one thing it does have which is fairly unique is the Sitka National Historical Park, or the Totem Park for short.
This features, unsurprisingly, many totem poles along a forest trail. But before we got there, a chap engaged us in conversation, which often is a heartsink moment. However, this chap turned out to be Edward Milan, a Tlingit Indian who had actually carved the pole in the foreground here (and has written books on the subject, it turns out), with whom we (mainly Jane, I was taking photos) had a gentle conversation about the history and the modern practice of creating totem poles.
We also found the workshop where poles are being carved.
Just entering on the right above is Tommy Joseph, who showed us some of the tools he works with and helps create for his students.
We walked a trail through the park. There are several totem poles along it, collected from various south eastern Alaskan villages by Alaska Governor John Brady and erected in this special park after the poles had been displayed at two world fairs in an attempt to attract newcomers to the area. In many cases the older ones have been refurbished and/or re-carved by Tommy Joseph who has also created new poles addressing modern life.
Totem poles originally stood in villages near the ocean where travellers could see them, advertising the wealth of the village and/or commemorating important people, events and legends. Often the modern world doesn’t even know what the symbols originally meant. Here’s a montage of some of the things we saw.
We then hastened back to one of Sitka’s landmarks and useful navigational aids – the bridge
where we awaited the tender to take us back to the ship.
For some reason, I find the head poking out of the top of it amusing – it’s the chap who’s driving the thing. Anyway, aside from a small collision with Silver Muse, we got safely back, having had an engaging conversation on the way with a father-and-son combo – Dad from Virginia, son from San Francisco.
And that ends the story of the day – yet another fairly full-on one. We treated ourselves to in-suite dining whilst I cobbled these words together, and now it’s time to get our heads down before our next and final Alaskan port of call – Ketchikan. We’re booked on a “photo safari”, which I hope I will find interesting, but during which I can imagine Jane will be quietly rolling her eyes on occasions. Come back tomorrow and see whether I got the “iconic images” that the blurb promises!