Russian History

20140616 8731 sitka totem 2 headed eagle psrSitka is located on the west side of Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska (the “panhandle”), first occupied by the Tlingit native people more than 10,000 years ago.  In 1799 Russia established a community here to serve as a trading center for the Russian-American Company, in conflict with the Tlingits.  A Russian Orthodox church was built in 1842, and the parish of St. Michael is still active today.  The totem in the middle of town recognizes the Russian influence on the development of Sitka with the double-headed eagle among more traditional animals.

20140616 8768 sitka st michaels spires psrThe Russian Orthodox church looks small and modest on the outside, but inside it glitters with elaborate icons and church symbols.  The priest was warm, welcoming and informative, telling us about customs such as the lack of pews – the traditional Sunday service is 2 hours long and parishioners either stand or kneel.20140618 8775 sitka st michaels altar psrWe learned about the church’s icons and how much information they convey with facial expressions, position, gestures, etc.  In many cases they are rendered in 3-D by use of sculpted metal, except for a person’s skin.  They keep the images of people such as saints depicted in 2-D so they can not be worshiped as idols, which explains why the icon’s metalwork is cut out around hands and faces. 20140618 8769 sitka st michaels icon 1 psrA famous Russian Orthodox bishop was sent to be the Bishop of Alaska, headquartered in Sitka.  Bishop (now Saint) Innocent arrived sometime around 1840, and the church built a house for him that has now been restored by the National Park Service.  Innocent was interested in education, and he learned many languages of the various Alaskan native tribes – here in southeast, as well as the interior and out to the Aleutians.  He created dictionaries and translations for the Alaskan people, as well as scholarly works about Alaskans.  He had a deep respect for the Alaskan native cultures, and felt that their customs and beliefs did not conflict with the teachings of his church.  He was widely loved for his open mind and kind heart, and many natives were drawn to the church because of the spirit of inclusiveness created by Bishop Innocent.

Chapel - Russian Bishop's House

Chapel – Russian Bishop’s House

We were relaxing on the seawall after touring around town one afternoon, and Jim happened to be wearing a sweatshirt from the University of Utah.  Two gals walked up to us and asked us about the shirt, and we told them that we went to the U for grad school.  We got a big high-5 from one of the gals – she is a fellow “Ute”, and the other gal admitted that she was from Brigham Young University – a “Cougar”, arch rival of the Utah Utes.  We had a lot of laughs with them, and it’s always so nice to talk with other humans.  They described some of their lives as Mormon (LDS) missionaries, and some of the rules they live by can be a little like our lifestyle on the boat in remote places… so we had some more laughs about that.  We promised to blog about these two lovely gals – Ali and Paige – thanks for making our day!  (We loved the appropriateness of the sign…)20140618 8800 sitka lds gals psrThe next day we took a longer walk to visit the Alaska Raptor Center – a rescue and rehabilitation facility for eagles, owls, and other types of hawks.  It’s a terrific facility, with birds that are healing and expected to be released that are kept in an area that insulates them from humans.  There is also a small population of permanent resident birds that have injuries or conditions that prevent them from being able to survive in the wild.20140619 8898 sitka raptor center steve and eagle psr20140619 8900 sitka raptor center talons psrThis is Steve, a full-time expert who works with the various birds, holding Hallie, an eagle with a beak defect that would be fatal in the wild.  It was wonderful to get so close to this magnificent bird and to learn more about them.  I would not want to be on the receiving end of those talons!

We ended up talking with Steve about different birds for quite a while when we first met him near the outdoor enclosure for the two resident ravens.  Ravens are very smart, and they like shiny things.  Apparently wild ravens often visit, trading various shiny things with the residents.  Ravens also have a large number of vocalizations, and we learned that there are dialects of raven sounds, passed on from parents to children.  The whole experience was really interesting, and we enjoyed seeing some different owls and hawks up close.  It’s sad that they are not releasable, but they have a good home and the love and care for the birds is obvious.20140619 8902 sitka raptor steve and hallie psrWalking back to the boat we loved to look at the flowers in everyone’s gardens.  With the long hours of sunshine (most of the time!) flowers grow very big here.20140619 8857 orange anemone closeup psrThere’s such a variety of flowers from the huge showy anemones as well as the delicate bleeding hearts.20140619 8866 bleeding hearts flowers psrAnd just to complete the bird theme for the day, Jim spotted this red-bellied sapsucker for me.20140619 8844 red breasted sap sucker face psr

Solstice in Sitka

Yesterday was the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year.  Up in this latitude there is over 18 hours between sunrise and sunset, and it’s light well before sunrise and after sunset for a total of about 20 hours of daylight.  Now the days will start getting shorter – today will be 16 seconds shorter than yesterday.  We’ll pay the price for all this daylight in December and January!

We arrived in Sitka earlier in the week after wiggling through the twists and turns of Peril Strait, which only had a few spots that we might consider “perilous”.  20140616 8718 sitka eliason psr harborAs we were maneuvering into a slip I lost the ability to control the port transmission – but luckily we were moving slowly and I had just enough room to adjust to having only one engine.  It turned out that the little retaining clip connecting the control cable to the transmission came off – easily fixed afterwards, but unpleasantly exciting at the time.

Sitka is another serious fishing town, and the commercial boats have been very active in the harbor, making repairs, loading nets, and generally getting ready for opening day for the various kinds of fish.  The dominant type of boat here is the purse seiner.20140619 8820 sitka purse seiner psrSeiners set out a large net drawn out across the water by a small tender.  After a certain amount of time the tender draws the end of the net in an arc back towards the big boat, while the bottom of the net is drawn together – creating a “purse” that encloses the fish.20140616 8745 sitka purse seiner and small boat psrThe nets need a bit of maintenance and repair, and the crews have been keeping busy.20140618 8776 sitka fixing purse seine net psr20140619 8824 sitka cg helo psrNearby is a Coast Guard Station with helicopters and a 226′ buoy tender.  The station here has been featured in a number of episodes of the Weather Channel’s “Coast Guard Alaska”, and we see and hear the helicopters every day.  These folks are real heroes, providing a vital emergency medic and air evacuation service for the fishing fleet and the remote communities around here.

As far as wildlife goes, this place feels like an NFL game – ravens and eagles everywhere!  Ravens and bald eagles here are like seagulls in other places, perched on light poles (we have to be careful walking back to the dock), perched on church steeples, boat masts, and gamboling around the skies calling to each other.  We constantly stop to watch the eagles swooping and fishing.  We did see one bear in town, but he looked pretty harmless…20140616 8758 sitka stuffed bear psrEvidently, they let just about anyone drive in Sitka…20140619 8827 dog driving van psr20140619 8830 dog driving van face psrI had to stay up pretty late to get a sunset photo, and we don’t get to do much stargazing these days.  The good news is that it will be easy to stargaze in the winter, even before dinnertime.20140618 8808 sitka sunset 2 psr