As a boy I lived in Sitka, Alaska for about five years. Since then, it has held a special place in my heart. If you’ve ever been there, perhaps you know why. In a state full of cities, towns and villages surrounded by ineffable natural beauty, Sitka stands out as one of the most lovely. On the outer coast of Baranof Island, it is partially protected from the Gulf of Alaska by a scattering of green islands, and guarded by mountains. The town itself retains much of the flavor of its history as the capital of Russian America, and later the seat of territorial government (such as it was) in the early days of U.S. ownership. The center of town is dominated by a small, beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral, and the town’s fine collection of totem poles stake the claim of the real owners, the Tlingits (although the collection includes Haida monuments as well). Heavy rains keep everything green and growing, and make the occasional sunny day a treasure.
I think of Sitka often, but never more so than in October. Autumn is perhaps Sitka’s finest season, and October 18th is Alaska Day, which commemorates transfer of Russian America to the United States. Also, the Battle of Sitka, a significant few days in Sitka’s history, commenced on October 1. Finally, three autumn events, a September conference I used to attend, the aforementioned Alaska Day, and the Whale Festival in early November shape most of my adult memories of Sitka.
My family lived on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College, where my father worked. The campus, regrettably closed now, offered expanses of green lawn and august buildings surrounded by forest. That forest, if one knew the trails, led to Indian River. Indian River flowed through the campus, then through Sitka National Historical Park, then to the ocean.
The park, commonly known simply as “Totem Park,” provided a playground like no other. Imagine wooded lanes looping a narrow strip of land separating a small river from ocean beaches. As you walk along this lane, surrounded by temperate rain forest, now and then a totem pole, a fantastically carved wooden monument of massive size, 40 feet and more, looms out of the mist. Near the tip of the peninsula, a lawn with a newer totem marks the location of the Tlingit fort, from which the local Natives made a last stand against the Russians. Off the trail, the forest tangle of devil’s club, berry bushes, massive root systems with hollows beneath tempt the more adventurous. A bridge spanning the river is an excellent place to watch salmon spawn. I loved it as a child, and I love it still. Whenever I visit Sitka, I gravitate to the park. I love to wander the paths, remembering childhood adventures. I scattered some of my mother’s ashes there. I have sat there many times watching storms roll in off the Pacific as the sun set, making my way out of the park in darkness.
This is just one of the many places in Sitka that hold magic for me. The beach from the park to the college’s waterfront buildings, the National Cemetery, Castle Hill, with its ring of cannons and breathtaking views, The beaches out Halibut Point Road, and Starrigavan and old St. Michael are just a few others.
Our income rarely allows us to visit Sitka anymore. But that doesn’t prevent me from visiting it—especially in October—in my mind.