Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 16, 2013

Sitka - Alaska’s First Capital


— One of the most vexing problems I had during my Holland America Alaska cruise was picking how I’d spend my time while in port. In the catalogue of possibilities, I counted 21 shores excursions in Sitka alone.

Broken down in three categories, they include adventure tours like salmon and halibut ocean sport fishing, volcano coast exploration by ocean raft, wilderness sea kayaking, photography tours, hiking and mountain biking, even snorkeling.

Wildlife tours include beach and wildlife exploration by jet cat, sea life discovery by semi-sub and a look at the Alaska Raptor Center, sea otters and Fortress of the Bear, a bear rescue center where the inhabitants roam in a natural setting while visitors view them from a covered area.

Knowing that Sitka (New Archangel) was the original colonial capital when the Russians controlled the area, I hit on a sightseeing tour that started with a stop at Sitka National Historical Park, which explores the culture of the native Tlingits, who lived in the area for over 50 centuries.

Located on the outskirts of town, one of the park’s main enticements is the array of large, colorful totem poles carved by the Tlingit and Haida peoples and erected along a pathway that wanders through the rainforest.

I discovered that totems come in four categories. Crest poles identify the ancestry of a family. History poles record the achievements and stories of a clan. Legend poles focus on folklore or actual events, and memorial poles honor worthy individuals.

During my look around, I could hear singing coming from the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi, a building constructed in the style of a Tlingit clan house that serves as the home of the Naa Kahidi Dancers.

Back in town, I explored the Russian Bishops House, one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. Completed in 1842 by Bishop Innocent Veniaminov, who governed the Orthodox Church in an area that extended from Alaska to the Kamchatka Peninsula, the two-story log building painted a mustard yellow with a red roof dominates the downtown landscape around Crescent Harbor

The Russians first arrived in Alaska in 1741 and developed colonies to exploit the lucrative fur trade. New Archangel served as the capital of a region that extended as far south as Northern California. To promote Russian culture, the Orthodox Church accompanied the settlers and established Sitka as its base.

Even after the Russians transferred Alaska to the United States on October 18, 1867, the Orthodox Church continued to occupy the building. When the Bishop’s House closed in 1969, the building was in danger of collapsing, and the National Park Service began a 15-year restoration project that started in 1973.

Today, the site has been restored to its early mid-19th century appearance, and tours include a look at the Chapel of the Annunciation and its lavish icons, the bishop’s residence and items from around the world such as Russian furniture, English pottery and tea from China.

Sitka has 20 of Alaska’s 305 historic properties listed on the National Register. One of them, St. Michael’s Cathedral, built in the 1840s, still serves the current Orthodox congregation in the heart of downtown. The beautiful onion-shaped, domed building burned in 1966, but a replica was rebuilt 10 years later. Fortunately, many of the original art pieces, icons, and religious objects were saved or salvaged from the fire and are displayed in the new structure

For a great vantage point, I hiked up nearby Castle Hill, site of the lowering of the Russian flag and the raising of the American flag as part of the transfer ceremony ceding Alaska to the U.S. in 1867. While none of the original fort structure remains, the view of the harbor, downtown Sitka and the not-so distant mountains is worth the climb to the top.

If You’re Going

For more information on Sitka, phone 800-557-4852 or visit For more information on the Holland America Line, phone 877-932-4259 or