A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 36°/52°/Intermittent clouds
Fairbanks: 30°/56°/Mostly sunny
Juneau: 36°/55°/Partly sunny
The round-rumped grizzly bear ambled toward us, and I swallowed a scream and the urge to run. It had 6 million acres of Denali National Park and Preserve wilderness in which to roam, yet somehow this bear had managed to find my backpacking partner and me, alone on the Savage River.
On and off the road system, Alaska is dotted with cities, towns and villages that give the state its real character.
Luck struck around 6:30 a.m. Sunday -- less than nine hours before the end of the 10-day Slam'n Salm'n derby -- when Robert Hayes hooked a 40.97-pound king salmon that made him the winner.
Summer solstice marked the beginning of the warm season last week, but two Anchorage fly-fishermen discovered Monday morning that winter still lingers deep in the Chugach Mountains.
Island city dates to Alaska's earliest days
"Sitka," wrote Alaska mystery author John Straley, "is an island town where people feel crowded by the land and spread out on the sea."
This town of 8,800 people is the only one in the Panhandle islands that faces the Pacific Ocean head-on. Sitka sits on the western side of wild Baranof Island, guarded only by a 3,200-foot sleeping volcano named Mount Edgecumbe.
Whales live year-round near Sitka -- the annual Whale Fest is in early November -- and bald eagles fly overhead.
Straley, a private detective who lives in Sitka, writes poetically about the town's personalities and its weather, both of which are often gray and wet but in the end longingly beautiful. As in 1992's "The Woman Who Married a Bear," he weaves the region's rich history into the text, and there's a lot to be used.
Louis L'Amour wrote "Sitka," a fictional account of the deal in which Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million in 1867. James Michener based himself at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka while researching his much longer novel, "Alaska."
A visitor to Sitka National Historical Park gets the whole story: The area was first settled by Tlingit Indians. The Russians, under the banner of the Russian-American Co., arrived in 1799 to collect sea otter pelts. The Tlingits rebelled in 1802, driving the Russians away. Three years later, Alexander Baranof returned with the battleship Neva, launching a bombardment that the Tlingits withstood for a week before retreating into the forest.
The Russians set up the Russian-America Co. headquarters in a fort called New Archangel, which is now known as Sitka (a contraction of the Tlingits' name for the area, Shee Atika). But the sea otter pelt trade died out, and the Russians decided to sell and get out. William Seward, the U.S. secretary of state, helped manage the deal, which was made official at a Sitka flag ceremony in October 1867.
Sitka remained the capital of Alaska Territory until 1906, when the seat of government was moved to Juneau. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister, started a school. Fish canning and gold mining contributed to the city's early growth. But the big boom came with World War II, when the Navy built an air base on Japonski Island, where 30,000 personnel were stationed.
After the war, the Bureau of Indian Affairs turned some of the buildings into Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school for Alaska Natives. The Coast Guard now maintains the air station.
Cruise ships, the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System and several airlines serve Sitka.
Sitka's past is remembered at the Sitka National Historical Park, St. Michael's Cathedral, the Russian Cemetery, the Tlingit Native Village, Totem Square and the Russian Orthodox Church on Castle Hill, as well as the Isabel Miller and Sheldon Jackson museums.
As Americans arrived, the religious scene changed from Russian to Western European. Saint Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 611 Lincoln St., was consecrecrated at "The Cathedral of Alaska" in 1900. The church is on the National Historic Register.
The Sitka Lutheran Church, 224 Lincoln St., was, in 1840, the first Protestant church on the Pacific coast. There are tours.
Another building of note -- Sitka has several -- is the Pioneers Home at Katlian Avenue and Lincoln Street, facing the water. According to Alison K. Hoagland's "Buildings of Alaska," Construction began on the main three-story building began in 1934, no doubt a great relief to the old men who had been housed under the state-supported program in abandoned military buildings. Women's quarters were added in 1956.
In front of the building is the statue "The Prospector," sculpted by Alonzo Victor Lewis in 1949.
The Tlingits' past is remembered daily during the summer by the Naa Kahidi Dancers in the Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house on Katlian Street. The performances are described as combining elements of drama, hsitory, culture and song. The longhouse-style building has a large screen carved with raven and eagle images.
The Russian heritage is portrayed by the New Archangel Dancers, who interpret folk dances from Russia, Ukraine, George and Belarus. The shows coincide with the arrival of cruise ships.
Sitka has a full range of accommodations, from hotels and bed and breakfasts to a hostel.
There's even the private Rockwell Lighthouse, which visitors can stay in. Dr. Burgess Bauder, the owner and builder, says the design is "pure whimsy: It's what a lighthouse should look like."
The hostel is operated by the United Methodist Church, 303 Kishim Street.
Dining is enhanced by seafood caught locally: salmon, halibut, rockfish, shrimp. There are more than a dozen restaurants.
In addition to Sitka National Historical Park, there are seven state parks in the area. Three are on the road system, and four can be reached by air and water.
Sitka has a maritime climate, which means it's cool and wet -- in this case an average July high temperature of 61 degrees and an annual precipitation of 96 inches, including 39 inches of snow. The winter's average low temperature is 37 degrees in January.
A light waterproof jacket is handy, and water-resistant shoes are always practical.
Daylight ranges from about 5 hours 30 minutes in the winter to 18 hours 30 minutes in the summer -- when the sun gets through the clouds.
Sitka's summers have been brightened for more than 30 years by the annual Sitka Music Festival, held for three weeks each June. It attracts classical performers from North America, Asia and Europe. 907-747-6774.
Many people visit Sitka for wildlife, especially whales and eagles. In November, the town celebrates Whale Fest at the peak of the October-January southern migration of the 40-ton whales, the largest in Southeast Alaska. The festival has lectures by biologists, a concert and marine tours. Sitka has a whale-watching station called Whale Park.
Wildlife tours focus on whales, marine mammals and seabirds. The waters around Sitka are famous for their humpbacks, which sometimes breach and spin before crashing back to the water. St. Lazaria Island, a seabird haven that is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, is home to puffins, petrels and many other birds. Several outfits provide tours.
The town's Alaska Raptor Center treats about 200 injured eagles and other raptors at its 17-acre campus at 1101 Sawmill Creek Road. About 40,000 people visit the center each year, and there is also an outreach program to schoolchildren across the country. Included on the grounds are a bird hospital, resident raptors, and an interpretive trail that pass through old-growth and second-growth forest.