Wrapping our arms around Sitka

We’d had our sights set on Sitka since casting off a month ago from Port Townsend. Not only is it a completely wonderful place, Cruz had childhood friends here and his mom and brother would be flying up at the end of the week.

Sitka is only a few souls larger than Port Townsend but isolation makes it so much bigger. It’s always had to fend for itself. People have had to manage differences and where they haven’t the consequences have taught lasting lessons. Residents are a mixed lot with distinct identities. A full quarter claim native Tlingit status (through at least one great grandparent, as I understand it). Russian heritage is represented, evidently, by three old families. Plus the priest at St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The rest are a mix of pioneers of European descent, I think largely Scandinavian, and newcomers. The Coast Guard station, US Fish and Game and the Forest Service account for a number o federally-employed people, many who stay on or come back. Sitka is also an important regional center for education and health care, serving dozens of even more isolated communities. There’s a boarding school for Native youth from all over Alaska, for example.

Isolation means lots of attention to transportation. Direct flights from the lower 48 arrive at an airport on Japonski Island that happens to be within walking distance of downtown. Ferries link the city with points all over Southeast ad beyond. The Fairweather, a catamaran ferry that travels at 36 knots and has space for 35 cars, gets passengers to Juneau in a mere four hours. Then there are five harbors, by and large filled with commercial fishing boats. Others are sports fishing vessels, the small boats that families use to fish for personal consumption, a very few recreational boats and the a handful of floating abodes of cruising bums like ourselves.

Although there are bicycles everywhere – Sitka has been designated one of America’s Bicycle Friendly Cities – Sitka has a lot of cars. (Did I hear that there are three vehicles for each inhabitant?) But unlike pointless urban cars, these serve multiple purposes: safe transportation through the many hours of winter darkness; carts for hauling provisions and gear from ferry to home and home to boat; shelter to get out of the rain; portable offices to keep one’s affairs in order. The best part is that drivers make eye contact with cyclists and pedestrians and wave to one another. (I wonder what they do after dark.)

How strange it is to go for more the a month with no real “after dark”; how sobering to think of winters with no real daytime brightness. But, as a noticed during my first visit to Seattle over thirty years ago, darkness brings people inside and together. Los Angeles seems to empty and lonely. Sunny places become human-scaled and convivial only when people are thrown together, like in Marrakesh. Of course Marrakesh has walls, albeit walls with bright blue sky over them.

So how did we spend our time in Sitka? First day back, Cruz was off to see his friend, Jack was off to the Hames Center Gym and I to Balanced Practice. How delightful and healing to be able to do everyday yoga with Chrystal. No matter Petersburg’s chiropractors had been out of town, the kink in my neck that had come with an awkward snatch of a mooring buoy disappeared after several sessons of yoga. Although I’ve loved having this cruise force me “off the grid”, it was good to finally get to the library and my email. From my table next to the windowed wall of the Kettleman Memorial Library I could ruminate on whatever had come in while gaze out on the water, islands, mountains, and sky. This was the week to submit abstracts for the Summit in Durban in December and magical cooperation among six colleagues produced the necessary by the deadline.

Solstice at mid-week brought many celebratory offerings and the need to choose how to spend our time. On top of that, we’d arrived in the middle of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and the Fine Arts Camp was in full swing. How a town of 8,000 people can pull of things like this boggles the mind. The Fine Arts Camp recently purchased a building on the historic campus of the Sheldon Jackson College, which closed abruptly in 2007 and is gradually being saved from the ruin of time and weather by the community. Every day there was at least one performance or exhibit. The week we were there the The Sitka Music Festival, under the direction of cellist Zuill Bailey, has been stretched out to a full month. I heard the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet perform at Harrigan Centinnial Hall for a spellbound audience in rain gear and Xtratufs. The back stage is a wall of windows overlooking the entrance to Crescent Harbor. As the black and white clad musicians played, iconic trolling vessels would glide past through the mist like ballerinas on a monochrome set. A midweek concert at noon, featured a trio of favorite Alaskan musicians. As a couple of hundred folks traipsed into the forest clearing at Sitka’s renowned totem park, there was a sudden sun break in six days of nearly ceaseless rain! Throughout the performance the eagles and ravens voiced their astonishment and delight.

The community has done some good number crunching to investigate the economic return on investments in the arts, which is reminiscent of what Mayor Sam is doing for Portland. (The night after we left and I was still in range of KCAW radio, I listened to the City Council meeting. There’s an agenda slot for new of available grants and proposed action to meet deadlines.) This past year Sitkans responded to an opportunity for a matching grant with 20,000 volunteer hours and $500,000 in the space of four months! For a town so small this shows stunning citizen engagement, including from the large Native population which enjoys deserved special access to federal fundings.

In addition, Sitka’s main social events are fundraisers. For the annual all-you-can eat crab fest on a Sunday in the pouring rain, Jack took our place in a line that snaked all all around the wooden pavilion which the rest of the week serves fishermen as a net loft while I set up our little teak table with a cloth, wine and glasses. We chatted with the Cypress viola player and a dear elderly woman who’d played for years with the Anchorage symphony. After finishing off our first round with rhubarb cobbler, we went back for more.

Our most memorable evening was meeting Cruz’s friends, the Bruhls. Eliott is a family physician with SEARHC, the Native-run group that provides health care to throughout the far-flung settlements of South East and Sara is a physical therapist who can be seen going from visit to visit on her bike. As we dined on halibut tacos with Baranof Inland Brew in their hilltop house with water views all around, we talked about things I hadn’t thought much about. Like what does it take to provide safe childbirth in mid-winter to a woman from an isolated settlement. Answer: Ask her to come into town at week 28. And how do you hunt without a car? Answer: You anchor your boat, dinghy to shore near a cabin, and eventually shoot the deer. But as soon as you do, the animal has to be quartered, carried to shore, put in the dinghy and taken out to the boat before the bears appear for a free lunch. The ABCs – Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof Islands – have no black bears, only brown ones, otherwise known as grizzlies. Wow!

On Wednesday when we were having supper with Cruz and I mentioned that he just had to meet Peter Frost, the young captain who helped us bring Aurora back offshore two years ago. Jack suggested I phone there and then so I did leaving a message. On Thursday as I was swabbing the decks in the setting sun, who should row up in a small dinghy but Peter and Kelsy!   Privateer was at anchor just a couple of hundred yards away. What a wonderful reunion! They love Sitka.   have moved the base of Pacific NW Expeditions here and become Alaskans.

Our final day in Sitka started with a rainbow,a blazing bright sky, and everything in sharp edged techincolor. I went to Highliner Café shortly after 6 am for one last double shot latte and a final shot at email. Then back to the newly cleaned boat where Cruz appeared with mom Tracy and brother Penn. Everyone was making such a fuss about the good weather that even the Californians felt blessed. Just fine in the worst of weather, Sitka is spectacular under the sun.

With Cruz at the helm and instructing the rest of us, we headed out across sparking swells toward Mt. Edgecomb. By lunch we were in shirt sleeves making a big circle under sail in a nice breeze. As we headed back to the harbor, we saw Sitkans in bathing suits on the neighborhood beaches that dot the shore along Halibut Point Road.

Tracy is as taken with Alaska as we are. She talked about her kayak trip in Misty Fiords last summer with Sara Bruhl and two other Alaskan women with long experience in the wilderness. No sooner would they pull their kayaks up on a beach to camp for the night, than they would gently, ceaselessly call out to their fellow land mammals. “Hello, Bear. We’re here, Bear. Just want you to know, Bear. No, Bear, we don’t want to surprise you. We’re here, Bear. and if you don’t mind, Bear, we ‘re going to set up our camp.” I hope Tracy will write a great book about hiking around Sitka. It needs to be done and she is the person to do it. Over the years Tracy Salcedo Chourré written a couple of dozen hiking guides. This summer she’ll update a ten year old guide to the trails on Mt. Lahssen. She’s hoping her three boys can meet her there for an update of the author’s photo, where she is pictured with her nine-year old twins Cruz and Jesse and 5-year old Penn. I desperately want to go hiking with her.

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