Saturday, August 1, 2009
The Last Two Ports: Sitka and Ketchikan
Sitka was our favorite stop in Alaska. The setting is quite spectacular, there's more history than just about anywhere else in the state, and the streets have such wonderful names!
It's a shallow harbor, so our ship stayed out in deeper water and we were shuttled in by tender. It's definitely a bit slower than just walking off the boat,
but this time we had a chance to take in a 360° view of the harbor, mostly dense woods except for the town of 9,000 -- fourth largest in Alaska, even at that small size! There's also something dramatic about leaving the ship on a small boat and looking up at its immensity.
The tender let us off in the heart of town, and only a block away is St. Michael's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church that sits right in the middle of the one main road through town. Once again we were able to get a tour of the church.
It was built in 1848 but burned to the ground in 1966. Fortunately, townspeople saw the fire in time to rush in and save every one of the precious icons save one, and the church rebuilt as a clone of itself, the only discernable difference -- deliberate -- a different color backdrop to the clock in the tower.
We wandered to the west end of town to admire the prospector in front of the Alaska Pioneer Home, one of six state-run assisted living facilities in Alaska with about 500 residents statewide and a waiting list of 3,000. If they're all as attractive and well-located as this one, we can understand their popularity. Nearby was a marina we explored, where some of the boats are aging a little less than gracefully. We quite enjoyed the clever safety message, however.
After a seafood lunch in one of the cafes in town, we headed to the crown jewels of Sitka, the two parts of Sitka National Historic Park. We walked to the east end of town past this vista of our beloved Volendam to a forest reserve set aside as a national historic site in 1890, for it is where the Russians and Tlingit Indians had their final military clash, an inconclusive battle that ended when the Tlingit ran out of ammunition and left, allowing the Russians to declare victory. In partnership with the Tlingit, the Park Service created the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center here, and the artifacts and explanations were excellent.
At the center were several historic totem poles, and the adjacent woods were a cathedral of nature ornamented with reproductions of famous totem poles from different areas in southeast Alaska. Louise even got into the totem thing after the fourth or fifth pole.
From the furthest point jutting out to the harbor, we looked admiringly once again at our ship, and wondered whether it truly was in deep enough water!
Back in town, and a block from St. Michael's Cathedral, we visited the other half of the National Historic Park, the Russian Bishop's House. Built in 1843, it served the church until maintenance got to be too much for it in the 1960s, and the National Park Service agreed to restore it and open it to the public.
The first floor was once storage and a school for native children, and the Park Service now had this excellent model of what Sitka looked like in the mid-1800s. Notice the Tlingit village outside the city walls in the second scene, with cannon aimed (but fortunately never fired ), at the village.
The second floor had administrative offices and the bishop's private residence, including the study seen here. An NPS guide gave us a wonderful tour, showing us many clever devices the Russian builders used to keep the building comfortable in this cold wet climate. Bishop Innocent, the man who had it built and who lived here and administered a diocese of 7 churches in Alaska and 9 more in Siberia, was later canonized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, and you might have noticed the picture of him in St. Michael's Cathedral in the photos above.
We had one more port to go, but first had another nice sunset
at sea to enjoy and a birthday dinner in the Rotterdam Dining Room on the Volendam to celebrate with friends. Guest of honor was Stuart, one of the folks you've seen in a few other photos as he and Carole were frequent companions on our explorations from the boat.
If this were a traditional Alaska cruise from Seattle or Vancouver, we would probably have taken an Inside Passage route similar to the routes of the state ferry system shown on this map. However, this was a repositioning cruise, one point of which was to get the Volendam back from its northern hemisphere winter doing Australia/New Zealand cruises and into the Pacific Northwest for the Alaska cruise season.
So the only part of the Inside Passage we got to explore was the passage into Ketchikan and the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. But no worries, there was lots of scenery to admire from the deck or from our perch in the Crows Nest, a bar and dance area at night but a wonderful lookout on Deck Nine in the daytime.
As we approached Ketchikan we saw two Alaska state ferry boats at the drydock, and two cruise ships already in port ahead of us.
As many as four can berth at one time, and even with just three that was a mob of 4,500 tourists descending on a town with a permanent population of under 8,000. Both the Sapphire Princess astern of us when we berthed and the Norwegian Star left before us, however, so the last hour or two in town were reasonably quiet.
The place to see in Ketchikan is Creek Street, where packs of wild and crazy cruise ship passengers wandered the colorful shops now full of t-shirts and 15 different flavors of smoked salmon, trying (but probably not succeeding very well -- we certainly weren't) to imagine it in its heyday as home to cheap bars and expensive women.
Dolly's had some bait out front trolling for tourists curious to see a side of history their high school history teachers had sadly forgotten to discuss. Most of the tourists, including us, settled for reading about Dolly on one of the helpful signs dotting the district.
Further up Creek Street, beyond the tourist trapping zone, we found an excellent explanation of how to "read" a totem pole or the decorations on a cedar communal house. Click on the photos to enlarge them and read all about it.
We were not overly impressed with the popular tourist stops, so spent most of our day here walking the streets -- or rather hiking the streets, as Ketchikan has a number of "streets" that are nothing more than staircases.
Whew! What a workout! At least some of the streets went down, and of the miles of wooden sidewalks the town once boasted, at least one block-long stretch of it survives on the north side of town.
At last we joined the other ships in leaving Ketchikan to the Ketchikaners, just as we had left Homer to the Homeroids (according to more than one source, that is the preferred name for Homer's residents!). Given the scenery, there were big crowds on deck and in the Crow's Nest once more.
Considering how much more the works of nature dominate the visitor more than the works of man, it was fitting that Mother Nature gave us a colorful send-off to this rugged place.
Only two things now separated us from our Final Destination -- two nights and a day of sailing, and the Crew Farewell. At the end of each cruise segment, the ebullient Cruise Director brings just a sampling of the 600+ crew members to the stage to receive the applause of the passengers as the ship's stage orchestra gives a zesty rendition of "Anchors Aweigh."
Oh, yes, one other thing . . . Packing! Biking from Florida to Ithaca NY we made do with a red rack trunk that sat above the rear rack on the tandem, and four pannier bags that stradled the front and rear wheels. We then slimmed down to the rack trunk plus only two panniers for the loop through New England and for the biking we did in New Zealand. The panniers are packed inside one of the suitcases and the bike into those two grey cases in the next photo, in about a hundred pieces that took two hours to disassemble. For the cruise to New Zealand we added the suitcases sent to us by friends in Seattle, and in New Zealand added enough more stuff to our collection that we needed two reusable grocery bags, a red duffel and a red cooler bag we used while driving around the North Island, to bring it all back. But aside from one small box mailed to Seattle from Ithaca before the first cruise, you're looking at everything we needed for our two-year adventure!
We're almost back! Only a hop from Vancouver to Seattle for us and one more blog entry for you to read, and our adventure is over!