In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in one of the best (or worst) land deals history has ever recorded. You knew that, I'm sure - but did you know that in some of Alaska's towns the Russian legacy lives on?
In the 18th Century, Russia established a few small colonial outposts in Alaska. Sea otter pelts were in great demand amongst the upper classes in China making the harvesting of Alaskan sea otters a lucrative business. However by the mid 19th Century the sea otter population had declined and Russia was in debt following its defeat in the Crimean War. It offered to sell Alaska to the U.S for the sum of $7.2 million. At the time many Americans believed they had got the worst end of the deal, so much so that the purchase became known as 'Seward's folly' after William H Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State who signed the deal. A few hundred years later, the deal doesn't look so bad.
Sitka, on Baranof Island, then known as New Archangel, was the capital of Russian Alaska. While the Russian population returned home after the sale, their legacy lives on today through the descendants of native Tlingit women and Russian men and the continuing influence of the Russian Orthodox Religion.
|The Russian Orthodox Church in Sitka|
|Inside the Russian Orthodox Church - Note: photographs were explicitly allowed.|
|The private chapel in the Russian Bishop's House.|
|An Orthodox cross in the old Russian cemetery.|
|Today fishing seems to be the main activity in Sitka.|
Today, Sitka is a sleepy little village of about 9,000 inhabitants - the perfect place to learn about Alaska's Russian heritage. We spent three days there, exploring the town and it's surrounds and getting to know the locals.
The Totems of Sitka's National Historical Park
Sitka's National Historical Park preserves the site where the native Tlingits were defeated in 1804 by the might of Imperial Russia. The park is also home to an extensive collection of totem poles. The poles were donated by villages throughout south-east Alaska for an exhibition showcasing the state in St Louis at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. After the exposition the poles found a permanent home in Sitka. Set in a rainforest at the mouth of the Indian River, Sitka's National Historical Park is a magical place to wander on a fine day.
Bears, Bald Eagles and Ravens
Throughout our travels in south-east Alaska we were treated to the majestic sight of bald eagles, soaring, perched in the trees and even swooping down in front of us to catch their prey but nowhere did we see them as often or as close as while we were in Sitka. We stayed in a little apartment just out of town where a tree outside our window had an eagle perched in it so often I began to wonder whether he was real.
Bald eagles are without a doubt the 'royalty' of Alaska's bird life, but ravens are the propertied classes. They own the state, pure and simple, or at the very least, they strut around as if they do. They have an arrogant, almost evil, air about them. We don't have ravens in Australia and I can't say that I am sorry about that but it was fascinating to see them swaggering about Sitka. Like the eagles they were everywhere we went.
|A proprietorial raven.|
Baranof Island is famous for its brown bears. These are the giants of the bear world. I always thought grizzlies were huge but the brown bears in Sitka are massive. Apparently grizzlies are a type of brown bear but different to the ones on Baranof - at least that is what we were told. I'm open to being corrected on this.
The road system in Sitka doesn't extend much past the town so looking for bears in the wild wasn't an option but we did visit a tourist attraction called the 'Fortress of the Bear' where we were able to get a close-up view of these beautiful creatures together with some of their black bear cousins. I can't make up my mind about Fortress of the Bear. It is always sad to see wild animals in captivity, but I have seen much sadder looking bears in far smaller enclosures in other parts of the world. The managers of the attraction told us that the bears had all been rescued from the wild in situations where the only alternative would have been to destroy them. I suppose a life in captivity is better than no life at all, but I'm really not sure.
|A brown bear at Fortress of the Bear|
|A young black bear.|
|He looks like he is waiting for the salmon to run.|
What do you think about seeing wild animals in captivity? Is it immoral to put a wild creature in an enclosure or does it depend on the circumstances? I do know one thing. While I was checking a couple of facts about the brown bears of Baranof island I came across a website advertising bear shooting expeditions. I just cannot understand why anyone would want to kill an animal for fun - why not just point a camera at them instead?
For the next post in this series click - here
For all my posts on our Alaska & Canada road trip click - here
For more photos of Sitka click - here
30 July 2015