Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sitka, Alaska: Totem Poles, Eagles and Russians

The Russian Legacy

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.


'Our' eagle

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

76 comments:

  1. I loved Sitka and especially the National Historical Park. Really interesting slice of US (and Russian) history.

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  2. Ugh I'm torn as well. My initial gut reaction is usually against animals in captivity. I have never been to Sea World, and tend to avoid zoos. But as far as them rescuing and giving animals a chance to live, as opposed to a more dire fate, I'm all for that. The bear shooting expeditions should be illegal. Aren't they already?! Great and informative post!

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    1. I was just amazed to find that it is legal to shoot bears. It seems to go so much against the image of Alaska the tourism boards promote.

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  3. I love your post, Lyn! I'm going to Alaska next month and I'm so looking forward to visit the totems and the Russian churches.

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    1. I am sure you will enjoy the totems. They are set in a lovely park just made for wandering around slowly.

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  4. It was especially timely for me to see your post about Sitka since I will be going there in about 10 days. Your information helped me to decide on what I might want to see.

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    1. I can highly recommend the totem poles. I just thought they were fantastic. The Russian Bishop's House is quite good because of the chapel and the church is beautiful inside. I wouldn't make too much effort to see the Fortress of the Bear unless you are really keen on seeing bears. There is also a Raptor Centre which I heard good things about but we didn't make it there. You might catch the salmon running about now which would be amazing.

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  5. Looks like a perfect combination between US and Russian symbols. And I was probably one of the few people that didn't know the USA bought Alaska from Russia... shame on me :-)

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    1. David, my husband, has a history degree and a life-long interest in history. I learn a lot from him and then just assume everyone else is as well informed.

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  6. I did not know about the Russian legacy living on in Alaska and find this fascinating. The totem poles are also very interesting

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    1. Before we went to Sitka I knew that the U.S purchased Alaska from Russia but I didn't really think about Russian people having lived there. It was fascinating to learn a bit about them.

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  7. I'm rather sad as I read this post since I didn't get to see any of it while I was in Sitka! Cruise ship visits are just too short for good exploration, I think. The bears are amazing. I so want to hug one (but won't because I don't want to die!) haha

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    1. Lol - hugging a bear probably isn't a good idea. Come to Australia and you can hug a koala!

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  8. I am big fan of history, so, I find this post very interesting. To me, the purchase of Alaska seems like the best deal ever.

    About your question of seen wild animals in captivity, well, I think it is fine if you are giving an animal a chance to live (and at the same time teaching the public to appreciate the ones that live in the wilderness). I have seen organizations who take care of badly wounded animals, animals born with defects that do not allow they to survive in their environment and others who take care of old animals. I do not understand the shooting thing.

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    1. I agree about the wounded animals provided they are given a decent enclosure. There is a raptor centre in Sitka which has a very good reputation for rehabilitating bald eagles and other raptors. Unfortunately, we didn't get there. We tried but it closed earlier than we expected.

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  9. So much history!! As for animals in captivity. It's so difficult. Such a delicate balance between keeping them safe, and letting them actually live free. It's unfortunate that humans have taken over so much of other animals' territories that we need to 'protect' them from ourselves by putting them into captivity.

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    1. At least the bears in Sitka had a bit of room to roam around. I have seen bears in very sad conditions in other parts of the world.

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  10. Having seen the bears myself I can't imagine how anyone would want to shoot one of them. I can imagine how menacing the bald eagles were and I for one am glad there aren't great numbers of similar birds in Australia!

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    1. It was the ravens that gave me the 'evil' eye. Didn't Edgar Allen Poe write a dark poem called 'The Raven'. The bald eagles were beautiful. I wouldn't mind a couple in our back garden, although I imagine our kookaburras and sulphur-crested cockatoos might not be so happy.

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  11. We have been thinking of a visit to Alaska fro next summer, so it's nice to read articles like this to give us a feel of what to expect there. I know how you feel about the animal parks. We are at them often due to having a small child, but it does make you feel sad. Especially seeing that photo of him waiting for the salmon on that tiny little waterfall! I spent some of today watching a live feed of wild bears looking for salmon and it looks just like this one here!

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    1. The managers at the attraction did say that they put live salmon in the water in the enclosure at the same time of year that the salmon runs in the wild - not so good for the fish though.

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  12. I recently read James Michener's Alaska and was really interested in the Russian history of the area. Loved seeing your photos as it brings the book to life in a way. Would love to get there in person one day to explore. Cheers - Ellen

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    1. Hi Ellen. I read 'Alaska' many years ago and it was on my list to read, along with 'White Fang' before our trip. I didn't even get to the first page. That's the problem, as you would know, with blogging. It takes up so much time there isn't much left for the pleasures of reading. I do dip into your blog from time to time though and always enjoy it when I do.

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  13. I haven't been to Alaska and thoroughly enjoyed your history lesson on the purchase of Alaska from the Russians. Your photos also told an amazing story. I love birds so seeing the eagles and the dastardly ravens was extra fun. I'm with you I have no idea why or how people can hunt beautiful animals. I know I wouldn't be able to pull that trigger I'd only take a shot with my camera.

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    1. Many, many, many years ago, when I was young and stupid I shot a rabbit. I'm fairly sure that it was already half dead from myxomatosis but I still feel guilty about it. I have never held a gun since.
      I'm glad you enjoyed my snippets on the history of Alaska. Learning bit and pieces of history is one of the great joys of travelling.

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  14. I love the idea of experiencing Russian culture without leaving the United States...it seems so obvious now, but I never thought about it before. And great photos of the bears!

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    1. If you ever get to Sitka, there is a group of locals who perform Russian dances each week. Unfortunately we didn't get to see them but they look great on the internet.

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  15. We're hoping to get up to Sitka next summer. It looks so pretty in our photos and is really encouraging me to visit. I didn't realize that the Russian influence was still so evident there. Perhaps that's what Sarah Palin meant by seeing Russia from her back yard? I do feel sorry for those bears but it's better than being put down.

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    1. Haha - maybe that is what Sarah meant! You're right, it is better than being killed and the bears looked happy enough I suppose.

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  16. wow. I haven't been to Sitka, but we visited many cities in Alaska. I don't remember seeing any totems as bright as the ones in Sitka. Love the photo, especially the raven, as I have never seen one wild before. As for the animals in captivity, I have mixed feelings too, but agree about the hunting for sport - I don't get it either.

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    1. Some of the Sitka totems are quite new and others have been restored to keep their colours bright. Traditionally I gather they should be allowed to deteriorate naturally over time.

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  17. I had no idea that Alaska had so much history. Yet another reason for it to be on the bucket list!

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    1. So many places we go have interesting histories. It's funny how nearly everyone knows that Russia sold Alaska to the US but it stops there. No-one ever thinks about what Russia was doing with Alaska before it parted with it.

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  18. I had a friend who lived in Sitka for years and I'm kicking myself for never visiting her in this amazing town with so much history and unique places to see. The Russian Orthodox church is magnificent and I'd love a chance to wander through the cemetery. I'm embarrassed to admit that, like so many US citizens, I've never visited Alaska but I plan to change that omission soon!

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    1. You would love the cemetery. David and I wander through a lot of cemeteries but this was one of the best. Built tumbling around a hill with thick undergrowth and decaying graves it had amazing atmosphere. If you don't believe in ghosts and spirits before you go there you probably will afterwards.

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  19. What a fun tour, I loved seeing the interiors of the Russian church and also those amazing totem poles. What a rich history and amazing nature, really Sitka is beautiful!

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    1. Thanks Noel. I have had a lot of pleasure taking photos in Alaska. It is an absolute wonderland for anyone with a camera.

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  20. Your totem photos are gorgeous. I especially like the third shot. As far as animals in captivity, well if i was an animal and that or death was my only option, I'd probably choose captivity. Then again, having seen some of the horrible places captive animals call home, maybe not. The good thing is that the bears in your photos look to be well cared for :)

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    1. I had to check which was my third photo of totems. I nearly didn't put that one in because the face looked so different to the others. I'm glad I did now. The bears didn't look unhappy but I'm definitely no expert.

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  21. How delightful to re-visit Sitka with you. I especially enjoyed my own visit to the Russian Orthodox Church and the totem park. I have such nice memories of them.

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    1. I'm glad I was able to take you back there - metaphorically speaking.

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  22. We were just in Alaska, but spent our time around Anchorage, the Kenai peninsula, and out in the far southwestern part of the state. It is amazing how different that is than Sitka. We did see some Sitka deer though at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

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    1. I read your recent post. I would like to make it to Anchorage one day but David was a lot less impressed with Alaska than me (He really isn't an animal person) so not sure how I will go try to persuading him to make that trip.

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  23. The Russian Orthodox Church is very impressive!

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  24. Beautiful! These are great photos, great memories!
    Thanks for linking up at http://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2015/08/orchids-variety-in-bloom.html

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  25. Great pics! Sounds like a awesome place to visit!

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    1. Alaska is definitely a dream destination for anyone likes taking photos.

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  26. Wow I've never seen a bear this close - I have similar feelings about reserves/parks actually. I feel bad for them, but at least if they were rescued it tugs a bit at your heart that perhaps it did save them! And Sitka looks amazing - I have a good friend who lives there and I definitely look forward to visiting one day!

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    1. We saw a bear even closer, in the wild, a little later in Canada. Fortunately we were in the safety of our car. He was a black bear though and while they are dangerous they aren't as massive as the brown bears. I hope you get to Sitka one day. It a bit more laid back than other Alaskan destinations but that is one of its best features.

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  27. Your photos are fantastic and I had never heard of this place until now. The wildlife is stunning and I didn't realise the Russian influence in some parts of Alaska. This is so interesting and it's definitely on my list now. Thanks for sharing

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    1. I got a new camera especially for this holiday and I am really pleased with how it went. It is just one of those new little 'travel' cameras - basically a point and shoot with a bit of zoom.

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  28. I've always wanted to visit Alaska and even though I knew that it's pretty close to Russia, I didn't expect for Russian churches to be there! Nice pictures :)

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    1. It's funny how so few people know about the Russian heritage. I was the same before we went to Sitka.

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  29. Every time I hear "Sitka" I think of the Sandra Bullock movie, "The Proposal." It looks like a beautiful place and I've love to visit some day!
    Julie
    www.alonewithmytea.com

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    1. Wow - I've seen that movie but didn't realise it was set in Sitka. I'm going to track down a copy and watch it again.Thanks.

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  30. Even though I'm from Arctic Norway I would love to visit Alaska some day!

    #wkendtravelinspiration

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    1. Arctic Norway - now that would be an amazing place. My brother is in Norway right now and the photos he is sending back are beautiful.

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  31. An infamous politician said she could see Russia from Alaska but I didn't know you could see a piece of Russia IN Alaska! :-)

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    1. Haha - Someone else also mentioned that Sarah Palin quote. I don't remember it but it is just the sort of thing you might have expected her to say. When we were in Juneau we drove past the Governor's Mansion just to get a peep at where she once lived. There is a photo on my blog post about Juneau - http://www.thetravellinglindfields.com/2015/07/juneau-alaska-mendenhall-glacier.html
      She certainly put Alaska on the world map. What other Governor of Alaska can anyone remember.

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  32. Fab post and really interesting ...I wouldn't have equated Russian churches with Alaska! Love your wildlife pics too ... Coming from South Africa, I don't agree with hunting for sport either ... not in any way. The totem pics are thought provoking too.

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    1. Thanks. We have a trip planned to Sth Africa next year - for me it is all about the animals. I think David might be going for the scenery though - lol.

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  33. Hi Lyn - what a lovely post. I've never been to Alaska and had no idea of it's Russian history (I live in Australia, so that's my excuse!). Your photos are beautiful, especially of the bears and birds. Lyndall from Seize The Day Project :)

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    1. Haha! I live in Australia too but like you really didn't know much about the Alaska/Russian connections until we went to Sitka.

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  34. Totem poles are so fascinating and it is always interesting hearing the stories behind them. Love the shots of those bears, and yes, I think photo shots are the only shots of animals we should be taking.
    Thanks for joining in #wednesdaywanderlust

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    1. Wait till you see the bear I photographed in Canada - he was an absolute darling!

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  35. Great shots -- Alaska is the only state I haven't visited. I'll get there one of these days.

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    1. I hope you do. It is an interesting place.

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  36. Fascinating post. No, I did not know of the Russian legacy in Alaska and thank you so much for writing about it! Loved your posting!

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    1. Thank you. Alaska's Russian legacy isn't something you hear about much but it is so interesting.

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  37. Thank you for this post, Lyn. You know I'm headed to Alaska this month, right? I would love to visit Sitka, but I don't think it's on our itinerary this time. Beautiful pictures!

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    1. I loved Sitka, mainly because it was quiet but there are plenty of other lovely places.

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  38. We visited Sitka on an Alaskan cruise stop. You obviously got more out of your visit, but we did enjoy our time there. We took our sons on a wildlife cruise which we quite enjoyed. Seward's Folly and the Louisiana Purchase---definitely probably the best real estate deals in history.

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    1. Visiting Alaska on a cruise ship and going via the Alaska Marine Highway are just two different ways of doing it. My brother went by cruise ship last year and loved it.

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