Looking for adventure but short on time? Make it a weekend in Alaska

My weekend adventure actually started two years ago when my good friend from high school, Michael Ivie, now a professor of entomology at the University of Montana, heard I wanted to go to Alaska—You know, the normal places like Anchorage, Juneau, or Fairbanks. “You don’t want to go to Anchorage,” he said. “Go to Sitka.” Michael has traveled to every country in the world, so my instinct told me to trust him. Sitka wasn’t even on my radar, and admittedly, I had to look it up on a map. Tucked into the most Southeastern part of the state, on Baranof Island, Sitka is accessible only by boat or plane, but I figured it was doable.

After being forced to cancel not one, but two weeklong trips, I had about given up on the idea of visiting the former capital of Russian America. But this year, as my birthday approached, I phoned my friend, Darlene, to see if she would like to go for a long weekend. Fifteen minutes later, we had our flights and hotel bookings secured.

It wasn’t long before I received an enthusiastic text message from Darlene about doing a daylong hike of Mt. Edgecumbe. That text led me to a little research, where I found this on the SitkaTrailWorks.org website:

Description: Accessible only by boat. Strenuous hike to the summit of the extinct volcano with several steep climbs.
Distance: 6.7 Miles (one way)
Time: 4-6 Hours (one way)
Elevation Gain: 3,200

Level of Difficulty: Difficult. Muddy and wet in places. Last three miles steep climb. Last mile above tree line is extremely steep and on loose pumice. Bears may be present.

Was she crazy? If the words, “strenuous, steep, difficult, and muddy” were not enough, maybe she didn’t understand that in Alaska, “bear” most often means Grizzly. No way. We would find something else to do.

Salmon fishing was my activity of choice. Many of the professional fishing companies in Sitka offered all-inclusive experiences, but we wanted to see more than the open seas, so we nixed the idea of a fishing lodge. We did find a couple of reputable freelance guides, but all of them required a party of four. After sitting on a few waiting lists, we worried we would miss other opportunities, so we moved forward with plans to hike and take a short boat trip to explore a nearby island. I only agreed to the hike after we hired a local, professional guide with expert knowledge of the area…not to mention, an ample supply of bear spray.

Flying to Sitka was easier than it sounds. We left Fresno at 6 a.m., stopped for a short layover in Seattle, and arrived promptly at 1 p.m. Our prearranged taxi driver did not show up. We soon learned that was the norm. With one exception we stumbled upon our last day, no matter what assurances they make, taxi drivers in Sitka do not care when or if they pick you up.

Looking for a little serenity, we stayed at Otter’s Cove, a few miles from the center of town.

With a clear view of Mt. Edgecumbe, the sound of the waves slapping against the rocks acted as a buffer to the rest of the world. When we arrived, the owner was about to head into town, so we splashed a little water on our faces and piled in the back seat, which we shared with her two Chihuahuas.

Once in town, we headed straight for St. Michael’s Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church, located right in the center of downtown. Beautifully ornate, the original Cathedral was constructed between the years of 1844 and 1848 and serves as the major representation of the Russian influence in North America in the 19th century. From the time of construction to about 1872, Sitka was the seat of the Russian Orthodox Diocese, which governed all of North America.

The present cathedral is a careful reconstruction of the original building, which was consumed by fire and burned to the ground in 1966. Nearly all of the original icons, pieces of Russian Orthodox art, and religious objects were salvaged by 100 townspeople forming a human chain. These treasures are now displayed in glass cases for visitors to view.

I found myself wanting to sit quietly for a few minutes to look at gilded doors leading to the altar. The contrast of the walls lined with simple sailcloth pay tribute to mariners who have lost their life at sea.

The next morning, I awoke at sunrise, which this time of year is just before

4 a.m. I walked outside to breathe in fresh air and gaze at the calm waters. With my camera in hand, I spotted an eagle soaring from tree to tree. Snapping away at his approach, I suddenly realized he was getting awfully close to my head. I’m not sure, but I might have let out a little scream as I ran for cover, thankful my hands held a camera rather than a salmon burger.

The next adventure began at Sitka Alaska Outfitters, where we were properly fitted with floatation suits. On the water with our guide, we saw sea otters, puffins, and eagles aas we circled St. Lazaria Island. The seas were like glass and the sun was shining bright—just about as perfect a day as it could be. Then, our guide said the chilling words. “There’s been some whale activity right over there—let’s see if we can find them.” Terror set in. I’m deathly afraid of being that close to whales, especially in a five-person raft. It’s not that I fear being attacked or swallowed whole, but I suddenly had a vision of a whale breaching underneath our vessel and flipping us into the open ocean. While Darlene begged the guide to get us closer and closer, I quietly prayed the whales had moved on. They had not.

Watching them one at a time, then two, then three, I finally relaxed enough to pull the camera from my bag. They were magnificent. These large animals, breaching and smashing their tails against the water, putting on a show as if they knew they were being photographed.
Back in town, we grabbed chowder and bread from Ludvigs Chowder Cart and headed to the marina for an afternoon of fishing. You might recall we’d not been successful in securing a fishing trip. However, here’s what happened.

On our first night in Sitka we stopped by the Sitka Hotel. Once inside, we found a newly renovated, quaint inn with a small bar and unique menu of drinks. Libations included the Eclipse, a mix of Olmeca Altos Reposado, Cherry Heering, Aperol, Lemon, Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, and a Mezcal Float. Apparently it’s a local favorite, so that’s what we chose. What really got our attention was watching the bartender mix it. Served in a champagne glass, floated around one large ice cube with a lemon peel twisted until drops of oil appeared, the concoction was set on fire and fiery droplets spilled into the glass.

Soon, we struck up a conversation with a few locals sitting next to us, and as luck would have it, they were commercial fishermen. Upon learning we were not booked to fish, they offered to take us the next day. Writing this now sounds rather crazy, but if you had been there you would know this wasn’t too far fetched an idea. However, I did give my business card to the bartender so she’d know who we were and could send people looking if we didn’t return. When fisherman Mike, who was about my son’s age, mentioned his mother could help us get our haul to the airport, I set aside my “spidey” senses for the chance of a lifetime.

We walked a few blocks to the local sporting equipment store and bait shop, where Mike signed us up as deck hands on his boat. Once again, I gave my card like dropping breadcrumbs.

The next afternoon we met Mike and his buddy, Ivan, at the marina where we boarded his 47-ft 1943 trawler. The only “ladies room” onboard was a bucket. Suddenly, we were not the least bit thirsty. We ventured about eight miles off shore.

Rigged for commercial fishing, the trawler was loaded with everything you need to catch about 40 fish at a time. We wanted to use poles so we could experience the rush of reeling and landing fish. Big fish.

Rockfish, Ling Cod, and Pink Salmon were released back into the ocean. Then, we hit the jackpot. First was a nice Coho Salmon. Then, a 22-pound King. Then another. Then another. Darlene and I took turns while receiving instructions from the professionals. “Get him over here to the boat, closer, closer,” said Mike, as we fought with the Kings who had other ideas. Once along side the boat, he scooped them with a net and brought them into the boat. With every fish caught, we got a huge fist pump and accolades that we girls were, in fact, catching deep-sea fish!
This was not Darlene’s favorite part of the trip. Her first time ever to fish, she was surprised to learn they didn’t always look like they do in the grocery store. It was my favorite part of the trip, and it brought back so many childhood memories of fishing with my dad.

Ivan’s job was to clean and prep our salmon for shipping. As he gutted and cut into filets, I swabbed the deck. After all, I was hired crew.

Dropping us back in town, they left with our precious salmon, promising to vacuum seal and freeze. We were unsure they’d deliver on their promise, but the next morning Mike’s mother met us with a large freezer box that we could check as baggage on Alaska Airlines. We tried many times to pay the fishermen and now the mother but none would take our money. We brought back several pounds of Wild Alaskan King Salmon, all because of the generosity of two people we met by chance. I am not sure if this was merely Sitka hospitality or our dumb luck. What I do know is that experiences like this do not happen from a cruise ship. Meeting locals and spending time on the ground is why I choose to fly, stay, and search for restaurants frequented by the people who live there.

The following day, Darlene and I felt a little tired, but this was our day to hike. Our guide from Specialized Tours of Alaska called for us promptly at 8:45 a.m. Although our first two days in Sitka were sunny and warm, this day was drizzly. The top of the mountain was fogged-in, shrouding the scenic view. We chose another, shorter hike starting at Herring Cove and continuing on the Beaver Lake Trail.

Steep in parts with narrow walkways that rimmed lakes and streams, the trail was very well maintained, with only a few sightings of bear scat. Sitka Trail Works volunteers do a great job keeping on top of the most popular areas. The scenery was spectacular; complete with waterfalls and wild berries our guide encouraged us to try. Looking back, I wish I’d paid more attention to our surroundings and less time on the lookout for bears.

Our next stop was the Fortress of the Bear, a safe haven for orphaned bears in Sitka. Taking in its first residents in 2007, the Fortress is now home to about eight rescued bears that otherwise would have been destroyed. Alaska doesn’t have a bear rehabilitation program, so orphaned cubs are routinely shot by the Department of Fish and Game.

Viewing the bears at a safe distance from the top of the Fortress was not close enough for Darlene. Once she learned we could participate in a “meet and greet” and actually feed the bears, of course we had to do that. A large brown bear, Killsey (the name was not lost on me), approached the iron gate. Carefully offering dog biscuits through the bars, she daintily plucked them from our trembling fingers.

From there we headed to the Sitka National Totem Pole Park where we learned about traditional Tlingit life. Tlingit artists demonstrate their skills in the cultural center. Their totem poles line the park’s coastal trail, which lured us on another mile and a half hike. As we entered, I couldn’t help but notice the “bear warning” as one had been spotted on the trail the day before. Fortunately, today’s bear sightings happened only at the planned meet and greet.

Although Sitka is not what I’d call a foodie town, we actually had several great meals during our short stay. Ludvigs, the parent restaurant to the chowder cart, offers fresh local seafood from Sikta’s fishers. We opted to sit upstairs and have Tappas consisting of Calamari, Spanish cheeses, duck sausage and hummus. Also noteworthy was the Channel Club, (they offer free pick-up and return shuttle service) where I tried White King Salmon. It was delicious, more delicate and slightly more oily than the deep pink salmon normally associated with Alaskan Kings.

Due to our limited time, we crammed a lot of adventure into just a couple of days. Often I find myself without enough time for a long getaway, and end up not going at all. This trip was proof you don’t need to spend a week or longer traveling great distances in order to have a memorable vacation.