Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alaska Cruise - Day 6

Wednesday August 13, 2008

Today was the day we actually looked forward to the most because of the historic significance. Today’s destination is Sitka, AK. The former capital of Russian Alaska and the first capital of the US Territory of Alaska before it was moved to Juneau in the early 20th century. In 1799 the Russian trader Alexander Baranof founded New Archangel close to present day Sitka. After a raid by the local Tlingit tribes the Russians rebuild the city on its present spot in the 1830s leading to the present day town of almost 9000, making it the 5th largest city in Alaska after Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan (our destination for Thursday). After the Alaska purchase in 1867 by Seward it was here on Castle Hill that the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag first flew in the newly acquired Territory of Alaska.

Sitka is also different because it’s not on the Inside Passage, but it sits right on a bay off the Pacific Ocean. That position led to some very rough sea conditions on our way over from the Hubbard Glacier and after our departure on our way to Ketchikan.

Since we had an early start for our tour we set our alarm for 6.00am. We actually arrived in Sitka a little early and were greeted by the view of one of the Tender ships (which are the actual lifeboats, so they are regularly tested this way) right outside our stateroom. We checked the Vista restaurant for breakfast, but since it didn’t open until 7.30am (not the best time coordination from HAL today) and our meeting time was 7.50am we decided to have breakfast on the Lido deck.

Around 7.45am we gathered our gear for the day and headed to the Vista lounge to get our Tender assignment (Green 8) to Sitka, since Sitka harbor isn’t large enough for any cruise ship. Not having the big cruise docks has the distinct advantage of preserving the ‘quaint little town’ aspect of Sitka which is one of its major charms.

On the dock we were greeted by our Sitka Tour guide Justin who – as revealed later in the tour – had a few more qualities than you’d expect. We started with a bus stroll around downtown Sitka (Castle Hill and Lincoln Street) followed by our first stop at St Michaels Cathedral. This cathedral is regarded as the mother church of Orthodox religion in the United States. It was built by Bishop Innocenti who was not only a clergyman, but also an architect (he designed the cathedral) and a linguist. His vision of evangelism was to reach out to the locals in their own language, not unlike the approach of the Jesus Film in modern times. Since the local Tlingit did not have a written component to their language he not only had to translate the gospels, he also had to invent a written language, which he based on the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

The original church was largely destroyed in a fire in 1966, but upon learning of the fire locals (both members and non-members) formed a human conveyor belt and in a 15 minute span saved almost 95% of the artifacts of the building. They lovingly rebuilt the cathedral and since its rechristening in 1976 has again been in continuous use both as a tourist destination and as an active church. One fun fact is the on the outside you’ll find much more windows than on the inside. This was deliberately done by the Russians since glass was a very expensive commodity in the 19th century so by faking having lots of windows they were able to fool their trading partners in thinking their settlement was a very rich settlement.

The next stop was further down on Lincoln street along the harbor; the Sheldon Jackson museum. Dr Sheldon Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who started a vocational school for the local Tlingits in 1878. The museum was Alaska’s first concrete structure and is still being housed in that same structure today. On display are artifacts from all Native groups. Not only the Tlingits, but also the Haida, the Tshimsan, the Athabascan, the Aleuts , the Yua’pik and the Inupiats. Amazing to see just how many parts of the local flora and fauna they are/were able to use. Very impressive.

The last stop of the tour was at the Centennial Hall for a date with the Russian dance group ‘the New Archangel dancers’. This all-women group consists of locals who as a hobby perform authentic Russian folk dances. In the middle of the performance our tour guide came on stage to tell a little about the creation of the Alaska flag and the flag song. The flag was designed by an 13 year old Aleut orphan as part of a competition. The big dipper represents the bear, which is a sign of strength against a blue background which represents the sea and the air. In the upper right hand corner it displays the Northern Star which represents the bright north and gold color of the stars represents the gold.

The words of the flag song were written by someone as a poem and a woman moving out of Alaska, but on her trip down to the lower 49, put them to music. The song was then performed by our tour guide who – as it turns out – is very capable vocal performer as well as being an excellent tour guide.

On our way back to the bus we were greeted by one of the dancers and we asked our multi-talented guide where we could find a good internet connection where after the tour ended we could upload some of our stories from the previous days. He told us that after the tour of the non-downtown area of Sitka (including Swan Lake) we should sign up for some time at the local library.

But back to the tour and Swan Lake. When Alaska was bought from the Russians because the proceeds of the fur trade were diminishing and the Russians needed money for the Crimean War the sale price negotiated was 2 cents per acre, coming out to about $7 million dollars. This included all of Alaska, including the before mentioned Swan Lake. This man-made fresh water lake was used of all sorts of purposes, but one of them was to carve out ice blocks to ship to San Francisco to keep the drinks of the rich cool since refrigerators weren’t invented yet.

So in 1867 when Alaska was purchased there was still 2 years left on the lease of the lake so they added a special clause to the purchase agreement in the amount of $200,000 just for Swan Lake, making the purchase both the cheapest (the whole territory for 2 cents an acre) and the most expensive ($200,000) for the small lake. Still, $7.2 million dollars for all of Alaska was the steal of the century although it took until the discovery of gold for the rest the United States to come to that same conclusion.

Our tour guide Justin also pointed out that the Real Estate prices in Sitka have sky rocketed in the last couple years to a level of almost $400,000 for a 3 bedroom house leaving local children unable to buy a house on ‘the Rock’. This has lead to a major shift in the population with a majority being of retirement age. He also showed us the only 2 traffic lights on Baranof Island (now there is something to brag about back on the ship…).

The tour ended underneath the O’Connell bridge linking downtown Sitka with Japonski Island where the local Airport and High School are now located. This cable-stayed bridge was the first of its kind in the USA at the time of its completion and today serves well over 4000 cars a day. From the end of the tour we walked up Castle Hill to experience being in the same location as where Russia handed over control of Alaska in 1867 and where in 1959 Alaska became the 49th state.

We didn’t buy a lot of t-shirts or much of anything else on this trip, but knew we wanted something from Sitka. Jen found this amazing black dress and I found a really nice t-shirt. We also found an adorable onesie for DJ and got some playing cards. Oh, and Jen finally found her hat like the one that she tried on at the Keukenhof in Holland and regretted she didn’t buy.

Shopping done it was time for some Internet access to upload our stories from the previous days. We walked in and signed up for 2 PCs for 15 minutes each. We put all the stories on a USB stick and this time (after the fiasco in Juneau) we also stored them as text files so a simple copy-paste action was all that was needed for each of the days of the trip so far. We got it all done in our 15 minutes. Amazing how quick they go by.

Well, the rest of the day was a lot more relaxed and uneventful. After the library we went back to the dock to board our tender back to the Oosterdam for some much needed lunch. Okay, Niels needed lunch. Having devoured 3 plates of food and having finished our card game Jen had a surprise planned for Niels so we headed to the ships gym to the… scale!! Well, Niels is now 65kg, which is almost 10kg more than his weight over the last 15 years. Jen is pretty proud of that fact and Niels is also quite happy with the additional weight since it will greatly help in the ability of buying pants for his tall, slim European physique.

With the rather short night and the early rise the next couple hours were spent at the De Jong Stateroom followed by the Master Chefs dinner. A combination of show, flair and very nice dining. The selection wasn’t all that appealing to Jen, but with her steak she got a good dinner and Niels had some nice Tenderloin with all sorts of garnish and mushroom-flavored sauce. One thing that was odd was with the rough seas Jen had the opportunity to kind of feel DJ floating around in her stomach. Poor DJ is getting seasick already… l-) Our table guests this night were a couple and one of their daughters from Oakland, CA and after some nice exchanges of stories it was time to go write this story, which is now done so Daddy can go night, night!

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