SITKA, Alaska – When Bruce Conine tells you about his home town, he brings it to life with stories of digging for clams and crabs on the local beaches when he was a boy. But these are not just any beaches, these are the beaches of Sitka, Alaska and they do not look like what we are accustomed to.
Rather than powdery sand, these beaches consist of grit, shells and rocks. Rather than being covered with lovely shells, these beaches wear a blanket of kelp and seaweed. “See this seaweed?” Bruce says, holding up a piece. “It is edible. We dry it in the oven until it is crispy and dark and then we break it up and put it on our popcorn. It gives it a sweet flavor.”
Then he turns over a couple of larger rocks, revealing small black crabs. He picks these up and places them gently in the hands of my 9-year-old twin grandchildren, Dominic and Cynthia…Cynthia is squeamish. Dominic pets his.
As the owner of Sitka Wildlife Tours, Bruce shares his love of his home with visitors week in and week out. He seems to particularly enjoy working with children. He points out the bright white heads of mature bald eagles. He explains how clams squirt in the shallow sand. He notes plants that irritate the skin of Caucasians but does not bother Native Alaskans. He is careful to explain that this land has long been inhabited by the Tlingit people (pronounced klink-it) and he respects their traditions.
We see totem poles (old and new), walk in the woods and eventually end up studying the antics of young brown bears at the Fortress of the Bear, a refuge for orphans who are raised and eventually placed in zoos rather than being euthanized.
Bruce’s enthusiasm for Sitka is obvious, but we appreciate his concern that these days only two large cruise ships visit each week, which certainly dampens his business and that of others who cater to cruise visitors. Sitka is a charming island community located on Baranof Island and faces the Pacific Ocean. Whales often play off its shores. And it has a rich history as the first capital of Alaska, settled by the Russians who conducted a lively fur trade (after fierce battles with the natives).
Sitka was particularly hard hit by the effects of a head tax that Alaska placed on cruise passengers some years ago. When that happened, many cruise lines simply pulled their ships out and took them elsewhere. Although the tax has been repealed, recovery is slow and even slower for Sitka where most ships must tender in their passengers.
However, there is now a new commercial pier and smaller cruise lines like Regent and Oceania are beginning to again include Sitka on their regular Alaska runs. It is well worth considering itineraries that include Sitka as it has much to offer.
We booked our tour with Bruce online for our family before the trip. This was quite convenient and meant that we were able to have our own van. If you are traveling with a group, it is often advantageous to book on your own in advance. www.sitkawildlifetours.com, phone 907-738-1733.
Want to try something totally different? David Nevins of the Sitka Visitors Bureau told me that the town now has a golf course. He even offered to show it to me…and since the roads here only go for seven miles, I knew it was close by. He took me for a look and we discovered a nine-hole course built on the side of a mountain that definitely had some challenges. It is a non-profit venture and uses its earnings for vocational school scholarships. It is a bit rough around the edges and uses artificial turf on the tees and greens, but might be worth a play if you have been to Sitka before.
For cruise passengers, there is a $99 special that includes taxi to and from the pier, greens fees, cart rentals, and the rental of very nice Cleveland golf clubs. Contact the Sea Mountain Golf Club at 907-747-5663. There is a nice restaurant on property. www.seamountaingolf.com, email@example.com.