Sitka – Russian Capital of Alaska

The boat arrived in Sitka in pouring rain and it more or less stayed like this for the next 4 days of our visit there. The journey down the Inside Passage had been calm but uneventful, the ferry sailing between banks of ominous dark pine clad coastline topped with low clouds so we couldn’t see much of what lay beyond. We saw a few Humpback Whales blowing off near the ship and that was about it. We had an invite from our good friend Mike Braden to come and stay at Sitka for a few days. Mike is a travelling nurse and we first met him at Big Chris’ hostel in Quito. He also went to the Galapagos with us and we’d stayed in touch since. He was now about 2/3 way through a 6 month stint at Sitka and his invite to come see this old Russian Capital of Alaska was too good to miss.

Russian interests in Alaska centred on the fur trade. The coast in these parts was an excellent source of Sea-Otter pelts and a trading base was soon established at Sitka. In a short space of time the otters were hunted almost to extinction and Russian interests in the area flagged. The Russians realised Alaska was too far away to police as a territory and there wasn’t much there so in 1867 they sold it to the US for a few cents an acre. The local natives are still upset about this, as it wasn’t really Russia’s property to sell in the first place. They only ever controlled a few small outposts on the coast so the idea that all of Alaska once belonged to Russia is slightly ridiculous. Today Sitka is a small sleepy little fishing community. It hasn’t quite been so badly affected by the big cruise ship invasion as there is no deep harbour and passengers have to be ferried in by ships boat, which keeps numbers down a little. There are 12 miles of paved road and did I say it rains a lot? Out on the Pacific side of the Northern coastline they get a lot of rain. Ketchikan, where we would stop next on our run south on the Marine Highway, gets 12.5 feet of rain a year making it one of the wettest places in the whole USA.

We spent a lazy few days with Mike in this easy going, laid back place. We visited Sitka National Park and wandered the totem trail there and watched a new totem pole being made. We had a great evening partying with some of Mike’s friends on the Saturday and on Sunday morning we visited the local bookstore & coffee shop to listen to some musicians who gather there for an impromptu jamming session. One of the topics of conversation round the coffee table was the Sitka Police Blotter. Not much happens here in Sitka. It’s a small place, everyone more-or-less knows everyone else and with only 12 miles of road there’s nowhere for desperate criminals to run, so the Police Blotter makes for some amusing reading as they have to report something. It gets reported in the local paper and the bookstore had a compilation now available in paperback. It’s a hoot…

“At 1:20am a woman reported her dog was running at large and had a habit of going to a downtown bar. The dog returned on its own.”

“Police were unable to locate a man in a Santa hat reported wandering down Katlian Street at 9:40pm.”

“A man asked for help with his daughter, but called back soon after to report she had gone to bed and he no longer needed assistance.”

“Police were unable to locate the dog that looked like a horse and was running at large on Andrew Hope Street at 10:20pm.”

“A man was seen skating on Swan Lake. When an officer tried to signal him, he skated away!”

We left Sitka and sailed overnight to Ketchikan where we changed boats for our final leg on the Alaskan Marine Highway that would take us to Prince Rupert in Canada. Ketchikan was another Skagway – the cruise liners could sail right into downtown and it was full of horrible kitschy shops. We had 12 hours to kill so we rode the bikes for 5 miles to the end of the road at George Inlet in the south and then turned round and rode the 18 miles to Settlers Cove State Park at the northern end of the road. At deserted Settlers Cove we walked the short trail to Lunch Falls where we were treated to one of the most awesome wildlife spectacles of the whole trip. At the mouth of the falls, where they spilled into the sea, the dark Guinness coloured, frothy, peaty water was alive with Salmon all wriggling and lunging in a desperate attempt to swim up a series of stark, black rocky shelves to get to the falls. Off shore 3 sealions waited, watching our arrival to see what we were up to. We sat down on some rocks and after a while they ignored us and went back to hunting the Salmon. The struggle of the salmon was one of the most incredible life images we ever saw. The fish, mostly hump-backed pink salmon with beautiful yellow green mottled tails, staggered from the sea up onto the first of a series of rocky shelves awash with rivulets of turbulent disturbed water. They gathered up steam and then lunged up one of the little water shoots, finding the odd pool here and there to gather their strength for the next hurdle. The pools were choked with fish. At the end of the rocky shelf section lay the next obstacle. The shelf narrowed and ran up to a 5-foot high ledge over which water gushed in several places. A pool at the foot of this afforded some space to run for a mighty leap up and into the waterfall, swimming like crazy through the clear jet of cold water. Every time, the salmon were spat back flopping uncontrollably down onto the rocky shelf and we thought they were really attempting the impossible. We wandered upstream and there below us lay another big pool seething with salmon who’d made it! We went back and watched them hurtling at the shelf a while longer until eventually we saw one make it, then another and we realised they were well capable of swimming up this obstacle. Upstream the falls grew progressively steeper, the water more violent and still the salmon threw themselves against the gush of water making slow progress to a huge pool at the foot of the main falls that cascaded from a shelf of rock some 50 or 60 foot high. We assumed the salmon must spawn in this pool as there was clearly no way they could surmount the big cascade. We spent a few hours here totally mesmerised by the wildlife drama unfolding in front of us as the salmon came in from the sea to charge headlong at the cataracts that make up Lunch Falls.

On the overnight ferry we considered a gathering feeling that things were coming to an end. From Prince Rupert we were no more than a day or two away from Vancouver and the end of the trip. There was nothing arranged – no flight tickets or shipping arrangements had been made for the bikes and to be honest we really didn’t want it to end. We pondered our travels in Alaska. It certainly wasn’t the best or most exciting place on the trip. A lot of the roads were long and tedious. Add rain and mud and they could certainly trash your bike. A lot of the towns too were disappointing and empty. In fact the tourist information brochure for one place warned not to expect anything of historical interest in the town as it had all been torn down to make way for more modern buildings! People could be funny too – weird and quirky, but not unfriendly – you’d have to be to want to come and live in such a remote location. But there was something else about Alaska and we both felt that, more than any other place we’d been on our whole Pan-American trip, Alaska had left a mark on us, a lasting impression. First of all, just reaching Alaska filled us both with a terrific sense of achievement. It said ‘Pan-American Adventure, Chile to Alaska’ on our panniers and when we crossed the Alaskan border, for the first time that statement was actually true – we did it and it now meant something. Once we were in Alaska too we found that those big empty roads actually lead us to tremendous places where we saw sights and had experiences that will stay with us for the rest of our lives and fully vindicated (as if this ever needed doing) the whole reason and purpose of our trip. Coming out of Alaska we held our heads just that little bit higher, wore smiles that were just a little bit broader as we found insane contentment and new confidence in our lives that had been missing before. As it turned out, the journey was far from over and the best of both Canada and Alaska lay just up the road, followed by the friendliest city in the USA and the most beautiful city in all of North America.

August gave way to September and Maggie’s birthday. We wanted to go somewhere special to celebrate and a lot of people had spoken highly of the twin towns of Stewart & Hyder. We looked at the map. It was a bit of a detour up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway and then out to the coast to first Stewart on the Canadian side of the border and Hyder back on Alaskan/US soil. We rode off the ferry from Ketchikan into Prince Rupert at 6am on a cold wet grey dawn. A quick breakfast and then we rode inland up the Skeena Valley on a road skirting the Skeena River. The Skeena River is well deserving of the sobriquet ‘Mighty’. It had cut a broad swathe through the mountains and the rain lifted to reveal some beautiful scenery on this most perfect of motorcycling roads. The trees were turning yellow and were dropping the odd leaf like little Post-It notes to tell us autumn was here. We took a left at Kitwanga onto the Stewart Cassiar and a more tedious road until we reached the turn-off for Stewart – Hyder. The road followed the winding valley of the Bear River and grew progressively gloomier with mists and squally rain as we got closer to the sea. Then up ahead in the gloom we spied a monstrous blue luminous glow in the murk that slowly materialised into the awesome Bear Glacier. We pulled off onto a gravely overhang for photos and then barrelled on down the valley in to Stewart and some lovely friendly accommodation at the King Edward Hotel.

In the morning we walked out to the bikes and were knocked over by the sheer beauty of our surroundings. Stewart & Hyder lie in a broad grassy valley at the end of an enormous fjord. The rain cloud and mist of yesterday had now lifted to reveal the full splendour of this majestic setting with curtainous grey blue mountains bedecked in snow and glaciers draped all around us. We rode out to the end of the paved road where we were unceremoniously dumped onto the pot-holiest road in all Christendom – Main Street, Hyder. We wobbled from one oxtail-soup filled pothole to another past the few wooden shacks posing as gift shops & B&Bs. A few miles from town lay Fish Creek and one of the best places to see bears in Alaska. The Park Service has built wooden boardwalks out over the creek where you can safely observe bears fishing for salmon in yet another fish choked waterway. We arrived in early afternoon, not the best time to see any action and chatted to some of the waiting photographers whose tripods & equipment lined the boardwalk. They patiently sat here all day for weeks on end rewarded by the odd photograph of the bears at work – a bit like fishing with cameras. The small creek was choked with salmon in every condition from fresh arrivals still battling upstream to decaying and dying fish struggling amidst bear and gull hacked corpses that gave a putrid stink to the place when the wind blew the wrong way. The highlight of our visit was when a hawk put all of the seagulls there to flight in a single strafe along the river. We rode on following the gravel road into the mountains chasing the Salmon River up to Salmon Glacier. It was a wicked road with terrifying and dizzying overhangs around switchback corners as we ascended to Canada’s 5th largest glacier. At one point it re-crosses the 49th parallel back into Canada. There is a metal post at the roadside telling you which side is Canada and which side is the USA. Looking off into the forest on either side of the road there was a huge swathe of cleared land. Every 10 years the border officials clear this strip of land, about 20 or 30 feet wide, just to mark the border. We watched it fall away from the road down a river valley and up the sheer cliff face on the other side, at the top of which it disappeared into the forest. It is one of the most ridiculous acts of crass human vandalism we’ve ever seen. There is nobody here! Does anyone really care about whether these trees are on the Canadian or US side of the border? The weather was kind to us. Some Dutch folk at Fish Creek had promised we’d see nothing but the weather held off allowing us a good peek at the glacier. The road climbed its right flank and we peered into the gloomy valley below awed again by the luminous blue of the frozen river of ice. As we climber higher the weather turned nastier and the road got more and more chewed up so we about turned and fled back to Fish Creek to see if it was dinner time for the Bears! We spotted one crossing the road about a half-mile from the car park and then we joined a throng of spectators to study a bear cub left by his Mum up a tree whilst she sussed what’s for dinner. At the creek itself we found Mum plodding along by the boardwalk and into the small blue lagoon looking for grub and a pleasant end to our day at Fish Creek.

The following day we decided to walk the mile or so from Stewart across the border into Hyder for a lazy stroll in this beautiful setting. Along the road we had a good look at a huge Bald Eagle who sat atop a pine tree whilst we took his photograph. We perused the few gift shops in Hyder. One lady shopkeeper asked if we’d seen ‘their bears’. We replied we saw 3 yesterday at Fish Creek. “No, the town bears” she replied and went on to tell us that the streets of Hyder lay along routes used by the bears in the area. Bemused and just a little concerned at this news we wandered on down to the harbour getting drunk on the intoxicating scenery hereabouts. The play of light on the mountains in the fjord was ever changing so when you looked at the same scene five minutes later it looked different and this continued all through the day. We wandered back up town and spotted a sign “Fresh Alaskan Seafood”. We followed this through the winding, deserted, dirt streets until we came to an old school bus that now served seafood snacks and eats and also seafood takeaways for home. We had a little kitchen at the King Edward so the offer of some Halibut was too good to turn down and we bought a pound of the fresh caught fish from the friendly lady called Diane who ran the place. In hindsight, this was not a terribly clever thing to do given where we were and that we were on foot with a mile and a half hike back to Stewart through Bear-town Hyder. Sure enough, outside the shop, Diane’s dog was barking at something making a right racket in an overgrown yard across the street. We could see trees shaking and hear bushes being disturbed. Diane came out. “Oh, it’s a bear” she said. “What???” “It’s just a bear – probably making his way to the dump”. At this point we told her we were walking back to Stewart; with fresh fish strapped to us – well strapped to Mags. At this point she looked at us like we were the two craziest lunatics on the planet. “We’ll be OK won’t we?” we asked. She looked at us again bewildered and bemused. “Well he should be well fed, what with all the salmon and berries around at the moment. Just keep to the middle of the streets so you don’t get any surprises and keep talking loud so he knows where you are.” With that she went back into the shop and we set off down the street, keeping to the middle as told and chatting nervously about all manner of rubbish. After about 50 yards we turned a corner and walked straight into the biggest blackest barrel of a bear we ever saw in our lives! He stood there no more than 20 yards away, far too close for comfort, just looking at us with his little piggy eyes turning his head slightly to sniff our scent on the wind. We backed off slowly, keeping eye contact, suddenly aware that if he wanted he could charge us at over 40mph! We’d heard loads of bear stories and read all the advice from the Park Rangers. If it’s a Grizzly, best play dead as they are too powerful to fight but if it’s a black bear better put up some fight as they may get discouraged and give up. Looking at my prospective opponent I felt like an utter wimp in a wet paper bag certain in the knowledge that I couldn’t fight my way out of it! We heard too of two Canadian canoeists out in back country; bear-wise travellers who camped, cooked and stored their food at 3 separate locations following best practice who were nonetheless killed by a Black Bear simply because they had intruded on his territory. Diane’s’ dog then appeared having re-caught a whiff of the bear scent and started barking ferociously at the bear, who returned him a look of utter disdain. Diane arrived at the commotion and identified the bear as ‘Roly-Poly’ the chubby villain who had shredded her apple trees a few nights previously. We backed off a little more and Roly-Poly got up and sauntered across the street into another yard and off on his way to the dump. We thanked Diane for her dog’s intervention and set off on the most nerve wracking, ass-puckering walk ever back to the border and into Stewart. The Halibut tasted even more delicious, having been sautéed in danger and fear!

We were really sad leaving Stewart-Hyder. It was an awesome place and we could have stayed here for weeks walking and exploring the hills and valleys and it really encompassed all the best of Canada and Alaska. Once out of the Bear valley we picked up altogether more mundane roads – big flat straights that raced us to Vanderhoof, Prince George and on down into the Okanagan Valley. We holed up in a closed down ski resort near Vernon for a few days to catch up on some PC work and to look at my bike that had developed a notch in the steering indicating that the head bearings were shot. We had 2 options – Vancouver or Seattle and we chose the latter working out a roundabout route on out of the Okanagan Valley into Seattle and from there across to Vancouver Island to see some friends we’d met in Costa Rica before the final crossing to Vancouver and the end of it all.


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