The bear and I locked eyes. My shock grew as I saw the fangs of a wolf above it, and than I noticed the vibrant green frog on top of its head. I was not in some life-threatening forest or even a zoo. I was in Totem Park in Sitka, Alaska. This hierarchy of animals is how the Tlingit Indians of Southeast Alaska identified their family-clan on totem poles.
Two hours and two miles will get you through Alaska’s oldest and smallest national park. This 113-acre woodland is a lush rain forest of towering hemlocks and spruce trees that is both rich in history and in nature’s beauty. With something for the whole family to enjoy from a nature hike, to a Ranger guided tour, to fishing Indian River. A favorite attraction is the battle site were the Tlingit lost their lands and homes to Russian invaders who established Sitka as the capital of Russian America.
Sitka National Historical Park, or as the locals call it, Totem Park, is a short 15 minute walk from downtown. Meander along Lincoln Street, past the city docks, historic homes, St. Peter’s by the Sea church that looks like it was picked right out of a Thomas Kinkaid painting, to the entrance of the park.
The park was established in 1910 to commemorate the Battle of Sitka, also known as the battle of 1804 between Russia’s Alexander Baranov and the Kiksadi Indians. This decisive battle marked the last major Native resistance in Sitka to European domination of Alaska. The battle site is marked with a storyboard; take special note of the Russian blacksmith hammer depicted here, the Kiksadi first acquired the hammer as a war prize in their attack on the Russian fort at Old Sitka in 1802. The artifact remains in storage at the Visitor Center.
Begin your tour at the Visitor Center and watch Voices of Sitka. This 12-minute video weaves together Tlingit and Russians past and present. Afterward, stroll through the center and see the collection of Native artifacts and deteriorating original totems that are now being preserved inside the center’s Totem Hall.
There are four types of totem poles: History poles record the history of a clan; crest poles give ancestry of a particular clan; memorial poles commemorate an important person and legend poles illustrate folklore or real-life experiences. Purchase a copy of Carved History; this informative 55-page book gives a detailed description of all totems located inside the center and all 18 totems located inside Totem Park along the trails.
WHAT TO DO
Take a walking tour of Totem Park with your cell phone. A number represents each totem pole. You can scan the QR code or dial an 800 number, when prompted, enter the tour stop number for a narrative depiction. No cell phone, no worries, request the illustrated transcript of the self-guided tour from the Visitor Center front desk.
On occasions, the park will commission an artist to carve a totem pole. The artist works on-site and you’ll be able to do a Q&A as he works.
Visiting the national park in mid-July through September will get you up close and personal with the annual spawning of four species of Pacific Salmon. However during the off-season you’ll also be able to view Steelhead, Cutthroat & Dolly Varden as they are permanent residence of Indian River. Want to try your luck here? Anglers will need a fishing license. Visit Alaska Department of Fish & Game at www.adfg.alaska.gov for rules and regulations.
Pack a lunch and picnic on the beach. Find a log that was washed up and use it for a seat and have the best beach view in the house or if you’d rather be seated at the picnic table, use the few that are located at the entrance of the park as there are none along the trail.
Located outside the park, but still a part of the National Park Service, and just a few minutes walk along Lincoln Street is the 1843 Russian Bishop House. This is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture. Bishop Innocent (Ivan Veniaminov) had his personal residence there. A simple, but beautiful structure that has been restored to its original appearance, check with the park for visiting days and times.
FOR THE KIDS
“This is better than Sponge Bob Square Pants”, says my 13-year–old, while his 9-year-old brother concurs. Walking along the beach at low tide offers the two explorers a plethora of sea life to be discovered. Turning over rock to find crabs, tadpoles, sea urchins and a number of other crawly creatures in the tide pools, the two enjoy hands-on entertainment for hours.
Sitka Sound is home to a large number of sea otters. Be on the look out for these furry friends, you’ll likely see a few on your walk. Go during the spawning season and you may see the eagles in their kamikaze dive, talons open, and ready to swoop down and catch their next meal.
The goal here is to have fun, explore and discover. Check in at the Visitor Center to find out how to borrow a Beach Explore Backpack. During the summer months two Ranger lead programs are offered: Totem walk and salmon discovery walk. The Visitor Center is open year round and hours vary with season. Check with them at (907) 747-0110.