Monday 11th May
We woke on arrival at Sitka, an Alaskan town accessible only by sea or air. It is located on the western coast of Baranof Island. The site is old with at least 8,000 years of habitation of the Tlingit Peoples. Actually the local history claims the current native inhabitants arrived from nearby Mt Edgecumbe, an active volcano, when it errupted 8,000 years ago. (it has not errupted in recorded history)
There is a permanent population of 9,000 but during the tourist season the population swells with casual workers.
During World War II over 20,000 US Military Personel moved onto the island to build a Naval Air Station & Fortifications. Otherwise Sitka may have remained a quiet fishing village.
The ship was reversed into its place on the dock. Locals commented they had never seen a ship reversed into position before. I thought the skipper did an amazing job. All ships operations seem to be carried out in a very professional, smooth and no drama way.
At the dock the passengers lined up for the few shuttle buses to take us to town…4 klms away. We did think about walking but met a local woman pushing a pram who was on her way to the bus stop. So we took a local bus for $1 each and avoided the huge wait for a free bus. The local lady was very helpful giving us lots of information and tips on the best places to go. At the centre of town where all the tours commence it was chaos. We could not find a sign or a bus to take us to our first destination. None of the people had any idea of organisation but they promised they are learning. With up to 6 tourist ships to arrive each day until the end of September they will have a lot of practise to learn. They had better learn quick as we heard the same comments from every other passenger we spoke to.
When cruise ships arrive all manner of public transport is called into active service, including school buses. Once organised a fleet of buses started a shuttle to all the tourist destinations. Apart from PEARL another smaller ship had arrived in Sitka and a third ship was already on its way. PEARL was a bit under populated on this voyage. She can carry up to 2,900 passengers and 1,000 crew. On this maiden 2015 cruise there were only 2,300 passengers aboard plus 1,000 crew. This cruise of 10 days is the only cruise of this length. All future cruises will be of 7 days duration.
We wanted a bus to the Fortress of the Bear… http://www.fortressofthebear.org/ A place where orphaned bears are kept to save them from being shot. Alaska is the only US state which will not allow orphaned cubs to be released back into the wild. The bears here are still wild but used to humans…up to a point.
Unless the operators can find a zoo to take the bears this will be their home for life or the state shoots them. While photographing the bears I thought they looked small. Up close they are taller than I care to meet on the street and the giant paws with long sharp claws are a frightening. The bear I encountered was smart enough to know the steel gate lifted up and he was trying to lift it.
Once upon a time the town relied on timber cutting and exporting wood pulp to Japan. The industry had built three very large concrete tanks as part of the pulp process. The pulp mill is now long closed but two of the tanks have been leased out to the fortress organisers. Apart from the bears, the centre also attracts a large contingent of Bald Eagles sitting in the trees around the tanks just waiting on a morsel of fish.
So too do the Ravens surround the tanks. Tourists can purchase large chunks of frozen Halibut to throw to the bears. Pieces break off. The birds get the pieces. The organisers also feed the bears by throwing Halibut via a slingshot into various corners or by hiding the fish or other goodies such us fruits, berries and some nuts in a frozen confection. The bears have to work to find their food.
Once the salmon begin to return to the rivers creeks and streams the eagles will leave the free lunch and work for a meal again.
On another note, wild bear, black and brown, can and do roam the streets. That is how bear cubs become orphans. The mother is usually shot when looking for food in houses or the local rubbish dump. Some people on other tours did report seeing wild bears on the road.
On our return to the centre of town it was off on a self guided totem tour at the Sitka National Historical Totem Park on Jamestown Bay. http://www.nps.gov/sitk/learn/historyculture/totem-poles.htm The self guided walking tour is a mix of forest, totems
and grand views across the bay and the snow capped mountains beyond.
We ran out of time and warmth before finding a shuttle bus back to the ship. Totems are all over the island and are a fascinating visual story board but unless you can interpret what each part of the totem means it soon becomes a bit overwhelming.
Have I mentioned the cold??? Although the sun is shining and has done since we left Juneau it is still cold in the shade or in the wind. We still need to dress in layers to keep warm.
Mt Edgecumbe, an active volcano on a nearby island had the top shrouded by cloud all day. The cloud is a mixture of steam and fume. The cloud hangs around the top of the volcano forming a sort of collar.
Once again we arrived back on board in time for a welcome hot shower and a leisurely dinner.
On the subject of showers I can report that our little cabin has its own bathroom, probably twice as big as on WWWGO. It was well appointed, well lit and we always had hot water and plenty of water pressure.
Sometime while we were enjoying dinner the ship quietly left port heading to our next destination.
Wine prices are about what you would expect to pay in a quality restaurant ashore. If you do not finish a bottle it is corked, labelled and stored in a central refrigerated facility. Next time you want that bottle at any of the restaurants it will be brought to your table.
We always ate at the several complimentary restaurants. The meal portions were small so we could have an appetiser, a main and dessert and feel satisfied but not bloated. Service at all the restaurants was exceptional. There was no assigned table and no need to dress up. Dress was informal or formal according to individual tastes. The exception was the Captains Table dinners where dress was formal and dinner was $99 per head which included wine.