Over the centuries, Sitka -- easily Alaska's most exotic port -- has reinvented itself over and over again. It's been home to the Tlingit Native Americans, an outpost of the Russian empire and the one-time capital of Alaska. The region is still a center for commercial fishing. Through it all, its residents have always figured out a way to get the best out of their resources. Today, the 8,830 locals still rely on their natural surroundings, but with an eye toward the burgeoning tourism market.
From the moment you arrive, you'll notice that Sitka is different from the rest of Alaska. It's not just the Russian influence that makes the town unique. In addition to the usual industries such as commercial fishing and tourism, Sitka's economic livelihood also relies on drinking-water exportation, healthcare and education, including the Alaska State Trooper Academy.
It's not uncommon to see the locals wearing rubber XTRATUF brand boots everywhere, including restaurants. In fact, each September the residents hold their annual "Running of the Boots" race, donning rubber boots and zany costumes -- a symbolic "goodbye" to the summer's visitors.
Sitka is located on the west side of Baranof Island -- a 100-mile-long island in the state's panhandle -- and is only accessible by air and sea. The vast Tongass National Forest covers the area outside of town, which only has a roadway along the Pacific coast about seven miles in either direction. Watching over Sitka from across the sound is Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano and Mount Fuji lookalike.
A bit of history: In 1799, Alexander Baranof, general manager of the Russian-American Company, moved his fur-trading operations from Kodiak to Sitka, but he was met by resistance from the Tlingit people. In 1802, when Baranof was away, the Tlingits burned down his fort and killed the Russian settlers. When Baranof returned, he reclaimed and rebuilt the fort, and for more than six decades, Sitka (then known as New Archangel), was the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. Its residents enjoyed the riches of sea otter pelt sales, and New Archangel was nicknamed the "Paris of the Pacific."
In 1867, after sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. The Russian flag was lowered, and the Stars and Stripes of America were raised over newly renamed Sitka, from the Tlingit "She-it-ka," meaning "People on the Outside of Baranof Island." The thriving community faltered during the next 50 years, and in 1906, the capital of Alaska was moved from Sitka to Juneau. The move was a direct result of the gold rush: Sitka didn't have any gold, and Juneau did.
Boom times came and went in Sitka as the Alaska Lumber and Pulp Company operated a pulp mill near the city, employing 450 Sitkans from 1959 to 1993. Today, the former pulp mill site is repurposed; its most surprising tenant is a refuge for orphaned bear cubs. And although each summer the port welcomes 158,000 cruise passengers who provide economic stimulus, Sitka is primarily known for the quality and quantity of seafood harvested from its waters and processed in its plants.
Sitka's historic attractions are located within walking distance of downtown. Lincoln Street is approximately one mile long, starting at the city's southeast corner (featuring the lookout at Castle Hill) and ending at the Sitka National Historical Park visitor center to the north. The street passes by the historic onion-shaped domed architecture of St. Michael's Cathedral and the Russian Bishop's House as it follows the Sitka Sound waterfront and Crescent Harbor (the multi-slip marina). The other main street is Katlian Street, a road that follows the waterfront of the Sitka Channel, featuring colorful fishing boats, weathered houses and the essence of a working harbor town. To visit the two wildlife attractions, Fortress of the Bear and the Sitka Raptor Center, you'll need transportation.