Chapter 8.  Inner Passage - North

Bert & Shari Frenz, 1998 All rights reserved.

Day 98 - August 17, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Inner Passage, AK

(Bert) To climb the Chilkoot Pass with a ton of food and supplies typically took the miners three months: 25 miles in three months, usually one trip per day. That’s one of the facts I learn today when we sit through two ranger-lead programs at the National Parks program in Skagway. One of the programs is an old film, narrated by Hal Holbrook, that shows a fascinating series of restored and colored photographs from the gold rush era. Later, Gene and Char drop by to send us off on the M/V Columbia. Don parks d’Bus; I park RTENT at an empty lot near the ferry terminal. Shari and I pack two backpacks each; if it doesn’t fit in either, we don’t take it. We board around 6:30 to get our choice of seats, but it takes almost two hours before all the cargo and vehicles are loaded and we depart. A cold green sea rolls just enough to form ruffled whitecaps. I sight down the fjord leading to Dyea, but it’s too long to see the end. Squares of light illuminate the windows of two cabins on shore, unreachable by road. The dwellings are the last of civilization we see until we reach Haines, an hour distant by water. In twilight, fast moving, smoky clouds clip the tops of dark mountains that shoulder our path through Lynn Canal. A white patch off leeward grows to torrents of white water gushing down the mountain to sea, leaping the last 30 ft. in a mighty waterfall. The four of us start a game of Canasta, only to find it too hard to see the cards when the overhead lights turn off. The men lead the women 1865 to 1210 when we quit. The ship pulls hard right, aiming for the Haines ferry dock. I can see the town three miles to the left connected to the dock by the headlamps of a few cars following a hidden shoreline road. While the others retire to sleep, I move to the bar lounge to read Tisha, a book about life in Chicken, Alaska in 1927. Quiet Country & Western music plays to the few customers and one other reader. By 11 p.m. I walk back through the darkened ship, rent a blanket at the Purser’s office and curl up on a too cold, too hard, too short couch - but comfortable enough for this too tired passenger.

(Shari) No cabins are available for our 19-hour trip to Sitka on the ferry Columbia today. I am anxious to get onboard early to be assured of a reclining chair. Jean learns that we can stretch out on the sofas at the front of the observation deck. We rush to claim four of the sofas, one for each of us. With a blanket and a pillow that we rent for $3.00, we can sleep in relative comfort. Promptly at 9 p.m. the lights are turned out, forcing us to stop our fast paced game of Canasta. Tired or not, it is time to sleep. Three hours later I awake to a sym.p.h.ony of snores, tapping out their grating uneven cadence. Bert and Don are part of the band. Finally a loud honk from across the darkened room forces me up. Everything is quiet and I feel like an interloper as I walk the deserted hallways to the snack bar. An elderly couple eating a sandwich are the only occupants of the place. I open my book and read a bit before I become drowsy. This is like being in college again, alone late at night in the deserted cafeteria as I study for an exam. Outside the windows it is pitch black. I mean I can see nothing. No stars, no water, no moon, no clouds, until off in the distance I see the twinkling profile of a cruise ship outlined in white Christmas tree lights. It appears ghostlike as it floats in the darkened space approaching and then receding into the night. Back at the couch I take advantage of intermission and blissfully fall asleep before the snores start up, as I know they will. The next time I awake it is because the loud speaker announces our approach to Juneau and a long lay over. It is 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.


Day 99 - August 18, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Inner Passage, AK

(Bert) From my makeshift bed I prop up my head and peer through the large windows across the bow. I feel the engine’s vibration, but the trees off starboard aren’t passing. We must still be in port at Juneau. I get a few more winks and then get up to stroll on the outside decks as we leave port. In the bay I look back at the broad Mendenhall Glacier, its blue ice blending with the clouds above it. Small islands covered with spruce dot the harbor. Like golf balls on the green, I spot the white heads of eagles perched in trees. I count six eagles in fewer minutes. Onboard, a naturalist for the park service tells us 950 eagle nests are on Admiralty Island as we cruise beside its western shore. On our other side we scuttle Chicagof Island, another of the 1,000 islands that dominate Southeast Alaska, an area 500 miles long and 120 miles wide. Our ship meanders through mountains formed from the collision of Pacific and North American plates. This collision is ongoing and is responsible for the earthquake activity - 50% of the world’s earthquakes occur here - the 20 active volcanoes and the hot springs present on most islands. Our passage is narrow, but amazingly deep: some 2,000 to 3,000 ft. We encounter a pod of Humpback Whales, their enormous dark bodies the size of buses: 35 tons and 50 ft. long. They submerge in a flurry of flukes, T-shaped tails raised high above the water’s surface, poised elegantly in a moment I wish I could freeze. Now, deep below the surface they scoop in seawater and filter herring and krill through broom-like baleen. From the park ranger I learn the humpback has a two-ton tongue, but only a grapefruit-sized throat, hence the small prey. Yet these whales consume 2,000 to 3,000 lbs. of fish per day. I wait four or five minutes to see where the whales will reappear. Suddenly near shore, I see a spout of spray. Then another. Two, three, ... nine spouts. After lunch, the ship enters Peril Strait, a narrow passageway separating Chicagof and Baranof Islands. To get a better view of wildlife near shore, I walk along the outside deck. I can see starfish - bright orange and purple colored Ochre Stars - clinging to rocks at low tide. A flock of phalaropes flash black and white wings in syncopated dance as they zigzag through airspace just above the waves. Sea Otters, Harlequin Ducks and Pigeon Guillemots make an appearance. In open water, not near a stream, salmon jump completely out of the water and each time I spot one, I usually see it jump three or four times before staying below the surface. The scene repeats over and over again with other salmon. Why? Sitka is now in view. We dock and wait our turn to disembark. On shore, I reach out my hand to a balding man in a Shut-up-and-fish T-shirt and I ask, "Jim?" He responds, "Bert?" I introduce the group to Jim Case and Fancy Hudson, Sitka residents. Jim is a brother to Cathy Liles, a College Station birding friend of mine. He grew up in College Station and attended Texas A&M briefly before moving to Alaska as a biologist. Fancy is a naturalist on one of the Sitka tour boats. They brought two cars to the dock to drive us into town, 7 miles away. I ride with Jim as he tells me some of the city’s history and gives me suggestions for things to do during our visit. Unfortunately, he and Fancy have to work long hours during our stay and we probably won’t have time to get together. We are dropped off at Karras’ Bed and Breakfast, our home away from home for the next few days.

(Shari) Slowing to a crawl, the ferry navigates the narrow straights into Sitka. Ferry schedules here are determined by the tides and the captain, who decides if the boat gets the push it needs to go through the passage. This journey from Juneau to Sitka has displayed some of the prettiest scenery on the trip. Imagine floating between mountain peaks, with spaces between filled with water. One mound after another surrounds us, each displaying a different pattern of trees and rocks, islands and inlets, inviting me to come in to explore. We eat a buffet lunch in the dining room overlooking the rear of the ship. For $8.95 we can consume our fill of corn chowder, various salads, and cold cut sandwiches. We never get our fill of the scenery as we gaze through the picture windows that line the wall at the rear of the ferry. Looking like a highway on the water, our wake stretches backwards, broken only by the horizon in the distance. The day is beautiful and we see both Orca and Humpback Whales spouting and fluting as they also eat their lunch. Jim Case and his friend Fancy Hudson meet us at the terminal to take us to Karras, our Bed and Breakfast. Dinner is late by the time we get settled. We walk to Van Winkle & Daigler, a restaurant where Bert and I share a Shrimp Louie salad and seafood Fettuccine. From there we walk to the harbor and check out the boats for charter tomorrow. No people are around at this late hour and I am disappointed that I cannot find anyone to talk to about fishing. The harbor is loaded with boats, but they all seem to be owned by individuals moonlighting as charter outfits. It certainly is not like Homer where the harbor was lined with little huts advertising charter companies.


Day 100 - August 19, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Sitka, AK

(Shari) Our B&B is situated on a hill close to the blockhouse that separated the Indians and the Russians in the early 1800s. We are on the bottom floor of a three-story house. Don and Jean occupy one bedroom, we another and a third couple the third. We all share a bathroom and a kitchen/living room complete with TV and pots, pans and dishes. Bertha and Pete Karras, our hosts at Karras’ B&B, have breakfast ready for us at 8:30. We climb the steps to the second floor and sit at the table set for eight. We are in the living quarters of our hosts home and it is simply decorated with blue chintz sofas facing a TV, a piano and lots of family pictures adorning walls and end tables. The floor is polished wood and a big serving bar separates the gourmet kitchen and the dining room overlooking the bay. Bertha, a native Tlingit Indian, has made a delicious Alaskan Quiche and a fruit plate full of strawberries, pineapples, kiwi, bananas and melons the likes of which I have not seen since leaving home. The four of us plus a young couple from Australia and our hosts sit down and devour every delicious morsel of the feast. Pete, a white bearded Greek, invites Don and Bert to accompany him on his 17-ft. whaler for fishing and birding. Jean and I walk the few short blocks downtown and shop, literally spending six hours walking into every store Sitka offers. I look at more T-shirts than I care to count. The men return at 5:30 on cloud nine. They caught 29 lbs. of big beautiful silvers to be processed into lox. Bertha carts us to the fish processing plant. She obviously has not been here before because she drives over a curb onto a wooden pier and gets stuck facing forward. This plant does not do lox so she painfully turns around in the small space and drives us to another plant a few hundred feet from the first. While Bert is arranging the processing, I look at the area where the oysters are selling for $7.00 a dozen and Alaskan King Crab for $4.50 per lb. The crabs are enormous and I wish we were staying longer to try them. The fileting, smoking, freezing, vacuum packing of our fish costs $3.75 per lb. The owner of T&L notices the ComputerLand insignia on Bert’s shirt and asks us to help him with a computer problem. He takes us back into his small office and shows us a monitor that displays only part of a picture. We lead him through the "My Computer" box and show him how to change his monitor settings. Fifteen minutes later, our fish processing cost is reduced to $2.75 per lb. Easiest $30 I’ve made so far. By now we are starving. We walk to the Bayview Restaurant to partake of a Russian meal: borsht, Russian vegetable salad, Pirenskia fried meat pie and P____ something, a Russian ravioli dish. The price is right at $8.95, but I leave a bit hungry.

(Bert) Saddle shaped, Sitka Spruce perched on its horn and rump, barren rock through its center, St. Lazaria Island is lava solidified in swirls, curves, arches and caves and it is also home to an alluring collection of sea birds. Last night Jim Case suggested I contact Walt Cunningham, a local marine biologist, about a trip to St. Lazaria Island National Wildlife Refuge. However, Walt couldn’t find any other paying customers for today, so the trip didn’t make. Much to my delight, our B&B host Pete Karras - using his son’s boat - offers to take me to the island and to take Don fishing. To reach the tiny island, we motorboat 15 miles west through Sitka Sound, stopping under the shadow of Mt. Edgecumbe, a 3,201-ft. volcano on Kruzof Is. Don and Pete take the back seat of the 17-ft. Boston Whaler while I bounce up front as we lurch over the two to three foot swells. To keep me in the boat, Pete can’t gun the 90-hp outboard full speed, but in 3/4 hr we reach the refuge. While keeping the boat from running aground, Pete gets us close enough to see bright orange pencil bills break the camouflage of Black Oystercatchers resting on black lava pedestals. The camouflage is more successful for the dark Pelagic Cormorants who all but dissolve into their lofty lava perches. Pete edges toward a cave awash with splashing surf, we can hear the echoes of hundreds of bleating birds, then see tuxedoed murres finding purchase in rocky niches. Around the island’s other side, Tufted Puffins fish. One is very close, but dives before I replace my camera lens with my telephoto. When another puffin attempts to take flight, Pete follows it with the boat. Puffins have great difficulty becoming airborne. From my bow position, I watch the alcid bounce in and out of the viewfinder, catching glimpses of him kicking the surface, neck crouched, wings flapping, but tail dragging. I snap the shutter, not knowing whether I captured comical bird or silvery wave, or maybe even empty sky. We complete our island loop and head back three miles toward Sitka, again passing the volcano, a symmetrically shaped cone colorfully arrayed in greens and reds. We reach the fishing spot, easily identified by the fleet of boats circling the area. With two rods in the boat, I expect Don and Pete to fish, but Pete says he’ll watch while we fish. More accurately, Pete works while the two of us fish. Elaborately and skillfully, he imbeds double hooks in a 6 in. herring, then ties the line over its jaws so that the dead bait swims lively while trolling. One of us fishes with a rod and reel from the bow, but the second pole is rigged to an electric anchor that is too complicated for us to figure out. So, again, Pete is put to work attaching the line and dropping it to 120 ft. A Coho Salmon ("Silver") strikes within minutes of letting out our line. Successfully landed, Don and I are impressed with its size. In a couple hours we bring in five silvers, one red and four pinks, but Pete kids Don about all the fish that got away. On our trip back to Sitka the waves are higher, but smoother. A beeping noise forces us to halt and Pete recognizes the sound as a low oil warning. While adding oil, the wind picks up and the seas grow. Light rain spots my glasses and I pull my raincoat tight around me as I face the chilly wind, but the ride back exhilarates me. We tie up on a floating raft equipped for cleaning fish, take photos, gut fish and clean the boat and gear. Pete will take the less desirable pinks to a relative for canning. We go to the fish cannery and leave instructions to prepare the silvers and red as lox. Gutted and deheaded, they weigh in at 29.5 lbs. Shari meets us at the cannery and while filling out the paperwork, the owner sees my ComputerLand shirt and quizzes us about our computer knowledge. At his request, Shari and I check out his Windows 95 computer glitch and, in a few minutes, solve the configuration problem that has plagued him for the last month. The owner is grateful and, without our request, he drops the lox charge from $3.75 to $2.75/lb. Don is joyous over today’s catch and we thank Pete profusely. Pete suggests we try for more tomorrow.


Day 101 - August 20, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Sitka, AK

(Bert) Hidden behind dark clouds during our ride across Sitka Sound, the sun now begins to shed its blanket. Our fishing trio arose at 4:30 a.m. and we were on the water an hour later. Now with hooks and bait trolling the depths, Don and I await a strike. An hour’s height above the eastern horizon, pink sun rays pierce gray clouds, splashing color on Arrowhead Peak and Mt. Verstovia, the backdrop behind coastal Sitka. Don lands the first silver, a giant stretching a couple inches beyond the big ice chest where we store our catch. Don and I didn’t know silvers get this big and even Pete is impressed with this one. A few minutes later I bring in another silver, just slightly smaller than Don’s. Today Pete takes the role of instructor and shows us how to avoid losing the fish we hook by improving on setting the hook, adjusting the reel drag, playing out the fish and netting it from behind. He explains how to use the electric anchor. A pulley extends 18 in. off the side of the boat. From its cable hangs a heavy weight and, a foot above it, a clothespin-like clamp to which I clip the fishing line. Using a red lever on the apparatus, I slowly ease the weight and clamped fishing line into the depths. Reading a digital gauge, I stop somewhere between 50 and 120 ft. While trolling, the rod is bent as the clamped line drags a dozen feet behind the boat. If a fish hits the bait, the line pulls off the clamp and the rod straightens as the line intersects the water surface further behind the stern. Handling the equipment is tricky and the fishing line frequently detaches prematurely from its clamp or gets tangled with the large 12-in. silver reflector attached above the bait, requiring everything to be brought back to the surface and reattached. It takes me a half dozen attempts before I start to get the hang of it. Meanwhile, Don is fishing with the other rod and reel in a more conventional manner. The only difference is the heavy 3-in. steel ball hooked to his line. This helps to pull his tackle to the depths where the fish can find it. With the heavy tackle and added weight dragging behind the boat, it takes muscles to hold the rod while the boat trolls forward. After we each bring in more fish, Don and I switch positions and I sit in the bow and hang onto the heavy rod. I hear a gun shot behind me and turn to look toward the wooded land below the volcano. Don and Pete didn’t hear the sound, but Pete suggests someone may be hunting on the island. The distance to the island seems too great for me to hear the gunshot, but I have no other explanation. Then I hear it again, only closer, and now it has a more airy sound. I turn around again, but still see nothing. Turning after the third shot, I recognize a spray of water. It’s not guns, it’s whales! A 100 yds. ahead of us a Humpback Whale surfaces, then spues another airy water fountain. We hear the rush of exhaled air. What a sight from our perspective a few feet above the waves! Later, Pete notices birds flocking near a rocky shoal. He heads the boat in that direction, hoping the birds have gathered for a school of surface fish that also will attract salmon. As we weave in and out of the floating birds, I find it hard to concentrate on fishing. Within a couple dozen feet, we approach Bonaparte’s Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic Cormorants, Tufted Puffins and Common Murres. I especially like to watch the sleek black Sooty Shearwaters float by close enough to see the large nostril tubes that top their bills and to see the horned orange bills of the Rhinoceros Auklets. This is the closest I’ve ever been to these offshore wanderers. Fish strike again and we haul in more silvers, but release the pinks we catch. Now Pete wants to get some of the action, so I hand him the pole after the next few strikes. He brings in a couple salmon, but loses one silver when it hits the surface. I kid him about it after all the ribbing he gave us about losing fish. The fishing is so good, we are tempted to keep at it. Yet, at noontime we call it quits. Not counting the pinks that we released, we have 12 Coho Salmon among us and they almost fill our 100-qt. ice chest. After gutting the fish and setting aside one for tomorrow’s dinner, we weigh in 73.2 lbs. of salmon at the cannery. We leave instructions to fillet two-thirds and make the remainder into lox. Because of the cannery’s backlog, the lox will take a month, but they will store the fish for us until we get back to Texas and then send the frozen fish to us via Federal Express.

(Shari) No other B&B will ever live up to our expectations. Karras’ is the first B&B we have ever stayed at and we are totally, absolutely, positively spoiled. Pete takes Don and Bert out fishing again very early this morning. You may be wondering why I, the avid fisher person that I am, have not gone out with them these past two days. As much as I desire it, my fear of being in that itty bitty whaler on the huge rolling ocean overcomes my passion to fish. Sally, I guess I am a weenie but that whaler looks like a rowboat. Can you just see me out there with those men for all hours of the day? Read between the lines. I do not think so. For us chickens left at home, Bertha serves us pancakes and ham, fresh orange juice, coffee and tea. Two new couples join us for breakfast. One is from California and the other from Washington. After breakfast, I spend considerable time calling B&B’s in Juneau, but they are all filled. We decide to rent a car for $44.95 per day and book a room at the Super 8 outside the city limits at $105 per night. Jean and I walk downtown to find any shops we missed yesterday, then stopping at the Finnish Lutheran Church at noon for an organ recital. The oldest organ in North America makes its home here and we listen with awe at the sweet sounds such a little old thing can make. Later Jean and I join the organist in a sing-along and are surprised at applause from below the balcony. The pastor was listening and wants to sign us up for the choir. Maybe next summer. On our walk home, we meet Bertha. She tells us our men caught a cooler full of fish and immediately offers to take us to the dock where they are cleaning them. 73.2 lbs. of the big beautiful silvers are heading to the smoker for more lox, one-third, and filets, two-thirds. One fish is held back for our barbeque tomorrow, again compliments of our hosts. Later the Channel Club courtesy van picks us up for dinner, an all-you-can-eat salad buffet plus the first steaks we’ve had since Utah last May. Returning early, Don teaches us a new game of cards called Whist. It is similar to playing a no trump hand in 500 and I find it fun.


Day 102 - August 21, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Sitka, AK

(Bert) When I first met Pete Karras a few days ago I thought he bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. With a bushy white beard, flowing white hair extending from his cap to his collar and his hearty full-cheeked smile, he matches my childhood images. His stocky figure packed into warm clothes completes the picture. But now I know this isn’t just an image, it’s the real thing! Pete’s generosity is overwhelming. The same goes for Mrs. Claus too. Our payment for Karras B&B covers a room and breakfast. What we get is an order of magnitude more in benefits. Although all who stay here are blessed by their largess, our treatment is beyond the norm. The closeup tour of St. Lazaria Island and trolling among floating flocks of seabirds was a boat ride I’ll long remember. Two days of fishing on a private boat is undoubtedly the highlight of Don and my Alaskan fishing adventures. With grandfatherly patience he showed us cheechakos how to fish for salmon in Alaskan waters. Now, this evening, Pete puts on his chef’s hat and grills fresh salmon and, along with potluck dishes brought by other B&B residents, we all partake in a mouth-watering Salmon Bake - 12 people get their fill on one salmon - while sitting in their dining room overlooking Sitka harbor. From California, Pete came to Alaska in 1947. Now at 73, he’s lived most of his life in Sitka and for 47 years has been married to Bertha (he calls her "Bert"). This evening I meet their daughter Georgie, 20 years out of college but still looking like a pretty coed. Before we leave their home this evening, we take family photos. Then Pete takes out his Santa Claus hat and we take more photos. Pete really is Santa Claus and you can see him between Thanksgiving and Christmas at 60 Minute Photo in Bell Square Mall in Bellevue, Washington. But get there by Christmas Eve before he flies his sleigh north for the winter.

(Shari) I tell Bertha that I may just pack up my stuff and move in with her. Today’s breakfast starts with fresh fruit and hot blueberry muffins followed with scrambled eggs, ham and fried potatoes. Our breakfast companions of yesterday join in the conversation around the table. Talk centers around fish, Bertha’s birthday and fish. Grabbing our raincoats to protect us from the drizzly day, we walk to the New Archangel dance troupe. Dressed in authentic costume they entertain us with Russian dances, women playing both male and female roles. Later, we walk along Sitka Sound. The only ripples in the water are the result of hundreds of salmon propelling themselves toward the stream where they were born. They flip, turn, jump and somersault their way to the salmon cemetery. Walking across the bridge over the river we see thousands of them swimming upstream in water so shallow their dorsal fins stick out above water line. Bert walks ahead as he is anxious to get to the Raptor Rehabilitation center before noon. The presentation here is not worth the $10 admission fee, but I am sure Bert has a different opinion. Our return trip includes a walk through a rain forest and a visit to Sitka National Historic Park, which houses an impressive display of Indian culture, complete with live artisans working on their crafts. Bertha’s daughter is one of the artists here with her bead work, but she is out of town today and her shop is closed. Our hosts periodically have a salmon bake for their guests and we are lucky to hit it right. At 5:30 we take our cooked potatoes - our contribution to the feast - upstairs. For the next two hours we enjoy Pete’s grilled salmon, bread, potatoes, salad, fruit mix and carrot cake, topped with lively conversation. We do not want to say goodbye and we stall the inevitable. After taking pictures of Pete and Bertha and Jean and me with Pete in his Santa’s hat, we finally part company and head downstairs to pack for tomorrow’s early morning ferry. We intend to come back to Sitka someday. Its charm has captivated our hearts and we still have things we have left unseen. Besides I HAVE NOT FISHED.

(Bert) I want to add some notes about the history of Sitka. After visiting the Bishop’s House, the Lutheran Cemetery, the Finnish Lutheran Church and several museums, I’ve gotten to appreciate the fascinating local history. On Thursday at the cemetery I snapped a picture that may not be the most beautiful photo, but tells a history in the objects it depicts:

a Russian blockhouse built in 1820 after Baranof drove out the Tlingit Indians;

an 1840s Russian Orthodox dome and cross when the church brought education and Christianity to the island;

an 1862 grave marker for Princess Aglaida Ivanovina Maksoutoff, wife of Prince Demetri Petrovich Maksoutoff who was the last Russian Governor of Alaska and was in charge at the time of transfer to the U.S.;

electric wires draping between poles and symbolizing the modern city of Sitka;

the John W. O’Connell Bridge built in 1972 as tourism increased.

Asians crossed to America in ancient times, eventually settling throughout Alaska. The dominant native languages are Eskimo to the north and west, Aleut along the Aleutian Islands, Athabeskan and Eyak in the interior (their language has the same basis as Apache), and Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian in southeastern Alaska. Kiks.adi Tlingits lived in Sitka for 9000 years.

In 1728 Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering to explore North America. In his first voyage, Bering concluded there was no land mass connecting Asia and North America. The interrupting water body is now called the Bering Sea. A second voyage by Bering in 1741 resulted in a shipwreck that killed Bering and many crew members. The naturalist on board, George Stellar, supervised the construction of a ship from the broken timbers and returned to Russia in 1742 to announce the discovery of the Aleutian Islands. Today, Stellar is honored with the naming of Stellar’s Jay and Stellar Sea Lion.

In 1784 the first European settlement was established on Kodiak Island. Under instructions from Catherine the Great, Alexander Baranov took over the fur trade in 1791. By 1800 Baranov estimated conservatively that a minimum of 100,000 Sea Otter pelts were taken out of Alaska in the previous 10 years. Baranov extended the fur trade eastward and established a fort in Sitka in 1799. The intrusion of Russians on their native land prompted the Tlingit to burn the fort in 1802. But Baranov returned in 1804 and defeated the Kiks.adi Tlingits at the Battle of Indian River, driving them inland on the island. After 19 years the Russians invited the Tlingits back to the coastal town. At that time, the settlement was called New Archangel and it served as the Russian colonial capital.

The Russian Orthodox Church played a vital role in bringing education to the area and Bishop’s House, built in 1842 and still standing today, was the site for teaching. The dominate priest was Father Ivan Veniaminov, missionary to the Aleuts, priest to Sitka, Bishop of Alaska and also builder of St. Michael’s Cathedral. Most of the operational government work was performed by Swedes and Finns, thus the establishment of the Finnish Lutheran Church in the early 1840s.

Although the sale of Alaska to the United States was discussed in the early 1860s, the Civil War postponed any negotiations. Secretary of State William Seward, under President Andrew Johnson, completed the sale in 1867. The purchase price was $7.2 million. Early newspapers show cartoons of "Steward’s Folly" and list the price as $7 million, but $200,000 was added later to buy up an ice contract between Russian America and San Francisco. The transfer from Russia to the U.S. was conducted in Sitka by the Russian governor, Prince Demetri Petrovich Maksoutoff.

Today, Sitka still embodies its history and exudes the charm of a European city. Tourism has increased its population dramatically from the 1,500 people who lived here when Pete Karras came in 1947. But it has resisted the cruise ship phenomena thus far by not building a large dock. Some of the big ships come, but passengers must be shuttled back and forth in small boats. The most controversial local issue is whether or not to build a cruise ship dock. I vote no.


Day 103 - August 22, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Juneau, AK

(Shari) The Sitka tour bus picks us up promptly at 1 a.m. We have been passing the time playing Canasta and Whist trying desperately to keep our giggles quiet so as not to disturb the couple in the third bedroom. Jean and I really trounce the men in two games of Whist. They do not have a chance against our skillful playing. By 2:30 a.m. we are in the recliner lounge of the M/V Matanuska trying to find a comfortable way to sleep. Even moving the seat cushions to the floor to make a softer bed does not help. I finally take my blanket and pillow to the observation lounge. Winding myself into a curve, I try to form my body to the circular couch I find there. I must have succeeded because I do not awaken until 7:30. I find Bert, Jean and Don in the cafeteria just finishing breakfast. At the ferry terminal I call the Ford dealer to bring us our rental car. We take it to the motel to check in before we head downtown. Bert, Jean and Don visit the Alaska State Museum. I shop. I must be getting worn out because all the shops look the same as those in Sitka. "Juneau" instead of "Sitka" is emblazoned on the same T-shirts, hats and mugs. I meet the rest at Armadillo, a TexMex restaurant that even Jim would approve. The salsa is delicious. I am so tired that by 8:30 I am fast asleep.

(Bert) Before sunrise we leave Sitka on the M/V Matanuska bound for Juneau. Heading north through the Inner Passage, I find our trip therapeutically relaxing. The ship’s engines hum quietly and the floor and upholstered lounge chairs vibrate soothingly like a pulsating massage. The visual parallel to Handel’s Water Music, my eyes absorb the tranquil mountains floating past. A blue gray mist smooths the edges of hills. Overhead, smoky gray clouds somberly shroud our passageway. The scene is mesmerizing and sleep inducing; my senses acquiesce to the narcotic. When I again awake, the mist outside my window has thickened to pea soup, the shoreline hidden. Window panes are streaked with rain; water droplets hang from hand rails. A small fishing trawler emerges from the soup, only to disappear again quickly. I reflect on the history of the town we left behind. The facts I learned and the stories I heard whet my appetite for more details. After we land in Juneau, three of us visit the Alaska State Museum while Shari shops. With the knowledge I pick up there and at the Sitka National Historical Park yesterday, I am able to piece together a history that dovetails with the stories Bertha Karras told last night. Bertha, a full blood Tlingit Indian, can trace her lineage through seven generations to dates before the Russians entered Sitka. She is proud of her heritage when she shows me her family tree and talks about her people’s work in civil rights. In ancient times, Asians crossed the Bering Strait, exploring coastal North America and extending their travels through South America. One group settled in what would become British Columbia and, in particular, the Nass River northeast of present day Prince Rupert. Nine thousand years ago the Kiks.adi clan of the Tlingit left the Nass River and moved north to the island they called Shee (now Baranof) and settled on the southwest coast. They called their settlement Shee Atika, "village on the outside of Shee." Now modern day Sitka, this is where Bertha’s ancestors lived. When Bertha showed me her family tree, I noticed it was unlike the one my mother has archived in her computer: Tlingits trace ancestry through mothers, not fathers. The oldest names do not have English counterparts, since they lived before the arrival of Alexander Baranov who, commissioned by Catherine the Great, came to Sitka in 1799 to establish a fort and conduct the fur trade. While we discussed Sitka history, I mentioned to Bertha that I always wanted to visit the city after reading James Michener’s Alaska. Bertha told me Michener visited her at the time he was writing the book, talking with her in the same room we were sitting yesterday. Continuing her story, Bertha explained that birth and death dates are unknown, but names are easy to remember because the Tlingits had a system for naming children. The names were also tied to social customs. "To get stronger children," Bertha told me, "Eagle must marry Raven" or else they would "lose status." Unlike other cultures, once social status is lost, it cannot be regained even in future generations. Thus, inbreeding was prevented in the Tlingit society. To promote clan stability, the position of head of the clan passed to a nephew, not a son, thus moving responsibility among families. From my museum visits I learned that Tlingits lived communally in large permanent houses built of thick wood beams and supported by carved totems. The totems and houses were carved with clan symbols. The major Tlingit clans are Raven and Eagle and these have subclans of extended families with totem-carved crests for Frog, Killer Whale, Bear and Beaver. Bertha told us she is in the Raven clan and in the Killer Whale family. Pete was adopted by the Eagle clan when they were married. The clan houses were named after the clan, but around the turn of the century the Tlingits moved to individual two-story houses. Pete and Bertha’s house is called Ket Ht (Killer Whale House) in keeping with Tlingit tradition.


Day 104 - August 23, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Juneau, AK

(Shari) I find my mind wandering during today’s sermon at Faith Lutheran Church in Juneau. The whole service lacks pizzaz and I long for some of the spunk in the service of last week. We follow the order of service in the hymnal and sing hymns played at funeral speed. The people are friendly though. After the service we drive to the Mendenhall Glacier and walk the short photo trail. We eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a picnic table in full view of the glacier. Today’s clouds enable the blue to really show through. Driving to Eagle Crest Ski Area on Douglas Island, we find blueberries along the road side. For the next hour we pick a big bag full of the plump juicy berries. If we can keep them away from Don’s mouth long enough, we hope to make pie, muffins, sauce and pancakes when we get "home" tomorrow. The tram to Mt. Roberts is a disappointment. The $17.35 per person admission gets us to the top, 1,780 ft. above Juneau in 4 minutes, but once there, everything has an extra charge. The only free activity is a short film on the Tlingit culture. As I listen to the narration, I begin to understand why Bertha is such a giving person. Tlingits gather wealth for the purpose of sharing it. They give it away at traditional celebrations called Potlaches. Wealth is distributed among the tribe so as to gain status and honor. Coupled with the servant role in Christianity, I can understand the generosity of my hosts in Sitka. In my book, Pete and Bertha are at the top of the status ladder. After our high admission charge to get atop Mt. Roberts, we have the opportunity to spend more money on souvenirs at the gift shop, on food at the restaurant, on show tickets at the theater, on interpretive tickets at the nature walk. On a pretty day, hiking the trails may be enjoyable but today’s drizzle only makes the path slippery and muddy. Of all the Alaskan towns I have visited, Juneau is my least favorite. The total downtown area is devoted to tourist shops and traps to catch money dropping from the hands of weary cruise passengers. Tour this, taxi that, buy this, charter that. There just does not seem to be much to do that does not smack of blatant tourism. I have been in Juneau three days in 1996 and two days this time and the weather has been the same each time: drizzle and rain. Maybe if the sun would shine more, I could enjoy the walking tour, the glacier trails and the salmon hatchery. In the rain, I am at the mercy of fabricated attractions that cost money. We finish our day in Juneau at the Red Dog Saloon: one of the few attractions worth seeing downtown. Thick sawdust covers the floor and every inch of wall and ceiling space displays something interesting. I see a sign proclaiming "if our service is not up to your expectations, lower your expectations." A stuffed bear is climbing a pole attempting to reach a man’s leg. Stuffed mountain goats, fish, moose heads and antlers galore adorn the walls. One sign on the bar promises "You can catch anything at the Red Dog Saloon." We catch one of their famous hamburgers and split it four ways. It is huge and comes with fries and pickles and, along with a beer, it is enough to fill our tummies.

(Bert) After church services at Faith Lutheran we drive to Mendenhall Glacier. Mendenhall appears as a river of ice flowing into a lake. In the early 1700s the glacier extended almost to sea, put now has receded 2.5 miles, creating a valley that is prime real estate for Juneau home owners. We eat our picnic lunch at Skater’s Cabin overlooking the lake and glacier. The overcast skies enhance the vivid blueness of the glacier. In pools beside the lake I find crimson Sockeye Salmon with green heads. The bright colors indicate the salmon is at the end of its life. After blueberry picking on Douglas Island, we take the tram up Mt. Roberts for an aerial view of Juneau and Gastineau Channel. While the others stay indoors, I hike higher on a footpath. After climbing another couple hundred feet, the path gets steep and muddy, so I take a picture and turn around. In spite of the advertising brochures I find no wildlife along the trail, not even a single bird. By the time I’m half way back the rains have resumed and I’m glad I wore my raincoat. When I reach the tram, Juneau is no longer visible through the clouds below me. Although the tramway is interesting, I don’t think it is worth the hefty ticket price. On the way back to the motel we stop at the fish hatchery on Gastineau Channel. The fish ladder is swarming with salmon all fighting to climb the rushing water. Each rung is a concrete pool a couple of feet higher than the previous rung. Narrow gates allow salmon to swim to the higher level. Since it is early evening on a Sunday and the hatchery probably was closed today, the salmon are congregating at the highest levels and the fish are packed so tight it looks like more fish than water. The last gate before entering the building is shut. Nevertheless, the salmon fight against the steel bars through which the current flows and some try jumping over the 4-ft. gate. From some displays I learn that inside the hatchery, workers remove the eggs and sperm, mix them and add water to begin fertilization. After letting off my passengers, I drop the rental car at the Ford dealer and walk back in the rain. Of places to visit in Alaska, I’ll put Juneau near the bottom.


Day 105 - August 24, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Inner Passage, AK

(Shari) Anxious to get home, I am awake before the 5:30 alarm rings. The motel calls a courtesy taxi for us to take us to the ferry. The 7 a.m. ferry Malaspina is almost deserted and finding a comfortable seat is not a problem. We park ourselves in the forward section of the observation lounge and head to the cafeteria for breakfast. After breakfast I stretch out on a sofa and sleep until the naturalist on board starts his talk on the Tongass National Forest. Every hour or two a naturalist talks about the wonders of Alaska and the Inside Passage. I read, I sleep, I read some more. Bert loves these ferry rides, but I find them boring after the first hour or two. They sure are a reasonable way to travel however. Our total trip only cost $104 each. We snack on leftover granola bars, peanuts, chips and candy. Finally at 2:30 we reach Skagway. Jean and I spy the Diers’ 5th wheel parked in line to board the ferry. We knock on their door and have a mini reunion catching up on each other’s week. We check into Pullen’s RV Park near the small boat harbor. It is the third and last RV Park in Skagway and is the most scenic of the 3. However, the train whistles and boat horns get a bit annoying. Bert goes to the church to retrieve e-mail while I go grocery shopping. We have roast chicken, stuffing and cauliflower for supper. I make a loaf of bread for sandwiches tomorrow and use two cups of blueberries for sauce to top shortcakes for dessert. It is so good to be home.

(Bert) While Shari finds the ferry transit boring, I relish each opportunity and always feel my ride ends too quickly. Today it’s the M/V Malaspina, bound for Haines and Skagway through the Lynn Canal, one of the best Inner Passage waterways for wildlife viewing. I’m torn between reading the last chapters of Tisha, listening to the fascinating talks given by Forest Service workers, dining at a good cafeteria and exploring wildlife from the outside decks. I opt to do all of them, but the one I’ll tell you about is the wildlife. (I’ll bet you aren’t surprised?) When the Humpback Whales appear, I watch them from the comfort of the forward observation deck. I guess I’ve seen enough of these whales, so they don’t excite me much anymore. But when the Dall Porpoises make an appearance, I venture outside. I wonder how the captain identifies these porpoises. It must be the way they torpedo across the surface but don’t rise above it. Harbor Porpoises show half their bodies, not like these I’m watching. Don comes on deck to look for bears. He spends an hour scanning the shoreline in search of Ursus. I ask him, "Do you know the difference between looking for birds and bears?" He asks, "What is it?" I tell him, "I always find birds; you never find a bear." While he vainly searches, I find Northern Fulmar, Black Scoters, Pacific Loons and a Parasitic Jaeger. We pass a flattened island and watch two populations on the beach, a hundred Stellar Seal Lions to the left - larger and redder - and a similar number of Harbor Seals to the right - smaller and darker. More Dall Porpoises show up. This time the Malaspina crosses their path and we see their sleek bodies swimming below the water near the forward hull. Their clown-like black and white pattern is apparent. I spot more birds: a flock of Surf Scoters and then Marbled Murrelets in winter plumage. Don finds Bald Eagles hiding in the island trees. A Pomarine Jaeger rests on the waves, sporting a blond feather necklace contrasting with its dark body. Don comments, "It’s amazing what you can see out here if you’ve got a little patience."


Day 106 - August 25, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) I find it amazing how the amount of daylight can change in less than three weeks. When we arrived in Skagway on August 7, twilight arrived long after I had gone to bed. Tonight, less than three weeks later, twilight is here at 7:30 p.m. Cars use headlights, the cruise ships parked in the harbor have their white lights blazing and I need overhead lights to work in the kitchen. Another sign of the fast approaching Fall is the color of the vegetation. Mountain Ash has loads of orange berries, Devil’s Club plants have leaves of yellow and orange and no fireweed is in bloom. The wind whistles around RTENT and whispers Fall. Not much is happening today. We use this day of rest to catch up on mail, bill paying and e-mail before we head north to head south and homeward. I buy just enough groceries to get us to the next large store in Prince George almost 1,000 miles from here. I wash clothes and make more bread. I almost feel like I am filling my cache for the winter, but am only going into the wilderness for a week or so. Tomorrow we will be at Lake Teslin and Mukluk Annie’s for our free camping. It is only 125 miles from here but their blueberry pancakes are calling our names.

(Bert) A week without a computer creates a big backlog of journal entries and e-mail responses. I use today to catch up on the backlog. I e-mail off three-days’ worth of journals and then work at typing more into the computer. Spending the whole day on the computer, I have nothing new to add today.

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