John Muir, often called the “Father” of the U.S. park system, had a special place in his heart for what was to become the nation’s 49th state. It set his standard for wilderness and pristine beauty.
Some 142 years ago, as he was paddling his way through the islands and inlets of southeastern Alaska, Muir was inspired by what he considered one of the planet’s last wild frontiers. He often reflected on his visit in his writing and it helped inform his passion to preserve the country’s wild lands.
“To the lover of wilderness,” Muir later wrote, “Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”
The preeminent naturalist visited this special place only 12 years after Russia had sold the territory to the United States and nearly eight decades before it would become a U.S. state. But even today, Alaska remains pristine.
Alaska holds the distinction of being the last great wilderness in the United States. People have encroached on a mere 160,000 acres of this 365 million-acre state. The rest is untouched wildness.
And even where people have settled, their footprints are gentle. The population of Anchorage, the state’s largest city, is less than 300,000. Those small cities that represent “civilization” in southeastern Alaska – Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan – are much, much smaller.
That was part of what drew me to this part of Alaska, the same lure of unspoiled nature that had attracted John Muir so many years ago.
I had already visited the state’s interior several years ago. Now my goal was to visit the island-strewn territory that dipped southward from Alaska’s main land mass, brushing against Canada to its east and the Pacific to its west. The Inside Passage – North America’s fjordland.
Sitka and Ketchikan, I had decided, would be the two cities on which I’d concentrate. Both contained populations less than 9,000 and were located within the mighty Tongass National Forest. Both allowed easy access to mountains and the sea. And both had fascinating histories that included numerous native cultures.
The first stop on my journey would be Sitka. It is famed for its status in the 1800s as the heart of Russia’s influence on this continent — the home of the Russian-American Company, chartered to establish new Russian colonies in the territory, and the spot where Russia officially handed over Alaska to the United States.
It’s a compact little city, nestled on the ocean at the feet of surrounding mountains. Paved roads run only 14 miles on an island approximately the size of Rhode Island. Most of the city can be easily walked in a single day.
Best of all, relatively few cruise ships include Sitka on their itineraries. While Ketchikan and Juneau may “host” a handful of ships a day, that number may visit Sitka in a week. Otherwise, the streets are nearly empty save for locals and small groups who have chartered fishing tours offshore.
My first day was spent in a joyous personal introduction to the city. I traversed the small town from one side to the other, making copious stops along the way to visit small shops, sample fresh seafood, and drop into museums, including Sitka National Historic Park where hand-carved Tlingit totem poles are exhibited.
Thankfully Sitka is much more than shops and restaurants. It’s also nestled in the midst of a spectacular ecosystem and that was what I was determined to explore the next two days of my stay.
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” John Muir
On the island that house Sitka, inland lie the moisture-drenched forests of spruce and hemlock. Ferns and mosses explode on the hillsides which receive some 100 inches of rain annually, forming a coastal rainforest on these islands. Here also lives the Sitka brown bear, a subspecies of grizzly only found on several of the islands surrounding Sitka.
The salt sea and freshwater lakes of the island are filled with aquatic life. Salmon, trout, halibut, and char draw fisherfolk from around the world here.
Over it all noisy ravens flap and screaming bald eagles soar. These coastal areas contain the largest congregations of bald eagles in the world. Both the raven and the eagle were considered sacred to the native Tlingit people.
The following day took me out to sea with a small group of strangers who quickly became fast friends. Three of us were single female travelers. The others were a group of friends from Idaho. It’s amazing how quickly a group can be bound by adventure.
And the ocean surrounding Sitka was the perfect place for such an escapade.
Sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, white-sided dolphins, gray whales, humpbacks, and even migrating orca are often seen in the waters offshore, not to mention the copious birdlife on the surrounding islands.
We were lucky that day, spotting numerous pairs of humpback whales, spouting and diving nearby. Perhaps more thrilling were the dozens of shy but curious sea otters that periscoped above the waters to see what all the commotion was about only to disappear when we got too close.
Even luckier was the chance meeting with Brenda, one of the Idaho trio. She had been aching to explore the area on foot but lacked a companion with similar aspirations. I, too, was looking for a hiking companion. The sea excursion provided a solution to both our dilemmas.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” John Muir
We met early the next day to hike the 2,000-foot Harbor Mountain above the small city. Brenda came armed with a can of bear spray and a playlist filled with songs of the heavy-metal band Anvil she planned to play to discourage any nearby bear, a strategy that seemed to work.
It was a perfect day of wind-blown mist and spectacular vistas. The trail led us through the rainforest upward to alpine meadows and treeless summits with unrestricted views of distant snow-capped mountains and the island-filled Pacific Ocean.
Ravens perched on mist-covered rocks at the summit croaked out their hoarse calls. Bald eagles swooped on the wind, bombarded by the pesky ravens.
Seldom have I seen wildness so perfectly illustrated.
The downward trek was more difficult. Hundreds of stairs spanned the steepest portions of the 2.5-mile trail that would finally disgorge us back in Sitka. Where there were no stairs, boulders, outcroppings, and tangled roots made walking treacherous.
Ten miles and four hours after we had set out, we once again arrived on the paved streets of Sitka, legs rubbery from the downhill trek, exhilarated that we had gotten the chance to see some of the island that eludes most other visitors.
It gave me clarion insight into why John Muir had been so inspired by the area. It had quite literally instilled in him a passion to preserve such extraordinary slices of wilderness as Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Ranier, Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon national parks.
Like those areas, southeastern Alaska is a region of almost unbelievable splendor. For visitors it’s a visceral, nearly spiritual, experience.
“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.” John Muir