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Taking the Kids: Visiting Sitka, Alaska

Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Lucky little orphans. Actually, they are big orphans — bear cubs. They were rescued after their moms were killed and now live happily at the Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska. It’s a not-for-profit organization that protects and cares for rescued orphaned bear cubs who otherwise would be euthanized.

Sitka, the only Inside Passage community that fronts the Pacific in the shadow of Mount Edgecumbe, will welcome some 100,0000 cruise passengers this summer. Cruising Alaska continues to be a top item on bucket lists for many families and this summer Alaska is back in earnest with 41 ships and as many as 1.5 million cruisers expected.

This picturesque town of 8,500 would also be guaranteed to please the growing number of families who opt to explore Alaska on their own, rather than on a cruise ship. It offers the unique combination of indigenous culture, outdoor adventure (whale watch, kayak, hike, fish or fly on a sea plane to explore the wilderness) and the chance to view bears and eagles, easily and inexpensively, thanks to the Fortress of the Bear and the Alaska Raptor Center, where eagles, including 17 bald eagles, owls, and more, are brought after being injured,

Sitka is especially known for its native Tlingit culture. (Their name means “People of the Tides”, and Southeast Alaska is their ancestral home.) Some 17,000 Tlingit still live in Alaska, carrying on their traditions. There is a modern rendition of a traditional Tlingit clan house in downtown Sitka and the chance to experience native dancing and songs passed down from generation to generation.

You won’t want to miss the 18 amazing totem poles at the Sitka National Historical Park, first brought here in 1906. Take the mile-long Totem Trail through the temperate rainforest.

The park is very significant because of the Battle of 1804, which the Tlingit, who had lived here for thousands of years, fought with Russians who had come to Alaska to hunt sea otters for their valuable pelts. The battle was the last major battle between Europeans and Alaska natives. Today, Sitka’s population is close to 13 percent Alaska native.

 

You may be able to watch Alaska native artists at work as kids become junior rangers. The on-site Sitka Cultural Center provides studios for world-renowned Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists. Watch Alaska Native artists create wood carvings, beading, textiles, and engraved metals at working studios, including carving totem poles. The restored Russian Bishop’s House is a lasting reminder of Russian influence here (as is Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral).

If you have time and like history, the Sheldon Jackson Museum has the state’s largest collection of Alaska Native artifacts

Certainly, you can explore Sitka on shore excursions focused on everything from food (a wildlife quest followed by an Alaskan feast of snow crab and salmon on Holland America); adventure (wilderness sea kayaking on Princess Cruises), salmon fishing on Celebrity.

But you can easily navigate on your own, too. Local outfitters are attuned to the ships’ comings and goings and will get you back in plenty of time. You likely will get a better deal too if you are traveling with extended family than booking four or six or eight shore excursions.

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