Al Batt: Alive and whale in the Alaskan city of Sitka

Published 10:35 pm Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


No one called me Ishmael.

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I visited a sliver of the Alaska Panhandle to look at whales while pretending not to have read Melville’s “Moby Dick.” I looked forward to seeing whales. I’d liked to have seen Russia, too, but I couldn’t see it from there.

Sitka, accessible only by air or sea, is 90 miles southwest of Juneau and considers International Falls the south. Sitka, population of around 9,000, has been named in the “Top 20 Best Small Towns to Visit” by Smithsonian Magazine and part of the “17 Beautiful Small Towns to Visit” by TripAdvisor. I ate salmon with a Sitka resident who told me there were 27 churches and seven bars in Sitka. I didn’t count them.

Why spend November days in a refrigerator like Alaska? Because it’s warmer than Minnesota. Sitka averages 86 inches of rain and 39 inches of snow annually. August’s average high temperature is 62 degrees and the average low in January is 30 degrees. The average daily temperature in Sitka is 45. They must have had no problems getting their corn out as there wasn’t a combine in sight.

Mount Edgecumbe, a 3,200-foot-tall dormant volcano, looms over Sitka Sound. Sitka is nestled at the foot of magnificent mountains facing the Pacific Ocean on Baranof Island on the outer coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage. It lies at the heart of the largest temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest.

Sitka’s past is a unique blend of native Tlingit culture and Russian history. In 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians who had pretty much killed and skinned everything with fur, the transfer ceremony was held in Sitka, which became Alaska’s first capital city. The U.S. used coupons clipped from newspapers by William Seward and took advantage of a BOGO sale (buy one acre, get one free) to get the price down to 2 cents per acre. Sitka is twice the land area of Rhode Island, which is the Chihuahua of states.

I walk because I’m addicted to a Fitbit and it keeps me out of gift shops. It’s called a Fitbit because in an attempt to become fit, I’ll risk being bitten by mosquitoes, black flies and bears. I can afford to travel because people pay me to put steps on their Fitbits. It rained enough as I strolled around Sitka that it was impossible for me to finish a bowl of tomato soup at an outdoor cafe. Staying dry was as difficult as sewing buttons on ice cream. I wore a baseball cap advertising an optics company, but weighed down by Sitka sunshine it became a 10-gallon hat.

I spent time on a ship floating past an old buoys’ club where lighthouses once kept ships from straying from the beacon path. The vessel moved over reflections of eagles and gulls flying upside down on a sea filled with whales. A humpback is a baleen whale. It opens its massive, toothless mouth and swims forward, trapping thousands of tiny krill and fish. Here’s a fun fact: Most humpbacks have “Born to krill” tattoos. The whale closes its mouth, expels the water (spouting up to 20-feet high), and using its bristled baleen plates to trap prey inside. It swallows and repeats the process, eating up to 3,000 pounds per day. These large whales (48 to 62.5 feet long and weighing 40 tons) work together to make feeding more effective by herding tiny creatures. I watched lingering arches of whale backs leading to the appearances of flukes cutting the surface of the water. Photographers love to see flukes. Each tail’s underside has a different design. A fluke is like a fingerprint, allowing for the identification of individual whales. I had a whale of a time watching the big mammals, but it might have been just a fluke.

Downtown traffic in Sitka divides around lovely St. Michael’s Cathedral. A bald eagle perched on a golden cross high above the Cathedral’s green dome. That was excellent. Sitka has no malls or big-box stores. It has 7 miles of road leading one way from downtown and another 7 miles going another way. There are two traffic lights. I visited Sitka National Historical Park, the oldest national park site in Alaska.

I sent people “get whale” cards after I’d walked more than enough miles in the rain one day without being bitten by a single bear or wishing I wasn’t soaked.

I basked in imaginary sunlight, knowing that in a city where everything was dripping, I was the biggest drip.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.