As we reach the heart of downtown Sitka, an Orthodox priest converses with the faithful at the entrance to the Cathedral of Saint Michaels, the seat of the Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands and the Aleutian archipelago.
His black cassock and gray beards make complete sense in the vicinity of the blue and white church crowned by several golden eight-armed crosses.
For those who have not learned about the history, they can do less in one of the territories of the nation that was for so long the arch-rival of homeland of the tsars.
Other references to Russian America appear before us when we least expect it. In nearby Marine Street, appears the grave of Princess Maksoutoff - the wife of the last governor. The princess lies in a sort of VIP extension of the vast and chilling Russian cemetery, which the sodden moss and other vegetation continue to take hold.
Right next door, there is a replica of the stockade that the former settlers erected to protect themselves from frequent attacks by the natives.
The Tlingit, the Native Soul of Sitka and the Bears that Inhabit It
When the Russians arrived, the Tlingit ethnic group owned and mistressed the region. It quickly spread terror among the invaders. The Tlingit threat forced them to form an opportunistic alliance with their Aleutian rivals. Only then, together, the Russians managed to defeat the natives at the Battle of Sitka and erect the Novoarkangelsk outpost.
Jimmy Craig knows the story in detail. It prides itself on the fierce resistance of its ancestors.
We found him in a ranger's uniform at the entrance to the Sitka National Historical Park where he detects the aroma of campfire smoke on our clothes and can't resist commenting: “You guys smell our best perfume: firewood cologne! That's a lot of points gained from considering any Tlingit.”
Be welcome. Have fun in the park but pay attention. In recent days they have been sighted bears. Speak out loud to each other. If you come across one, above all, don't turn your back!"
We follow the advice to the letter. We enter the dark forest. We had fun feeding dialogues as futile as they were noisy.
We stopped just to admire each of the 18 totems Tlingits mysterious and colorful and to read the explanatory bulletins arranged along the tracks.
Os bears they also created problems for the Russian pioneers.
Alaska. The Vast Russian Colony That Just Sold Out
The Russians ventured into Alaska almost a hundred years before the British. They were motivated by the abundance of skins, an asset, at the time, very valuable, which they could obtain there in greater quantity than on the other side of the Bering Strait.
After his subjects had nearly extinguished the target animals of the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, the colony's first governor, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, moved the capital to the south.
He built Sitka with the unbridled ambition of establishing a fur empire that would stretch from Bristol Bay to northern California.
The project ran into the advance of the British. It didn't even make it halfway. Still, the Russians dominated Alaska until 1867. That same year, they closed one of the worst deals in its history.
At the time, various domestic disputes and conflicts with native tribes, the high expenses for the maintenance of the colony, which were added to those resulting from the Napoleonic wars, depleted the finances of Saint Petersburg.
As a last resort, the Russians sought to sell the territory to the United States. The Americans ended up agreeing to the price of 7.2 million dollars, less than the two cents per acre that the Republican Party called “the madness of Seward” (the Lincoln Secretary of State who signed the deal) that would turn out to be surprisingly profitable.
Alaska's Gold That Attracted New Settlers From Everywhere
Thirteen years later, prospectors Richard Harris and Joseph Juneau, who came to give the name to the Alaska's current capital, discovered gold in the Gastineau Canal. The lode they found, together with others, quickly netted over 150 million dollars.
Part of the sellers' heritage and way of life also passed into the hands of buyers. No other village in Southeast Alaska has inherited as much as sitka. Today, Sitka has 9 inhabitants. It is the only village in Southeast Alaska that challenges the Pacific Ocean.
Unsurprisingly, ethnically and culturally, Sitka has become the real Russian salad. A historical patchwork that continued to intrigue us.
We spent part of the night around a second fire, in the home of a young couple Quakers who offered to welcome us. We weren't the only ones.
A Bonfire Night, with Quakers, S'mores and an Alaskan Musician
Caleb had just arrived from far away Fairbanks (northern Alaskan town) and was also a guest. “Did you bring wine? How wonderful!" he exclaims when he detects the bottle in our shopping bags for dinner.
Seth and Jillian, the eccentric hosts, aren't so enthusiastic. “Well, alcohol goes against our principles but we're not going to impose anything on you. Drink but behave well below! know what they are s'mores?” still ask us. We're really looking forward to doing a night of s'mores. But let's settle around the fire. They already see what it is.”
Just in case, rather, they show us where we were supposed to sleep. In that same small room, we have fun watching dozens of folk costumes hanging that seem to us to be suitable for a long Carnival.
Jillian notices our fascination: “Like it? I'm the one who sews them by hand. We, Quakers we are not big fans of technology, as you may have noticed”.
The Then Emerging Phenomenon of the Portugal group. the man
We went out to the backyard and into the cold night of that coastal Alaska. Caleb had already helped himself to the wine.
As he basked in the flames, he remembered something that intrigued him. “You know the Portugal. The man ? They are an alternative band from Portland already quite famous here in the north of the States. I even bet they will become famous in Europe too. (ndA: that's more or less what happened and they came to play the Portugal). Why do they have this name? Well, I would love to explain to you, but the truth is, I don't know. "
To compensate, he asked us about Portugal. He assured us that it would be one of his priority trips to the Old World.
Meanwhile, Jillian gives us branches caught around there and opens up hostilities s'morescas. Make a mini marshmallow sandwich between crackers. Place it at the end of your branch and toast it over the fire. Us and Caleb imitated her and Seth. Shy, this one laughed at everything a little while protecting himself from the dense smoke that made us choke.
The flames and smoke soon subside.
Jillian took the opportunity to confess: “Oh, how good this is feeling.”. We're still pretty wet from the morning's adventure. We went to mine gold for the river. We never thought it would get so tired. On top of that, we found no sign of him. Not even dust."
Confusions on Sitka's Russian Past and Present
At that time, a parallel strikes our minds and exposes them to the fire: “Have you noticed that if the Russians had found the first gold here in these parts, we could have been speaking Russian here and drinking vodka accompanied with pickled cucumbers ?”
To which Seth counters. “It's true, guys. But I'm not sure if that doesn't happen now and then around here. It could be more visible, but this city still has a lot of Russian.
They were unlucky with the cruises schedule, but almost every time one docks here, there is a show of traditional Russian dances.”
The next cruise didn't arrive until after too long.
Two days later, we boarded the M/V Malaspina and we continued to explore Alaska by the route of its long Marine Highway.