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On a few hours' walk, you see Tlingit and Russian Sitka.

Even by Alaskan standards, Sitka is a bit out of the way. For most visitors, it's a 4-to 8-hour port call from a cruise ship. For other travelers, it can be considered a detour--but a worthwhile one, especially in June.

Tucked at the edge of a mountain-ringed bay on the west coast of Baranof Island, Sitka is Southeast Alaska's oldest city, settled by Russian fur traders in 1799. It was also the site of an importaht Tlingit Indian village. You can see the influence of both cultures in the town's architecture, at several historical sites, and in three unusual museum collections.

The walking tour outlined here takes you to almost all the Sitka attractions that most shore tours offer, but allows more time flexibility. The distance covered is less than 2 miles, and you can breeze through in a couple of hours, though you'll probably want to allow more time.

In June, days are long enough to allow morning or evening king salmon fishing as part of a day of exploring. Early in the month, chances for sunny weather are greater. If you're in town on a Tuesday or Friday night June 8 through 29, you can attend a performance at one of the west's top-rated summer music festivals. Festival tickets, air or ferry transportation, and lodging should be reserved now; it's generally advisable to book ahead mid-May through September.

For a list of accommodations, ferry schedules, and information on fishing charters and other area activities, write or call the Sitka Visitors Bureau, Box 1226, Sitka 99835; (907: 747-5940. Walking the capital of Russian America

When aleksandr Baranof sailed into Sitka Sound in 1795, the sheltered harbor and the prominent hill above it (site of a Tlingit Indian village) looked promising. But in 1799 he built the original settlement 6 miles north of the village. An attack by the Tlingit led to retaliation by Baranof, and in 1804 the imperial flag of the czar was planted on Castle Hill and the settlement named New Archangel.

Today a very American town with a population of 8,350, Sitka still gives much evidence of its past. Its 5-square-block downtown is compact, and the best way to get around is on foot.

Start at the Centennial Building, next to the ramp where launches from cruise ships anchored in the sound drop passengers going ashore. Inside are a Russian historical museum, an exhibit of work by local artists, and offices of the visitors' bureau (hours are 8 to 5 daily), where you can pick up a map of town. On cruise-ship days, the New Archangel Dancers put on a lively performance here; check at the bureau for times and tickets.

From the hall, head west (left) down Harbor Drive, then north up Maksoutoff Street to st. Michael's Cathedral in the town's center.

Consecrated in 1844, St. Michael's houses an important collection of icons; nearly a hundred are on display, including "Our Lady of Sitka," painted around 1800. Notice a pair of ornate crowns: these are held above the heads of bride and groom during weddings here. A set of chalices was originally from Fort Ross, the Russian fur-trading outpost in California.

Parishioners believe it was a miracle that this collection was spared when the original church was destroyed by fire in 1966. After the fire, $800,000 was raised to rebuild the church--producing a replica that is authentic right down to the sailcloth covering the interior walls. Hours are 11 to 3 daily, 8 to 3 on cruise-ship days. A $1 donation is appropriate.

Head west down Lincoln Street. The Baranof Indian and Eskimo art shop (just across from the church) had a good selection of native art when we were there.

One more block and you reach a stairway (on the left, just past the Jeweler's Bench) leading up Castle Hill. A small park here, with fine views of harbor and town, marks the site of Baranof's fort and where Russia transferred Alaska to the United States in 1867.

Backtrack to Lincoln; across the street is the Pioneers Home, an institutional-looking building that is a retirement haven for old-timers. A small gift shop in the basement sells crafts made by residents, and is a great place to strike up a conversation with people who lived here when Alaska was still a territory.

Walk around the front of the building, then up a short hill that leads to the wooden blockhouse perched on a huge rock above Seward and Marine streets. This is a replica of a Russian blockhouse built in 1824 to divide the European from the Indian section of town.

Continue east on Seward (several spots offer views over Sitka's rooftops to the sound) to Lake Street, then turn right down to Lincoln Street. Through a forest of totems

From here, you can walk back down Harbor Drive to return to the Centennial Building or turn left on Lincoln. Stop in the Bayview Trading Company shopping complex for a snack (the Russian-American Company upstairs imports Russian gifts and artwork), then take the 1/2-mile walk along the waterfront past Crescent Harbor to Sitka National Historical Park.

This was the site of the decisive 1804 Battle of Sitka, the last major Tlingit resistance against the Russians. A visitor center, open 8 to 6 daily from June through September, displays artifacts and drawings of the Indian fort. The Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center shares the building, and most days you can see native artists working on traditional crafts such as basketry, beadwork, and woodcarving; last summer, one project was carving a new totem pole.

A short loop stroll takes you over a springy, bark-covered path to the battle site. Along the way, you'll pass 16 totem poles in small clearings and among the Sitka spruce. One bright, windy day, we watched three bald eagles swooping just above the treetops. The cobbled beach along the sound is a great picnic place.

As you head back into town, it's a short walk up the driveway to Sheldon Jackson Museum, a fine private collection of Indian and Eskimo art and artifacts purchased by the state this past winter; the masks are especially impressive. Plans are to open the museum by May 15--and keep it open from 8 to 5 daily through summer (admission $1). Three weeks of chamber music

Every June, about 20 professional musicians from around the country converge on Sitka to spend three weeks playing together. The emphasis is on classical chamber music, and consistent quality over the past dozen years has won high marks from leading music critics.

"These musicians aren't paid," notes director Paul Rosenthal. "We are here because we want to be. The only pressure on us is to make good music."

And the setting matches the music. Performances are in the Centennial Building's 500-seat auditorium. Acoustics are good enough, but the hall's real attraction is behind the performers on stage: a 60-foot-wide glass wall that overlooks Sitka Sound. In June, the Pyramid Mountains are still capped with snow and rise dramatically behind the dark spruce forests edging the bay, and the long northern days stretch out sunset until after the performance. Even a carelessly placed garbage dumpster couldn't spoil the impact of so grand a backdrop.

This season, performances begin Tuesday and Friday nights promptly at 8:15, with two special performances on June 16 and 23. Tickets are $7 for adults, $4 for ages 6 to 12 (under 6 not admitted). Rehearsals are held weekdays when cruise ships are not in port; its a great time to meet musicians and preview concerts.

For a program and reservation form, write to the festival at Box 907, Sitka 99835. In past years, a few extra seats have been available at most performances, but reservations are advisable.
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Title Annotation:Southeast Alaska's oldest city
Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1984
Words:1294
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