Last November, I got an e-mail from a fourth grade public school teacher in Sitka, Alaska, inviting me and Brandon to be part of a classroom project he was planning. The project would be called the Perfect Pizza, and it would go like this: the students would spend some time studying pizza and writing about pizza, and along the way, we’d chat with them once or twice via Skype about what makes great pizza great. As the culminating event of the project, Brandon and I would come to Sitka in the flesh, ta daaaa, where we would make pizza with the students (Brandon), talk writing with the students (me), and give a reading at the local library (me). We of course said yes right away, yes yes YES.
We went to Sitka a couple of weeks ago, at the end of April. We were there from a Sunday evening to a Wednesday evening, hardly enough time to get a feel for a new place – neither of us had been to Sitka, or anywhere else in Alaska – but our hosts and the organizers of our trip, Chris and Tiffany Bryner, were such generous guides that I came away with a real affection for the town, and with a few tips for those of you who are considering a trip up that way.
Sitka is an island near the southeastern tip of Alaska, just north of British Columbia. The topography of Sitka felt familiar to me, because like Seattle, there’s a lot of water, and beyond the water there are mountains, although the mountains near Sitka are much nearer, seemingly arm’s reach away. Sitka also feels immediately more rugged, wetter and palpably wilder. In our first twenty-four hours, we spotted eight bald eagles and walked past some fresh-ish bear droppings on a trail, and I saw my first raven and then about three dozen more after that. Because of Sitka, I get to use the word droppings for the first time on this blog. Ring the bells!
Sitka has a population of only 9,000 or so, which makes it roughly one-quarter the size of our neighborhood in Seattle. But it has a terrific bookstore in Old Harbor Books, complete with a kids’ reading nook where June and I could have spent all day. Behind the bookstore is the Backdoor Cafe, where we warmed up with some curried pea soup. I’m still thinking about the raspberry crumble bar I bought there, and I probably will be for a while. A few doors up the street, I bought handmade soap scented with Sitka spruce at WinterSong Soap Company. At the Larkspur Cafe, we had our first black cod tips, a small, rich, silky strip of fish taken from between the jaw and the collar. June isn’t usually into fish, but she wound up stealing most of mine. It was cute, and also not at all cute. But then a friend of Tiffany’s saved the day by showing up with a frozen package of black cod tips for us to take back to Seattle. (!)
We took a walk one cloudy morning along the seawalk to Sitka National Historical Park, where I took the more wooded photos in this post. In the woods, the deerheart were coming in so thickly that, in some areas, you could hardly see the soil, and the trees had so many layers of lichen and moss and more moss that they seemed to be turning slowly into Muppets.
We didn’t have time to get out on a boat, though we wanted to. I had hoped to see a humpback whale, but it was the wrong time of year. But at dusk on the evening of my reading, we went out onto the seawalk across from the library, and every few seconds a tiny fish would leap out of the water of the harbor, snatch a bug in mid-air, and plink back under the surface. We also visited the Alaska Raptor Center, where I met this very small owl and had a moment of spiritual communion with this other owl and realized that I, having also nursed a low-grade obsession with great blue herons for several years, have finally become a real, full-on Bird Person. I surrender.
In Sitka, everything seems to happen at or around the library. On our first night in town, Tiffany took me to a poetry reading there in celebration of National Poetry Month. The poets ranged in age from maybe 8 to maybe 75, and their work was so good. It’s been a long time since I read poetry regularly, or even felt connected to the idea of poetry, but the morning after the reading, I found myself thinking about three poems that I loved as a teenager. There’s something about poetry that reverberates differently from prose. Just thinking back to those poems, even remembering only a line or two, I felt for that instant like the exact same person I was when I first read them, twenty years ago, sitting on the floor of my bedroom in my parents’ house in Oklahoma. Surely somebody must be able to explain how poetry does that. Or maybe it’s better if no one can.
On our last afternoon, the sun came out – in Sitka, as in Seattle, when the sun comes out, everyone throws down everything and rushes outside – so before heading to the airport, we drove to the south parking area of Halibut Point State Park and walked down to the beach behind it. At low tide, the island there, called Magic Island by locals, is connected to the beach, and you can walk out onto it. If it’s clear enough, you might be able to see Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano, in the distance. In any case, Magic Island lives up to its name.
I owe a great debt of thanks to everyone who made our visit possible: to the the half-dozen small businesses that generously donated our meals, to Kettleson Memorial Library and Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary, and to the families that loaned us their car, car seats, stroller, apartment, you name it. To Chris, Tiffany, and Shewa, who put it all together, and to Chris’s whip-smart fourth grade class: we’ll be back. x
P.S. If you find yourself in Sitka during the summer, keep an eye out for Chris and his Bunna Bike Coffee.
P.P.S. This cat’s out of the bag. YEEEEEOOOOWWW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!