Sunday, July 4, 2004

Reflections on Alaska

I previously posted an album of our pictures from Alaska. However, I did not have time to describe them or go into detail about our trip, so I'll take the opportunity to do so now. Our rough itinerary included flying to Seattle Friday night, spending Saturday and Sunday in Seattle, and flying to Sitka, Alaska on Monday morning where we spent the rest of the week. Amy attended a conference on Family Practice medicine that Thursday through Saturday, and we flew home Sunday.

For those that don't know, Sitka is the 5th largest city in Alaska, with a population of 8,500. The 1990 census reported a total population of roughly 550,000 in a state roughly twice the size of Texas! On any given day (during the summer), two to three large cruise ships anchor in Sitka Sound and unload tourists into this tiny city for a day of exploring. This makes for quite an interesting character to the place, as it feels like the tide coming in and then receding, leaving the town to breathe deeply and prepare for the next day. We thoroughly enjoyed staying there for the week in a rented house, and experiencing more of the town than cruise-goers do.

There are a number of hiking trails in and around Sitka, all of which are exceptionally well maintained. Combined with nearly 19 hours of sunlight and summer temperatures in the 70's, it made for the ideal escape to nature. Also nearby is a Raptor Rehabilitation Center, from which you will see a number of pictures. Their specialty is treating injured bald eagles and helping them regain strength to the point that they can be released into the wild again. There are a handful of birds that have been so permanently injured that they can no longer survive in the wild. These birds are called Raptors in Residence, and are the birds (owls, falcons, hawks, eagles, and ospreys) you see in the pictures. They are used for education and, well, fund-raising. After all, how many people can see a bald-eagle perched on a handlers arm and not be awed into donating money to help? Bald eagles are, partially thanks to places like this, off of the endangered species list. Estimates put the total bald eagle population in North America (the only continent bald eagles call home) at around 100,000, of which roughly 50,000 live in Alaska.

We also spent a day kayakking around Sitka Sound. Sitka sits on Baranof Island, an island perhaps 30 miles wide (east to west) and 80 or so miles long (north to south). There are numerous smaller (many privately owned!) islands just off shore from Sitka. These provide shelter from wind and waves and also make for great wildlife spotting opportunities. On a side note - if you plan to kayak for a full day, I do recommend sunblock. I carried (and wore) a wide-brimmed hat, but got a touch burned from all the sun bouncing off the water. The weather was unbelievably clear, and with 19 hours of sun, you can get a burn even in Alaska!

Other activities in Sitka included a wildlife cruise (see the humpback whale?) organized through the medical conference, an evening concert at the Sitka Summer Music Festival, and a 5k run that started at 9:15! The picture of Amy crossing the finish line was taken about 9:45 pm, if you can believe it!

Sitka is a great place, though still a small town in many respects. I think the clincher that would keep us from living there, though, is the 4 hours of daylight during the winter months. Talk about seasonal affected disorder!

Flying into and out of Sitka was a blast, as they have one of the shortest runways used for commercial flights I've ever seen. The Alaska Airlines pilots do an amazing job at putting the 737-400's down and getting them stopped quickly. It's a very good thing all drinks are collected before landing, because otherwise they would end up on the seat back in front of you!

I'll throw out one final picture, for all you military buffs, that I shot as we were approaching Seattle. I am not familiar enough with the geography up there to know where this was, but the shape was distinctive enough to make me snap this picture anyway. Hope it wasn't classified!