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Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2019 - part 5
Japan and Alaska
  Map Yokohama, Japan Aomori, Japan Sapporo, Japan Kodiak, Alaska Anchorage Juneau Vancouver Skagway Icy Strait Point Sitka Ketchikan Victoria

Monday 27 May

Maiden call to Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, population around 9,000, is situated on the west coast of Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of southeastern Alaska. In common with most other cities in the Inside Passage, Sitka is only accessible by air or by sea. It is historically the most important City in Alaska and the fourth largest after Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, the state capital. The Kiksadi Clan of the Tlingit Indians were the early inhabitants of the Sitka region. Baranof island was called Shee by the Kiksadi and their settlement was known as Shee Atika, meaning ‘people on the outside of Shee’. This name later became contracted to the present name of Sitka. Russian fur traders had been visiting southeast Alaska since the 1740s, with little impact on the Native Indians. However, everything changed in 1799 when the Russians decided to found a permanent settlement near present-day Sitka. Sitka National Historical Park is the site of Russia’s defeat of the indigenous Tlingit people and has a trail dotted with totem poles.

At the dock there was a photo opportunity with a real live 2kg Alaskan King Crab, and a useful souvenir shop. It was 6 miles from the Old Sitka Dock to Downtown, along Halibut Point Road, and a shuttle bus was provided to the Harrigan Centennial Hall. Crescent Harbour is home to the local fishing fleet and as we looked at the boats there was a weighing of salmon which had just been caught. Harbour Way leads to the O-Connell Bridge which goes to the airport. Just before the bridge a footpath leads up to the Baranov Castle Hill. With stunning panoramic views of Sitka, this was an early stronghold of the Kiks.adi clan. Later, successions of Russian buildings occupied the hill including Baranov’s Castle from 1837 to 1894. When Alaska was admitted as the 49th US state in 1959, Castle Hill was the location where the first 49-star US flag in Alaska was raised, though the ceremony was unofficial and secret.

Descending on the other side towards the Alaska Pioneers Home we arrived in the Totem Square facing the Baranov Totem Pole. From the top, the totem pole has Baranov, Russian bear, Katlian, Raven, Russian Double-headed Eagle, and a Brown bear with a frog emerging from knot-hole. Raised in 1942 it was removed for repair in 2010 and then re-erected in 2011. At the front of the Pioneers Home is a sculpture of "The Prospector" which was erected in 1949. Other buildings around Totem Square are the City Hall and the historic Cable House.

The main shopping street is Lincoln Street which runs from City Hall to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The selection of Russian souvenirs imported from Russia for sale in Lincoln Street was better than we saw in St Petersberg, and the prices were cheaper - especially for Russian crystal and the blue and gold porcelain discounted in the sale. St Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral was built in 1844-1848 but then destroyed in the fire of 1966 and rebuilt. Fortunately the valuable treasures, especially the paintings and the icons, were rescued from the fire. These include Our Lady of Sitka and St Michael Archangel. The new replica building was . Entry was $5 but free for students. The cathdral shop nearby sells many Russian religious objects and souvenirs. The same fire also destroyed the Lutheran church which is opposite. Founded in 1840, the first building was dedicated in 1843. A second building which was erected in 1942 was destroyed by the fire but a new building was dedicated in 1967. The original wooden chandelier was rescued from the fire, and the original small wooden pipe organ was been reinstated. Homemade salmonberry jelly was for sale and has a delicate flavour and a beautiful pink colour. The berries are ripe in June/July and we read that they are frozen after picking and then used later. It went well with the Elk Burger at dinner later.

To complete our walk we climbed up to the Russian Cemetary, which was quite overgrown. Then we descended to Princess Street and found the grave of Princess Maksoutoff which is outside the fence of the Russian cemetary and is being cared for by the Lutheran church. The site of the previous Orthodox church was on a small hill just before the Russian Blockhouse (a copy of the original). It was here that Saint Yakov was buried in 1864 at the door of Holy Trinity Church of which only the ruins remain.

Overshooting the shuttle bus there was a nice walkway along the sea wall which passed the Bishops house. Initially home for Russian Orthodox bishops, the house was later a school and an orphanage. A long restoration project was completed in the late 1980s and the house is back to its mid-1850s appearance. A downstairs museum is full of memorabilia of Russian Alaska. There are guided tours by Park Service rangers (every 30 minutes) to show visitors around the bishop’s private quarters and the chapel on another floor but we didn't want to wait for a tour. Instead we continued to visit the Episcopal Church of St Peter's by the Sea. The church was opened in 1899. The See House, behind the church, was built in 1905 and was the Bishop's home until 1942. Finally the Sitka Historical Museum is in the Harrigan Centennial Hall, at the shuttle bus stop. It is an excellent museum and contains displays, photographs and artefacts relating to Sitka’s Tlingit, Russian and American history. There was a manequin of Princess Maksoutoff, but with different first names to the one buried in Princess Street. Later there needs to be further research of their relationship.

With more time it would have been interesting to visit the Alaska Raptor centre, just over a mile away in the heart of the Tongass Forest, which is home to injured birds of prey. There is also the Fortress of the Bear which is 5 miles away and is a home for orphaned brown bears.

Tuesday 29 May

Maiden call to Ketchikan, Alaska

This southern-most Alaskan port city is known as ‘Alaska’s First City' because it was the first major community travellers came to when heading north. Founded as a fishing camp and just 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide, Ketchikan is built on steep hillsides and is billed as the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. It is a very popular cruise ship destination and the Queen Elizabeth was the fourth ship to dock and there are only 4 berths; the next ship had to anchor. Unlike Sitka, the docks are along the main shopping street, Front Street. Ketchikan vies with Juneau and Skagway for places to eat and they all have large tourist souvenir malls, with a jointly published coupon booklet of cheap offers and free gifts.

Unfortunately Front Street was being resurfaced and the waterfront was uneven and dusty. We escaped up Dock Street to the Tongass Historical Museum. It is an excellent source of information about the city’s history from its beginnings as a Tlingit fishing camp to the days of salmon canning, fishing and timber industries. A glinting wooden copy of the largest King Salmon caught, 87 lbs in 1921, has been installed along the creek behind the museum. In front of the building is the Raven Stealing the Sun totem pole carved in 1983. There is a combination ticket with the Totem Heritage Centre, which we reached by Bawden Street and then Park Avenue. The path goes along the Ketchikan Creek, passing the salmon ladder and the Deer Mountain Salmon Hatchery. There were many bald eagles flying overhead.

Some Background on the Salmon Life Cycle

The salmon life cycle begins in the creek, where eggs are carefully nestled in the gravel beds just upstream from the falls. These nests are built in areas of slow currents and shade to help protect the progeny. From here, embryos develop over the winter and tiny Fish emerge in the spring. They stay close to their nests for a few months and, when they are a little bit bigger, leave the gravel and swim to the surface. Depending on the species, they either head out to sea at this point or remain in freshwater for up to two years. When they are ready to migrate, their scales turn silver. By night, small salmon allow the current to take them downstream tail first, while bigger salmon swim on their own. When they reach the mouth of the creek, they swim in place so their bodies can adjust to the saltwater while they eat heartily. Salmon then spend between one and eight years in the ocean depending on type and the individual. As they head back to their places of origin, salmon’s bodies drain energy from all parts except the reproductive organs. Males develop hooked noses so that they might vie for dominance. Females, upon reaching spawning grounds, build nests by flipping onto their sides and rearranging the gravel. Winning males court the females and, simultaneously, the pairs release eggs and sperm. The female then covers the eggs loosely with gravel, swimming upstream to repeat the process. Soon, both male and female die.

The Totem Heritage Centre has two totem poles in front. We have seen many totem poles during our journey through Alaska but the area round Ketchikan, in particular, is renowned for its many totem poles carved by the local Native population. The internationally renowned collection of original 19th century totem poles in the Totem Heritage Centre came from abandoned Tlingit and Haida villages. There are five totem poles on display together in the main foyer and lots of explanatory information around the walls, as well as more old totem poles in a separate room. These poles were symbols of cultural and economic wealth that told glorious, comprehensive stories about the people and legends of the land. The visit was self-guided, but with the chance to ask questions. The Saxman Totem Park which is 2 miles outside the town has 25 totems which are authentic replicas of original poles left in abandoned villages.

Pete has put together some general background on totem poles as they have played an important role in many of our visits. It is based on information from the Totem Heritage Centre and subsequent research on the internet.

Some Background on Alaskan Totem Poles


Totem poles were never worshipped as religious objects in Alaska as the early missionaries believed. They were carved to honor the dead, proclaim wealth and status, and support the oral tradition. As symbols of cultural pride, the carving of totem poles today continues the tradition of those carved throughout history.

The specific functions of totem poles varied and not all cultural groups carved all types of poles. Some of the reasons for carving poles have changed. For instance, when the practice of cremation ceased, mortuary poles were no longer carved.

The following describe some of the reasons totem poles were carved historically:

  • SHAME OR RIDICULE POLES were erected to publicly discredit one who broke their word, behaved in a dishonorable fashion or left an unpaid debt. If amends were made, the poles were chopped down and destroyed.
  • MORTUARY POLES were commissioned when a person of high caste died in order to house the cremated body. The ashes were placed in a box and stored in a hole carved in the back of the pole.
  • MEMORIAL POLES honored important deceased clan members. A man selected to succeed as head of a clan house could not assume leadership until he had commissioned and erected a memorial pole commemorating the deeds and lineage of his predecessors.
  • HOUSE POSTS OR PILLARS were carved with emblems of family histories. House posts carved in the round, supported the main beams of the clan house and were a structural part of the house. Some were carved down a flat panel and rested against the supporting pillars of the house. These were more common amongst the Tlingits and could be more easily transported if necessary.
  • HERALDIC OR CREST POLES were placed in front of a clan house displaying a crest showing the matrilineal clan designation. Earlier versions amongst the Haida included the “portal” pole, whose Opening at the base provided a ceremonial entrance to the clan house. Crests on these poles indicated the clan’s geographic origin, genealogy or events in family history.

Totem Poles - Materials, Tools and Techniques

Traditionally, each step of a totem pole’s creation, from choosing the right tree to raising the pole, was marked by ritual and ceremony. The process of creating a totem pole takes a great deal of preparation, skill, and manpower.

Carvers are held in high esteem. According to traditional practice, young boys showing a natural interest and talent were encouraged to learn the art under the guidance of a master carver. Then, as now, the apprentice system ensures the continuation of knowledge and techniques.

A house leader or clan chief commissioned a carver and described the purpose of the pole to be carved, as well as the totemic elements to be included in the design. The artist designed the pole, interpreting the elements as he wished. After selecting a suitable Western red cedar tree, felling and trimming it, and transporting the log to the carving site, the carver was ready to begin.

Using adze and chisel, the carver roughed out the design, giving form to the figures. For final shaping and detailing, curved knives and incising tools made for that purpose by the carver were used. Attachments such as beaks, extended arms or wings were separate pieces, attached by mortising or by using wood pegs.

Paint was applied to highlight certain elements of the carving. It was made from a salmon egg oil base mixed with crushed minerals, and applied with hair brushes. Although totem poles made for the commercial market or those “restored” or replicated may be seen heavily painted, traditionally the carvings were painted sparingly, using three colors: blue/green, brown/red, and black. Traditionally, blue/green was derived from azurite, an oxide of copper found in sea caves and overhanging cliffs, or from iron potassium silicate (green sand). Brown/red was made from hematite, Cinnabar, red ochre, or fired rock containing iron oxide. Black was created from coal or charcoal. Today, carvers typically use commercially made paint and some use a broader palette of colors.

Totem Pole raising

The process of transporting and raising a totem pole can involve hundreds of people. A hole is first dug to receive the base of the pole. The pole is then raised in stages, with people hauling on strong ropes and pushing with long poles from beneath. Drumming, dancing and singing accompanies the event.

A pole raising is normally accompanied by a potlatch, a ceremonial feast with dancing, speech-making, telling of ancient stories, and gift-giving. Still one of the most important social occasions in Native society, potlatches are an Opportunity to educate the young in traditional practices, preserve knowledge in the oral tradition, and maintain or increase status in the community.

Looking for a different route back, we descended along Deermount Avenue, passing St Elizabeth's Church, now the city Mortuary. At the bottom of the hill the Sun Raven Totem Pole, a replica of one dating from the early 1900s on Tongass Island, is at the corner of East Street. The waterfront promenade goes out to the St Thomas Breakwater and then returns to Thomas Street. There are many houses dating from the original dock in the 1890s.

Creek Street was recognised as an Historic District in 2016. It became a red-light district in 1902. In 1919 Dolly Arthur bought No. 24 Creek Street, a street renowned for its illegal drinking parties and a considerable number of brothels. Dolly plied her trade for more than 30 years until the red-light area was closed in 1953. She continued to live in this house until her death in July 1975 aged 87, by which time she was the most famous woman in the town. Other former houses of ill-repute in Creek Street are art galleries, restaurants and gift shops. At the end there is a funicular to climb Cape Fox Hill. The creek is then crossed by footbridge near the Historical Museum. There are occasional shouts and much raucous laughter in the distance from the lumberjack show as we returned for a late lunch.

Thursday 30 May

Maiden Visit to Victoria

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and is on the southern end of Vancouver Island. The cruise terminal is about 2kms from the centre so there was a complementary shuttle bus to the Old Spaghetti Factory. The route passed the side of the Parliament Building to arrive near the indigenous Totem Pole and BC Museum on the edge of the Inner Harbour. Victoria is named after Queen Victoria and her statue fronts the Parliament Building. There is a small park, Confederation Garden Court, which celebrates Canadian independence in 1867 and the creation of British Columbia in 1871. On the waterfront is the impressive BC Coast Services Building, dated 1924.

The ferries and water taxis all depart from this area which is overlooked by the prestigious Fairmont Empress Hotel. The Union Club, a reciprocal of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, was next door but it was too early to settle into its comfortable rooms. There was more of the city to explore before lunch.

The main points of interest are between the Inner Harbour and Chinatown. Government Street goes through the middle of Chinatown, and it is only a short detour to the left and the right to see the area which was quiet and empty in the early morning. Even narrow Fan Tan Alley was deserted. We returned along Douglas Street to the Harbour.

The Union Club welcomed us and we settled into their large sitting area with coffees and newspapers. Founded in 1879 the clubhouse is a distinguished Victorian heritage building which includes 22 bedrooms. There is a roof-top terrace with one of the best views in the city overlooking the Inner Harbour. Dress code is smart casual but we always dress as smart business, with jacket (and a tie in a pocket in case). Lunch in the McGregor Lounge started early and by 1230 we were settled with two large glasses of excellent local white wine (chardonnay and pinot blanc) to match our local halibut and salmon mains. We ordered dessert, which was obviously made to order by the chef. Overall an excellent meal and we would definitely stay and eat here if we came to Victoria again.

To return, there is a waterfront promenade from the Inner Harbour to the Cruise Terminal which passes Fisherman’s Wharf with its floating shops and restaurants. It was a pleasant alternative to the shuttle bus.

Friday 31 May

Vancouver and return to UK

Cunard provide a transfer from the ship to the airport to catch our British Airways flight home. Room checkout was 0800, as is usual, then a long wait in the Royal Court Theatre until we were called for our coach transfer. The organisation on land was a mess with no baggage trolleys and our luggage in different places in the baggage hall. Southampton is much, much better. Loading onto the coaches was confusion too. Eventually we set off only to find the promised tour of the sights of Vancouver was reduced to a quick circuit of Stanley Park, then a drive directly to the airport. We saw the famous totem poles, described as part of the earlier visit to Vancouver, missed the promised Chinatown and Clock, then rushed past City Hall on the road to the airport. Our flight was not until 2055 and so there were hours and hours waiting in the departures area, sitting on planks in the auditorium. We should have gone for lunch at the Union Club and made our own way to the airport by taxi. After checkin we headed to the Dragonpass Lounge to relax, have a late lunch, glass of wine, and read. A good decision because it had much better food than on the flight.

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Content revised: 3rd July, 2019