Why you should care
Because to visit Alaska like a local, you have to hit the docks.
I am floating somewhere in the turquoise ether of Apple Maps, a blue, disembodied dot between the Sitka airport and the fishing village itself, once known as New Archangel by its former Russian tenants. This is not some glitch of technology. My resting place for tonight is in the middle of the ocean — on a floating, renovated World War II tugboat.
The Adak, charcoal black between the rising mountains of Baranof Island and the floating volcano Mount Edgecumbe, has been a local staple famous for its Christmas parties, impromptu jam sessions and concerts over the years (and, more infamously, for twice catching fire and almost sinking a few times during its adventures in varied ownership). Now, it serves as an Airbnb for visitors to Sitka, thanks to its newest owner, a Philadelphia transplant and novelist named Brendan Jones.
Sea lions play in the “backyard,” and many feel the Adak has the best view of the brilliant Sitka sunsets.
This purely Alaskan experience really starts with Eliason Harbor. Walking the docks is like walking Main Street in the Lower 48: Here, the economy’s lifeblood rests in bright-orange-jacketed fishermen and the smell of fresh catches. Aboard the Adak, there’s a large-windowed kitchen and living spaces: two “berths” and an upstairs master bedroom with a patio view and a door to the bridge, which is home to a massive, antique steering wheel. Sea lions play in the “backyard,” and many feel the Adak has the best view of the brilliant Sitka sunsets.
The tugboat wasn’t always such a good host. Since buying the Adak in 2011, Jones has had to seal the decks, rip out a rotten gallery corner, treat the planks beneath the waterline and fix the 1928 engine. Heating can be an issue in the winter months, although it was plenty warm during my summer visit. Long-term sojourners may find boat life more troublesome than I did during my three nights, especially considering the vessel’s age. “The marine heads are small,” Jones says, which perturbs some guests. Others worry about climbing a ladder or slinking through a hatch to the upper bedroom. But there is “something romantic,” Jones says, about sleeping on the water, and the ability to, as one guest did, catch 30-pound king salmon off the back.
Look up from your ship-sitting and see Harbor Mountain above. The real gem of Sitka is the 6-mile Gavan Hill/Harbor Mountain Trail, which starts from the city with a quad-burning, two-hour hike to the mountain’s summit. Survive that, and the faerie-like landscape — filled with hillside ponds, alpine rock fields and Alaskan wildflowers during the summer months — provide vistas of Sitka Sound, Sitka and Mount Edgecumbe. Even if the weather doesn’t cooperate, climbing into clouds is a haunting experience, befitting the claim of many transplants that Alaska is a state for escaping your ghosts.
A word to the wise: Don’t make the hike on a day with 60 percent chance of precipitation, as I did. But if you do, enjoy the effect of the rain. Here, it seems to fall around you, not on you — as you too are cleansed by the wild of the last frontier.
Go There: The Adak
- Directions: Take a taxi from the Sitka airport or ferry to Eliason Harbor. Alternatively, starting at St. Michael’s Cathedral downtown, walk south along Lincoln Street, take a right on Katlian Street and go straight for half a mile. Walk down the ramp into the marina, take an immediate right, than a left at the dead end. The Adak is docked at the corner.
- Accommodations: Berths (twin-size mattresses with porthole windows) cost around $50 per night; the upstairs master bedroom (full floor with a full-size mattress) costs $85 per night.
- Pro Tip: To add to the magic, read Brendan Jones’ The Alaskan Laundry. The Adak plays a pivotal role in the award-winning novel (long-listed for the 2016 Center for Fiction Debut Novel Prize and an Oprah.com Pick of the Month). “We’re all tumbling around in the Alaskan laundry out here. If you do it right, you get all that dirt washed out, then turn around and start making peace with the other shit,” Jones writes.
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