I’ve changed my mind about the tourists. I now love them. They can block my walk to work any day, because they offer some of the best people watching imaginable. I love when their yellow raincoats make them look like traffic cops. (What’s the theory behind those raincoats? Do bears hate the color yellow?) I love the big fancy cameras they probably bought specifically for this trip. I love the matching husband-and-wife t-shirts with giant, growling bears emblazoned on the front. I love the way they theme their outfits to this occasion, as though they’re consciously trying to present themselves as Classy World Explorers. This week I passed a man in a blue and white striped rugby shirt with a red scarf wrapped jauntily around his neck. Well played, sir, but last I checked, you are not on Gilligan’s Island.
But mostly I just love their determination to entertain themselves for eight full hours in Sitka. What do they DO all day?!
Things the cruise tourists do in Sitka:
1) Check out the Russian Orthodox Church and its surrounding gift shops.
2) Purchase a Russian doll at said gift shops.
3) Browse kitschy stores with t-shirts that say things like “Don’t feed the bears” and “If God wanted us to be vegetarian, He wouldn’t have made it so much fun to shoot things.”
4) Consult maps
5) Eat reindeer hotdogs
6) Rent ATVs
7) Try to avoid the bears at Totem Park
8) Consult maps again. Then go back and buy that wolf t-shirt.
I’m exaggerating, obviously. There’s a lot to do in Sitka; the tourists also really seem to love Baranof Castle and the Russian Bishop’s House—which I still haven’t visited despite living ACROSS THE STREET, because obviously the pharmacy with the milkshakes is more important to me. There are also a lot of native exhibits at Centennial Hall and the Sheldon Jackson Museum, and I think I’ve read something about a Raptor Center (Bald Eagles! YEAHH AMURRICA!) But I’m pretty sure that Sitka’s best attributes aren’t the kind of things you read about in a guidebook.
Take SeaMart, for example. SeaMart is the largest grocery store in Sitka. It also happens to be right on the water. The PARKING LOT of the GROCERY STORE is widely known to have one of the best views in town. That’s the kind of thing that makes living in Sitka really fun, but there aren’t exactly tour buses to the local SeaMart. Same goes for the library, which is where I happen to be at the moment. When I look up from my laptop, I’m greeted by an ice-blue lake with pale green mountains in the distance. The clouds are low, the sunlight is warm, and an old, white, wooden fishing boat is bobbing past rocky islands. I don’t know of any other libraries on such prime real estate.
Sitka has so many well-kept secrets. There’s a coffee shop that apparently has legendary croissants, but they’re only available on Saturday mornings, and they’re always gone by 9 am. And last week I went to a farmers’ market, which was flat-out adorable. It was right on the water; the smell of the sea mingled with the smells of fresh veggies and grilled Filipino food. Farmers sold huckleberries and hummus and greeted people by name. Little kids ran around in their Xtratuf rainboots—no other brand is acceptable in Sitka. I walked around for a while as the smells and the smiles helped me decompress from the previous night (the Boys and Girls Club had a lock-in. Thirty-six kids showed up. I don’t want to talk about it). And then I saw the cupcake stand. Yes, the farmers’ market comes with a make-your-own cupcake stand, complete with about 20 types of icing. It turned my entire day around. That’s the kind of small-town charm I LOVE.
Most tourists don’t get to see the farmers’ market. They don’t get to visit thrift shops like the White Elephant, where VHS tapes are a whopping 25 cents. Do they ever just walk the docks on a sunny day, listening as their shoes clap against the wooden slats beneath their feet? Because that’s what I did on Thursday after work, and it was perfect.
There’s just so much that you can’t take advantage of in Sitka unless you’re prepared to stop and stay awhile. The cruise tourists don’t come dressed to hike, and they don’t have time for the best ones anyway. They also don’t have time to befriend local Search and Rescue guys and go fishin’ or hikin’ or shootin’.
Good thing the JVs have time to befriend EVERYONE IN TOWN! There are some people in Sitka who unofficially adopt the Jesuit Volunteers every year. Tyler is one of them. He’s a local Search and Rescue guy/ fifth grade teacher who likes to take the JVs out fishing—and occasionally shoot a deer for us. You know, the usual.
A few weeks ago, Tyler took three of us out on his boat to catch some salmon. Just to make this scenario even BETTER, his two golden retrievers, Kallie and Ruby, came along for the adventure. I’m mildly obsessed with Ruby because she reminds me so much of Lambeau, my old dog (yes, we named our dog after the Packers’ field. Yes, we also occasionally dressed her in a cheesehead. GO PACK GO). So Anne, Martine and I showed up at Tyler’s, all ready to go in our Xtratuf boots. Every Alaskan fisherman wears these boots, so I’ll admit, I was feeling pretty hardcore. We had the outfits—what more could we need?
Oh, just some camo pants and a shotgun. Martine didn’t have rain pants, so Tyler lent her some waterproof camouflage pants WITH SUSPENDERS. I’m pretty sure Martine’s going to steal them from Tyler any day now; she never wanted to take them off. Camo pants: the new Little Black Dress.
And then, just to complete the ensemble, Tyler handed her a gun (“in case we meet a bear”). Ok, that’s totally normal.
And then we sped off through the water. Tyler even let Anne drive the boat—for about five minutes. Then, of course, the motor started to sputter. We were running low on oil. Tyler parked the boat by a trail and assured us that this was no problem; all he had to do was run back to the car and drive home to get the oil. I totally welcomed this delay; it meant we had 45 more minutes to soak up the scenery before we had to start killing innocent salmon. But before Tyler ran off, Anne asked if we’d be ok out here on this trail by ourselves.
“Oh sure, you’ll be ok because you’ve got the shotgun.”
In Anne’s words, I can count on one finger the amount of times I’ve heard that in my life.
Obviously, we didn’t encounter any bears. We just sat on the boat, taking pictures…
…while marveling at the camo pants, watching the bald eagles and sea lions, and basking in the reality that this is our life AND IT IS GREAT. Those were maybe my favorite 45 minutes of the day; as expected, killing fish is not my thing. I can reel them in just fine, but I cringed every time Tyler bopped them over the head—and that wasn’t nearly as bad as filleting them. Fish are slimy. I don’t think that’s really news to anyone, but still: knowing they’re slimy is different from closing your hand over their slippery, gooey scales and then cutting them apart. I am not a fisherman.
So when it came time to fillet the salmon, I tried to prolong the inevitable for as long as possible. As Martine and Anne took their turns, I watched from a very safe distance, feeling a little bit lame for how squeamish the fish blood made me. I’m pretty sure my roommates already see me as something that escaped from a Disney cartoon, and they have a point; I kept glancing toward the line of evergreens on the horizon, half-expecting Pocahontas to emerge from the mist carrying a basket of corn. So just when I was looking for a way to toughen up and make myself useful, Tyler mentioned that somebody might want to grab the shotgun and stand on bear patrol. DONE. I can do that! I can hold a gun that I probably won’t have to fire—just don’t make me touch the fish blood. And I kind of have a vendetta against the bears anyway; early in Orientation, I made the mistake of revealing to my roommates that I’m probably not the fastest runner, so I’ve been branded as “bear bait” since day one. Take that, bears. I will not be your after-dinner mint.
So I stood there holding the gun, looking out over the water, and I realized, I’m holding a gun. I’m holding a gun ON BEAR PATROL, standing on a rocky outcropping in the middle of a lake while my roommates fillet the salmon we just caught. ALASKA. And that’s when I knew that I was absolutely going to fillet that salmon. I was not going to stop halfway. My fear of missing out was stronger than my fear of touching something gooey. So I filleted my salmon. And now I can always say that I caught a salmon and filleted it on a rock in the middle of a lake. It was one part nasty, two parts awesome.
That’s not to say that I’m no longer a product of my Disney-infused childhood. I may or may not have inadvertently exclaimed, “Look at the rainbow!” on our trip back to shore.
Since then, Tyler has taken us hiking. We’ve seen this
He’s also taken us to the shooting range (can’t be caught unawares on bear patrol!). I was definitely that kid at summer camp who refused to take riflery, even though it’s one of the most popular activities, but that didn’t really matter here. I look at my time in Alaska as cultural immersion—you get more out of it if you try things you would otherwise never do. That includes firing a weapon (at a cardboard box). So I shot that box, and may I say, that box will not be posing a threat to anyone anytime soon.
We tried rifles and pistols; rifles are a lot easier, but I’m hoping to improve on the pistol because holding it made me feel like THIS GUY.
(If this picture means nothing to you, go watch Bones. You’re welcome.)
Till then, I’ll continue my cultural immersion, and the tourists will continue wearing t-shirts with bears on them.