Alaska Day in Sitka
Alaska Day commemorates the day in 1867 when the United States took possession of Alaska from the Russians. It’s Sitka’s day. Up until that time Sitka ran on the Julian calendar and was west of the International Date Line. Sitka jumped ahead about two weeks in an instant when the American flag hit the top of the pole on Castle Hill.
In most Alaska communities Alaska Day is just a substitute for Columbus Day, which is a federal but not a State holiday. In 1980 when I worked at KTOO in Juneau, we did a vox pop with residents. Most Juneauites didn’t know why they had the day off. So I did a piece on Alaska Day for Alaska News Nightly complete with a doo wop version of the “Alaska Flag Song.” In 2004 in Anchorage someone sponsored an Alaska Day Candidate Forum. It opened with the “Alaska Flag Song.” Most of the candidates needed a cheat sheet with the words in order to get through the song. Anyone who didn’t know the State Song shouldn’t be in the legislature.
Sitka has turned Alaska Day into a weeklong festival. On Sunday we attended a “taste of Russia” and a presentation at the historical society. On Tuesday afternoon I was working in the Raven Radio production room when the whole building started to shake. The Seattle Fire Fighters Pipe and Drum band marched in. Soundproofing does not defend against bagpipes. So we put them on the air.
The theme of this year’s Alaska Day is the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway. On Thursday we enjoyed an open house on the state ferry MV Taku. I got to tour the bridge and engine room. The Taku is one of the three original ships, built in 1963. All are still sailing after 50 years. I first rode them 40 years ago. They have the fine classic lines of older ships, not the boxy and top heavy profiles of modern liners or ferries. The state maintains the boats well, clean and smooth running. But the ships have evolved over the years. Two have been lengthened (the Matanuska and the Malaspina) and two have gotten new engines (Malaspina still has her original running gear). They were converted from running on bunker fuel to #2 Diesel for environmental reasons. The ships now have auto pilot and new safety equipment. The original ferries did not have windshield wipers. That was fixed as well. This Alaska Day I not only honored the marine highway system but the skill of the marine architects and shipbuilders who made vessels that are still running after half a century.
By Friday the National Park Service was working again so they had an open house at the Russian Bishop’s House. It is the oldest building in Sitka, restored by the NPS. The park service staff dressed either in 1867 period costume (albeit holding radios) or was wearing pieces of their tribal regalia.
Sitka’s Alaska Day started as a costume party with an historical reenactment of the transfer ceremony following a parade. Originally folks wore costumes from 1868, either Russian or American (military or civilian) or tribal. Then things began to grow. The “Keystone Kops” dressed in British Bobby police uniforms and fined men without beards, ladies without long skirts and people not wearing Alaska Day pins. Their costumes got out of hand, adding patches and pins from visiting military units and then feather boas and wigs until, now, you can hardly see the uniforms under the decoration. Then there are the bagpipes. Bagpipes are traditional Alaska Day, but why? From what one of the pipers told me it was because a piper in Seattle liked coming up to Sitka on Alaska Day. He helped the Seattle Fire Department organize their pipe and drum corps. One of his conditions was that the band comes up here for Alaska Day. So they do. Pipes and kilts are now as much a part of Alaska Day as Russian costume or tribal regalia. One young woman asked one of the firefighters why he wore a skirt. He answered; “you wear underwear under skirts. I wear a kilt.”
This year’s parade was huge even though, because of a combination of the federal furloughs and sequesters, the Army Band and military units from Fort Richardson didn’t march this year. The Coast Guard based in Sitka did march and got its customary cheer. This year, since Sitka is raising it hydro dam, there was a large contingent of hard hat construction workers driving graders and other construction equipment in the parade. What other town has a redi-mix cement truck in a parade? There was even a contingent of belly dancers and a barber shop quartet. It was a great parade opened and closed by the joyful change bell ringing from the carillon in the bell tower of St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Of course it rained.
Happy Alaska Day.
With this post I am changing the way I do blogs. In the past I used to work on one section at a time, for instance Serbia or Croatia, I completed it and and posted it all at once. This is not how social media works; I’ve been doing it all wrong. I have been focused on the end product, a website that has complete sections, organized logically, chronologically or geographically. But people duck into and out of websites each day. If there is no new stuff they don’t come back. If I vary the content and try to post most days I may have a less organized site but it may be more interesting to people. When I am not traveling I am mining my photo and letter archive. So this coming week you will see posts about Sea Arabs of the Indian Ocean, an Oasis in the middle of Egypt’s desert sand dunes, Doo Wop Architecture in Wildwood, New Jersey, Monasteries in Armenia and what I think is the perfect Balkan town. In future weeks you may see the ice hotel at Chena Hot Springs, the Museum of Islamic art in Doha and a photo essay on making gravel in South Sudan. Please come back soon.