Sitka and Juneau are about 95 miles apart as the crow flies, but a trip by water is about 130 miles, traversing a zig-zagging passage between Southeast Alaska's "ABC" Islands - Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof. Three of the largest islands in the United States, these islands are famous for wildlife, especially brown bears. The route from Juneau to Sitka passes through Peril Strait and Sergius Narrows, scenic waterways that offer a wealth of wildlife watching opportunities.
Sitka Sound is one of the few places in Southeast where it's possible to see whales reliably in the winter months. In February and March, large numbers of herring move into nearshore waters in the sound to spawn, drawing whales, seals, bald eagles and sea lions - as well as commercial fishermen.
Sitka is renowned for salmon and halibut fishing. On the Outer Coast of Southeast Alaska, it's a place to view species that favor the open ocean over Inside Waters. Look for Pacific white-sided dolphins here and birds such as puffins, rhinoceros auklets and storm petrels, especially around St. Lazaria Island to the south, one of the islands in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Murres, cormorants, black oystercatchers, black-legged kittiwakes, pigeon guillemots, scoters, harlequin ducks and mergansers may be found year-round. Marbled murrelets and glaucous-winged gulls are also common.
In spring and summer, songbirds are abundant in port, including varied, hermit and Swainson's thrushes, fox, Lincoln and song sparrows, Pacific slope flycatchers, winter wrens and golden-crowned kinglets.
Because the passage through the narrows depends on the tides, ferry travelers may spend several hours in the Sitka area. The ferry terminal is about eight miles from downtown in Starrigavan Bay. One option for wildlife watchers is to follow the signs to the nearby Starrigavan Recreation Area, a short walk from the terminal. This popular recreation area features a bird viewing platform, boardwalks and a nature trail.
The viewing platform is located at the beginning of the quarter-mile-long Estuary Life Interpretive Trail, and songbirds, waterfowl, belted kingfishers and blue herons can be found. From July through September, thousands of returning salmon enter the Starrigavan estuary to spawn upstream. Visitors can get a great overhead view of the salmon from the highway bridge, the Estuary Trail bridge, or in the side channels adjacent to the campground. Bald eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls come here to feed on the spawning fish.
Leaving Sitka, the flank of Southeast Alaska's best-known volcano can be seen rising to the west. This is Mount Edgecumbe, and nearby is a collapsed caldera called Crater Ridge. Lava flows, cinder and ash eruptions built a network of volcanic features in this area. The eruptions that built these landforms took place between 600,000 and 9,000 years ago, and there has not been recent activity.
Heading north into Olga Strait, Neva Strait and Salisbury Sound, look for sea otters resting in the kelp beds. Researchers are studying a mysterious decline in sea otter populations in Southwestern Alaska, but sea otters are thriving in Southeast.
Scan the green strip between the tide line and the forest for the round, brown backs of bears feeding on shore-side vegetation, and for the reddish brown coats of browsing Sitka black-tailed deer. The sea otter's smaller cousin, the river otter, may also be seen.
At mid-tide, when the ebb and flow of tidal action is most dramatic, water runs through these narrows like a powerful river, creating whirlpools and surging eddies. These currents have claimed boats, and mariners prefer to navigate these waters at slack high tide when possible.
Rounding Point Kakul about 20 miles north of Sitka, it's possible to catch a glimpse and feel the swell of the open ocean past Salisbury Sound. To the north lies the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness, a quarter-million acres of National Forest wilderness that shelters large numbers of migrating waterfowl and is home to mink, marten, otter, deer and brown bear. There are no black bears on these islands. This coastal wilderness extends north to Cross Sound and also contains two important sea lion rookeries, haulouts where sea lions gather in summer to breed and have their young.
Passing through Sergius Narrows and the southern end of Peril Strait, the waterway begins to widen. The gray trunks of standing dead trees are scattered throughout these forests along Peril Strait. Most of these dead trees are yellow cedar, which is experiencing a decline in Southeast Alaska.
Peril Strait separates Chichagof and Baranof Islands. A geologic fault formed the strait and on a map this fault line can easily be traced about 90 miles northwest through Peril Strait, Hoonah Sound and Lisianski Inlet. Hoonah Sound is about halfway up the strait and is the widest part of Peril Strait. This is a good place to watch for humpback whales, especially in May and June.
The forested slopes on both sides of Peril Strait show evidence of human and natural forces at work. Landslides deforest swaths of trees in relatively narrow, vertical strips, usually exposing the bedrock. Soil is often thin on these slopes, and rain-saturated soils can slump and high winds topple trees, precipitating slides. A jumble of fallen trees may litter the lower reaches of these slides. Several prominent slides in various stages of regeneration are visible to the south.
Logging plays a role in the local economy and has also influenced the landscape here. Mountain slopes in various states of reforestation may be seen. These range from areas recently clearcut (such as Hanus Bay, about 7 miles from Chatham Strait on the south side of Peril Strait) to those with five, 10 and 20 years growth of young spruce trees (a 10-year-old spruce tree is about six feet tall). In some of these areas, fast-growing alder and willow form striking "hedgerows" in the old logging roads, rising 10 to 20 feet above the slower-growing evergreens. This can be seen near False Island, where logging took place in the early 1980s.
Approaching the junction of Peril Strait and Chatham Strait, look for whales and porpoises. Loons and cormorants may be found here as well. As you turn past Morris Reef on the north side, Steller sea lions are frequently camped out on the buoy. Harbor seals concentrate in the reefs adjacent to the entrance to Florence Bay, and killer whales patrol this area.
Angoon sits almost directly across Chatham Strait from Peril Strait. See the Angoon to Juneau chapter for more information on the route north, and the Petersburg to Angoon chapter for the route south.