Friday, November 13, 2015

Fortress of the Bear - Sitka, AK

The final stop on our three part Sitka shore excursion was the Fortress of the Bear, a bear rescue organization founded by Les and Evy Kinnear, who saw the need for a sanctuary for Alaska's orphaned bears.  The State of Alaska currently has no provision in state law for raising and releasing young bears back into the wild, so orphaned bears are usually killed. If young bears can be captured and brought to Fortress of the Bear, they can live out their lives here or sometimes be transferred to zoos, wildlife parks or other similar organizations.
An Alaskan Brown Bear at Fortress of the Bear, Sitka, AK

The Fortress of the Bear is located about 5 miles up the road from our previous stop, The Alaska Raptor Center.

Along the way, our tour bus driver, told us some of the history of the area.

The sign on the gate doesn't provide any clues, but the 3/4 acre site of the Fortress of the Bear is a re-purposed pulp mill.  The giant round cement enclosures were once tanks filled with pulp being processed.  The 15 foot walls are now a bear compound that keeps the bears securely inside. Elevated covered viewing platforms have been built to provide a great vantage point for visitors to safely observe the bears.  The roof is especially welcome if you happen to visit on one of Sitka's rainy days, like we did.

Alaskan Brown Bears at the Fortress of the Bears

Viewing Platform at Fortress of the Bear
The first stop on our tour was viewing platform between the two areas where the Alaskan Brown Bears are kept. There are currently a total of 5 brown bears, four boars (males) and one sow (female). The first bear to arrive in 2007 at the newly opened center was Killisnoo, a boar whose mother was shot when she entered a fishing lodge in search of food.  His brother, Chaik was captured about two months later.  There is no captive breeding of bears allowed in Alaska, so the male bears are all sterilized. There are signs with photos and information about each of the resident bears.

Sign about Killisnoo the Bear

The sow, Toby and her two brothers, Ballou and Lucky arrived at the center in 2010 when they were about one and a half years old.  It was determined that their mother had died from an intestinal blockage caused by plastic bags that she ingested while eating garbage.  Toby has learned some signing to communicate with the staff and lets them know when she wants more food

Old pulp mill converted to a bear compound - Sitka, Alaska

Our tour leader, pointed out a recently added passageway which connects two of the compounds and provides a way for the two groups of previously separated bears to meet and interact.

Alaska brown bears - Sitka, Alaska

Since the passage was installed the two groups have started interacting and it appears that these two in particular were enjoying each other's company.

Two Alaskan Brown Bears splashing in the water

It was very entertaining to watch these huge bears noisily playing together in the water.

Two Alaskan Brown Bears at play - Sitka, Alaska
There were a lot of vocalizations and splashing.  I could have watched them all day.

Alaska Brown Bears - Sitka, AK

Black Bears at the Fortress of the Bear

Our next stop on the tour was the black bear compound,  The Fortress of the Bear is also home to three orphaned black bears.  Sisters Smokey and Tuli and an unrelated male, Bandit, all arrived in 2013.

Black Bears - Sitka, AK

Smokey and Tuli's were found after their mother was shot.  They also had a third sibling who was never captured and is presumed to have died, since these two sisters were in very poor condition when the were brought to Fortress of the Bear.

Black bear sisters, Smokey and Tuli at Fortress of the Bears

Bandit was found orphaned in Juneau after climbing up in a crab apple tree in someone's yard.  The details about what happened to his mother are unknown.  Bandit can easily be identified in the photo below.  He is the bear with the white heart-shaped patch on his chest.

Three black bears
Although the site may look rather industrial, every effort has been made to provide the bears with a nutritious natural diet and an environment that simulates what they would do  if they were wild. At the Fortress of the bear they can climb trees and rocks, dig, swim and play with "toys" like old tires and pieces of culvert.

Black bears climbing a tree at Fortress of the Bears
Bears can live up to 30 years in captivity and although it is unfortunate that these bears are not living wild and free, at least they are alive and they do serve an educational purpose that benefits all bears.  In addition to educating the people visiting Alaska on cruise ships, these bears also help teach local children about bears and how to minimize conflicts between humans and bears.  The bears are given access to backpack with food inside to demonstrate how important it is to avoid leaving food sources in your camp or around your home.  Since we didn't see any bears in the wild during our trip to Alaska, I was glad we signed up for this excursion to see these interesting creatures up close while helping to support the efforts of the Fortress of the Bear.

An Alaskan Brown Bear up close and personal
The Fortress of the Bear is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that receives no government funding, They are funded solely by visitor admission fees, donations and proceeds from items sold in their gift shop.  Their long term goal is to work toward changing the state laws of Alaska to allow rehabilitation and release of bears back into the wild as is done in 29 other states.  If you are interested in more information or would like to support their work, you can visit their website: Fortress of the Bear.

At the end of our visit, we boarded the bus and returned to Sitka with a little time to do some walking around town, including a visit to the historic St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

We are linked up with the following travel blogs.  Please visit Weekend Travel Inspiration#Weekend Wanderlust  and The Weekly Postcard for more great travel adventures!

Weekend Travel Inspiration