Friday, November 27, 2015

A Short Walking Tour of Sitka, AK

After our five hour excursion which included a sea otter and wildlife quest on a boat, a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center and a stop at the Fortress of the Bear, our tour bus returned us to the pier where the Westerdam's lifeboats were shuttling people back to the ship.  Since we had about 2 hours before the ship was scheduled to depart, we decided to take about an hour to walk around and see a few sights in Sitka.

Welcome to Sitka Sign

Totem Square

We walked a short distance to Lincoln Street where we found Sitka's Totem Square and Pioneer Home.  Native Alaskan totem poles tell a story and the creation of the Baranov Totem in Totem Square was proposed in 1940 by a local member of the Tlingits to tell the story of the history of the area up to the arrival of Alexander Baronov, the head of the Russian-American Company in North America and the first governor of Russian Alaska.  A sign next to the pole provides the information about the meaning of each of the symbols in the story.

Totem Square and the Pioneer Home - Sitka, AK
Like many monuments, the Baronov Totem Pole is not without controversy.   When the project was proposed, it was intended that it would be completed by local craftsman in the Sitka area to recognize them as well provide them income from wages.  In the Alaskan Native culture it is also customary for a tribe and clan to own their own symbols and stories told in a totem. The pole was designed by a local Tlingit, but by the time the project was approved, no local  carvers were immediately available.   In violation of this custom, instead of delaying the project until a local craftsman was available, the US Forest Service awarded the contract for the totem to be created in Wrangell and it was installed in Totem Square on March 8, 1942.  In 1973, the ownership of the pole was transferred from the US Government to the State of Alaska and maintained by the Pioneer Home.  With age, the pole deteriorated and a debate over whether to replace it or repair it continued for several years.  In 2010 the pole was removed due to safety concerns and it was decided to proceed with repairing the pole.  Tommy Joseph, a Tlingit master carver who lives in Sitka restored the pole and it was re-installed in 2011.

The top of the pole is a depiction of Alexander Baranov.

The bear is the symbol of Russia.

The third figure from the top represents Katlian, the military leader of the Tlingit Kiks.adi clan who fought against the Russians forcing Baronov to negotiate a peace treaty.

The Raven with the eagle crest under its beak is a symbol of the Raven branch of Tlingit tribes of which the Kiks.adi of the Sitka area belongs and the eagle represents the Kaagwaantaan, the Sitka area clan that is a part of the Eagle Branch of Tlingits. These crests are similar to heraldic crests or coats of arms used in Europe.

The double-headed eagle depicts the bronze eagle medallion presented by Barnov  to the leader of the Kiks.adi as a peace offering after they reached an agreement to end their conflict.

The brown bear represents the Kaagwaantaan clan and and the frog is a symbol of both the the Kiks.adi clan and the Kaagwaantaan clan.

The Pioneer Home

The Pioneer Home was built in 1934 at the site of a former army barracks by the State of Alaska as a home for elderly Alaskans.

Pioneer Home - Sitka, AK
Over the subsequent decades it has been upgraded and renovated. Currently it can provide housing for up to 75, some of whom live independently and others who require varying levels of assisted living or more intensive 24 hour care for Alzheimer's or other similar conditions.

Lincoln Street - Sitka, Alaska
Another sprinkle of rain started (and left drops on my camera lens) as we walked past the shops on Lincoln Street on our way to our next destination, St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral

St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral - Sitka, AK
The 94 Russian Orthodox Churches that exist today in Alaska are a reminder that this land once belonged to Russia. St. Innocent Veniaminov, the first Russian Bishop in North America established St. Michael's Parish in 1844.  The cathedral was completed in 1848, making it the first Russian Orthodox Cathedral in North America.  The Russians initially named the town of Sitka, "New Archangel" in honor of St. Michael, the archangel. The cathedral was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1962. The original cathedral building was destroyed in a fire in 1966, but fortunately nearly all of the icons and other treasures were saved.  In 1976 a replica of the original cathedral was rebuilt using the original blueprints.

The Bishop's Cathedra Throne
Upon entering the cathedral, the first item on display is the "Bishop's Throne" which was hand-carved by St. Innocent Veniaminov.

Archangel Michael with the Ikonostasis at St. Michael's Cathedral
Further into the nave is the bishop's pulpit and beyond is the sanctuary.  Separating the two areas is the Ikonstasis decorated with icons saved from the fire that destroyed the original cathedral.  The beautiful chandeliers were also rescued from the fire.

Most of the icons were donated by wealthy patrons in Russia and some date back to the 1700s.

Vladimir Borovikovsky icons at St. Michael's Cathedral
On the left side of the cathedral are two icons created by Russian icon artist Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky.  To the right of the door is the Christ Pantocrator icon and on the left is the famous, Our Lady of Sitka.

Our Lady of Sitka Icon
Our Lady of Sitka, also referred to as the "Sitka Madonna" was purchased with funds donated by workers of the Russian-American Company and is credited with healings.

Inside the dome of St. Michael's Cathedral - Sitka, AK

There were many more treasures on display, but our time ashore was nearly over. On the way out I stopped to take a photo of the inside of the cathedral domed ceiling  above the nave.

Side view of St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Walking around to the the south side of the building gives a view of  the cathedral and the exterior of the dome that is not visible from the front entrance. I would have liked to have visited the Bishop's House nearby, but ran out of time.

 Lincoln Street westbound - Sitka Alaska 
We did a little window shopping as we made our way back down Lincoln Street westbound toward Harbor Road.

Sitka Harbor 
We arrived at the harbor area and could see the Westerdam anchored in the bay.

Holland America Westerdam anchored at Sitka Alaska
Sitka does not have a cruise ship dock so it is what is called a "tendered" port of call.  The cruise ship remains anchored off shore and the ship's life boats ferry the passengers back and forth from the ship to shore.

Life Boat from the Westerdam
The life boats were queued in a line and as each was filled with passengers it departed and the next one pulled up to the boarding dock.  When it was our turn, we hopped aboard and made the short voyage back to the Westerdam.  Although I'm sure if the ship needed to be evacuated, a life boat is seaworthy and would be preferable to jumping into the water, but they certainly aren't built for comfort.

Inside a life boat from the Westerdam
We had a full day of adventure but I wish we'd had one more day to spend in Sitka since there were several other attractions I would have liked to have seen including the Bishop's House, Baronov Castle, Totem Park Historical Site and the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

On to our next destination:  Ketchikan.

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


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


Friday, November 6, 2015

The Alaska Raptor Center - Sitka, AK

After our sea otter and wildlife quest boat trip, a bus and driver was waiting at the dock to transport us to our next adventure in Sitka, a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center.

Sitka Tours Bus
Let's be honest here, this bus was not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination,  It think it was a old school bus with uncomfortable seats and smelled kind of funky inside.  On the plus side, the driver was entertaining and knowledgeable about Sitka and the ride to the Alaska Raptor Center was thankfully short.

Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka Alaska

According to their website, The Alaska Raptor Center's Mission is "To provide medical treatment for injured bald eagles and other birds, to teach people about Alaska’s birds and environmental conservation and to conduct bald eagle research."

Started in the backyards of two residents of Sitka in 1980,  the center has grown and now provides medical care and rehabilitation for 100-200 birds each year.  Many of the birds are found in Alaska, but some have been transported from other parts of the US. The goal is to release them back into the wild, but unfortunately sometimes their injuries leave permanent damage that would prevent them from having a reasonable chance of survival. The center has over 20 resident birds that could not be released.  These birds are used to educate visitors to the center and children in schools around the country. Other birds that can't be released are placed in zoos, with other educational organizations or in captive breeding facilities around the country. The offspring of captive-bred eagles are raised and released to help restore wild populations.

The center moved to their current 17 acre facility in 1991 and it is open daily for tours from May through September (hmmm, that coincides with the cruise ship season).

At the beginning of the tour we were directed past some information and displays about bald eagles on our way to the Bald Eagle Flight Training Center.

Bald Eagle Flight Training Enclosure - Alaska Raptor Center
The Flight Training Center is a large aviary where dozens of eagles gain strength in a simulated wild setting.  They have room to fly, snags and logs to perch on, a man-made pond and stream and fresh salmon to eat.  The quality of he above photo is poor because I took it through the one-way glass that allows observation without disturbing the birds.  The center staff watch the progress of each bird to gauge whether it is well enough to be released and survive.

The Bald Eagle Flight Training Center

This is another view of the Flight Training Center which shows the creek and pond.

Bald Eagle at the Flight Training Compound at the Alaska Raptor Center

After observing the eagles in the Flight Training Center, we were led to a large meeting room where we were shown a film about the Alaska Raptor Center and a staff member brought in one of the resident eagles for us to meet.

I didn't get a good photo of the bald eagle we were introduced to because we were asked not to use the flash on our cameras while the bird was in the room.  After the end of the presentation, I went outside to see the outdoor aviaries where there were more birds, including golden eagles, ravens, falcons, hawks and owls.

A Hawk at the Alaska Raptor Center - Sitka, AK
This Swainson's Hawk was one of several resident hawks we saw.

Informational Sign at the Alaska Raptor Center

The outdoor enclosures included educational signs with information about each species.

Great Horned Owl at the Alaska Raptor Center
What I found most surprising was seeing so many owl species, including great horned owl, snowy owl, great grey owl, western screech owl, barred owl, saw-whet owl and northern pygmy owl.
Snowy Owl at the Alaska Raptor Center
This snowy owl, named Qigig, was found in Illinois in 2012 and after receiving care at the University of Illinois for a broken wing, was transferred to the Alaska Raptor Center.   It was hoped that continued rehab using the large flight aviary at the center would help him regain his ability to fly. Unfortunately his injuries were too severe for him to be released so he is now a resident.

Northern Pygmy Owl at the Alaska Raptor Center
Behind the counter in the gift shop were two adorable tiny owls, this one, named Petey is a Northern Pygmy Owl.  I couldn't get a photo, but this owl has eyes in the back of his head!  Ok, not real eyes, but the pattern of his feathers makes it look like he has eyes.  Petey is also a resident of the center because of limited flying ability due to a broken wing that did not heal properly.

Saw-whet Owl at the Alaska Raptor Center

The other tiny resident owl, is Tootsie the Saw-whet Owl.  She is another resident bird with limited flight ability from a wing injury.

Forest Trail at the Alaska Raptor Center
If we hadn't been on a tour and had more time for a more leisurely visit, I would have explored this lovely meandering trail through the forest.

Close-up of a Bald Eagle at the Alaska Raptor Center - Sitka, AK
Too soon our tour ended, but on our way out, we got one last close-up look at one of the resident eagles.  Then it was time to board the bus and travel to our final stop on this 3-part tour, The Fortress of the Bear.

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

Weekend Travel Inspiration