May 19th, 2013
As part of the team here at Alaska Premier Charters, one of my primary duties is showing guests the beautiful city of Sitka. There is great historical significance here as Sitka has the exact location where Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867. Sitka boasts twenty-four attractions listed on the National Register of Historic Places, seven of which are National Historic Landmarks. However, one of my favorite places so far is the Fortress of the Bear.
Every year, Sitka and many other Alaskan cities struggle to deal with the problem of what to do with bears that have become urbanized or cubs that have become orphaned. The most common problem with bear encounters is a mother who ends up getting killed while just listening to her natural instinct to protect her cubs. While we often see these dangerous mammals as problematic we must remember that they too are just looking for food. Too often these cubs end up becoming orphaned and the state’s simple solution is euthanization. Here at Fortress of the Bear, they are working to provide an alternative solution.
My personal experience there was a rather informative one. They currently have five bears in the fortress as that is the maximum the state will approve for permanent residence. They have room for up to ten at a time currently. While Alaska’s policy states that any domesticated or rehabilitated bears may not be reintroduced back into the wild, 29 of the lower states will allow this. Fortress of the Bear works closely with these and also with zoos all around the states. The bears themselves are rather entertaining. While they appear to be slow and lumber around, I happened to see a large raven try to swoop down and steal a sizeable piece of fish before the bear could get to it. The bear noticed and immediately began to sprint towards it. The raven did get there first; had it not been such a large piece he might have gotten away with it. After struggling for several feet to really get off the ground, the raven panicked and dropped it right before the bear was to have two snacks for the price of one. Of the five bears, there are two brothers. One is slightly bigger and stands over 8-feet tall! Last time they weighed him, he tipped the scales at just over 1,000 lbs. While not the largest of the bear family, I still didn’t feel like going inside the ring with him!
These bears are incredibly smart and apparently easier to train than dogs. While the trainer didn’t have elaborate ‘tricks’ set up, they did have to do certain things for their treats. Even when an apple rolled under a large stump, one bear had no problem rolling it over far enough to get his arm under and snag it out. The birds also have their place in the fortress. There are several types of birds that like to hang around the bears at feeding time. The Ravens and Bald Eagles are the most prevalent. While the ravens are generally considered a pest (they are noisy and often defecate in inconvenient places), the Bald Eagles are considered a much more welcomed guest and are even fed scraps as part of the show. They have been trained to come close to the guests and even do a low ‘flyover’ and catch a piece of fish the tour guide tosses only a few feet over his head. In addition to these main attractions there is also a small local petting zoo with goats, chickens, geese, turkeys, and even Norwegian sled dogs available.
The ‘fortress’ itself is actually an old water treatment facility. It consists of two giant concrete wall rings that are 14 and 17 feet high respectively and this is where is gets its name. The fortress also receives lots of old or outdated produce from the markets around town which provides much of the needed nutrients for the bears. The waste is converted to compost. This recycling of older goods saves the markets an estimated $10,000 annually. While this set up is a great start, they have many plans to expand the facilities to better house more animals as donations and contributions continue to trickle in. I look forward to getting to revisit the bears many times this summer.