Story last updated at 8/7/2013 - 4:17 pm
Everyone who comes to Alaska wants to see bears. Sounds easy enough, but tours to wilderness feeding areas are expensive and sightings in towns and cities are random.
Fortunately there's an affordable alternative in Sitka that is satisfying and reliable: Fortress of the Bear. This non-profit education and rescue center on Sawmill Road was started in 2007 by Les and Evy Kinnear to provide a refuge for orphaned Brown Bear cubs. After half a lifetime as a bear hunting guide, Les knew all too well that cubs left on their own were woefully unprepared to care for themselves and once captive are often killed. He made it his personal mission to help save them.
After the closure of the pulp mill in Sitka, the Kinnear's were able to buy two water-treatment tanks on an attractive property near town to turn into bear habitats. The tanks were big - really big, about three quarters of an acre each and deep enough to secure the bears after tons of scrap metal were removed.
In place of industrial debris, the tanks were soon filled with everything a bear would find in its natural habitat; trees, soil, rocks, and even water. The tanks have a stream running through them diverted from a nearby water source and a swimming hole. In season, the stream is stocked with salmon, allowing the bears to practice their instinctive fishing techniques.
The tall concrete walls of the tanks secure the bears while allowing them to be comfortably viewed from a high covered wooden platform that straddles the two enclosures. Guests can easily move from viewing one tank to the other in comfort and safety. A wildlife interpreter is always on hand to answer questions and point out interesting bear behavior.
While the bear viewing is the primary draw, the larger goal of the Fortress is to educate people about bears and offer solutions for co-existing with them in an increasingly crowded ecosystem. The staff have years of experience working with and training bears with a goal of placing them in zoos and protected wilderness areas when possible. A darling cub, Pandora from Angoon, went to the Grizzly Bear Rescue & Education Sanctuary in Bozeman, Mont., in 2011 to name just one.
The Fortress is also the largest private recycler in Sitka, taking donations of outdated food from local grocery stores for the bears and turning the scraps into compost. This simple transaction saves local businesses $10,000 a year in waste disposal fees, greatly reduces local garbage and gives the bears a thick glossy coat and the glow of health because of their varied diet.
There are several ways to get out to Fortress of the Bear. In the summer the Fortress runs a shuttle from the downtown dock for $3. Sitka Tribal Enterprises has a bus Monday through Friday that stops all over town with three routes for $2 a ride. Take the blue line for the Fortress on Sawmill Road. Admission to see the bears is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 7-18, free if they are younger. A family membership costs just $48 a year and helps support the work of Fortress.
If you arrive at the Fortress in a quiet moment, you might even be invited to view them at their feeding gate and give them a piece of fruit. As always, quiet and respectful behavior are appreciated by the bears and keepers though it's hard not to squeal with delight when face to face with a bear.
The small petting zoo on the Fortress property is currently closed for a remodel, but watch for it to open in the future with critters Alaska kids rarely see such as goats, horses, sheep and pigs.
Be sure to allow plenty of time watching the five bears currently in residence at the Fortress. They are lively, healthy creatures and full of fun. On different occasions I've seen them rolling on the branches of discarded Christmas trees, fishing in their stream bed, and playing with metal beer barrels in their pond. No matter what season, you are sure to be fascinated by their appearance, playful demeanor and bear behaviors.
If you go:
Fortress of the Bear
4639 Sawmill Road
Sitka, AK 99835