BY: JOHN LASHBROOK
The vast and rugged Alaskan wilderness is home to countless species of wildlife, but perhaps none more iconic and enchanting than the mighty bear.
Throughout history, humans have possessed both a fear and a fascination with these remarkable creatures and this complex relationship is reflected in our culture, from prehistoric cave paintings and ancient folklore to modern cartoon characters and cuddly teddy dears. If you’ve ever wanted the opportunity to witness these magnificent animals first hand, Alaska is the place to do it.
The southeast Alaskan Islands of Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof — also known as Alaska’s ABC Islands — lie in the northern part of the Alexander Archipelago and are all part of the Tongass National Forest. These ABC Islands are know for having one of the densest brown bear populations in the world, due to rich natural habitat, abundant salmon and plentiful forage. Admiralty Island has an estimated 1,600 brown bears, which outnumber the human residents there by nearly three to one. The island was originally named, “Kootznoowoo” by the Tlingit people, which means, “Fortress of the Bear”.
The nearby city of Sitka includes all of Baranof Island as well as part of Chichagof. In other words, Sitka is bear country. One of the area’s most popular attractions is a non-profit bear sanctuary dedicated to rescuing and raising orphaned cubs. Les and Evy Kinnear founded the sanctuary in 2002 with a mission to “provide protection and care to rescued animals in an enriching, educational environment”. They named it Fortress of the Bear.
Les had spent 25 years as an Alaska master guide in Sitka, 20 years with the United States Forrest Service, and 6 years on the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee, so he knew a thing or two about the area. He found the perfect spot to build Fortress of the Bear, and secured the use of an abandoned pulp mill’s wastewater site. Almost any other use of this land would require the costly demolition of the huge water treatment tanks that existed here, however, Les planned to incorporate them into the bears enclosures as water features. This idea was a clever and strategic first step toward building a successful sanctuary as this would not only enhance the environment for the bears, but also significantly reduce the cost of the land since it was not particularly desirable to anyone else.
Les had to clear over 500 tons of old mill equipment and infrastructure from the site and build the enclosures, security systems and facilities to prepare food and perform veterinary procedures. Once the facility was up and running, Les and his wife Evy raised huge hogs in the sanctuary in order to qualify for the necessary state permits to take in bear cubs. It took over 5 years to get the permits approved, but in July of 2007, their dream was realized. They gained approval from the state and received their first bear cub.
Over the years, Fortress of the Bear has rescued and raised numerous bear cubs that would have either died in the wild or been euthanized by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The bears are fed a well-rounded diet consisting of fresh fish from the nearby seafood processing plant and produce from the local markets. In addition to regular veterinary checkups all the male bears are neutered upon arrival to prevent breeding. Most of the bears remain permanent residents at the sanctuary, but a few have been placed in zoos as well. The ultimate goal is to work with the state to create a program where rehabilitated bears can be released back into the wild.
Visitors to the site are treated to an unforgettable, educational encounter with the chance to observe both brown bears and black bears from as close as 25 feet away. An elevated, covered viewing platform provides a safe and unique vantage point of these majestic creatures as they swim, play and feed. Fortress of the Bear offers group tours that last about 30 minutes with time to take pictures and learn from the knowledgeable and dedicated staff. The newly constructed visitor center offers refreshments and a charming gift shop full of unique items and local art to commemorate your visit. So, if you are ever in Sitka, make sure to stop by and meet the bears and the wonderful folks that run the facility.
RESIDENTS AT FORTRESS OF THE BEAR
Chaik came to Fortress Of The Bear in July of 2007 along with his brother, Killisnoo who was the first to appear and be captured after their mother was shot. Two months later Chaik was finally caught. Chaik weighed 110 pounds when he arrived. The brothers were happy to see each other and so began their life in captivity together.
Chaik currently holds the record here at the Fortress for largest bear. His calm and quiet charm makes him a regular favorite of both the guests and staff.
Toby is the lone female brown bear, also known as a sow. Toby and her brothers came to the sanctuary after their mother died, when they were 1 1/2 years old. All of the bears enjoy their food, but Toby especially loves to eat. She was the first bear to pick up the concept of signing for more food. From a very early age she always played with her hands, so the trainers capitalized on her movements until they had successfully trained Toby to make the ‘more’ sign. With her large appetite, Toby is quite persistent in signing for ‘more’ to her keepers.
Lucky found his way to Fortress of the Bear alongside his siblings. With an injured rear paw and a severe limp it’s expected he would not have survived on his own, considering his inability to keep up with his siblings.
But that has all changed after some physiotherapy training with his keepers. Now, Lucky is strong with no visible signs of his injured back paw and has won the hearts of all the keepers, especially with his pouty bottom lip.
NUKA & NIKISKI
Nuka and Nikiski, AKA ‘The Seward Sisters’, joined Fortress of the Bear on August 25, 2018, when they were 8 months old. Originally from Seward, the sisters were orphaned when their mother was shot and killed for breaking into someone’s chicken coop. After 3 weeks alone in the wild, struggling to find food to survive, they were brought to Fortress of the Bear. Both cubs were understandably distressed upon arrival after a scary airplane ride. But by the end of their first day, both cubs were accepting apple slices and other food from their new keepers. So far, Nuka has proven to be the bolder of the two cubs, quicker to check out new toys and make trouble. Nikiski is more cautious but grows in confidence every day.
SMOKEY, BANDIT & TULIAAN
Smokey was the first of the three black bears to arrive at Fortress of the Bear. Smokey is from Seward and was originally one of three siblings who were all orphaned when their mother was shot and killed. Starving and scared, Smokey found herself in a small shack that served as a cigarette break room with nothing to eat besides candy wrappers and cigarette butts. The authorities were called and Smokey ended up featured in an episode of Alaska State Troopers.
With no rehabilitation program in Alaska, orphaned cubs in Smokey’s situation are typically euthanized. But Smokey got lucky when her story ended up on the news and went viral. Thousands of people world-wide spread the word and campaigned for her to be re-homed rather than destroyed.
She arrived at the facility on October 24, 2013. Her keepers enjoy working with her and she reminds them of Toby: she’s a fiery bear that behaves quite motherly towards her siblings.
Bandit, an orphaned male from Juneau, was sent to Fortress of the Bear as a replacement sibling for Smokey when both her original biological siblings could not be located. Bandit was tranquilized while hiding in a crabapple tree and sent on the next plane to Sitka. He was very confused, wild and grouchy when he first arrived at the facility. When he began to warm up to one of the female keepers, it was soon found that the best way to Bandit’s heart was through his stomach. Bandit is the largest of the three black bears and if he wasn’t cute enough already, his most distinguishing feature is the white heart-shaped patch of fur on his chest.
Tuliaan (or Tuli, for short) was a little Christmas miracle. She is Smokey’s biological sister from Seward. She was located 6 weeks after Smokey, in the very same break room where Smokey had been found. She arrived at Fortress of the Bear on the snowy morning of December 17, 2013, weighing in at a mere 17 lbs. At such a small size, it wasn’t clear if she would survive. But tiny Tuli was very quick to warm to her new home. She ate gently from her keepers’ hands within hours of arriving and was quick to tell Bandit to go away when he got too close. It became clear that Tuliaan, which means ‘gentle’ in native Tlingit, is a survivor.
Fortress of the Bear does not receive any government funding and relies solely on support and donations from local businesses, visitors and merchandise sales. With a disruption of cruise visitors to Alaska in summer 2020, donations are greatly needed. You can even help through shopping online at Amazon.com, including donating wish list items and funds. Visit www.fortressofthebear.org to learn more.