Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Bit of Sitka and its Wildlife -- 7/14/20115

Proven fact:  Five adults and a teen can ride comfortably in a Jeep – yes, the small Jeep!  A friend of Ray’s arranged a loaner car for him and we take off sightseeing in Sitka.

In the rain!

Well, it’s not a hard rain, but it is a steady rain.  The hint of a sunrise I saw earlier this morning is just a memory.   We have raincoats.

First stop is the Fortress of the Bear about five miles southeast of Sitka, where orphaned cubs are given a home, nurtured, fed, given health care, and all this in a natural habitat.  Alaska does not have a program to rehabilitate and return them to the wild, so they will live out their lives in captivity with siblings and other young.  This is the best alternative to euthanizing them, which would be necessary to keep them from starving or becoming aggressive while hunting for food.

The ruins of a pulp mill are now the home for the brown bear cubs, having a silo in the center of one pond where fresh spring water drains out.  A container of dog food hangs from a rail high above, and the bears swat or bat it with their paws to cause some to fall into the water for their meal. Yummy  for the bears.  

Two play under the container.

Another says, "Well, if you are going to play, I will hit the container.  I'm hungry."

Now for some veggies.

"I'm slapping it, but nothing is coming out.  Is it empty already?"

"I am tired and wet, but I think I see something edible in the mud puddle."

"Looks like sticks."

"Yep, sticks, but sticks are nutritious plants."

"All this eating makes me thirsty, so I get a drink from the spring that feeds our ponds."

Kaylee, a very knowledgeable intern for the Fortress, tells us they feed the bears at regular intervals to keep them nourished and active.  They are named and learn to recognize the voice of the caretakers, so when called, they look up to respond to a command.  There is no hands-on contact, so when a teeth check is performed, they will open their mouths for examination when asked to. 

This is awesome!

Kaylee throws apple halves here and there to get their attention.  Another intern shoots tomatoes from a large sling shot to various areas on the grounds of the east pond.  A fenced tunnel allows the brown bears to move between the east and west ponds.

"If I hurry, I will get to the apple first."


"Yum!  More dog food."

Note the box of tomatoes on the counter, and the slingshot in action.

There goes a tomato for a lucky bear.

"Throw it to me, Mister!"

"I'm waiting...."

"What about meeeee?"

At one point I hear a loud, scary growl, at which time all the visitors hurry to the tunnel area and watch below as two huge brown bears discuss the pecking order.  For a time one backs down, but then turns his back to the winner and walks away.  The intern tells us turning his back means he says he accepts being the loser, but is not afraid!

I ask about the difference in the brown bear and the grizzly, and Kaylee tells me the grizzly is a sub-species of the brown.  Yes, there is a hump, but you really can’t look and tell one from the other.  They are pretty much indistinguishable from each other.

My other burning question is about the nature of the polar bear, as someone recently told me they are the only species that hunt humans.  She hesitates slightly, and explains that it is not in the best interest of the bear to hunt humans because it expends energy they need to store for hibernation.  They will only be dangerous if they feel the need to protect their young or their food supply.  This is comforting, but I will still make noise and go in a group if I walk a trail in bear country!

Adjacent to the silo ponds is a separate pen for black bear orphans.  They are much smaller, only growing to a potential of 600 lbs, as compared to the 1800 lbs for brown bears.  The two photos below compare the brown bear skull on the left to the black bear to its right.

These babies remind me of Teddy bear toys with their playfulness.  They are so much fun to watch, and the rain cooperates with us, being light enough while we are on the ramps, but allowing us to scurry to the roofed platform when the downpours come.

"I will practice my balance by walking the log."

"Back up, Buddy, it's my log!"


"If I perform a bit, I should get extra apples."

"This is my best pose."

As we leave the viewing area, a stop in the gift shop temps us and we purchase a few items.  I like Jocelyn’s comment about being able to give back when you spend money, because the proceeds are kept to maintain the Fortress.  The shop's inventory is a little less after our visit.

We drive back into town for lunch at a street-side seafood truck Ray had seen earlier as we passed through.  So here’s the drill:  Ray is in the driver’s seat; Jocelyn wait outside.  Herb folds forward the passenger seat and slips behind it into the back seat.  Then I carefully find my footing to follow him, sitting in the middle.  Brenna now climbs in, at which time Jocelyn gets in the passenger seat adjusts it for herself.

Cozy, and happy to have wheels for the miles we cover today!

Ordering our food, we choose fish and chips or lingcod sandwiches for lunch. 

It rains!

Fortunately for us, we find shelter under the roof overhang of a closed store where we stand to eat.  I borrow a photo from Ray – memories are made here!


Next stop is the Alaska Raptor Center, with an outside display of pens and seemingly open habitat for eagles, owls, hawks and falcons.  I am happy to learn these birds can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, unless their injuries are too great to be able to fly; then they are cared for in this natural habitat.  I suppose the ones in the open area are the ones who can’t fly.

Ravens have been the constant companions on Willie’s Tug and Nudibranch’s cruise to Alaska, and I have not been enamored by them.  We hear them chattering or cackling incessantly, with a croaking sound, not particularly pleasant.  A few times I had heard a different call and Ray tells me it is another sound the Raven makes. 

Today at the Raptor Center I learn they can make from 20 to 100 different calls.  The dominant female frequently makes a knocking sound, which I have heard.  I learn they can be taught words, and today I have a new respect for the Raven! 

The raven is my new friend!

Totem  Park

Our last visit of the day is to Sitka National Historical Park, which is Alaska’s smallest and oldest park and known locally as Totem Park.  We visit the Visitor Center and Sitka Cultural Center to see many old and weathered totem poles, as well as a new one with still brilliant paint colors. 

Many of the Poles tell the story of a community or a family or an event.  Jocelyn tells me she heard a talk there, where they told of a particular one called a Ridicule Pole that was carved to embarrass a man, who was rescued and befriended by a community, and then taught them to gamble and stole from them. 

The museum has thousands of artifacts of Tlingit (pronounced klink-it) and Russian Colonial culture.  We watch a film on a bit of history of Sitka, previously called Sheet’ka, and argued by some that the name is from the Alaska Native phrase, Shee-Atika.  I read that the name means ‘people on the outside of Baranof Island.’

The Tlingits were divided into two groups or 'moieties,' Raven and Eagle. Each clan and its members belonged to one of the groups.  A Raven always married an Eagle and an Eagle always married a Raven.  One moiety would be asked to perform ceremonial functions for the members of the opposite group. Called a potlatch, it served to repay the obligations and strengthen the ties between the Raven and Eagle groups.

Raven and Eagle
At Sitka there were 12 clans divided into some 36 houses.  Persons were identified with their house, their clan, and their moiety.

Potlatches were later discontinued because each clan tried to outdo the other, thus depleting their wealth.

Tlingit life is based on the rich natural resources of Southeast Alaska, on respect for all living things and on a unique and complex social structure. Totem poles reflect these ways, making public record of the lives and history of the people who had carved them.  They represent pride in clans and ancestors. 

I am most intrigued with the history, being reminded of its being the former capital of Alaska, was first under Russian Rule, having first been settled by Russians.  The Tlingits fought to take back their land and amazingly won many battles, only to finally surrender and leave their fort during the night. 

Sitka is the site for the signing of the Purchase of Alaska, when the Russians sold it to the United States in 1867.

Willie of Willie's Tug,
   and of Walldog, Willie and Jake
   Tuesday, July 14, 2015

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