Skip to Content

Fortress Of The Bear: A Guide To Alaska’s Wildlife Sanctuary

When looking for an unforgettable wildlife experience, look no further than Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska. This non-profit organization is dedicated to rescuing and caring for orphaned and injured bears.

With a mission to educate visitors about these majestic creatures, the sanctuary is a must-visit destination when spending a day in Sitka. By visiting, guests support a worthwhile cause and have a close encounter experience that might be the highlight of your Alaska adventure.

A brown bear eating salmon

Although the experience isn’t in the wild, at least you’re guaranteed to see these powerful omnivores in an environment that resembles their natural habitat.

History Of Fortress of the Bear

Fortress of the Bear is a non-profit bear refuge and education center located in Sitka, Alaska. It was established in 2003 by Les and Evy Kinnear at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park, which previously housed the Sitka Pulp Mill.

The Kinnears started the refuge after local wildlife management agencies asked Les to euthanize two orphaned brown bear cubs. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, so he decided to create a haven for the cubs instead.

Les turned the old water clarifying tanks into bear habitats for the black and brown bears. While they aren’t pretty as indicated by some reviews on Tripadvisor, they provide a safe and comfortable environment where the bears can live out their lives.

Brown bear enclosure
Brown bear enclosure

Alaska state law does not allow bears to be captured and returned to the wild. So, rescued bears remain in the facility, which is better than euthanasia. Although, over the years, some of the animals have been rehoused in sanctuaries in Texas and Montana.

The center is run by a team of dedicated staff and volunteers who work hard to ensure that the bears have everything they need. They provide the bears with food, medical care, and enrichment activities to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.

Fortress of the Bear has become an important part of the Sitka community and a memorable destination for tourists. Visitors can take a guided tour of the facility and learn about the bears and their habitat. The center also offers educational programs for schools and other groups.

How Far Is Fortress Of The Bear From The Cruise Terminal?

From the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal, it’s an 11-mile journey to reach the sanctuary at 4639 Sawmill Creek Road. Expect the trip to take 20 minutes.

Brown bear laying on  a tree
Brown bear laying on a tree

The sanctuary is open from 9 am to 5 pm daily, and admission is USD 15 for adults and USD 5 for children ages 8 to 18. The center is closed when the bears are hibernating and have limited hours in the off season.

How To Get There?

Until 2023, visitors had several options to visit, including taking a bus, taxi, or organized tour. Like Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, the rescue’s popularity has resulted in an explosion of tourists.

So, going forward, visitors can only visit the rescue on a pre-arranged tour during peak times. Tours sold through a cruise line may package it with the Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka National Historical Park, and a boat excursion to see otters.

When arriving in Sitka in the off-season, visitors may still be able to visit without a tour. Phone ahead to check on their current policy.

Accessibility

If you have mobility issues, don’t fret. The terrain around the fortress can be uneven and hilly, and there are some stairs to climb to get to the observation deck.

However, the fortress is wheelchair accessible, and there is an elevator to take visitors to the observation platform. From the higher area, I could peer into the enclosures and watch the staff feed and interact with the playful bears.

One of the brown bears
One of the brown bears

The deck is covered, offering a reprieve from the wet weather should it be raining, as it was the day I visited.

Rescuing Orphaned Bears

The non-profit educational bear sanctuary is home to eight resident orphaned bears in three separate enclosures. Of the eight species of bear globally, American black bears and brown browns are the only two types which aren’t endangered, threatened, or vulnerable.

The bears’ enclosures mimic the natural settings, including pools, tree stumps, and hibernation areas.

In summer, the staff stock the waters with salmon, allowing the bears to feed as they do in the wild. During my visit, I watched the trainers feed them salmon, and peanut butter apples.

The sanctuary receives donated fish from hatcheries, who can’t sell the less than perfect ones.

Coastal Brown Bears

Coastal brown bear
Brown bear

Coastal brown bears are one of the species that the Fortress of the Bear rescues. They are a mix of polar and grizzly bears, and usually bigger than grizzlies.

This species is also known as Alaskan brown bears or Sitka brown bears. They are predominantly found on the ABC Islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof. 

If the cruise ship docks at Icy Strait Point, passengers can embark on a bear watching tour, as Chichagof Island boasts a significant bear population. On this island, the bears outnumber the residents.

Coastal brown bears are the largest of the brown species and can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. At the Fortress of the Bear, the five coastal brown bears occupy two enclosures. Due to their size, they cannot mingle with the smaller black bears for fear of injuring them.

Chaik is the largest bear there and with his thick coat, looked like a “teddy.” He has lived at the sanctuary longer than any other bear. He came from Angoon, Admiralty Island, after losing his parents in 2007.

Nikiski's bear bio
Nikiski’s bear bio

The sanctuary also houses siblings Toby and Lucky, and sisters Nikiski and Nuka. The sisters are the new kids on the block, joining the refuge in 2018.

Black Bears

Black bears are found throughout North America and are the smallest of the three bear species. Presently, the sanctuary houses three black bears named Tuliaan, Bandit, and Smokey.

While their name indicates their color, bears come in brown, cinnamon, grey, blonde, and white. However, black is the predominant coat color.

Bandit, a male who arrived from Juneau, shares an enclosure with the two sisters, transported from Seward, further north. While males and females share enclosures, the facility has taken steps to prevent breeding.

One of the black bears
One of the black bears

During our visit, the black bears stayed mostly to the back of their enclosure and were hard to see. Their habitat has a lot more trees. Since we have black bears in our neighborhood, it was the brown bears we wanted to see.

Visitor Experience

When visiting Fortress of the Bear, you can expect an up close and personal experience with rescued bears. During our time at the sanctuary, staff signaled the bears to stand on their back legs and raise a paw for a treat.

This training technique isn’t teaching the bears to perform for tourists. It’s a way for staff to see if the bears have injuries, or limited mobility. Maintaining good bonds between bears and keepers helps to eliminate stress during veterinary checks.

Bears are intelligent and have learned sign language quickly, with Toby leading the way. She will put her paws together as a sign for food and will sign when she wants more.

Tours And Education

Guided tours of the sanctuary are available from spring to fall, and they last approximately 30 minutes. The facility remains closed from November to March, when the bears hibernate.

During our tour, we learned about the bears’ diet, and their behaviors from knowledgeable staff members. I had lots of questions and happily watched the bear munch on frozen salmon and apple treats.

Bucket of frozen fish
Bucket of frozen fish fillets

During a visit, you’ll be able to observe the bears’ natural behaviors and learn about their unique characteristics from guides who are passionate about bear conservation. Through interaction, I saw that Claire had a special bond with the brown bears.

To discourage the bears from getting into a routine, they are not fed on a set schedule. But you may see them interacting with their keepers and feast on fish, fruit, or vegetables.

The 30-minute tour wasn’t long enough, and I left wishing I had more time. With my half an hour spent viewing their jovial antics, I had just enough time to purchase two t-shirts at the gift shop, before boarding my bus for the next venue.

If short on time, they have an online store which provides a way to support their shelter.

Enrichment Activities

The keepers provide enrichment activities for the bears to keep them mentally and physically stimulated. You can observe the bears playing with toys, climbing trees, and swimming in the sanctuary’s pools.

Brown bear standing on its hind legs
Brown bear standing on its hind legs

The sanctuary is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for the bears, and visitors are asked to follow certain rules to ensure their safety. For example, visitors are not allowed to bring in food or drink, and they must always stay behind designated barriers.

Research And Studies

Fortress is not only a bear refuge but also an educational center where staff members conduct research and studies to learn more about the behavior and biology of bears.

By rescuing orphaned bears from all over Alaska, they can study the behavior of each bear and learn more about their breeds.

So, when traveling to Alaska with children, not only can they see bears, but they can do it in a safe environment. During viewing, remember to look up, because majestic bald eagles often grace the trees too.

Coastal brown bears and a black bear at the Fortress of the Bear in Sitka

Josy A

Sunday 14th of April 2024

What a fab way to see the bears safely (and to look after the bears that cannot go back into the wild!)

I've lost count of how many black bears we've seen on the trails from afar - it would be kind of cool to see them up close. :)

Karen Hosier

Sunday 14th of April 2024

The coastal brown bears are amazing to see at this sanctuary, and a great way for families to observe safely.