Previously when visiting Sitka our ship anchored offshore and tendered passengers to town. On our last visit we were surprised when the Holland America Oosterdam pulled into a dock over 5 miles from town. Though this dock at the Halibut Point Marina is called the old Sitka dock it’s actually fairly new, built around 2011, but not used regularly by cruise ships until a few years later. The name comes from its location near the old Sitka historic state park at Sitka’s first non-native settlement. The floating portion of the dock was once part of the Hood Canal Bridge which connects Washington State’s Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.
Ships in Sitka still tender if more than one come to town at the same time. Busses shuttle passengers from the dock to a shuttle stop just a few blocks from the tender pier. The local-ran excursions that used to wait with signs at the tender pier moved to the shuttle station in town for docked ships. There’s not much near the cruise ship dock so if you don’t have an excursion booked you can take the free shuttle to town to explore on your own or book last minute excursions with the locals. Although Fortress of the Bear is also quite a ways out of town it is off in the opposite direction from the dock so not something you can walk to from there. The Old Sitka State Historical Park is the closest thing at a mile and a half away from the dock in the opposite direction of town.
On a previous visit to Sitka with different people we visited Fortress of the Bear and the Raptor Center on our own, but cruising with Alaska newbies this time I was unable to convince them beforehand that we could get to these places by ourselves. They wanted to book an excursion so we went with one called Birds, Bears, and Barnacles. This one went to the Sitka Sound Science Center/Sheldon Jackson Fish Hatchery as well as Fortress of the Bear and the Raptor Center. They would have liked more time at the raptor center and if we had it to do over again this time they’d agree to getting around Sitka on our own.
At about a mile from where the shuttles or tenders drop passengers, if you don’t mind a bit of a hike you can walk to the raptor center. It’s on the do-it-yourself walking tour map. You can get there by road or on trails through a park. The science center/fish hatchery is an even easier walk located right on Lincoln Street about a half mile from the main touristy part of town. Fortress of the Bear is too far to walk on a road with no shoulders for walking on, but the time we went there on our own we took their shuttle from the local offerings at the tender pier.
The first stop on our excursion took us to the Alaska Raptor Center, for the bird part of the tour. When you go there with a cruise ship excursion they have a presentation with a live eagle. Most of their birds are rehabbed and released into the wild, but some have injuries that leave them incapable of surviving on their own. Some unreleasable birds have a personality that enables them to become ambassadors for their species, used for demonstrations like this one or for educational visits to places like schools.
We also saw the flight room where formerly injured eagles learn to fly again so they can someday return to the wild. The main building at the raptor center also has restrooms and a gift shop. We had time to hike down a trail to a creek where the eyeless carcasses of spawned out salmon lined the shore and seagulls feasted on salmon carrion in the river . We would have liked to go farther, but shore excursions have limited time at each stop. The raptor center has lots of outdoor enclosures with a variety of different birds. There’s definitely more there to see than excursion time allows so going on your own is best if you don’t want to hurry through.
Next we went to the bear part of Birds, Bears, and Barnacles with a stop at Fortress of the Bear, which has changed since the last time I went there. The space where it used to have some turkeys and other animals now houses several orphan black bears. They don’t have as much space as the brown bears, but none would have survived in the wild without their mothers. Two are biological sisters and the third is an unrelated male. The black bear habitat was pretty bare when we were there. According to Fortress’ website they are working on building a sort of bear version of a jungle gym to replace trees the bears used to climb in that habitat until they destroyed them.
The main enclosures were the same. These large round structures that are now home to brown bears once served their original purpose as clarifier tanks in a sawmill. The bears have about 3/4 of an acre within the circular tank, which is filled with plants, water, and hiding places to resemble a natural environment as closely as possible. Alaska does not allow rehabbed bears to be released into the wild so all bears raised there either have to stay or be placed in zoos or animal sanctuaries. Orphan cubs aren’t likely to survive on their own so if a mother bear dies the cubs who aren’t rescued don’t have much of a chance. One of the missions of Fortress of the Bear is trying to get the rules changed so healthy bears can someday be released to the wild once they are grown and ready to fend for themselves. While separated at the time of our visit, a tunnel is in the works to connect the two tanks making one double sized habitat and letting all of the brown bears live together.
Fortress of the Bear is a bit over 5 miles from town on a road with no sidewalks and areas with no shoulder. As mentioned previously, you can visit on your own without booking an excursion by taking their bus from the shuttle station where the cruise ship shuttle drops passengers off, or the tender pier if your ship anchors. City busses are another option. When we took a shuttle there on a previous visit it also stopped at the Raptor Center making it quite easy to visit both.
The last stop on our tour took us to the science museum and fish hatchery. The barnacle portion of the tour, though I did not actually see any barnacles. The building used to be part of a school. It’s still used for educational purposes in partnership with a university. The main building has a variety of aquariums and a few displays along the walls. The center has several open touch tanks. A smaller building is used for a salmon spawning shed. Outside there are quite a lot of fish pens where they keep hatchlings until they are big enough to release. 95% of hatchery eggs make it to the point of fish big enough to release to the salt water, while just 5% of wild eggs do. Only 2% of all fish going into salt water make it back to spawn whether they were born wild or in a hatchery. 2% of 95% of the eggs is a lot more fish than 2% of 5% though. From 1000 eggs 19 hatchery fish will return to spawn, but just one wild one.
While taking a ship’s tour insures both transportation and fitting everything in within the time frame of the ship’s stay in town, this could all be done on your own by anyone who doesn’t mind walking a bit. Whether your ship tenders or docks you can catch a shuttle that goes to fortress of the bear and the raptor center. Both the raptor center and Fish hatchery are within walking distance of the tender pier or shuttle stop. Going on your own has the advantage of choosing for yourself how long to spend at each stop. Going with a ship’s tour means you have transportation provided, and that people at each stop will meet with your tour group and provide information you might not get looking around on your own. It also means you will get back to the ship on time and that it will not leave you behind if your tour returns late, whereas when exploring on your own it is your responsibility to return to the ship by the all-aboard time or it will leave without you. Of course if you choose to stay in town when your tour ends rather than going directly back to the ship then getting back to the ship on time becomes your responsibility just as if you had gone out on your own.
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