a photo finish to training week 2

May 3, 2014 | 0 comments

View down the Indian River

Sitka has been blessed with another impeccable week of sunshine to augment the final push in training. Temperatures soared into the upper-60s, which made for some perfect outdoor sessions to learn about the rainforest, salmon runs, and the Battle of 1804 among other topics. The schedule was jam packed with workshops, but I still feel fairly unequipped to face the impending dump of cruise ship tourists we’re about to receive on Tuesday.

Crystal clear Indian River

Our final day of training was by far the most eagerly anticipated among the staff. In the morning, we embarked on a wildlife cruise around Sitka Sound — and boy, did it exceed my expectations!


The one species we least expected to see was in fact the first we sighted: a pod of orcas! I never expected to get so close, but as the captain shifted the boat down to idle, a huge dorsal fin as tall as I am rose up from the sea, followed by several smaller ones. The orcas were swift, however, and took off away from the boat pretty quickly when we slowed down so I didn’t get as many pictures as I’d hoped.

Orcas heading out

Some of the smaller dorsal fins

Our destination was a wildlife refuge called St. Lazaria. Although we couldn’t get off there, we cruised around it, watching distant puffins, sea otters, guillemots, murres, and even a peregrine falcon.

St. Lazaria

Cool rock tunnel

The other side of Mt. Edgecumbe

I’m pretty sure we all got the same photo.

The sea otters were definitely one of my favorite sights of the day. We came to some rocky islands around which they were all just floating on their backs, lazily paddling through the water and bobbing over waves. Some had huge fluffy babies resting on their bellies (fun fact: otter pups are so fluffy and puffy, they can’t sink or dive!)

Sea otter colony? herd? pod?

Otter with enormous fluffy baby

Drop-dead gorgeous views

Returning to Sitka

I couldn’t believe we had such a perfect morning out on the water and saw so much wildlife! It was seriously one of those things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and never expected I would get paid to do it!

By the time we got back on shore, the day was only half over. After lunch, we headed to a place called Fortress of the Bear, an impressive name for a tourist attraction that wasn’t at all what I expected.

Fortress of the Bear is actually an old pulp mill that someone converted into a bear habitat for “problem bears” that would have been euthanized for becoming too habituated to humans. There are two 3/4 acre concrete tanks that have been made into habitats with ponds, enrichment toys, and driftwood for the bears to use. While it was cool to see the bears up close, I felt extremely conflicted about the whole attraction.

Each of the 5 resident grizzlies had names and were trained to do various actions for their food, such as standing, opening their mouths, or putting their paws together. It was really neat seeing how intelligent they were — and how huge!

Opening its mouth on command

There were also 3 black bear cubs, temporarily housed in a shipping conex that had been converted into a habitat. I may or may not have fed them peanuts (with mixed feelings about the whole thing), but damn they were cute!

On the trip back, we were all talking about it in the car; some of my coworkers thought it was great that the bears had a second chance at a comfortable life, and others thought it was a misuse and misrepresentation of brown bears. We all agreed in the end that it would have been much better if they had at least tied in some sort of conservation message, so tourists aren’t coming and seeing these wild carnivores as cute and cuddly teddy bears. Rather, it should be made clearer that the bears are here because they were fed by humans and became too habituated to getting handouts from people.

After another couple hours of work and wrapping things up, the whole park staff met at a local recreation area for a big end-of-training cookout and enjoyed a spectacular late night sunset.

It’s hard to believe training is over, and technically I should be ready to face the summer in uniform with a whole encyclopedia of park information stored in my brain, but let’s be honest: that’s not gonna happen. To be fair, there is still a lot of on the job training I will undergo, and I’m sure the rest will come easier with time. In many ways though, I do feel ready to start the real work ahead, and excited to see what I can do for the park.

All I know is, this summer is going to be awesome.


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