ANCHORAGE - Alaska commemorative quarters featuring a grizzly bear with a salmon in its jaws were put into circulation Monday by the U.S. Mint.
"Every coin is awesome but Alaska's is particularly awesome," said Andy Brunhart, U.S. Mint deputy director, who will fly to Alaska on Friday for the ceremonial launch.
A congressional program started in 1999 circulates new quarters honoring a different state every 10 weeks in the order the states joined the union.
The program began with Delaware. Alaska, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary Jan. 3, is the penultimate state to appear on the commemorative cash.
Hawaii's also became a state in 1959, and its quarter will be released in November. It will feature a picture of King Kamehameha the Great overlooking a relief map of the main Hawaiian islands and the state's Hawaiian language motto.
The mint also plans a quarter honoring Washington, D.C., next year, plus quarters commemorating each U.S. Territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The Alaska coin has the bear stepping out from a stream with a waterfall behind it. A spruce tree is along the bank. The words "ALASKA" and "1959" and "THE GREAT LAND" complete the design.
The mint will manufacture at least a half billion Alaska quarters over 10 weeks, Brunhart said.
The grizzly design was one of more than 850 submitted by state residents to the Alaska Commemorative Coin Commission, which narrowed the number to four.
The commission collected 30,000 votes on the four finalists. Gov. Sarah Palin considered the votes and picked the grizzly bear design over a musher with a team of sled dogs, a polar bear and a gold panner.
Alaska contains more than 98 percent of the U.S population of grizzlies and more than 70 percent of the North American population, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Scientists estimate there are 30,000 grizzlies in the state. They're found from the Panhandle to parks inside Anchorage to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
The coins have been an excellent way for U.S. school children to learn about the geography and culture of the states, Brunhart said.
"Every state has a little bit different design," he said.
The ceremonial launch of the quarter is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.
After the ceremony scheduled with Palin, Brunhart, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and others, officials will hand out one newly minted quarter to anyone 18 years old and younger from 1:45 p.m to 6 p.m.
Newly minted quarters in $10 rolls will be available in exchange for other currency.
Brunhart said Alaskans attending the fair likely will see the coins before other Americans. It generally takes a week or two for quarters delivered to the Federal Reserve to be processed and delivered to local banks, he said.
Brunhart will host a public coin forum at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo in Anchorage and collect public opinion on future designs for coins.