Wrapping up McNeil River Bears

Thanks for “bearing” with me as I recount some of our adventures at McNeil River Game Sanctuary and Refuge near Homer, AK. It’s amazing how many photographs a person can take in four and a half days. But who can resist these faces?

It’s a long, involved trip just to get to McNeil, but it was worth it, even with a day of 30 knot winds and horizontal rain. We didn’t miss a minute of bear viewing, no matter what.

Sign inside the cook cabin

Fortunately, although camp was pretty basic, the cook cabin was a nice warm place to hang up soggy gear and to escape the elements for a little while…

…and we were so tired after a long day, hiking out and back that we didn’t have any problems sleeping.

And there was one more treat that we didn’t expect – a wilderness sauna! We just assumed that we would be smelly, grubby creatures for the flight back to Homer, but were thrilled to find this nice little cabin off to the side of the camp. We could get warm and we could get clean!!

Camp sauna

The big pot had the hot water, the blue bucket had cold water (all from the little pond just outside), there was a pan and scoop for mixing the perfect combination of hot and cold water, and a choice of biodegradable soaps. When you’re finished, you just have to top up the pot and bucket with water from the pond, ready for the next person.

View of the pond from inside the sauna

We had some decent weather towards the end of our stay, getting to see more of the volcanoes that dot the region. Just to the south is Katmai National Park, which includes the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

We saw lots of wild iris and other wildflowers in bloom as we hiked along, savannah sparrows and ground squirrels. Just before we arrived, another group got a momentary glimpse of a wolf!

Ground squirrel

We were so disappointed to miss the rare wolf, but we came for the bears and their many faces and behaviors. I photographed this guy (below) when he was making a “drive by” – a close pass as he ambled along. Probably just as curious about us as we were about him.

Mating didn’t distract other bears from fishing.

The eagles were plentiful – cruising around, ready to grab scraps or a dropped fish. But like the eagles, it was time for us to fly.

We were sad as we trudged back up the trail to camp on our last day, but the plane can only land at high tide and it’s a short window. As camp was coming into view in the distance, the bears had one last gift for us – a sow and her two young cubs.

This sow was a good at fishing using the “snorkel” method, wading in deeper water and sticking her head under to look to for fish. Her cubs didn’t look too excited about getting wet, whining and well… grizzling! We had a little time to spare, so we settled down to watch this unexpected treat.

Eventually the cubs got in the water as their mom swam farther away, but they were getting in her way and spooking the fish. Apparently she felt comfortable about our little group sitting quietly, so she parked the cubs on shore just below where we were sitting. This is indicative of habituation – where the humans behave in a very consistent manner over days, months, years – carefully cultivated at McNeil. We travel in small, tight groups, along the same trails at the same times of the day so we become a predictable part of their environment. That is the magic of McNeil (and other places such as Pack Creek in southeast Alaska).

What are you looking at?

All good things must come to an end, and just as we were running out of time, the sow gathered her two fluffy cubs and wandered off… a magical ending to an amazing adventure.

deHavilland Otter
Gear – note everything is in waterproof bags
We’ll be back!

Bonanza of Bears

Sorry for the lag time between posts, but we’ve been off the grid more than on it this summer. And my other excuse is that it takes a long time to wade through the gigantic pile of photos that I took in the four and a half days we spent at McNeil. Yes, I’m still posting McNeil photos… and there will be one final post after this one, to wrap up that special trip.

Despite their considerable size, brown bears are remarkably agile, lightning fast to react, and amazingly quiet as they move around. They can hit speeds of up to 30 mph for short distances, and they’re good swimmers. They’re smart, observant and expressive – and that’s what compels some people to spend hours or days watching them, and to enjoy just spending time in their company. I never get tired of watching bears.

Today, I’m just going to blast you with bears – fishing bears, growling bears, wet bears, close bears, cubs and cuteness. It’s a love-fest with large brown furry creatures. Enjoy.

Bear paw vs. human’s size 8 boot

Ursus Arctos

Ursus arctos is the scientific name for brown bears. Grizzly bears are a type of brown bear, but they’re smaller than the coastal brown bears we have on the Alaskan coasts – here in southeast where we live, and here at McNeil River. Coastal brown bears have a much richer food source (salmon), and these bubbas get pretty big eating all that fish.

First, we have to get to where the bears are… and that means a two mile hike in our hip or chest waders through mud, bear poop and tall grasses, up slick hills and through slippery streams – carrying all the cameras and gear we need for the long day in changeable weather.

At the end of June, the bears congregate at a small waterfall on Mikfik Creek where there’s an early run of sockeye salmon – an appetizer for the bigger run of chum salmon that will come into nearby McNeil River a couple of weeks later. We settled on a knoll just above the falls to watch a variety of bear behaviors, able to see our camp waaaaaay in the distance.

We’re used to seeing bears fishing, but it was interesting to see males following females, consorting and mating. Sometimes a female wasn’t interested in a particular male, yet the male persisted even when the female kept running away. A male might follow a female for several days before mating, and females typically mate with multiple males. On our first hike up the hill, we had to stop because there was a pair mating about 20′ up the hillside above us.

All this activity was going on around us – in or next to the stream and waterfall, on the hillside across the way, or in the tall grass next to us.

Fighting is another type of behavior we haven’t seen before – generally bears tend to avoid conflict. In many of the places we go to watch bears, the population is predominately females (sows) and cubs. We’ve witnessed an occasional growl or a little jawing between sows, but males (boars) will sometimes engage in a genuine fight, and that is a sight to see! In fact, you might make be able to guess whether a mature adult bear is a male or female based on the presence or absence of battle scars.

This bear had a torn nose, broken claw, scars on his foreleg, and he had lost an eye

Bears have a social order, and the small area of the falls at Mikfik Creek meant that less dominant bears were always keeping a wary eye out for bigger bears. As soon as one of the big males ambled down the hill, the sub-adults and sows scattered quickly. Other mature males might slowly move to a different spot, especially if the two males had tangled in the past. When two dominant males wanted to be in the falls at the same time, they lowered their heads and walked in a stiff-legged John Wayne cowboy style. Often that was enough for the bears to figure out who the alpha was.

In the photo above, the bear on the right is clearly larger, but the one on the left decided to push the issue. It didn’t go well for him.

It was amazing that two other bears stayed this close to the fight

At this point in the fight, the bigger bear pushed the smaller one onto his back, into some rocks on the shore below us. I switched to video and caught the end of the fight, as well as a little of some other bear behaviors. In the video, you can see the fresh scars on the smaller bear’s hindquarters from the rocks.

Meanwhile, other bears were fishing while the big boys were wrestling, occasionally deciding that it was easier to take someone else’s fish than catch their own.

There were plenty of bald eagles standing by to pick up scraps, as close as the bears would tolerate. Often the count of bears was matched by an equal number of eagles.

There was activity to watch in all directions – down in the falls, up on the hill, next to us, behind us… bears were always watching, sniffing the air, and shifting position to maintain the social pecking order.

There’s so much more to show you – so many more bears. In a typical day we saw 20+ different individuals near camp, on the trail, or up at the falls, but we often saw only 5-6 bears at a given time. I’ll post more about McNeil’s bears – stay tuned. It’s so difficult to choose just a handful of photos from all that we saw in four and half days.

Boar missing an ear