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

Bear With Me

My love of coastal brown bears led us to apply to the lottery for hard-to-get permits to view bears at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary run by Alaska Fish & Game. We won permits on our first try, borrowed some camping gear, bought hip waders, and just as the Summer Solstice arrived we boarded an Alaska Airlines jet for our much-anticipated bear adventure!

We had three checked bags each, plus lots of camera gear in our carry-on bags – it’s a lot of gear for less than a week in the hinterlands!

We flew about 700 miles up to Anchorage, then drove 220 miles down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer. It’s a beautiful drive.

Turnagin Arm just south of Anchorage
Homer Spit looking across Kachimak Bay

From Homer, we took a charter float plane for the 100 mile trip across Cook Inlet to McNeil. Just getting there was an adventure, especially since we were very constrained on weight (people and gear) on the deHavilland Otter.

The west coast of Cook Inlet is a windy, rugged expanse, without the dense forest that we’re accustomed to.

The camp at McNeil River is a tiny cluster of cabins perched on the exposed shoreline, and the only place to land is in a shallow lagoon behind a sand spit, only at high tide. As our pilot told me, landing isn’t too bad – it’s taking off again that’s the tricky part since there’s not much deep water to maneuver in.

Camp and outgoing group waiting on the end of the spit

We were told to fly in our hip or chest waders, and as soon as we landed everyone instantly teamed up to hold the plane in position and form a bucket brigade to unload our gear and load up the outgoing group’s gear… making sure not to confuse the two piles. It all happens very quickly – the tide waits for no one. Notice the distance from the end of the sandy spit to the camp in one of the photos above – we had to schlep our tents, sleeping bags and pads, food and camera gear with help from the rangers and some wheel barrows. We were greeted by a pair of mating bears on the spit – Welcome to McNeil!

Some ugly weather (30-35 knot winds and rain) was predicted for the next day, so we hurried to set up our tents so we could head out to see bears right away. The rangers helped everyone place heavy rocks on all our tent stakes, and they had us choose spots close to the short alder hedge for some wind protection.

We weren’t sure what to expect, but we took a long hike through waist-high grasses, ankle-deep mud, cross a few slippery streams, and climb a muddy hill to get to where the bears were. Part-way up the muddy hill we had to stop for a while since there were some consorting bears about 20′ up the hillside from us. We didn’t see much because of the tall grasses, but a we were rewarded with close encounters of the large, furry kind. Fantastic!

We’re incredibly lucky to be able to see brown bears as we travel on ADVENTURES down in southeast Alaska, so we’re spoiled compared to most people who come to McNeil. But at the time of the season we’re at McNeil, we’re getting to see a lot more boars (males), bigger bears, and a wider variety of behaviors. I promise – there are many more bears to show you. That first day was as exhausting as it was exciting. After a couple of too-short hours watching bears and meeting our eight other compatriots, we trudged the two miles back to camp. One of the rangers had kindly started a fire in the wood stove in the cook cabin, and we inhaled our dinner at 10pm.

Cook cabin

Tomorrow… horizontal rain or not, we’re going back out to the bears!