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!

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