Bears, Whales and Ice

What – MORE bears? Haven’t we seen enough already? (No, you haven’t.) We were on our way north up Chatham Strait, and just had to make a stop at Pavlov Harbor on Chichagof Island – it’s a good stopping point on the way to Juneau via the northern route. And Pavlov just happens to be a great place to see brown bears!

Sow and her two cubs

We only had one afternoon to hang out with the bears, and the action was a little slow at the falls, but still… bears!

We couldn’t stay longer – we were meeting friends in Juneau and had to keep going, but it’s a safe bet that there will be more encounters with large brown furry things before the summer is over. In the meantime, we saw another large mammal – the humpback kind. This one was pec-slapping – making a pretty good racket by slapping its long pectoral fins back and forth. In the video, you can hear the delayed “whomp” after the fin hits the water. We could feel it!

We continued on towards Juneau, rounding the top of Admiralty Island to see the lighthouse at Point Retreat.

Making the hairpin turn around the point, we could see a fog bank towards Juneau. It was pretty to see, and fortunately it cleared up before we got there.

We met dear friends from New Jersey in town – they were there on a cruise ship for the day, so it was pretty cool to spend a little time with them. On our way out of town, we passed by a huge private yacht that we saw a few times over the summer. “Dreamboat” is 295′ long, built in 2019 for $180 million, and is owned by Arthur Blank – owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team. Tough life. The tender (small boat) shown in the second photo is probably 45′ long, and it’s just one of a fleet of boats carried by the mother ship.

Dreamboat

Preferring glaciers to yachts, we headed south down Stephens Passage towards Tracy Arm and the Sawyer Glaciers. As we crossed the shallow bar at the mouth of Tracy Arm, we could see the Sumdum hanging glacier. The name comes from the Tlingit language and represents the booming sound of ice breaking off.

We anchored nearby in a protected cove, and I headed out in the kayak to investigate some large blocks of glacier ice grounded in the shallows near the entrance bar. The colors and shapes are amazing, and the blue of the ice really stood out against the gloomy sky.

When you look closely, you can find some surreal formations and shapes, rocks trapped in the ice, crystal clear ice, blue ice, and all manner of textures. It’s mesmerizing.

Unfortunately, our plans to visit the Sawyer Glaciers were thwarted by the weather forecast. A big front was heading our way, and the wind was going to blow hard for days. We needed to move to a well-protected anchorage, and position ourselves for a planned trip up to Pack Creek a week later, so we cruised across Stephens Passage and tucked into Gambier Bay well in advance of the storm. It was an easy ride across, and we had a nice whale escort.

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!

Wrapping up Glacier Bay

We spent the last days in Glacier Bay visiting the Tribal House, taking another leisurely walk on the Forest Trail, and then heading out Icy Strait and making our way back to Petersburg.

Huna Shuka Hitt Tribal House

The Tribal House remains a special place for us to visit, as we spent many years visiting the Tlingit carvers in Hoonah as they worked on the house poles and the decorative panels inside and out. We were there on the beach in the mist and gloom, on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the day when the Tribal House was formally dedicated. It’s truly a special place, and completes the third (equal) element of what makes Glacier Bay such a treasure. There are the glaciers, of course, and the wide variety of wildlife, and the native history of the people who have harvested food from the bay since time immemorial.

Ancestors are represented in the different faces carved into the walls and the poles. The stories of four different clans from the region are told in the house poles, and the story of the Little Ice Age that occurred around 1750 is told in the center panel. We’re always humbled to learn more about the Tlingit stories.

The Forest Trail never grows old for us – it’s a lovely walk through the woods, with Sitka spruce and western hemlock towering overhead, ponds with water lilies and other summer flowers, ducks, otters, and other wildlife. The variety of lichens and tiny mosses always catches my eye, and with spring coming so late the ferns were just beginning to unfold.

We bade farewell to the bay, with a sleeping sea otter pup snuggled on mom’s belly the last evening.

Cruising along in Icy Strait, we were met by a pod of Dall’s porpoise – they’re black and white and they’re rocket-fast! It’s not very common to see them, and we either encountered two different pods, or the same pod ran with us twice, an hour or two apart.

We still haven’t been seen as many humpbacks as usual – maybe their food sources are in other parts of southeast, or maybe they’re late arriving? We’ve mostly observed individuals, rather than big groups, so far.

The last evening before we headed back to town we were anchored in a favorite spot between a large island and the mainland. I’m always checking the beach for bears, but around 8pm Jim spotted something a little different swimming by.

Moose on the loose!

It turned out to be a cow moose, swimming the distance easily. She looked like a funny horse when she got ashore, with such tall legs, picking her way through the rocks and disappearing into the woods. Wow!

The Summer Solstice has now passed, so even though our days are still crazy-long, we’re conscious of the fact that they are getting a little shorter. The sky was lit up with beautiful sunset colors around 10pm, and we kept running out to take more photographs.

Out of habit, I still looked behind me to check the beach for bears, and I spotted something. It walked into the water and started swimming towards the boat! It was the moose again, we thought, but then spotted small antlers sprouting – a different moose.

He swam near the boat to get a good look at us, then turned and headed for the island. We noticed blood running from one of his antlers – he must have caught it on something. Growing antlers are well-fed with blood vessels, so it would bleed readily. He seemed to be fine. Double-wow!

So that wraps up our first real cruise of the season. Hard to beat! We had to return to town to pack our camping and camera gear for a special adventure up in the main part of Alaska – to McNeil River Bear Sanctuary. Be prepared for a lot of big coastal brown bears.