McNEIL RIVER, Alaska — The McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on Katmai Peninsula is perhaps the only place in the world where humans and bears tolerate each other. In other parts of Alaska, rangers give lectures on how to avoid meeting bears.
But at McNeil River, which is about an hour's flight by floatplane from the town of Homer on Kenai Peninsula, the ranger leads you to the best place to see the huge brown bears.
I spent six hours sitting on a hard, dusty hill, watching 25 bears fish for salmon less than 50 feet away. That day turned out to be the highlight of my three-week Alaskan vacation.
I reached the sanctuary's campground by chartered floatplane from Homer about 6 p.m. The day was still bright and sunny, and stayed that way until close to midnight.
Greetings From Strangers
Fifteen tanned and relaxed strangers greeted me as I arrived on the beach lugging my sleeping bag and tent. Most of these folks had just returned from a day at the river, but had seen only one bear in six hours.
Ranger Larry Aumiller said that because of an especially long winter, the salmon were spawning late. As a result, the bears were just beginning to show up at the river. I hoped tomorrow would bring better luck.
By 11:30 p.m. a subtle pastel sunset began to spread across the clear Alaska sky. Almost everyone had disappeared into their tents, but I was too excited to think about going to sleep. Instead, a few of us decided to go for a short walk to the nearby beach with our cameras.
The drama we stumbled upon, and watched for the next hour, matches anything I've seen on a TV nature show.
First, we noticed a solitary bear slowly crossing a narrow channel of water several hundred feet in front of us. Soon another movement to our right caught our attention. There on the beach huddled three more bears, a sow and her two cubs.
Splashing Toward Shore
When the lone bear saw the others his pace quickened, and he splashed noisily toward the shore. We dreaded what we expected would happen next. Predictably, the mom and her cubs took off in the opposite direction. Suddenly, though, she turned, and led her brood toward the approaching bear.
What followed was a strange dance of challenge, indifference, even playfulness. Sometimes the single bear appeared unfriendly and dangerous. But when the sow called his bluff, he backed off.
We were relieved when the scene ended with the family of three resting comfortably on the beach, as the lonely intruder trotted away along the shore. The reds and purples of the intensifying sunset created an emphatic backdrop.
While doubting that the next day would be able to equal what I'd just seen, I crawled into my sleeping bag already glad that I'd made it to McNeil River.
By 9:30 a.m. our group of 11 was ready to begin the one-mile hike to Mikfik Creek. According to Aumiller, the red salmon run ending there created a better chance of attracting bears than did McNeil River, where the chum salmon weren't spawning yet.
It took us more than an hour to reach the creek's best bear-watching place. Wearing knee-high rubber fishing boots, we hiked through soggy marsh and along a trail I later learned was made by bears. By the time we arrived at our prime vantage point, our spirits were high. En route we saw nine bears.
Aumiller turned out to be a wonderful guide, as he knew practically every bear personally. For 11 summers he has been the ranger at McNeil River, has named about 60 bears and knows much about many of them. While I had trouble telling most bears apart, he would recognize them by appearance, behaviorisms and even from facial expressions.
The young bear, Norton, was a central player that day. Just a yearling, he had been abandoned by his mother, Melody, only a week before. Several times he appeared, usually timidly and nervously on the lookout for other bears. After spending 45 minutes on a bluff above the river, hungrily watching the salmon swim and jump, he finally got up the nerve to give fishing a try. Unfortunately, he was young and untrained, and he went away unfed.
A Surprise Meeting
We had our biggest scare when a bear called Buffy accidentally stumbled upon Earlish (named because Aumiller thought he resembled another bear named Earl) in a thicket near the water. Buffy retreated up the hill and almost ran right into our group. Surprised and defensive, she stopped within 15 feet of us, then quickly changed direction.
Probably the main reason there have been no recent human-bear confrontations at McNeil River is that, 12 years ago, the state Department of Fish and Game began a permit system. From July 1 to Aug. 25 only 10 people (plus the ranger) are allowed to visit the river's observation point each day. That way the bears don't feel intimated by the presence of humans.