ON THE McNEIL RIVER, Alaska — It's easy to fall into a sense of complacent security at the McNeil River Falls, even when surrounded by the scores of brown bears that come to feed during the salmon spawning runs each summer.
Although bears and visitors mingle without barriers, the bears seem far more interested in having fish for lunch.
But suddenly, the mood changes and the visitors find themselves facing several agitated bears, at arm's length. Some cubs have become separated from their mothers, and the sows are searching for their them--all milling frantically around the open viewing ledges.
The incident lasts less than a minute but reminds a visitor that he is dealing with creatures that could ruin his day. He is on their turf, at their mercy.
That no visitor has suffered harm in the 18 years that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been conducting tours to the site is part of the wonder of McNeil. The spectacle, in a remote, treeless area of Kamishak Bay on the east coast of the upper Alaska Peninsula, is the greatest gathering of bears in North America, perhaps the world.
During this day 71 were seen feeding within a 100-yard stretch. There were 50 at one time.
The bears concentrate at the one stretch of the river where the falls make the fish most vulnerable. Here they are called brown bears, although they are members of the same biological family--\o7 Ursus arctus horribilis--\f7 as the grizzly bears that reside inland. They aren't quite as large as the Kodiak bears on nearby Kodiak and Afognak Islands, which are the largest land carnivores in the world, but they are big enough. Males will grow to nine feet and more than 1,000 pounds.
A bear is usually angered by violation of his personal space, which in his mind is considerable. When approaching blind turns in a trail, hikers are advised to make human sounds, such as hailing, "Hey, bear!" so the bear will have a chance to avoid a confrontation.
However, bears are curious.
"That's one thing that gets them into trouble with people," says Larry Aumiller, who has been supervising the McNeil visits for 15 years. "It's part of their food-gathering behavior. They check out everything."
The average bear doesn't want trouble and won't create trouble with the average, sensible tourist. But Aumiller says there are two types of bears: "Those that are habituated to humans and those that are not."
The McNeil bears are habituated to humans, but only at McNeil. The arrangement works because Aumiller is careful not to overwhelm the bears with large numbers of visitors--the daily limit is 10--or alarm them with unpredictable actions.
The visitors can eat their lunches in peace because the bears, unlike the black bears at Yellowstone, have never been fed by man and don't associate people with handouts of food. Besides, they're more interested in fishing.
However, all rules are off \o7 away \f7 from the falls. As they lead visitors through a tundra of alder bushes and wildflowers to and from the falls, Aumiller and his wife, Colleen, carry riot shotguns. They have never had to fire them, but . . .
As the commotion settled down and the sows sorted out their cubs, Aumiller quietly reached for his weapon and advised Colleen to do the same.
"That's kind of unusual," he said of the incident.
Apparently, Colleen Aumiller explained, the problem resulted from a spat between the two sows. They are fiercely protective of their cubs.
"The one with two cubs got spooked by the other mother," she said. "The cubs freaked out and ran from the other bear."
When the cubs found their way blocked by visitors, they stood up on their hind legs in confusion. One tried to run through a viewing area but Larry Aumiller grabbed a stool to block him, fearing a sow might follow, and inadvertently pushed him over a ledge.
"Cubs are not afraid of people," Colleen Aumiller said.
A few minutes later, one sow returned downstream to resume her fishing, seemingly content but with only one of her two cubs.
"That's one thing we've learned about bears," Colleen Aumiller said. "They can't count."
And cubs sometimes have difficulty identifying their mothers, although this one eventually found his way back.
Alaska Fish and Game receives almost 2,000 applications a year from those who want to visit McNeil. Only 140 permits are drawn, each good for four consecutive days. But because a third or more of the permit days aren't used, standbys have a good chance of getting in.
That morning, Aumiller had checked in six permittees, meaning there were four spots left for standbys. He spread a deck of cards on a table in the cook cabin--high cards win.
A reporter drew the three of diamonds, but John Hechtel, a Fish and Game bear biologist from Anchorage who had drawn a better card, graciously offered his spot so as not to break up a group that had come by boat from the Chenik Brown Bear Camp the day before.
Even Fish and Game employees get no special treatment at McNeil. Hechtel would go the next day.