Alaska’s McNeil River is one of the few places on earth where you can sit within whispering distance of wild brown bears and watch them nurse cubs, nap, and do everything else that comes naturally.
By Jeff Fair
On a late July afternoon in southwestern Alaska, 11 of us are lazing about, 10 feet above the falls of a wild river, eating our lunches and watching the drama unfold below. Suddenly, out of the foam and white noise, 1,200 pounds of male brown bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, blood kin to the interior grizzly, gallops toward us with a five-pound salmon contorting in his jaws. A human scramble ensues with the muffled tears of parting Velcro, the whine of autodrives, and the tinkle of lens caps in the gravel. But no panic.
The bear, for his part, rushes past my elbow to strip the skin and roe from his fish—always the best parts first—just a few yards away. A minute later he consumes the carcass, each bite sounding like a child chomping into a crisp apple. My companions’ cameras sing like cicadas until our subject, ignoring us, ambles riverward again to muscle in among more than two dozen of his brethren, all of them stout and hungry for sustenance from the nearby sea.
Welcome to McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, a wildlife-viewing destination unique in the world, not for its beauty—though it comprises a handsome chunk of Alaskan wilderness, particularly when the fireweed is in bloom—but for the phenomenon that occurs between human visitors and the bears that gather here in unusual numbers to feast on a summer run of chum (one of the five salmon species native to Alaska). More than 150 different brown bears have been seen here in one day—as many as 72 at a time—and they often congregate in the largest numbers at McNeil Falls, where the salmon pause and swarm before leaping their way farther upstream. “Even if this place didn’t have special designation, in an ecological sense it is the world’s largest documented seasonal population of brown bears,” says Larry Aumiller, who has managed the sanctuary for the past 30 years. “For a species that’s fairly solitary, that’s special and worth protecting.”
McNeil is one of the few places on earth—perhaps the only one—where a visitor can regularly expect to watch brown bears go about their daily chores: catch fish, clash over dominance, make love, nurse cubs, nap, and otherwise interact with one another and their world in a fully natural and unaffected manner, in unusual proximity to observers—often fewer than 20 feet away -—although the decision of how close is up to the bears. Neither a Ph.D. nor a blind is necessary. But you will have to bring lunch and, most important, one of the 200 coveted permits issued each year through a lottery (see “Making the Trip”).
McNeil is hardly a wildlife-watching resort. Situated on the base of the Alaska Peninsula, it offers no shuttle buses, restaurants, candy counters, soda machines, or rooms to rent. This is a wilderness experience. The nearest road ends 100 miles away. You bring all your own camping gear and food. You sleep on the ground. Every morning for four days you are invited to hike the two miles to the falls carrying a lunch that you prepared, extra clothing, and camera gear; each evening you walk back. If you visit in June, you might hike instead to nearby Mikfik Creek to see the bears that intercept an early run of red salmon there.
Most visitors arrive by seaplane from Homer, a picturesque little town at the end of the road—part fishing village, part artists’ community—100 miles as the Cessna flies across Cook Inlet. On a clear day the approach is spectacular: a broad expanse of sea with fishing boats bobbing about; the snow-covered, 10,016-foot peak of Iliamna volcano, and perhaps in the distance Mount Redoubt, looming even taller; and then the anticipation of a huge, idyllic Alaskan infinitude beyond the far shore. Twenty miles out you pass Mount Augustine, at 4,025 feet a smaller but more active volcano (erupting with tremors and ash as I write these words). Closer now, you discern the jagged 3,000- to 5,000-foot peaks of the Aleutian range, the more massive ones beyond, and the soft rolling alder- and grass-covered hills below them that meet the sea in a series of wild bluffs and cliffs and beaches.
Descending over the estuary (your landing strip), where Kamishak Bay meets the mouth of the McNeil River, you notice eight small wooden structures. They comprise the camp’s entire development: two staff cabins, a cook cabin, a tool shed, a raised bear-proof garbage cache, and the luxuries of one sauna and two separate outhouses. A scattering of tents occupy the meadow in front of the cook cabin. That’s where you’ll sleep. As you circle to touch down, weather permitting, you might see the falls upriver. If you look closely, you’ll likely see bears.
Since the 1940s humans have been visiting McNeil Falls to watch brown bears (the same species as the grizzly but generally darker and, on average, larger, due to a summer diet rich in seafood). Territory officials recognized the value and uniqueness of this concentration of bears and closed the drainage to hunting in 1955, four years before statehood. In 1967, at the behest of conservationists, among them bush pilot and Alaskan guide Jay Hammond (who would become governor in 1975), the legislature christened 131 square miles of the McNeil River drainage, including the falls, as a state game sanctuary, the highest level of protection for bears and their habitat that Alaska could establish. The sanctuary was created to “provide permanent protection for brown bear and other fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, so that these resources may be preserved for scientific, aesthetic, and educational purposes.”It was later expanded to 200 square miles.
In 1985 the land between Katmai National Park and the McNeil Sanctuary—later named the Kamishak Special Use Area—was closed to brown bear hunting to protect McNeil’s bears, most or all of which wander an area much larger than the McNeil drainage. In 1991 the 188-square-mile McNeil River State Game Refuge was added to the north, and in 1995 that area was closed to hunting under similar logic, putting about 500 square miles of bear habitat under protection from hunting.
Still, as early as 1970 enough people were visiting that on some days they “drove the bears from the falls,” says retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jim Faro. That year a photographer approached a sow with cubs, wound up shooting the sow in “self-defense,” then published the story in Outdoor Life magazine. By 1972 Faro saw the bears abandoning the falls. The availability of food and garbage were also threatening to teach them to associate humans with food. Faro had seen enough. In 1973 the Fish and Game department established a permit system to protect the bears, under which no more than 10 visitors at a time would be allowed at the site. In 1974 a Fish and Game staff presence was established to monitor and manage the permittees.
Aumiller became sanctuary manager in 1976, after working for Fish and Game for four years in nearby King Salmon. A young thirty-something back then, with the curly black hair and beard of a woodsman, he brought with him a penchant for solitude and wild places, an artist’s eye for thoughtful observation, and a gentle demeanor among his charges, both human and bear. For three decades he has run the place according to two primary goals. First, protect the concentration of brown bears; and second, manage opportunities for human scientific, aesthetic, and educational activities (so long as they’re compatible with goal No. 1).
Aumiller decided that humans had to behave in ways that minimized bear disturbance. The rules now in place were created largely from his litmus: “If the bears appeared nervous and moved away, that was not the right way to do it.” But in regard to the second goal, human safety came first. “It turns out the safest way to manage here is also the way that makes the bears feel most comfortable,” says Aumiller, “which is the way that encourages them to be there in numbers and also creates the scenario whereby you get the best viewing.”
Allowing visitors to be close to bears was never a goal. It evolved out of continuous benign human behavior—nonaggressive, unsurprising, and consistent—which led the resident bears to regard visitors as no threat, combined with the absolute absence of any chance for bears to associate people with available food (which is usually what produces a “problem” bear in a campground, on the trail, or back in town, and often leads to its death). Such regulated human behavior resulted in something of a mutual trust between people and bears that allows for close proximity without high danger or altered bear behavior. “This is an interesting outcome that I never would have forecast years ago,” admits Aumiller. “And people today, most people, can’t fathom it until they see it.”
He is quick to point out that this is no exhibition of human–bear friendship. “It doesn’t mean that they are tame, or that they like you, or that there’s any spiritual connection. It just means that you are no threat—it’s safe for them to ignore you.” And that’s precisely the experience I had during my visits to McNeil in July 2000 and August 2005. The bears preferred to pay attention to other bears, which could be legitimate threats, or maybe—in the case of an encounter with a less-dominant bear—a chance for a better fishing spot. We felt ignored. Usually.
One exception was that afternoon in 2000 when we ventured over to check on the bear activity at Mikfik Creek, settled in at a spot near some bears fishing for Dolly Vardens, and were approached by a young male, maybe 400 pounds, well muscled and with an obvious curiosity and an uncertain attitude. He paused behind a pair of working nostrils close enough to fog the nearest camera lens. Aumiller talked us out of making any sudden movements (which might have frightened the bear) in a quiet voice that also, I thought, conveyed to the bear our humanness. The bear, pretty new to these drainages, according to Aumiller, abruptly swung around and went back to his fishing. Not threatened, not fed: two good lessons for him.
McNeil has had a perfect safety record for both humans and bruins since the permit system began. But that is not entirely due to this mutual trust. Some of the success lies in knowing how to react to different bears, and Aumiller and the staff recognize the individuals here, and their attitudes. Some are more tolerant than others. “Bears are predictable,” says Aumiller, “if you know the bear you’re dealing with. Certain bears, you’d never want to be that close; other bears, you’re just fine.” Unknown bears are treated with the respect and latitude you would afford a stranger encountered on a dark street.
John Hechtel, Fish and Game’s regional refuge manager, has studied grizzly bears and their behavior on the North Slope and in the interior of Alaska, as well as in Canada’s Yukon Territory. He’s accustomed to spending long days and tremendous amounts of effort far in the backcountry squinting through a field scope to make observations of a single brown bear or family. At McNeil one can watch hundreds of interactions and behaviors performed by dozens of bears—all in a short time andat close range, and undisturbed by the presence of people. “Here,” he says, “you have a lifetime experience every day.”
But while the McNeil experience remains extremely rich, in recent years it has been threatened by more than rain, mosquitoes, and cold winds. Bear numbers at the falls have dropped from average hourly counts of 55 bears in 1997 to 22 in 2005. That’s well below the sanctuary’s management plan’s lower limit of 41 bears—a statistical threshold below which efforts to reverse the decline are to be initiated. Overall bear numbers in McNeil are the lowest ever recorded.
A decrease in the salmon runs appears to be a possible cause of this. After 1988 chum salmon runs diminished significantly up and down the coast, but by the late 1990s stocks in all other local streams resurged. All except McNeil, which continued to attract greater numbers of hungry bruins than the other streams. “One viable hypothesis,” notes Fish and Game fisheries biologist Ted Otis, “is that the chum return dropped to a point low enough that the pressure from the bears has kept it from recovery.” This would appear to be part of a natural dynamic balance: Fewer fish would lead to fewer bears; fewer bears would allow salmon runs to recover; recovery would, in the natural order of things, eventually attract more bears—if salmon were the only variable.
But the numbers of bears killed by hunters in the nearby Katmai Preserve and other areas surrounding McNeil—areas where McNeil bears are known to travel in the off-season—has increased 500 percent. An annual average of nine bears were taken in the early 1960s, but that has jumped to 54 since 1998. And at a time when the management plan would invoke greater protection for McNeil’s bears, the Alaska Board of Game, an authority appointed by Governor Frank Murkowski, has voted to repeal the brown bear hunting closure in the nearby Kamishak Special Use Area. Now it’s eyeing the refuge itself, parts of which, Aumiller notes, lie “within a rifle shot of the river.” Unless the decision is reversed, trophy hunting of bears in the Kamishak is a done deal, and will commence in 2007.
The board’s move, opposed overwhelmingly by Alaskans, the general public, and hunters (by 78 percent), appears ironic in three ways, say bear advocates. First, it directly counters the management plan goal for the sanctuary to maintain bear numbers at McNeil Falls. Second, such a move by a board allegedly representing hunters threatens the reputation of hunting and hunters nationwide by attempting to open fire on bears in an area where many of the animals wander about unafraid of humans. Third, the experience of recognizing that we can actually live in peace with these large and fearsome carnivores can lead to an inspired connection to the natural world. As hunters’ numbers dwindle in our culture (down from 9 percent of the U.S. population in the 1980s to 5 percent today), their conservation efforts will need new allies. “If there is one place in Alaska to protect bears, the McNeil ecosystem is it,” wrote Leo Keeler, a former president of Friends of McNeil River. Even Board of Game chairman Mike Fleagle judged that establishing these hunts is “going to anger a lot of people for very little benefit.” Although Fleagle voted last spring to keep Kamishak closed, the verdict was five to two in favor of trophy hunting.
In recent years the current Board of Game has reinstated aerial wolf shooting in Alaska, ignoring the landslide victories of two ballot measures against the activity in 1996 and 2000. Now the board has indicated that at its March 2007 meeting it will review opening the McNeil Refuge to bear hunting.
Aumiller, a touch of gray invading his beard these days, looks for answers in the historic basis for establishing the sanctuary. “Do you want to make it all it can be, as the legislature intended? Or do you want to share it with hunting? Sharing is exactly what we do for most areas. But how about for just one area, you don’t do that?”Deeply dismayed that his long-term building of trust in the McNeil bears may soon betray them into walking in front of a rifle, Larry Aumiller retired last October.
On the final day of my visit a year ago I paged through the visitors’ entries in a journal in the cook cabin. “What an outstanding experience,” scribbled David Hancock. “We are truly blessed.”
“Thank you for the greatest wilderness experience of our lives,” said John and Debbie Pendergraft.
Doubtless there will be arguments comparing the economic value of guided hunting with that of wildlife viewing. But trophy versus photo is not the crux here. The experience is. And the real hope for McNeil lies in the very essence carried away in the hearts of more than 6,000 permittees over the years who have come as close to brown bears as anyone on earth, and lived to tell about the experience and revel in it. l
Jeff Fair wrote The Great American Bear (NorthWord, 1990).