My adventure began with a 100-mile float plane journey from Homer, Alaska to the McNeil River Bear Sanctuary on the Alaska Peninsula in July of 2013. After years of working and playing in bear country, I was excited to observe these grand creatures on their terms.
McNeil River originates from glaciers and alpine lakes located high in the mountains of the Aleutian Range. As the river makes it way toward the shores of lower Cook Inlet in southwestern Alaska, it provides sustenance to an array of wildlife, most visibly salmon and brown bears. The Alaska State Legislature designated the McNeil River area as a wildlife sanctuary in 1967 to protect the world's largest concentration of wild brown bears. As many as 144 individual bears have been observed at McNeil River through the summer with as many as 74 bears observed at one time!
Preservation of the unique brown bear concentration is the primary management goal of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADFG) at the McNeil River Sanctuary. No one has ever been injured by a bear at McNeil River and since the permit program was initiated, no bears have been killed. What makes this place so remarkable? The human visitors are managed, not the bears. An access permit program administered by the ADFG manages visitor numbers and activities in the sanctuary. This type of positive reinforcement of human and bear behavior has allowed visitors an opportunity to view and photograph bears while minimizing their impacts to bears and wildlife habitats.
After our plane landed, the small group of us followed the trail to the camping area to pitch our tents. Only ten visitors are allowed during the four-day viewing period for the dates on the permit. It was a short walk to the cooking facility where we were introduced to our guide, Drew. Under his guidance and expertise, he provided one of the most unique experiences I ever had in Alaska. One of the most endearing events, I will share here.
It happened while we were walking back from the McNeil River Falls following the trail along the river. As we approached a wide area of beach, Drew signaled us to stop. Not far in front of us, we saw the brown ears peek through the green shrubbery, and then the bear stood. After witnessing this behavior numerous times over the years working as a field scientist, I knew we were being scanned with her nose. Slowly we grouped together and sat down in silence. After giving her space she knew we were no threat and continued towards us, with her twin cubs bouncing behind her.
As she got within twenty feet of where we sat, she stopped. The cubs, dark gold mounds of mischief not paying any attention to their mother, thumped against her strong back legs and rolled on the ground. And then they saw us before darting to the safety of mom’s massive caramel body. Slowly, gaining courage, they started to approach, their eyes full of inquisitiveness. Then the sow barked and they sat down. She nuzzled them and with a low guttural groan, she did something none of us, including Drew expected. She left us with her cubs and went fishing.
There was a young boar on the far side of the river that made her nervous. Grizzlies are territorial especially when seeking food, in this case, salmon. And for that reason, if the salmon are plentiful, the falls at McNeil River provides humans the opportunity to observe this rare behavior of these animated creatures.
Boars can also be aggressive with cubs of an unfamiliar female. In other words, if the kids are not his tolerance is low. Her choice to leave her cubs with us rather than take a chance with the boar solidified everything I knew about bear and wildlife behavior.
However, it is always important to remember that the McNeil bears are wild animals with all the potential for aggressive behavior, and for that reason, departmental staff are armed. McNeil is not a zoo nor a game park. Visitors are encouraged to maintain respect of the brown bear's home, follow the rules of the sanctuary and your guide, and for that reason, visitors will have a truly memorable experience.
As in the Galapagos and many other similar designations, the protection of the McNeil River Sanctuary is not a boundary recognized by wildlife. They are driven by instinct not by lines on a map, and threats to these magnificent animals are a constant reminder of that. Pebble Mine is one of those threats. Alaska is not a country, but the vastness of her mysteries lies in the spirit of these creatures that live in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and it is our responsibility to ensure they do just that.
“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”
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