Thirty-six wild grizzlies were fishing for salmon and arguing over riverside real estate within a stone's throw of us at McNeil River Falls in Alaska.
Like their human counterparts, each grizzly seemed to have its own idea of how best to catch fish. Some yawned at the top of the falls, waiting for salmon to jump near their mouths. Others used paws and claws to trap fish against the rocks. Still others swatted fish out of rapids or dived open-mouthed into pools.
During the peak salmon run in July and August, these falls are generally conceded to have the largest concentration of grizzlies within a single field of view anywhere on earth.
My wife Barbara and I were at the McNeil River Game Sanctuary, the last of three stops on our Alaskan bear safari two summers ago. The spectacle of so many great bears, unfenced and cavorting, was more powerful than any of our previous wildlife experiences.
The human fascination with bears begins with the fact that among the large mammals of North America, only we and the bear walk with plantigrade feet that touch the whole sole to the earth. From a distance, a standing bear appears remarkably human. Reports of "Bigfoot" suspiciously overlap bear habitat.
Francis Parkman's classic, "The Oregon Trail," first published in 1849, predicted that a time would come when the plains of America "would be a grazing country, the buffalo give place to tame cattle, farmhouses be scattered along the water courses, and wolves, bears and Indians be numbered among the things alaska, that was."
During the 19th century at least 50,000 grizzlies were spread across the American West from California to Kansas. Today, fewer than a thousand seldom seen and legally threatened grizzlies remain in the lower 48 states, although Alaska still has about 40,000.
But to see the bears in the wild, particularly their annual salmon orgy on the vast Alaska Peninsula southwest of Anchorage, can be an expensive proposition and often a logistical nightmare.
We had to make a 500-mile detour back through Anchorage via four scheduled and chartered flights to link locations within a hundred miles of each other. But the results were worth it. We were able to compare how the federal government manages bear viewing in Katmai National Park with how the state does it at McNeil River Game Sanctuary and how private enterprise handles it at Chenik Brown Bear Photography Camp.
We had decided to center our attention on the coastal bears of the Alaska Peninsula for two reasons. First, inland grizzlies tend to be solitary and less interesting to watch. Coastal grizzlies of the same subspecies, often called Alaskan brown bears, gather in groups beside falls that salmon try to jump during their summer run.
The second reason had to do with access and close approach. Barbara and I had already been inland to Denali National Park, 200 miles north of Anchorage just off the Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway. Since visitors cannot drive private vehicles through Denali, most people travel by free shuttle bus. On several visits, we spotted single grizzlies at a distance through our vehicle window.
Our first stop was Katmai, an isolated national park without private vehicle access. We arrived by float plane from the nearest village of King Salmon, and set up our tent in a full campground, where we had made reservations months before. After locking our food in the elevated camp cache, we went to find the bears. We didn't have to go far.
Just beyond the log buildings of Brooks Lodge (booked for months in advance, but open to the public for excellent meals), the banks of the Brooks River were alive with nearly a hundred bear viewers and sport-fishermen. As two ecstatic anglers were reeling in an arm's-length salmon and an equally big rainbow, a ranger appeared and gave them an order I couldn't hear. Their smiles vanished and they cut their lines.
Had they broken regulations? No. They were following precisely a park rule: to release your fish if a bear approaches. This time there were three. In the lead was a 600-pound mother, followed by two yearling cubs who swaggered with the cocky uncertainty new members of a street gang. They hardly acknowledged human presence, and the regulations are designed to keep things that way. If Katmai grizzlies connect humans with a source of fish, sportfishing and bear-viewing alike will be in big trouble.
Both bear and tourist visitation to the river have more than tripled over the past decade. The campground and lodge hold about 120 visitors, but an increasing number of people beat the overnight quotas by chartering 40-minute flights from King Salmon to come for the day. While we were there, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted two Katmai rangers, three fishing guides, one outdoor journalist and five tourists as saying, word for word, the same thing: "an accident waiting to happen."
At the time of our visit in 1991 we were told that the last injury from a bear attack had been in 1967, but days later a woman ranger was mauled on the arm after she surprised the same mother and cubs we had seen with the fishermen.
The attack took place on the well-used trail to Brook Falls, the prime Katmai real estate for both species. A room-sized elevated deck a hundred feet away is often packed with people elbowing each other for good camera positions. One morning, the trail was closed by rangers due to a gorged bear sleeping beside it. After a wait, only two of us were escorted through by rangers before the bear was sighted again and the trail closed behind us.
Meanwhile, commercial fishermen in nearby ocean waters had gone on strike as salmon prices dropped. Both Katmai bears and sport-fishermen normally catch only the "escapement," the tiny percentage allowed to get by nets near the mouth of the river. Unknown to us, the nets had just been lifted because of the strike.
We had the platform virtually to ourselves as a surge of salmon welled upstream. Up to 10 were in the air at once, jumping over the falls toward the mouths of nine waiting bears who at first missed every one. They were as confounded by the surprise movable feast as a dog thrown a handful of tennis balls.
After the strike was settled the next day, the bears stood in the river as quietly as logs, while the surface remained unbroken. Barbara and I packed up our sleeping bags and hopped a float plane to King Salmon, from which we took a scheduled flight to Anchorage, another to Homer, and yet another float plane across Cook Inlet over Augustine Volcano to Chenik Brown Bear Photography Camp on the same peninsula where we'd started.
Wilderness and comfort
Rustically chic Chenik Lodge, with its gourmet meals and professionally led natural history walks, pleasantly blurs the border between wilderness appreciation and comfort.
The owner was having tea with us when he spotted a lone bear approaching. I had my camera ready as the large male ambled over and rolled playfully in the foliage 50 feet from us. Here, as we would also find at McNeil, our closeness of approach was a judgment call by an experienced guide rather than fixed yardage in a rule book, yet we felt considerably safer than in the national parks.
Guides led us through a landscape that they both loved and understood in the wholly wild setting surrounding the lodge. We visited a fox den where two kits played at our feet and explored tide pools as bald eagles swooped overhead. The goal at Chenik is to provide the best possible experience regardless of cost. At $2,250 per person per five-day stay with a limit of just six guests, Chenik may not be for everyone.
Our stay at Chenik completed, the owner took us nine miles in a Boston Whaler to the McNeil River, where we checked our permits with Larry Aumiller, a biologist-guide for the Department of Fish and Game. He had his own cabin, but visitors stay in tents and use a cook shack for all food storage and meals. Although bears frequently walked by camp, we knew the ultimate experience was a mile away at the only falls for many miles around. At the height of the salmon run, more than 40 bears may be at the falls, and 90 may be in the general area. Our sighting of 36 at once was not uncommon.
Since pioneer legends relate horrendous grizzly attacks on humans and a number of campers have been killed in Glacier and Yellowstone in recent years, how was it possible that 11 of us could just stand there without a fence of any kind? Barbara saw one reason right away: "These bears don't seem very interested in us." The bears of McNeil have plenty to eat and they've grown accustomed to seeing humans who mean them no harm.
With an orgy of salmon and a minimum of people, McNeil is an ideal situation to view bears, if you win the lottery. Each spring a drawing is held for 10 people a day to visit in July and August. Winners still have to plan their own food, camping gear and transport via float plane.
While a few McNeil and Chenik visitors get a prime, close and relatively safe bear-viewing experience beyond that in any national park, Katmai and Denali do have the advantage of access for thousands. Many of us have already forgotten that our national parks used to be prime places to see the American black bear, a calmer cousin of the larger and more aggressive grizzly. The relatively short-lived phenomena of black-bear viewing in our parks began in the 1920s and ended in the 1960s because of human abuse and lack of foresight.
I have mixed feelings about grizzly viewing coming into its own as a new genre of Alaskan adventure travel. I could not in good conscience promote it unless I believed that the impact of more visitors could be offset by public awareness about the plight and rightful place of bears in the modern world. Humans have historically eliminated bears wherever they have come in contact with them through hunting for sport, personal safety, protection of livestock, or sale of body parts for exotic Oriental medicines.
Tourism, properly managed, has the potential to reverse the downward spiral of the great bear. Nearly a thousand are killed each year in Alaska. My hope is that the sheer number of people who want to see wild bears will prove the economic validity of ecotourism and help protect them as well as the large unspoiled tracts of land they require for their survival.
IF YOU GO . . .
Viewing the bears at Katmai National Park, the McNeil River Game Sanctuary and Chenik Brown Bear Photography Camp in one trip is both expensive and often complicated, so you might want to choose just one of the three destinations. Whether you visit one or more bear viewing areas, give yourself plenty of time for planning and preparation. And remember, reservations are limited and booked in advance.
This is particularly true for the McNeil River Game Sanctuary. Requests for permits to visit the McNeil River Game Sanctuary between July 1 and Aug. 25 are issued through a lottery held April 15. Therefore, applications must be in the Anchorage office of Alaska Department of Fish and Game no later than March 31.
For an application and complete information on the McNeil River Game Sanctuary, write or call: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, 333 Raspberry Road, Anchorage, Alaska 99518, Attention McNeil River; (907) 267-2180.
Reservations are required for the campground at Katmai National Park between June 1 and Sept. 10. For permits and a copy of Bear Facts, the park and preserve's newspaper with all the information you will need to get to the campground, write or call: Katmai National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box No. 7, King Salmon, Alaska 99613; (907) 246-3305.
Mike and Diane McBride, who own Chenik Brown Bear Photography Camp, often travel for the first few months of the year. However, you can still get a brochure by writing or calling. If you get a recording, leave a message with your name and address, and the winter caretakers will promptly send you send you information. Diane and Mike McBride, Box 956, Homer, Alaska 99603; (907) 235-8910.
Reservations for Chenik are a different matter --at least through the end of May, since the managers of the McBrides' lodge spend their winters in Crested Butte, Colo. Write or call: Tom and Courtney Murphy, P.O. Box 1642, Crested Butte, Colo. 81224; (303) 349-6548. After May, call the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge at the Homer number listed above.