Brown Bear Watching on Alaska's McNeil River
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.
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.