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Swazicar

McNeil River (Alaska) State Game Sanctuary

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In early July 2017, the missus and I spent four days at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska.  Access to McNeil River is via permit only, with permits issued following an annual lottery held in mid-March.  Only 10 guided permits are issued for each four-day permit block.  For the past five years, only 3% of applicants for our time block, July 5 through 9, won a permit.  As first-time applicants, I guess we got lucky.

 

Over the next few weeks, as I pour through and process way too many images, I'll try to give a summary of the sights for those who may be interested in visiting some day.  What we were there to see, of course, was brown bears, like this fellow with a chum salmon:

 

35177996824_d3bde26c83_b.jpg

 

In the next installment, I'll try to provide a little more background and give an overview of the location and the practices in place to enable safe, close-encounter viewing of very large furry critters.

 

-tom a.

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You got lucky with permits and the bears.  I know the permit lottery is very hard to win.

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Posted (edited)

I won't delve too deeply into the history of the McNeil River sanctuary, as I understand it only superficially.  The sanctuary was established 50 years ago by the state government, and eventually a system emerged under which small groups, admitted by permit only and escorted by Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) personnel, have been able to observe brown bears in quite close proximity during the summer.  The system is based on repetitive, predictable behavior by visitors.  Over time, the bears have (largely) come to accept human visitors as a regular component of the local environment.  I have bumped into grizzlies and black bears previously while backpacking, but I had never before come so close to any bear as large as these coastal browns.  It's really quite an experience, and it's funny how quickly one becomes accustomed to being so close to the bears.

 

For the official state summary on the McNeil River sanctuary (including the permit application process), see this link:  http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mcneilriver.main

 

This map, from the link above, shows the general area:

 

map with travel routes

 

The sanctuary is adjacent to Katmai National Park, home of the sockeye salmon that so famously jump into the open mouths of waiting bears at Brooks Falls.  For most visitors to McNeil River, the jumping off point is the town of Homer, about 100 miles (162 km, for some of you!) across Cook Inlet.  Effectively, access is only via float plane.  For domestic visitors, the float plane is typically the most expensive aspect of the trip, with a price tag of $700 - $800 round trip per person between Homer and McNeil River.  Planes will land only at high tide, and only on daytime high tides of at least a certain level, which can impact the dates on which one is able to get into the sanctuary.

 

The 10 lucky permit winners in our group all flew from Homer, and all with the same company, which used two planes:

 

a de Havilland Otter

35249445733_88fa406b6a_b.jpg

 

and a Cessna 206:

35924926311_f497a0ea2e_b.jpg

 

After the hundred-mile flight, one arrives over the sanctuary:

35924923991_93ae537aae_b.jpgIf seas are calm enough, planes will land in McNeil Cove (allowing a short carry of gear to the camp); in rougher weather, they opt for the more protected lagoon, located behind a spit.  In the image above, the camp is just visible to the left of the aircraft's strut.  To the right of the strut, McNeil River enters the lagoon from the right, while the smaller Mikfik Creek enters from the upper left.  In this image, the Otter has already landed in the cove, and our Cessna is just beginning its downward spiral.

 

Upon arrival, the first order of business is unloading the planes.  Here's the Otter discharging its load:

35249442913_d69f4fd0c3_b.jpg

 

For those interested, we (two people) were allowed a total of 520 pounds (about 236 kg), including our body weight. Basically, this is a camping trip, so one must bring tents, sleeping bags and pads, clothing for various possibilities, waders for crossing the lagoon, food and drink, camera gear, etc.  In our case, we weighed in at about 493 pounds.

 

More in the next post.

Edited by Swazicar
typo
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Posted (edited)

Camp is basic, but quite comfortable, particularly if the weather cooperates.  There are five major structures in camp:  two huts for ADF&G personnel, an ADF&G workshop, a cooking hut for visitors, and a sauna/shower for visitors (a really, really super but simple set-up for this environment).  The cooking hut has a wood-burning stove for warmth, and six propane burners provided by a group called Friends of McNeil River, which also provides cooking pots.  Because of these generous donations, one doesn't need to bring either a stove or pots and pans (one still needs utensils and plates/bowls, however).

 

Here's the cooking hut:

35668387070_4415aab24b_b.jpg

 

And the tent area (that's my tent there):

35249430753_bce230e5c6_b.jpg

 

And a look in the other direction, toward the three ADF&G structures:

36016549586_9fc0b5cfd7_b.jpg

 

Almost out of view in the above image are two white-topped visitor outhouses, the interior walls of which are posted with multiple hilarious "Far Side" comics, many involving bears.

 

The focus of the visit, of course, is bears.  Depending on exactly when in the season one visits, the bears may be doing a variety of things:  eating sedges along the margins of the lagoon, clamming in the cove at low tide, fishing for sockeye salmon in Mikfik Creek, fishing for chum salmon in McNeil River, or, late in the season, scavenging salmon carcasses in the lagoon.  During our visit, the chum run on McNeil River was pretty much at its peak, so all four days of our permit dates were devoted to trekking out to the falls on McNeil River, staying there seven or eight hours, then returning to camp.  Most days, that meant leaving camp at about 10:30 a.m., and returning by about 8:00 p.m.  (Our first day, however, we stayed at the falls until after 9:00 p.m., and got back to camp well after 10:00 p.m.)

 

The walk to the falls has quite a variety of environments, the first part being this section through high grass right outside camp:

36016550456_9f74090cd4_b.jpg

 

One then crosses into the sedges, which border the lagoon, and which are an important early spring source of protein for the bears:

35924916451_9470bb19f7_b.jpg

 

Next comes the lagoon.  When we visited, the tides cooperated, allowing us to cross the lagoon near low tide; if the timing of the tides doesn't cooperate, however, one can't cross the lagoon, and must therefore walk up Mikfik Creek, cross it above the lagoon, and then meet up with the trail to McNeil River falls.

35249442023_04cda9f586_b.jpg

 

For our crossings (twice per day), the water was no higher than thigh deep, making hip waders completely sufficient.

 

While moving, the group always moves en masse.  If on a trail, the group is instructed not to get stretched out:  if one person wants to stop for a photo, the entire group stops.  When everyone is ready, the entire group moves again.  The belief is that a group of 10 (actually 12, including the ADF&G rangers) moving as one, is less likely to have a problem than would 10 or 12 people moving individually.  All movement through the sanctuary is done is this manner.  The bears have come to expect it, and (based on my observations, at least) are quite comfortable with it.

 

Here, Tom, a long-time ranger at McNeil River, explains the procedure to the group:

35249429153_17505ee63a_b.jpg

 

You'll notice Tom does have a shotgun slung over his shoulder.  Both rangers who accompanied the group always carried a shotgun, but one has the distinct impression that they don't expect to need them.  In practical terms, the rangers' major concern clearly was with inter-bear interactions and the effects those might have on visitors.

 

More in the next installment.

Edited by Swazicar
typo
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Posted (edited)

So now we come to the point at which we'll actually see some bears.  I've processed very few images, however, and those that I've processed I've looked at only on a 13-inch screen (rather than the 27-inch screen, which may be less forgiving).  So, for now, I'll post just a few wide-angle shots to give people a sense of the land.

 

Here's (I think) essentially my first view of the falls:

35924920691_04edb9158c_b.jpgThis shot is taken at about 22mm, so it's clear we're going to end up pretty close to the bears at the falls.  If you look closely, in just about the center of the image, you can see the upper viewing pad.  That pad (and a second pad, just below it) are where humans live every day of the summer, and where bears are not allowed.  As crazy as that sounds, somehow it seems to work.  When approaching the falls, the group gathers at the point at which the trail first pops into view of the falls, in order to give the bears a view of what's about to join them.  After a minute or two, and assuming there's no particular bear activity on the trail, the group moves down to the upper pad.

 

Jumping ahead a bit, here's the view from the upper pad:

35249433423_abc01bb296_b.jpgThis shot is at 18mm so, again, one gets a sense of the proximity.  The chairs (I think also provided by Friends of McNeil River), are stored in a cave just below the upper pad; the cave forms the backdrop for the lower pad, which is the better location for close-up shots, but which receives little or no direct sun for most of the day.  The group splits into two, with half starting the day on the lower pad, then switching places with those on the upper pad for the second half of the day.

 

This shot, taken on the lower pad, gives a pretty good feel for proximity.  This is at 19 mm:

35249438453_1577fa2020_b.jpg

 

You'll notice bears to the immediate right of, and immediately below, the pad.  Trails ringed three sides of the lower pad (with a cave behind, on the fourth side), making for lots of close views throughout the day.  Again, a major aspect of this arrangement is that the bears EXPECT humans to be here, and therefore (apparently) aren't too bothered by them.  I'll point out the bear in the water closest to the pad, moving from right to left.  This bear became a favorite of the group (perhaps for anthropomorphic reasons), and you'll see an image or two of her later.

 

And here's another wide-angle shot from the lower pad (at 10 mm), which gives some perspective to the set-up, in which two fold-up chairs form a visual barricade ("bearicade"?), a seemingly ridiculous tactic, but which seems to work:

35668390240_4821f19ea6_b.jpg

 

Similarly, here's a shot from the upper pad, in which bears (and people) mill about:

35249437513_e894da2bb2_b.jpg

 

Well, I guess I have to start processing images shot with the other camera, so I'll leave you with this image taken on the trail back to camp at the end of the day.  With sunset at bout 11:30 p.m., the late evening light typically was fairly nice:

35924917851_cff61f5f4f_b.jpg

 

More later.

Edited by Swazicar
typo
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So the bears are here for one reason, and that reason is the chum (also called dog) salmon:

36071789466_465838a1f8_b.jpg

 

Unlike the sockeye salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, chum salmon are not known as jumpers, so fishing at McNeil River Falls typically is done just below the water surface.  There's clearly a hierarchy involved in who gets which fishing spot, with larger and/or more aggressive bears taking first pick.  Brown bears are basically solitary animals, yet they come together in large numbers at places like McNeil River Falls and Brooks Falls.  With so many bears present in such confined spaces, the bears (especially those who appear to be lower in the pecking order) seem always to be looking over their shoulders as they go about their fishing.

 

35944656682_507ef1219a_b.jpg

 

Even bears among the largest tend to have obvious scars, presumably from encounters with other bears.

35980002961_49184255a5_b.jpg

Even a big fellow like this one is susceptible to a stray (or well placed) claw.

 

One of the things that's really interesting to me is how individualized the fishing techniques of different bears seem to be:  some fish the pools (perhaps where there's less competition from other bears); some prefer to be right above a set of rapids; still bothers prefer to be just below that same set of rapids.

35979983961_03f97561a8_b.jpg

This guy is one of the pool fishers, who spends his time standing, or submerging his head just below the water surface, before leaping.

36071805306_d072428624_b.jpg

36071794046_c6ff202f61_b.jpg

 

This bear (one of only four or five females among the roughly 40 bears at the falls), prefers to stand in rough water and look immediately downriver, hoping to snag a fish as it slowly struggles against the current, attempting to pass ket another obstacle:

36071817666_cfe11029be_b.jpg

 

In the end, they're all after this:

36071799776_e616ddba15_b.jpg

 

More in the next installment.

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@Swazicar Really enjoying this report. Excellent images. I think that a trip to Alaska has just gone up my 'to do' list......

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Awesome report, very well written and great photos, and I really am surprised how close you were allowed to the bears - spectacular stuff!

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This a really enjoyable report with excellent photos.  

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Brilliant stuff indeed.  I am amazed at how close the bears are.  

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Was there a week before, great time, rained everyday. We had about 20 bears at the falls ,lot of action near camp also saw a wolf at the falls.

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So let me say a few more words about the falls, which may or may not be accurate, of course, but they're my impressions nonetheless.

 

My general impression is that the big boys fish where they damn well WANT to fish.  The most favored spot seemed to be the far channel just below the highest falls, this area:

35278736724_fa4abc0263_b.jpg

If that's accurate, I assume it's because that section had the deepest water, presumably providing more cover for fish, so more fish tried to use that section to mount the falls.  (As an aside, during our four days there, we saw two bears miscalculate the force of the water going over the upper falls at the top this section, causing then to get swept over and take undignified rides through the maze of big bears.)

 

A little below this section is what the rangers called "the Teen Center," where these fellows hung out:

35727558880_8af1b88e2c_b.jpg

Now some of these guys were fairly large, but apparently not of sufficient status (or not willing to rumble), so they fished the approach to what appeared to be the big boys' favored spot.

 

Another clearly defined area was the pool section, below the falls nearest the viewing pad, in which large numbers of fish clearly were circling, circling, circling in advance of making an attempt at the falls.  The problem for the bears, of course, is that the pool provided nothing in the way of a constriction, so fishing was a bit harder there, often resulting in the "well-if-I-throw-my-huge-ass-body-at-this-swarm-of-fish-maybe-I'll-get-lucky-and-land-on-one" approach:

36078184056_d20dbce20f_b.jpg

If you look closely at the image above, you can see a ring of clear water immediately around the bear, with a much larger ring of fish circling that clear area.  In some cases, I think these may have been inexperienced bears; in other cases, I actually think they were doing it just to have some bear fun.

 

I mentioned earlier that there were only four or five females among the 40 bears we saw at the falls.  This is one of them, a bear known as Crisco:

35178756994_649e834655_b.jpg

Missing one eye (which she lost many years ago), and with a significant (old) scar on her left hind quarter, she still fished the falls.  I'm not good at estimating a bear's weight, but I'd be surprised if she weighed more than about 250 pounds (about 115 kg).  Nonetheless, she'd been visiting the falls for more than 20 years.  (One of the rangers, who has worked at McNeil for, I believe, 19 years, said Crisco was there when he first arrived, so he estimates she's in the neighborhood of 22-25 years old, and that despite her relatively small size, she still has some status with the bear gang.)

 

It's not all life and death at the falls, of course.  One of the rangers pointed out that, even though bears are solitary animals, they do have relationships of a sort.  There were multiple instances of males play fighting and just generally hanging out together, like these two guys:

35278739564_8670334634_b.jpg

 

And after a little fishing and a little play fighting, would could be better than laying down on the warm stones, in the sun, in the summer of your life?

35727562530_6a49d482bc_b.jpg

 

When we return, we'll leave those those big old boys up at the falls, and move on to the other 80% of the population.

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So I've mentioned a couple of times that there are few females at the falls. As I understand it, it's only those without cubs that can "afford" to risk a trip there, given the hustle, bustle, and occasional confrontations initiated by the big boys.  So where are the other females, those with cubs?

 

Well, in this case, she's a few hundred yards downriver, wondering whether it's such a good idea to come to the falls:

35950236442_cb6028ef48_b.jpg

 

And, by looking at her body language, not to mention that of the cubs, it seems clear that they're not quite up for the experiment.

35728506750_e44b08706a_b.jpg

I can only think that turning back was a wise decision.

 

Even if they're not at the falls, however, they likely are getting fish, either by fishing the area below the lowest rapids (which we saw several mothers with cubs do), or by scavenging the carcasses of fish that have floated downriver.

 

When returning to camp in the evening, we saw bears with cubs in or around the lagoon every day, like this group:

35984772211_cde182f031_b.jpg

35984775641_5f1487fc48_b.jpg

35984786321_e2be432e11_b.jpg

It's amazing to think that one of these cubs could grow into a 1,200-pound bruiser like the biggest of the big boys, but I guess that's how it works.

 

Down at the lagoon, there still are sedges to be had, as well as the occasional fish.  Outside the spit that protects most of the lagoon, in McNeil Cove, there's other good stuff to be had.  Here, likely the same mother and cubs as above, but on a different day, are headed out into the mud flats at low tide:

35727548100_d89127822b_b.jpg

 

Like other bears, they're in search of clams, which form another important source of food in the spring and summer:

36118390625_8002c286e9_b.jpg

 

Every day, even before leaving camp, we typically saw more than 10 bears, most of them mothers and cubs, working some combination of the lagoon and the mud flats.

 

But even if they're not out in the open, you can be sure the mothers are out there around the edges, keeping an eye on who is coming and going:

35278730604_5019032fba_b.jpg

 

I'm told I'm on supper duty for the next couple of evenings, so it may be a while before I can process more images.  I can think of a couple of sequences that I hope are presentable, so I'm sure I'll be back

 

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Posted (edited)

On 7/21/2017 at 0:54 PM, Atravelynn said:

You got lucky with permits and the bears.  I know the permit lottery is very hard to win.

 

It definitely is, particularly if one wants to go in July.  However, if you look at the numbers, there's a fair chance of winning a permit (or a standby permit) at other times of the season.  In the case of our group of 10 people, fully half had visited at least twice--one had visited four times, and one couple was on its sixth visit.  When I'm eligible to apply again (in 2019), I actually will shoot for June, as I think that's a more varied time of year for bear activities.

 

On 7/23/2017 at 0:30 PM, pomkiwi said:

@Swazicar Really enjoying this report. Excellent images. I think that a trip to Alaska has just gone up my 'to do' list......

 

Thank you!

 

On 7/23/2017 at 0:37 PM, michael-ibk said:

Awesome report, very well written and great photos, and I really am surprised how close you were allowed to the bears - spectacular stuff!

 

Thanks!  Keep in mind that this is a pretty unique setting, in which bears have been exposed to up-close human visitors for many years. Do not try this at home!

 

22 hours ago, Bush dog said:

This a really enjoyable report with excellent photos.  

 

Thanks!

 

14 hours ago, KaingU Lodge said:

Brilliant stuff indeed.  I am amazed at how close the bears are.  

 

Thank you.  Yes, initially it's a bit unsettling, but one gets over that quickly.

 

13 hours ago, Wildship said:

Was there a week before, great time, rained everyday. We had about 20 bears at the falls ,lot of action near camp also saw a wolf at the falls.

 

Yes, we were told we got lucky with the weather (no rain at all) and with the chum run, which likely maxed out either with our group or with the next.

 

 

Edited by Swazicar
typo
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Great variety of bear shots.  Very interesting about the clear ring around the bear.  I would not have noticed.

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Okay, let's finish up. After all, how many photos of yet another bear eating yet another salmon can one look at?  The answer, of course, is "a few more."  I'll jump back and forth with a few unrelated images below, before finishing up with a couple of final thoughts.

 

I mentioned previously the different fishing techniques of different bears.  Now, I don't know that the fellow immediately below was the best fisher, but he certainly seemed the most efficient.  Meet Brave Heart:

36171518595_74d8b91d3b_b.jpg

Brave Heart's technique was both simple and elegant:  Sit down in the middle of the river, facing downstream, such that an eddy formed immediately in front of him.  Then, he'd wait until a fish swam into that eddy, and he would scoop it up, moving only his head and front paws.  On consecutive days, one of the people in our group kept track of how many fish Brave Heart caught while we were there.  The total?  Twenty-six each day (just while we were there).  Wow.  Occasionally, another bear would come along and try to fish in the same eddy, which didn't seem to bother Brave Heart too much.

 

Other bears had identifiably characteristic behavior as well.  One of the rangers noted that if two adult males were play sparring, one of them likely would be a bear known as Mask.  Immediately below, we have an older, larger bear, known as Aardvark, on the left, and Mask, on the right:

36039046111_6c8d18d3a5_b.jpg

 

In the next image, the smaller Mask works the body of his larger playmate:

36039047381_ca0ab40cc2_b.jpg

 

I think I learned a lot about bear behavior on this trip.  I'm still precessing how much of that knowledge is applicable elsewhere, however.  When hiking or backpacking in grizzly country, which I've done quite a few times, one of the cardinal rules is:  don't come anywhere near a mother and her cubs.  At McNeil River, however, one ends up in situations like the following, which is no big deal, at least there:

36004824442_28b507cb97_b.jpg

These bears, walking in a constricted area on the edge of the lagoon (there's a rock wall off-screen to the right), are heading straight toward us and now are not more than 10 meters from us.  The cubs (referred to as "COY"s, for "cub of the year," meaning they were born earlier this year) are clearly a little wary, as this is their first season, and thus their first season of experience with humans.  The mother, however, is quite relaxed and calm; rather than turn around or head out into the water to bypass us, she simply walks ahead, and the cubs follow her.  This scenario--running into bears in this constricted section--was raised with us just that morning by the ranger leading the outing.  Our tactic?:  move as far from water's edge as possible, right up against the rock wall (allowing the bears the option of staying on course or moving out into the water), get out cameras in advance (so as not to be fumbling around as the bears passed us), and wait.  We got our shots, the bears moved on, and all was well.  This works at McNeil River, but I wouldn't even consider this in the other places I've encountered bears.

 

All round, a fantastic experience, perhaps once in a lifetime.  I WILL apply for another permit when I'm again eligible to do so, but who's to say whether I'll win.  For me, this experience was right up there with mountain gorillas in Zaire in the mid- and late-80s, albeit somewhat less exotic.

35779636380_e98f66bea6_b.jpg

 

For those interested, our per-person costs directly related to the McNeil River portion of the trip were:

  • Nonrefundable permit application fee:  $25
  • Four-day guided permit:  $350 for non-Alaskans
  • Roundtrip float plane fare between Homer and McNeil River:  $700 ($750-$800 might be more typical)
  • Self-purchased and self-prepared food and drink while camping at McNeil River: $100 (guesstimate)
  • Rental of waders: $25

One also has to get to Alaska, of course, so that would be a major cost for most international visitors (but not so bad for those of us on the west coast of the U.S.).

 

A note on the permit cost:  Apparently the cost of the permit has not increased since it was initially established.  Revenue from the application fee and permit sales used to fully fund the program; with the passage of time, however, the fees and sales now cover only about half the cost of operating the program.  The state is now evaluating costs, and seems likely to approximately double the cost of the permit, to $700 for non-residents.  Bear in mind that that would be $700 for four days of guided activities, a bargain by world standards, in my opinion.

 

Happy to answer any questions, if you have them, and I promise not to inflict and more images on you.

 

-tom a.

portland, oregon

 

 

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