McNeil River 2017 – Day 2

Up early after spending the night using what has to be the best sleeping combo ever: Exped Downmat covered with asleeping bag liner and topped with an opened sleeping bag (like a comforter). I was able to sleep on my side without any constriction, stick my feet out when I got warm and generally toss and turn with ease. But enough about sleeping. Let’s talk bears!

We trekked back to the Falls, again by the short route across the lagoon. Today we were there from about 1200-1900, and saw bear numbers increase from 15 when we arrived to 32 when we left. Highlights included three different sows with cubs who approached – but didn’t get very close to – the Falls. They did most of their fishing in deeper water below the Falls, often swimming with one or more cubs latched on to their back only to dunk the cub(s) when taking a headlong plunge under water for a salmon. Another highlight: Braveheart, one of the bigger boars, came up to the river bank to take a half-hour nap not 12 feet from the viewing pad! This is the same bear who has the unique fishing style of being a rock in the river, and he provided just as many photo ops on land as he did in the river. 

Braveheart taking a nap by the upper viewing pad

Oh, and did I mention this was also day two of mostly sunshine? 

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McNeil River 2017 – Day 1, continued

First, I changed my mind at the last minute and flew out with my waders on. I needn’t have bothered – we were able to step from the pontoons directly to the beach. 

Unloading the Otter at McNeil River camp

Our flight out was about an hour over slate-colored Cook Inlet. We flew directly at Augustine Volcano, which is just as striking “in person” as it is from a PenAir flight, but saw little else other than calm water and the odd fishing boat. All of this I was able to see quite well from my copilot seat – score!

Beluga Lake from the copilot seat
Augustine Volcano

Once we got close to the Peninsula the view improved dramatically – tall mountains with some glaciers; wide, wide, verdant valleys; meandering river with low exposed cliffs pooling in a lagoon and a long, gravelly beach with our destination on its shore.  

McNeil River – Falls visible – from the Otter

We were met by a couple of ADFG staff and once off the plane were given a brief intro to the facilities and bear program as well as some time to set up out individual camps. I’ll spend more time on the facilities later – suffice to say it’s pretty nice for camping!

None of us had been sure whether we’d get to do any bear-viewing this day, due to our late arrival. We needn’t have worried. We saw six bears from camp within the first hour, and by 1530 were headed to the Falls. 

We took the short route, apparently about 1.7 miles, which entails walking across the outflow from Mikfik Creek and a substantial part of the lagoon before heading across some low rolling ridges toward the River. Much of the vegetation here is the same as what we have in the Aleutians but the relative composition is different and none of it is quite as tall, at least not yet. I saw many familiar birds as well as quite a few that aren’t common in Unalaska.

After about an hour and a half we reached the Falls. There’s a short rise just before that’s viewing area, so there’s nothing gradual about the approach – you pop over the rise and voila! The Falls and, in our case, about 31 adult grizzlies!

We spent about 4 hours, staying until a bit after 2100. Bear numbers peaked at 40 but most of the time we had 32-35 in view. I didn’t know this, having not spent much time in bear country, but bears have a distinct odor – hard to describe but it was distinct and quite noticeable. The bears came in all different shapes and sizes and colors, and they all seemed to have their preferred method of getting salmon. Some swam about in the pool below the Falls, surfacing from time to time with a fish which they’re caught while under water. Others dived into the pool in a great splashing lunge. Some sat in the Falls with their backs upstream while others stood facing the other way; some lurked behind a large boulder mid-Falls and seemed to catch salmon caught in a swirling eddy. And then there were bullies and beggars, those that did little catching on their own and seemed to rely solely on their abilities to intimidate or cajole, respectively. Occasional fights broke out but more often two males (males outnumbered females by about 10:1) would simply stalk, stiff-legged, around one another while glaring balefully and making throaty rumbling noises. The rumbling sound carried well across the river in spite of the cacophony of rushing water, screaming eagles and screeching gulls. Individuals came and went throughout the evening.  Many of the smaller and/or less dominant ones would leave the Falls proper when they obtained a fish, instead going up the river bank – often within less than 10 feet of our viewing pad! – to eat their catch in relative peace. And these bears, all of them, basically ignored us! They were aware of us but had zero interest in us – understandable I guess, when they’ve got salmon to catch and beggars to warn off. 

I’ll come back to some of the bear behavior at the Falls – I’ve got stuff to do to prepare for Day 2 – but do want to share this: first year cubs make a noise that sounds like a 15-hp outboard motor and can be heard over the same distance! Who knew! 

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McNeil River 2017 – Day 1

Two years ago I backpacked for a week in the Brooks Range. I was more excited than nervous about the opportunity to see some brown bears, and so was thrilled when we saw four on our first day. Alas, though we saw plenty of sign we saw not a single bear for the remainder of the trip. So when I won a lottery slot this year for bear viewing at the McNeil River Game Sanctuary, I was, to put it mildly, thrilled. Due to tides my group of lottery winners are going out a day later than we would otherwise and so might lose one of our four days of going out to the Falls or Miflik Creek. However, the forecast is for calm winds, no precipitation and some sunshine – which will hopefully make up for the lost day. 

We leave by float plane from Homer on this DeHavilland Otter. Supposedly we’re likely to have only a few feet of inches-deep water to cross on arrival so I’m sticking with my all-terrain sandals rather than putting on and flying in my waders. Let’s hope this turns out to be a sensible idea…


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