McNeil River 2017 – Day 4

Last day going out to the Falls, though not the last to see bears. We’ve seen them every day from camp, out on the mud flats or cruising along the beach, so I’ve no doubt we’ll see some today while we’re in camp waiting for our fligh tomorrow. 

Today was cooler and windier than the previous three days – started off with a bit of rain early in the morning but that ended by noon or thereabouts. We had fewer bears today, though really, what’s “few” about 32 bears at a time?! I again spent a lot more time viewing than photographing. 

Several sub-adults showed up today, staying mostly on the fringes – in the upstream or downstream riffles – but occasionally making forays into the main fishing spots at the Falls. They weren’t very successful at fishing for themselves but they tried and often caught half-eaten carcasses as a reward for their efforts. 

Hot Lips paid us a visit while we were on the lower pad. I happened to be on the end closest to him, and had I streeeeeeetched my arm I could have touched his head. He stayed, snuffling at something in the grasses, about two minutes.  

Just four days at McNeil River has made it seem totally normal to spend one’s entire day watching bears and by the time we left the pad this evening I felt like I was leaving behind something very special – which indeed I am. 

Brown bears in “the pool”
Bundled up on the lower viewing platform
Overview of the Falls on McNeil River; viewing platform at middle left.
Main part of the Falls

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McNeil River 2017 – Day 3

Wow, another warm sunny day with only light winds! That makes three in a row, and those who live in this part of Alaska know that doesn’t happen very often!

Another trek to the Falls. Lots of bears. LOTS of bears. We counted 53 unique bears today, including several sow-with-cubs combinations. I’m now able to recognize five or six individual bears, and spent more time watching them than I did taking photos of them. Each bear has its own personality and its own way of interacting with others. In human terms, some are bitchy, some affable, some unassuming and others playful. Two bears nearly ran into us, one because she was running while looking backwards and the other because she was focused on getting the salmon from the mouth of three first! We probably could have touched the first bear she was so close. 

Bears fishing at the Falls

Speaking of being close… on the trail between camp and the Falls is a section of narrow beach, lagoon on one side and small cliffs on the other. We had instructions that if we were to meet a bear on this beach, we group tightly on the cliff side and allow the bear to pass on the water side. When I heard these instructions this morning I scoffed at the idea of meeting a bear on the beach – really, what are the odds that will happen while I’m here? Good, apparently, since tonight we were passed by a sow with her pair of new cubs. She just walked along the beach, occasionally chuffing at her cubs and glancing at us without any apparent concern. Her cubs stared at us as they trotted behind their mother, like kids who’d been told to behave and be quiet. They were perhaps 20 feet away. The trust that kind of behavior relies upon is truly quite remarkable – we won’t hurt her, and she won’t hurt us. Her cubs are learning that as well.

Sow with cubs, courtesy Karen Reeve

I took some video footage today and some 200 stills. That sounds like a lot but it’s not. The nice thing about going out multiple days in a row is that you can be a bit more discriminating about the shots you take because you’ve got more opportunities – no need to just shoot, shoot, shoot. 


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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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