McNeil River 2017 – Last Day

Departure day. A new group is here and our  group of 10 will be leaving this afternoon. We can see bears through the window of the cook shack, and there are more out on the flats, but no longer will we get to sit within stretching distance of them, listen to them crunch salmon skulls, snarl warnings to one another or watch them plunge into a school of circling fish.

Some of us took a short walk down the beach at low tide. The cliffs here are interesting, comprised of layers of river rock loosely accreted with sediment. I guess there’s been a river here for a very long time!  They’re fairly porous, with round pockets where stones were once lodged, and huge scalloped depressions along the bank where the cliffs have been eroded. This is what we walked next to, at low tide, going to and from the Falls. At high tide these same depressions are nearly submerged, but the rest of the time they form little mini-caves that one can use while waiting for bears to pass 

We saw a few bears clamming and chasing salmon in the tidal flats during our walk, and a few more while we ate lunch. Our last sighting before boarding the Otter was of a lone bear sleeping on the spit of land that separates the lagoon from the Inlet. 

Waiting on the spit for our plane
The July 5-8, 2017 Group
Headed back to civilization


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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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