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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