Sharing Tundra: The Bear Essentials

By Pattie Bell Layser ′71
Photography by Earle Layser


“Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh!...”

The cascades and riffles and falling waters of McNeil River were almost stilled by my rushing blood and racing heart; almost silenced by spiked adrenaline and my staccato breathing. Somewhere between pleasure and fright, I was awestruck.

My journey to Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary had begun five months before, but I could never have guessed that by hiking there—by rounding just another bend and cresting an ordinary low rise—ultimately all my understanding of wild nature would go belly-up. Suddenly our group of seven men and women, plus the two wildlife techs guiding us, were standing within 40 yards of a dozen 700- to 1,400-pound Alaskan brown bears, all fishing for chum salmon.

Like a magpie pursuing every flash of color, I tried looking everywhere at once. The naturalist in me recognized the scene as a dreamscape—a dozen bears, the heads of those feeding haloed by rapidly-beating wings of pink-footed gulls; two stately adult eagles and a mottled immature one; a red-breasted merganser herding five polka-dotted ducklings; and a kaleidoscopic color swirl of pooling, rising, jumping, calico-patterned salmon. Startled, and slightly unnerved, I exploded with laughter watching a gigantic, spread-eagled boar belly flop on top of a chum.

It’s strange that when I’m standing quiet and still, I interpret sounds of nature as “silence.” True, the setting seemed surreal—and certainly beyond spoken words—but the air around me thundered with cascading, spinning waters; the high-pitched keer-keer of glaucous-winged gulls; the voracious suckling of ever-hungry cubs; the snarling, full-bodied growls of fighting boars; the eagles’ jagged kleek-kik-ik-ik-ik-ik; the formidable bellows of a sow protecting her young.

Turning in place, I watched a lone bear on the ridgeline, starting down the trail toward us. Bowlegged, pigeon-toed, he lumbered at what appeared to be a slow, stiff-legged pace, but he covered ground rapidly. As I pivoted to keep him in view, another brown brought his catch up from the river, stopping alongside us. We were surrounded.

I knew when my husband Earle and I entered the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2004 annual lottery, hoping for two of the sanctuary’s 185 guided viewing permits, that winning the coveted spots was a long shot. For each four-day viewing period between June 7 and August 25, approximately 1,800 people worldwide apply. But standing on that sensory-glutted knoll, I knew it had been worth the gamble.

I hadn’t always been sure doing this trip was a good idea—or even a smart one. Ecstatic when our names were drawn, I stayed excited as we juggled a 75-pound weight limit to pack an extreme weather tent, warm raingear and hip boots, a water filter and food and cooking utensils into dry bags.

I was pumped when we booked a flight to Anchorage, drove to Homer and chartered a float plane to cross Cook Inlet to Kamishak Bay, skimming Augustine Island’s cloud-rimmed volcanic cone en route to the game sanctuary’s wild, roadless acres in the rolling foothills of the Aleutian Range.

Our air taxi by Beluga Lake Float Plane Service had been peerless. At high tide on a clear day, our waterway was flagged fuschia by lush banks of fireweed. Our route markers included flotillas of ducks, a pod of a dozen blowing humpback whales and a modest-sized rock island carpeted with sea lions, basking in uncommonly bright sunlight. It was a royal procession leading us to North America’s largest terrestrial omnivores, the world’s greatest concentration of wild brown bears.

Called “taquka’aq” by the Alutiits, these charismatic and usually solitary mammals have gathered for centuries when wild iris bloom for McNeil River’s annual “iqalluk” migration. Here browns feast upon thousands of fat- and protein-rich spawning salmon, banking weight to outlast winter by sometimes gaining several pounds a day.

As I looked down, the wilderness expanse thrilled me. Immediately to the north of the sanctuary’s 200 square miles is McNeil River State Game Refuge, which in combination protects 388 square miles (248,120 acres) of bear habitat. Add the federally-protected lands of Katmai National Park and Preserve lying to the south and west, and we lucky few were guaranteed unparalleled opportunities for observing and photographing bears in a mecca of biodiversity.

What could be more exciting? Alaska’s brown bears and grizzlies are now considered one species—biologists commonly consider those living 100 miles or more inland to be grizzlies—but browns are larger from bulking up on salmon.

Fears for our safety set in not long after we landed, though. Wildlife tech Tom Griffin helped our planeload of five debark and begin our orientation. He’s a gentle giant of a guy, and if one believes in reincarnation, he may have been a bear in his last life.

“Camp” is a miniscule patch within the sanctuary’s 128,000 acres, and to the browns, it’s home turf, indistinguishable from their territory-at-large. The rough semicircle of gravel tent pads fronting the cook cabin are secluded from one another by towering fireweed and cow parsnip (good porridge...I mean, forage, for bears) and by rings of dense willow and alder (thickets papa bears think are “just right!” for bedding down).

Two outhouses stand a fair distance from the tent sites. Taller and more substantial than willows, they sometimes serve as rubbing posts if Ursus arctos has an itch he can’t scratch, Tom explained.

The sanctuary was established and designated a National Natural Landmark in 1967 and expanded in 1991, and I knew that since the initiation of its 10-person-a day permit system in 1973 no person had been injured by a bear. Also, no bears had been killed by visitors who felt threatened. Still, Tom gave us several realistic scenarios that could bring a passing bear into camp.

“In the cook cabin, there’s a shelf of air horns,” he added reassuringly. “Either announce loudly, ‘Bear in camp,’ or sound an alarm, and we’ll escort any bears from camp.”

Tom and two other resident guides do this about a dozen times each viewing season.

He reviewed precautions such as food and trash handling, protocol burned into my brain from backpacking in bear country with my husband in the Lower 48, and the familiar litany routed my apprehension. That night I watched calmly as occasional bears ambled along the tidal flats below camp. But I didn’t use my fishing license. And I trashed the stowaway dog biscuits in my jacket pocket, forgotten puppy-training treats turned wicked bear bait.

In the morning, the two-mile trek to the falls offered us largely wildflower-strewn miles. As we crossed the lagoon, the mud had supersized already gigantic bear tracks running alongside ours, stretching their imprinted claw marks to lethal-looking lengths.

I silently registered the number and frequency of blossoming cow parsnips, beheaded by omnivorous grizzlies; patches of sedge and blue-joint reed grass, flattened by slumbering behemoths; mounds of crowberry-filled bear scat, still steaming along the trail.

But, “Oh, my gosh!” How quickly all that was forgotten as I stood on McNeil’s 10’ x 20’ viewing pad, watching so many bears tolerating me watching them. Half the bear watchers stayed within this graveled area, as the rest of us slipped beneath its overhanging ledge. The second vantage point is almost at river level—a smaller space I paced off as 100 square feet of adrenaline-rush.

“28,000; 29,000; 30,000,” I counted, immediately engaged by a huge bear that stayed completely underwater 30 seconds before bobbing up, jaws locked around its squirming prey.

Talented anglers, with the dominant bears grabbing the choicest locations, browns snorkel, body surf, chase fins, pounce or rake the river water with their claws. Some sit dog-like on their haunches, while others lie supine on the bank, each ready to torpedo migrating fish, all tirelessly scanning the river. Others prefer purloined chum, and they boast bloody battle wounds

The Alaska Fish and Game Department reports that “as many as 144 individual bears have been sighted at McNeil River through the summer with as many as 70 bears observed at one time.” The most I counted gathered at once was 24, but during each day’s typical eight hours of viewing, greater numbers crisscrossed the hillsides or fished downstream.

The literature also states that “bears may be as close as 20 feet, but the general distance is 75 to 200 feet.” Since we viewers all stayed inside our designated areas, this probably would have been true--if the browns had listened as carefully to the guides’ cautionary tales.

We never approached them, but they sometimes closed in, their claws rolling over small, lined-out stones separating them from us. If they turned their massive heads and made eye contact, they stole our breath. I stowed the binoculars inside my pack—why scope what’s less than three arm lengths away? My first day at McNeil, I watched in amazement, listening to two cubs nurse.

Every day, the wildlife guides carry a shotgun, but I found myself trusting their ability to read bear behavior, their informed self-assurance and steady, vigilant ease. Globally-acclaimed bear expert, seasoned steward, ambassador and myth-busting educator Larry Aumiller has shared his 29 years of experience managing sanctuary bears and visitors with fellow guides Josh Pierce and Tom. All three are gracious, humor-filled hosts adept at defusing wired bears and anxious onlookers. Because of them, one hour out, we were savoring bear encounters that humans usually greet by shrinking into a fetal position.

Larry flinches at the “bearanoia” he feels sensational writing perpetuates. Alaska’s wilds lured Larry from Denver as a young adult, and a National Geographic special about the Craighead brothers’ research on Yellowstone’s grizzlies set the compass point for his lifework. He suggests that if there’s harmony in nature, it mirrors the balanced chorus of passion and patience practiced in sanctuary management: an attitude of respect and reconciliation that honors bears and people, the original spirit of the wild allowing each to experience the good life at McNeil River.

Larry finds that observing bears teaches sharing and humility, accommodation and flexibility.

“Give up some control; assume a little risk—and it’s really very little risk—and there’s so much to be gained,” he points out.

“The single fact that Indians coevolved with bears, with only primitive weapons to pit against the bears’ enormous strength, suggests bears’ [capacity for] benevolence,” Larry explains. “They’re our nearest neighbors on the food chain. We can coexist.”

Two days later, after we forded Mikfik Creek, Larry guided us to the falls. Summer on the Alaska Peninsula is frequently a state of mind—the land is wide-open to coastal storms’ bone-chilling low clouds, gale force winds and driving rain—and we were hiking with our heads down for protection.

“Hey, bear! Hey, bear!” Larry called, clapping his hands as high alders blocked our approach.

We curved around to find ourselves facing a boar. Without a word, we moved in unison one step to our left, and the large male wandered past on the path.

As long as our human behavior acknowledges the bears’ fears and remains consistent with what they’ve come to expect, sanctuary bears exhibit remarkably high tolerance for mindful human activities.

“Living with wild bears requires such small concessions,” Larry repeats.

I understand now why Aumiller’s decision to issue four-day permits wasn’t random. Day One, maybe Two, I was watching bears. By our third morning, I was seeing bears differently.

Close up—as I began to recognize their individual features and call them by name—I found myself taking a longer view. I observed horrendous fights and saw Woofie bitten and clawed for stealing fish. But I also saw Teddy’s two cubs suckling; the way the one kept his hand on Mom’s back as she fished and the surprise of the other when he caught a salmon by himself. I watched the three of them sleep, cuddled into a puppy pile.

I witnessed ordinarily contentious bears defer to 28-year-old R.C. (bears live about 30 years in the wild) and subordinate bears choose to sit safely beside us to eat their fish (the more dominant bears usually avoid people). I observed a courtship gone awry and Dolly Varden fishes caught and filleted by a boar weighing in at a recorded 1,460 lbs.

All things considered—making noise on the trail; allowing bears to be bears (uninterrupted); never putting forth food, threat or competition—I was yielding little for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Back at camp after my third day at the falls, I shed seven layers of clothing when I finally warmed up inside the wood-burning sauna. The lily pond directly outside its door made Monet’s pale in comparison. Densely flowered, its lilies were painted yellow, and I custom-blended bathwater from naturally bracing pond water and “organic” water hot from a stovetop kettle—creating bliss in a wilderness with “no services or amenities.”

Maybe the heat sparked awareness: I know scientists consider it anathema, but after my sanctuary experience, it’s hard for me not to anthropomorphize the bears. And why not? That we have dominion over nature is a naïve fiction humans hold dear. It is perhaps a self-serving myopia sanctioning wildlife’s exploitation or extermination, denying that it’s humankind’s benevolent oversight that determines our domain’s wealth.

That’s my personal conclusion. I know that what I “see” at McNeil is up to me: Now and forevermore, I choose to watch Brother Bear walking in wilderness beauty alongside me.

Application details and deadlines for visiting the sanctuary are linked to, but for best results, experience firsthand a bend in the trail, cresting a rise, and... “Oh, my gosh!”