Six days of bear viewing at Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary

Generally you have to be pretty lucky to get a bear viewing permit for McNeil River.  We considered ourselves especially lucky last year since we had never even applied before.  However, the late season permits, blocks S and T, are the easiest to get (because bear counts are the lowest), and the tides were such that last year’s T-Block permits looked to be three-day permits instead of the usual four-day permit.  Even though we “won” the lottery, we gave serious thought about whether it’d really be worth it to visit McNeil River during T-Block last year.  We’re glad we did it.  Bear viewing at McNeil River was a fantastic experience, the most amazing wildlife viewing I’ve ever done (seeing the gorillas in Mgahinga NP in 1998 is now second…).

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McNeil River claims to have the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.  Both Mikfik Creek and the McNeil River flow into the same tidal flat area before winding around the McNeil Spit and into Kamishak Bay.  Bears come out of hibernation and head down to these tidal flats to eat the protein-rich sedge grasses in early season.  Mikfik Creek then has an early season (June) red (sockeye) salmon run  —  red salmon require a lake in the stream system for spawning, and there’s such a lake not far up Mikfik Creek.  However, between the sea and the lake is a riffle in the stream that slows down the salmon and makes them easy fishing for the bears.

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Here’s a view up Mikfik Creek with one barely visible bear at the riffle (the above photo is McNeil Falls, not Mikfik Creek):

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The main-season, big attraction is the chum salmon run in McNeil River.  In July it’s common to see 40 bears at once fishing the chum at the McNeil Falls.  If I recall correctly, over 70 bears were spotted at the falls in one July day this year.  By the time we were there in August, the chum were spawned out, but the silver run had started up McNeil River.  However, silver salmon are fast and hard to catch, so we only saw huge, strong males fishing the falls.  Still even in late August, we saw up to nine bears at once and saw more bears than I could keep track of.  I tried to count the different bears we saw on the first day and started getting confused around 15.

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And we weren’t even counting on bear viewing the first day!  Normally people fly into McNeil from Homer on the day before their permit starts, but the high tide wasn’t high enough for the plane to get to McNeil that day.  We had to wait till the high tide at noon the following day, but that went smoothly, and we were out bear viewing that afternoon, a bonus day from what we had expected!

Visitors in June spend most of their time at Mikfik Creek.  In July the falls are the attraction.  We visited both those places, but we spent the biggest chunk of time lower on the McNeil River at a place called Ender’s Island.  There we spent hours watching bears cruising up and down the river, fishing and playing.  During high tide harbor seals made it all the way up there — fun for us to see and fun to watch the younger bears puzzling over what this other animal was!

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One day while we were on the bluff before dropping down to the river, we had a fantastic wolf sighting.  We stopped and watched it as it loped along up the river, keeping an eye on us.  We’d seen fresh prints every day, but I never expected to see a wolf!  We also saw groups of ducks, and even though it was hard to stop watching the bears, our guide, Beth, insisted we look at these amazing ducks because it was an unusual sighting.  Sorry, Beth, I don’t remember what kind of ducks they were.

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Bear viewing at McNeil is always guided.  Our other guides were Ian and Tom, the sanctuary manager.  One could write a book about how human-bear interactions have been managed at McNeil River for the last 50 years (mostly it’s human management).  Indeed such a book has been written: see In Wild Trust by Jeff Fair.  I can’t recommend a visit to McNeil River highly enough.

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Oh, I guess I should explain how we ended up with six days.  Well, on the 5th day we were scheduled to leave at the high tide.  The weather was fine at McNeil, but apparently so bad between Homer and McNeil that our pilot couldn’t make it.  No problem, we went out bear viewing again that afternoon.  That’s the day we walked up Mikfik Creek.  And on the 6th day while waiting for our pilot, I walked out by myself to the edge of camp to look for bears.  I hadn’t even been there a minute when a mother and two cubs walked just in front of me, perhaps 50 feet away.  Even though I had just spent five days watching bears for literally dozens of hours, it was quite thrilling to be standing there by myself watching these magnificent animals.

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4 Responses to Six days of bear viewing at Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary

  1. Jeffrey Anderson says:

    Great photos Bryan!

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Thanks, Jeff. What’s amazing is that the bears get so close to you at McNeil that you can get photos like that with no special camera. Most of those shots were taken with a 10-year-old point and shoot camera that I borrowed from my brother (I took mine swimming in Sulawesi…). However, the zoom in that camera is pretty decent: 38 – 380 mm (35 mm equiv). The photos not taken with that point and shoot were taken with our phones!

  2. kerem says:

    Great adventures, tough I miss the ones of yours in here (Turkey) which sounded more accessible for me!

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