The logistics of getting to Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary at first seemed a bit daunting. The area’s remote — there are no roads, the nearest village is probably Kokhanok, ~30 miles NW. King Salmon is “only” about 75 miles WSW of McNeil, but what almost all visitors do is fly from Homer (100 miles ENE of McNeil River) with Northwind Aviation. Also, the weather’s crappy at McNeil so you need good rain gear, waders for crossing the tidal/mud flats, camping gear since there’s no accommodation, and food for quite a few days since there’s a good chance you’ll be staying longer (or shorter) than you planned because of bad weather.
Thankfully Kevin and Elise were able to loan us one of their cars for the week, and other friends in Anchorage — Peter, Galen, and Todd — got us set up with fancy rain gear, boots, and the requisite waders. Even with the car, getting to and from Homer turned out to be more of an adventure than we expected. We drove out of Anchorage in pouring rain, stopping a couple times to try and figure out why the car was making such strange noises. Our first real stop was at the Byron Glacier Trailhead at Todd’s recommendation. We didn’t get to the base of the glacier — like Mendenhall, it has retreated greatly — but we were able to test our rain gear!
After a brief stop in Kenai to see where I worked over 25 years ago, we visited the Russian Orthodox Church at Ninilchik and camped nearby with beautiful views of the Redoubt and Iliamna volcanoes.
The following day was beautiful — great weather for our flight to McNeil. Ferda and I had the best moose sighting of our month in Alaska just around the corner from Northwind Aviation in Homer.
The flight went smoothly — fantastic views of Iliamna — and like I wrote in the last post, we were at camp early enough that day to get out and see some bears.
It turns out that everyone in our group was on the same flight. It’s not cheap to get to McNeil River, but for most people, going with José at Northwind Aviation makes the most sense. Here we are — Dan from Olympia (with Ferda in front), Lolita from Healy, father and son, Bill and James from Maine, and the day’s guide, Beth (with gun):
Every time we went from camp to see the bears we had to cross the tidal flats, which might look something like this:
The bears mostly speak for themselves and really make the experience, but the guides are super and extremely knowledgeable naturalists, biologists, scientists. Tom, for example, had an excellent example of what I guess is the early stages of divergent evolution. We were at the riffle in Mikfik Creek where the bear hang out to eat the red salmon in the shallow water. The red salmon in Mikfik Creek have evolved to be small because the big salmon stick out in these shallows and get eaten by bears. Only smaller salmon make it up to spawn. Tom contrasted this with the Copper River where the salmon have to swim upstream through strong currents to get to their spawning grounds. Only the large salmon can do this so the same red salmon species is larger in that system.
The largest female bear we saw was this one, hanging out in Mikfik Creek. I think they call her Waterfall.
The biggest males we saw were usually hanging out at McNeil Fall, fishing, like these guys:
The closest we got to a bear was when this one walked right up to us while we were sitting at the lower platform at the falls. It was less than two meters from us — as close as sitting across the dining room table from someone, but there was no table!
It was a curious juvenile and certainly terrified the four of us who were sitting there.
This family of four was quite impressive. The cubs are 3.5 years old, and it’s unusual for them to stick around with their mother for so long, but when they do, they’re a force to be reckoned with. They got in a little spat with a juvenile one day and ended up chasing down the juvenile and taking a bite out of him/her.
These three cubs were super cute:
We didn’t see bears stand up so often. This cub was curious about the group of bipeds sitting on the rocks with cameras and binoculars:
Some bears fish like this:
others like this:
others perhaps wish they could fish better:
The cubs seemed pretty content with the scraps:
So many bears.
Eventually it was time to go.
But first Ian had to figure a route through the bear-infested mud flats for us (the camp buildings are barely visible in the photo beyond the farthest of the bears):
The weather for our flight out cooperated one day later than we had planned, meaning that we had less time to spend with Elise and the kids in Anchorage than we had hoped. We used the last of the long daylight that evening to get to Skilak Lake (another Todd recommendation), where we pitched the tent for the night:
We were treated to brilliant weather the following day. Check out this gorgeous spot near Cooper Landing:
Unfortunately that’s where that weird car sound caught up to us. We had the car towed to Cooper Landing from there and thankfully managed to get a ride back to Anchorage with our McNeil cohorts, Bill and James. We made it back to Anchorage in time for our early flight the following morning. If it’s any consolation, we learned that the last guests that Kevin and Elise hosted also returned to Anchorage without the car they had so generously been lent! Raj and Ron, we share a special affinity.