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McNeil River: Brown bears teeming in Alaska's wild Eden

Mike Campbell
The photographer, Coby Brock, at the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
A brown bear fishes for salmon in the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
A brown bear rests near the McNeil River. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
A brown bear fishes for salmon in the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
A brown bear fishes for salmon on the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
Brown bears fish for salmon in the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
Brown bears fish for salmon in the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com
Brown bears play in the McNeil River near Katmai National Park. July 17, 2012
Courtesy Coby Brock / kissamoose.com

Tourist-clogged downtown Anchorage may see the most dense gathering of humans in Alaska each summer.

For bears, the equivalent spot may be the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on the Alaska Peninsula, 100 air miles west of Homer.

Gangs of brown bears, ursus arctos horribilis, gather daily to scoop up meals of protein-rich chum salmon moving up McNeil River. How many bears? The most counted this year was 66, according to Edward Weiss, lands and refuge manager for Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“I’ve been everywhere in Alaska taking pictures, and it was the best trip you can do,” said Coby Brock, a 34-year-old North Pole, Alaska-based photographer, who visited earlier this summer. “There’s nothing that can compare. The sheer amount of bears is incredible. 

“I saw 66 bears at once. Last year, on a family vacation to Katmai (National Park and Preserve), if we saw 12 bears, we were really stoked. This was a completely different experience. It made Katmai look like a joke.”

The Alaska Legislature created the McNeil Sanctuary in 1967 to protect the world’s largest documented seasonal population of wild brown bears. Ever since, hundreds of visitors a year get within a few yards of bears ranging up to 1,500 pounds. Nevertheless, there has never been a mauling.

More than 700 wildlife lovers a year apply for 185 permits, allowing four-day visits to watch the bears fish at McNeil River Falls and other viewing locations from June 7 to Aug. 25. Brock was one of the lucky few able to win a permit the first time he entered the lottery. That made him happy -- and a little frightened.

“I went into this being really scared,” he said by phone. Last year, Brock and friends had camped in a large tent at the Bird Creek Campground along the Seward Highway, south of Alaska’s largest city. “And I almost got eaten by a bear, I think,” he said. “We were trying to get to sleep when a bear pushed on the tent. He was so close, he was breathing into my ear. Eventually, I was able to hit the panic button on my car to scare it away. “

So at first, Brock may have been a little apprehensive about McNeil. That feeling never faded entirely. 

“On one of my last days there, one of biggest bears, about 1,200 pounds, got close,” Brock said. “We were on the viewing platform.  This not enclosed at all, you’re just out there. The bear came and stood next to me for about 4 1/2 minutes. If I reached out, I could have scratched him.

“One thing they teach you at McNeil is that you don’t run from a bear. I stood there nearly five minutes. Finally, our guide said, ‘If you want to start stepping back slowly, go ahead.’ I was shaking. It was intense. At the same time, it was beautiful.

“Then (the bear) went 10 feet away, lay down, and took a nap.”

Memories like that last a lifetime, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, fewer people are seeking them out. Applicants for McNeil permits are dipping. Between 2004 and 2011, there’s been a 50 percent decline, Weiss said -- except for 2007, which was an exceptional year for Alaska tourism.

At the same time, the number of commercial bear-viewing trips offered by air charters and lodges has grown.

“We have we have speculated that (a declining number of applicants) is a combination of the downward turn in foreign and Lower 48 economies, a reduction in independent travel towards more group travel and the growth of commercial bear viewing opportunities,” he said.

But Brock said nothing compares with McNeil. “Photographing was so easy, it’s such a  smorgasbord of animals,” he said. “It’s just amazing, awesome. Sad to say, but by the third day, we had three bears taking a nap within 15 feet and didn’t even look back.

“There’s no place else in the world you’d do that.”

McNeil is no wildlife-watching resort. It offers no shuttle buses, restaurants, candy counters, soda machines, or rooms to rent. The nearest road is 100 miles away. Visitors bring their own camping gear and food. You sleep on the ground. Every morning for four days, visitors are invited to hike the two miles to McNeil River Falls carrying a lunch they've prepared, extra clothing, and camera gear. Each evening, they walk back.

Allowing visitors close to bears was never McNeil’s goal. It happened gradually as the bears witnessed consistent, nonaggressive, unsurprising behavior from the human visitors. Apparently, the bears began to consider the humans no threat to their safety.

Even though the bears are accustomed to humans, that doesn’t mean they are tame. Rather, it seems they consider it safe to ignore the humans on their turf.

To learn about applying for a McNeil permit, click here.

Coby Brock is an Alaska-based photographer. His photos can be viewed at kissamoose.com.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com