|Story by PAULA DOBBYN Photos by BOB HALLINEN Graphics by RON
ENGSTROM Story by PAULA DOBBYN Photos by BOB HALLINEN
Longtime Alaskan Bud Rice has had ample face time with bears. But
even the former Katmai backcountry ranger was awestruck by McNeil
River, home to one of the world's largest concentrations of brown
A visit to the state bear sanctuary two summers ago etched such
an impression into Rice's psyche that the Eagle River resident
vividly recalls details.
"This bear with no ears walked by us and my heart nearly
stopped," said Rice, a National Park Service environmental
A 29-year-old bear, nicknamed Earl, who had lost his ears in a
fight ambled within a few feet of Rice and his wife, Lulie Williams,
and stared them down with steely eyes and a snarl. They stared back
at the half-ton hulk from a gravel pad nearby.
The couple then
witnessed another massive male rip into a fellow boar in a bloody
ruckus over who got the preferred fishing hole. The bear that
started the paw-to-paw combat bore scars from earlier feuds, Rice
"He looked like Frankenstein. He had scars all over his
body," he said.
The bear vented his frustration by charging toward the humans
watching from the gravel pad. Thankfully, former McNeil refuge
manager Larry Aumiller stood his ground and chased the bear away, he
Like most others who visit the place, Rice described his four-day
trip as the experience of a lifetime. "It represents the ultimate we
have in bear viewing," said wildlife biologist Paul Joslin, a board
member with the nonprofit Friends of McNeil River.
Bear viewing has grown exponentially in Alaska in recent years,
with new venues and guides to choose from every year. Permits for
commercial bear viewing in Katmai and Lake Clark national parks have
nearly doubled from 58 in 2000 to 106 last year, according to the
National Park Service.
But McNeil, 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage on Cook Inlet's
western shore, still stands out as the premier spot for tourists,
photographers, scientists and regular Alaskans to see bears.
Unlike in other locations, only 10 people a day are allowed at
McNeil, a limit the state strictly enforces. The visitors are chosen
by a computerized lottery each March.
Visitors who go in June typically see more bears at Mikfik Creek,
close to McNeil River, because of a sockeye salmon run that peaks in
the second to third week of the month. In July and August, when chum
salmon flood into McNeil, the bears and the tourists migrate over
While declining, the number of brown bears that gather to fish
for salmon at the McNeil sanctuary is still the largest anywhere,
said Joe Meehan, manager of lands and refuges for the Alaska
Department of Fish and Game. In its heyday back in the late 1990s,
as many as 60 or 70 bears could typically be viewed at the same
time. Now, because of a weaker chum run and, possibly, increased
hunting pressure in areas surrounding the sanctuary, 30 to 40 bears
is more the norm, Meehan said.
That's still a lot of bears, and because they're habituated to
humans, the animals generally just go about their business -- in
other words, fishing, cavorting and occasionally fighting.
The combination of small group size and the big gathering of
bears makes for "a high-quality visitor experience," as tourism
industry people say.
Throw in the detailed, scientific commentary provided by state
Fish and Game staffers who guide the tourists and most people say
the McNeil experience just can't be topped.
But McNeil is rustic and not for everyone. There are no catered
meals, cozy beds or hot showers. It's a flat-out camping experience.
Most people stay for the maximum four days that Fish and Game
allows. Expect to bring enough food for that time, sleep in your own
tent and hang out by the campfire. If the weather is lousy, some
might find it miserable.
There are plenty of other ways to view bears that don't involve
tent camping. Consider an all-day bus ride into Denali National Park
or a half-day excursion to Wolverine Creek in Redoubt Bay Critical
Habitat Area on the west side of Cook Inlet.
In Southcentral, most bear-viewing trips start in Anchorage or
Homer. There are numerous companies and packages from which to
For a high-end experience, many people stay at lodges inside
Katmai National Park, home of the famed Brooks Falls. Brooks is
about as world-class a bear-viewing spot as McNeil, although the
numbers of bears is generally not as high, Meehan said.
If McNeil is where you want to go, apply for a Fish and Game
permit early and often. The deadline is March 1. Some people try for
years and never get picked. Others get lucky their first time.
If you don't get selected the first time around, don't get
discouraged, state officials say. There are some tips for boosting
"I encourage people to keep applying and don't pick the peak
season," Meehan said.
Peak season for McNeil River is the second and third week in
July. The chances of getting picked for that period are slim,
because that's when most people want to go. Applicants get to pick
two time periods, and Meehan suggests choosing peak and off-peak
dates. The season runs June 7 to Aug. 25.
Because more bear-viewing opportunities have sprung up in recent
years, the odds of getting a McNeil River permit are improving. Last
year, 960 people applied and 195 got to go -- 1 in 5 odds. In 1993,
225 people went out of a pool of 2,150 applicants, or about 1 in 10,
according to Fish and Game statistics.
The cost of applying is $25 per person, and three people's names
can appear on each permit. The permits cost $150 for each Alaska
resident and $350 for each non-Alaskan. The information is on Fish
and Game's Web site at www.wildlife.alaska.gov/mcneil/index.cfm.
At 128,000 acres, McNeil has been a state game sanctuary since
1967. Hunting is permanently barred in the sanctuary. Although
closed to hunting now, the neighboring 120,000-acre McNeil River
refuge could be opened to bear hunting if the state Board of Game
Some McNeil watchers expect the issue to arise at the board's
next meeting in March.
"There's a lot of worry about what might
happen with this area," Joslin said.
As far as the sanctuary is concerned, nothing is likely to change
anytime soon, Meehan said. That includes the 10-person limit and the
"The public has directed us to keep McNeil remote, to protect the
bears, keep impacts down and maintain a high-quality viewing
experience," he said.
Daily News photographer Bob Hallinen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or