By Karen J. Laubenstein
Now in her second half-century with new bionic ears after being profoundly deaf for more than 40 years, Karen is President of Arctic Cliffhangers (Alaska Chapter of Sisters in Crime); Alaska State Writer-Editor, US Department of the Interior; passionate photographer; author; former speechwriter and ghostwriter for President George H.W. Bush and Senator Edward M. Kennedy; and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Benin, W. Africa); wife and mom; and, an inadvertent adventurer from Anchorage, Alaska.
Sometimes the results of impulsively grabbing an opportunity can be terrifying. An hour before the deadline, a Facebook friend, Coby Brock posted information about a photo-opportunity-of-a-lifetime at the McNeil River State Game and Wildlife Sanctuary lottery. The sanctuary hosts the largest concentration of wild brown (grizzly) bears in the world and offers a lottery for 185 individual permits for a four-day period each year to visit and photograph the bears. I quickly found the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website, completed the online permit application, and paid the $25 lottery fee. The odds were not good with thousands of people world-wide applying; I promptly forgot about it.
My first reaction a month later on learning I had won a permit was not exultation or a sense of victory, it was fear! I have always associated grizzly bears with danger unless they were safely housed behind electrified fencing like at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center or the Alaska Zoo. While bears are usually in the local news on almost a daily basis throughout the Alaskan summer months when they're not hibernating, the few wild bear sightings I've experienced I could count on one hand, and most of those were from inside a vehicle or train.
This is how I ended up flying August 6 on a small green and white Beaver-type floatplane after paying more than I could afford to haul enough food and gear to be self-sustaining in a tent for five- to-10 days. As we rose over the town of about 5,000 and flew over Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet in the direction of the Mt. Augustine steaming volcano, my heart recaptured the terror that began with the email and letter announcing I had won. As many as 144 individual bears have been observed at McNeil River through the summer, with as many as 74 observed at one time.
As the plane reached the land of McNeil River behind the volcano, snuggled between Katmai National Park and Preserve and Mt. Iliamna National Park, the sun turned the cliffs golden, the water glistened with many green hues, and the pilot flew low over McNeil River Falls as he circled around to the lagoon, and I got my first sight of wild bears! They were furry blobs scattered around on the rocks, banks, and in the water at the Upper and Lower Falls. I also saw a small group of humans with camera equipment sitting on a gravel pad right in the midst of the bears!
I never felt even a jolt taking off or landing in that floatplane! We taxied up to a half-mile long, high spit of gravel that separates the lagoon from the ocean waters of Kamishak Bay, and people stood there with luggage piled on rusty wheelbarrows waiting for their ride back to Homer. Men in hip boots pulled the plane flush with the sandy shore. Soon, I was standing in the midst of blooming fireweed and tundra shrubs with my bags and camera gear around me in front of the cook shack, choosing one of the empty tent sites to set up. There were enough mosquitoes to be annoying, but not enough to call it bad, unless you've never lived in Alaska. Small sparrow-like birds flitted through the underbrush, and sounds of people laughing came out of the cook shack beyond.
I opened my new tent and began setting it up, feeling odd not to have my husband or son helping, and hoping I was going to be able to do it alone.
"See the bear?" A man smiled, pointing northwest at the spit. Sure enough, there was a beautiful bear, its coat shimmering light brown in the sunshine; it ignored us and walked up over the spit we had traversed only moments earlier. I fumbled for my Nikon to capture the moment. My first McNeil bear! A wild bear! Only about 100 yards away!
That was the beginning of what became the adventure.
I managed to set up the tent, realizing it wasn't high enough to fully stand in, but large enough for three people to sleep comfortably and thus fit all my bags and framed backpack. We had to put any food or things with odors—face lotion, waterless hand cleaner, bug spray, sunscreen, breath mints, gum, etc.—on a shelf in the cook shack. We transported water from a creek about one-quarter mile away in five-gallon jugs via the wheelbarrow. We had to treat it or boil it for 10 minutes. Everything I brought was dehydrated backpacking food, so water was crucial. My military water filter was too slow, and tablets took too long, so I boiled.
The cook shack has six propane burners with outside tanks, and Friends of McNeil River provided cookware and teapots. The building has an extensive library, two large tables with benches, a wood-burning stove, and some gear, like 'crazy chairs,' which fold flat and are used daily on the trails when we stopped for bear viewing or waiting until it was safe to proceed.
During an orientation and tour, we saw a sauna beyond the tent areas near a lily-pad pond. Two outhouses stood a LONG way from the cook shack and tent area beyond a cache built to store food supplies, and the two staff cabins with their solar panels stretched beyond that. From a lookout deck adjoining the cook shack, we learn the invisible boundaries that made up camp; we were not to go beyond those boundaries without the guides and their bear guns. We could use air horns if we saw a bear in camp or to take to the outhouses in case a bear trapped us out there. We learned to call out, "Ho bear! Hey there, buddy!" in brushy areas or when coming around a boulder or where bear trails and fresh scat showed up.
Karen’s adventure continues next week. Her fear was well-grounded. A grizzly bear killed a hiker in another Alaska park shortly after Karen returned from McNeil River Falls.