By Karen J. Laubenstein
Last week, Karen wrote about winning a coveted permit to observe grizzly bears in the McNeil River Falls Wildlife Sanctuary in August, her arrival at the camp, and setting up house. Today, she writes about the bears.
Every morning we'd gather in the cook shack and learn what time the tide would be low for us to journey out into bear country. I was outfitted in blue Caddis waders with Merrell waterproof hiking boots, Cabela's silk pink underlayers and black heat leggings, wool socks, Land's End shirts in layers, and a floppy hat. I am a robust woman and found these in women's sizes. In my backpack, I had trail mix and protein bars, dehydrated fruit snacks, water bottle, camera gear and extra batteries, raincoat, and a Sony handycam.
Every day we hiked out into bear country, though our routes varied and some days we hung out at the mouth of the river for awhile before going up to the falls. Every day we left at low tide and then returned to camp late in the evening, around 7 PM, and either waded the mile across the lagoon and another mile along its shores back to camp, or rode in a skiff across the lagoon and hike the half-mile spit back to camp.
We followed the armed guide single-file on trails full of bear, fox, bird, and rodent prints and scat. We could see bears in the distance across the lagoon where they fished along the mouth of McNeil River as we hiked along the opposite shore. The first day, we took the 'cliff trail' and it was torturous. I slid on the muddy banks, on slippery rocks, on the edges of the narrow paths, trying to avoid the sharp Devil's Club or itchy welts from Wild Parsnips, and my bifocals made me teeter wildly as it was difficult to gauge depth and height. I did not have the strength for high steps and cliff climbing, and the guide or other photographers lent a hand or I went flying, until I began carrying a walking stick everywhere. My new caddis waders quickly became covered in mud and sand.
We walked 2.5 rugged miles to Mikfik Creek that first day, then along the cliffs for another mile around the lagoon. We then climbed the cliffs for another 1.5-mile hike to the falls, where tundra and mountains stretch out as far as you can see and only three trees in all that wild country are visible. Bald eagles, ravens, gulls, and terns swooped and perched along the trails. To protect this environment, long parts of the trail to the falls have narrow boardwalks, but long sections do not, and there it can be thick mud, deep puddles, pebbles, and infrequently mushy fresh bear scat.
After that first day, we took a different route, wading across the lagoon at low tide, with the water higher than some folk's hipboots, making me glad of my waders. It was easier going and I was grateful. The waters are incredibly clear. When hiking, though, everyone watches the trail and boots in front of them, for if you look around, you trip and fall.
En route to the falls, there is 'pee rock,' the last vestige of privacy, for it isn't safe to hike off the trails and into the shrubs. At the falls, our toileting had to happen right next to everyone adjoining the gravel pads and we had to pack it out. We saw fat and healthy ptarmigan and ground squirrels, wild berries, and sunken overgrown pithouses of ancient peoples about 1,500 years ago. We also would see bears.
Bears were everywhere! We had them in camp, a fresh print showed up right in front of my tent the second morning I was there. A blur of bear ran into the underbrush from the outhouse one morning
, as I was capturing the sunrise over the mountains in front of me. When we hiked to the falls, we learned to stand along the top of the cliff for a few moments, watching the bears below, so they could watch us and become accustomed to our arrival. Then we would hike down to the banks of the falls and that gravel pad, quietly, and again, stand for a few moments before unlocking the little cache that held the folding camp chairs. We spent the day with our armed guards, sitting on those chairs or standing as the wild bears came and went, fished and ate, fought and roared, napped, swam, defended territory, and do what bears do.
Over time, we came to know the individual bears. Rocky who loved to do bellyflops, and Mouse, a sow, who took a lot of abuse from the males stealing her fish and chasing her away from the falls, only to come back again and again and catch her fish and defy the boars. Some bears had cuts and gashes. Some bears were blonde or light brown, while others looked almost like leather or had very soft, thick, brown or black fur. Some had long snouts and one was almost pug-nosed. One had a missing ear, others had missing claws. Some weighed 400 or so pounds, while the dominant boars were 1,200 pounds and up. Each bear had their own fishing style, its usual fishing area, and some unique habits. Every time a new bear approached the area, dynamics would go into play, and we'd watch anxiously to see if the bear would stake its place, or if it would get driven out or challenged by the other bears. Sometimes the younger bears tried to steal the chum salmon from the older bears, and they'd race right at us. We had bears walk down our trail right behind us, within two or three feet, often too close to photograph them with a zoom lens.
We saw a mama bear and her three cubs—the first time our guide said he had known them to come to the falls—and this was his 13th year at McNeil. At the same time, the guides warned McNeil bears have accepted the presence of humans, but never should we expect wild bears anywhere else to be this way. We traveled paths worn down by humans for the last 60 or so years, if not all those years since the pithouses 1,500 years ago, studying the bears. We used the same viewing pads, we climbed the same cliffs, and we did what thousands had done before. Most of those adult bears come back to McNeil every summer, and have had humans watching them their entire adult lives. The guards said they have never had to shoot those bear guns nor have any humans been harmed at McNeil. Never did we forget they are wild and potentially dangerous. Never did we roam alone beyond those boundaries.
It was hard that last evening at the falls, standing to go and looking at these magnificent animals. I had to stay with the group, but for just a second, I lingered, and whispered, "Yo, Bear. Hey there, Buddy," and realized I was leaving a little bit of my heart behind, as we began the long hike back to camp.