Originating in the glaciers and alpine lakes of the Aleutian Mountains, the McNeil River runs for 35 miles along the northeast end of the Alaskan Peninsula before reaching the sea. On the way, the river passes through an area teeming with all sorts of wildlife including arctic ground squirrels and red foxes, but one occupant stands out from the rest. Every summer, the area is inundated with brown bears, also referred to as either Ursus arctos or 'grizzlies', hunting for the many salmon that live in the area's rivers. Fortunately, the McNeil River area was made a wildlife sanctuary in 1967, and the 200 square miles still support over a hundred hungry bears today.
Alaska was purchased unspoilt from Russia by the USA in 1867, but after a hundred years the Americans realised they needed to do something to protect the beautiful land around them before it was replaced by concrete and rubble. The McNeil River Sanctuary was established in 1967 by the Alaska State Legislature, including both the McNeil River and the Paint River to the north, with the area being expanded a little in 1993. As it has the largest bear concentration in the world, the sanctuary soon became a popular bear-viewing area, and by 1973 a limit had to be imposed on the number of visitors per day. Sadly, hunting will become legal on the lands surrounding the sanctuary during 2007, although the number of salmon swimming upstream each year is another important factor limiting the size of the grizzly bear population. Bad weather one year can lead to a crop of salmon eggs freezing, leading to a drop in the number of salmon who will return in the next few years to lay their eggs, while sea conditions have an effect on the ability of young salmon to survive.
Brown bears are drawn to the rivers by the dog salmon that swim upstream to reproduce each summer1. A series of large rocks and boulders forming the McNeil Falls lie only a short way from the sea, and act as a major stumbling block for the salmon swimming up the McNeil River. Though the salmon are not of the sort to give up easily, they are rather inclined to stop and have a break at the bottom of the falls, which will more often than not be cut short by the appearance of a hungry and surprisingly agile bear.
There are few sites in the area which boast such a large number of fish, and so many of the area's bears will congregate on the site each year. Up to 144 different bears having been recorded in one year, including an observation of 72 bears at the same time. The nearby Mikfik Creek provides a more modest display during June, with the migrating sockeye salmon drawing around a dozen and a half regulars. The bears will generally spend the rest of the year alone unless looking after cubs, something which only the female bears are involved in, and so the salmon run is the one great social event of the bear calendar. Having said this, fights over the best fishing spots and mating partners are known to occur, and the maturing cubs sometimes have to work hard to find a place to fit in.
The bears have a complicated social structure based on size, abilities and experience, and have a variety of ways of communicating with one another. Two bears of the same social standing may take it in turns to fish the same spot, with one bear lying down and waiting in order to let the other know that there's no need for a fight. However, these bears may also end up upsetting one another, leading to noisy displays and violence. It is best for all the others to keep out of the way of a bear which loses such an encounter, as they will want to relieve themselves both literally and through stress relief techniques such as rubbing against nearby vegetation. Having said that, the most important bear to steer clear of is the one which lowers its head and charges, as these are the sorts of bears who are really not having a good day.
Although they do enjoy a nice bit of salmon, the bears are omnivores and will also eat the surrounding wildlife and vegetation, including the plants which grow along the tidal waterline of the river. Up to five feet tall and nine feet long, the bears weigh around 360 kilograms and can lose up to a third of this weight during their six month winter hibernation, making the summer salmon frenzy very important to their continued survival. The wild bears in the sanctuary will live for around 25 years, visiting the rivers between early June and mid August. Mating occurs between May and July, with the females giving birth to tiny little cubs during winter hibernation and looking after them for a couple of years before they go their own way.
Visiting the Sanctuary
Thanks to the protection afforded to the sanctuary in the 1960s, no roads have ever been built to the area, and so access to the McNeil River is by light aircraft and helicopter only. The two viewing areas lie at McNeil Falls and Mikfik Creek, with the number of visitors per day being limited to ten. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game are responsible for handing out around 250 visitor passes each year, with most of these being decided by a lottery. There is a small application fee2 required for each of up to three people to be entered into the draw. Thirteen people are then selected for each block of four days, with ten receiving full passes to see the bears and three being back-ups, only being allowed to visit if a space becomes available.
In order to protect both the bears and the visitors, visitor activity is closely monitored and the visitors are accompanied by armed Fish and Game officials. Thankfully, these visiting regulations have successfully protected the sanctuary over the first three decades of its existence, and neither man nor bear has fallen victim to any form of unfortunate incident. The visitors with full passes hike out to a viewing area to observe the bears for hours on end, with some carefully noting the activity of the bears while others simply stand and watch in amazement.
Watching the Bears
For those not fortunate enough to acquire a visitor's pass and a plane ticket to fly out to see the bears, there was once another option. Up until August 2006, a camera hidden in a fake boulder near McNeil Falls broadcast live pictures to a nearby hill, where an antenna was in place to send the signal on a long journey towards Seattle, Washington, where it was streamed via Realplayer onto the National Geographic website. The camera was controlled from the Pratt Museum, which lies in Homer about a hundred miles northeast of the sanctuary and features wildlife and conservation exhibitions. The camera used to be active between 6am and 10pm local time3, and the feed could be viewed here. As one of the antennae in the link between McNeil Falls and Seattle sits atop Mount Augustine 30 miles to the northeast of the river, the feed was liable to disruption through volcanic activity, though it was more likely that any disruption of the signal would have been due to either the weather or the fact that a bear had sat upon the camera.