Close Encounters

of the best kind

by Leland Rucker

McNeil River Sanctuary, Kamishak Bay, Alaska — Creek Bear is just out of reach, about seven or eight feet away. I can almost touch him, and the scars of his hard life are as visible as the mud and grass caked up and down his mighty spine. He’s squaring off against another eight-hundred pound boar in the riffles of Mikfik Creek.

I’m in a trance, trying to take in the immensity of his immense, disfigured back, but I want to grab the camera at my feet — even my point-and-shoot would yield an unbelievable close-up. I begin to kneel, ever so slowly until, about half-way down, my knee pops.

Big, resounding “pop.” All twelve of us hear it. Crrrraaaaccck.

So does Creek Bear, who instantly looks around over his left shoulder straight into my eyes for just a nano-second before returning to his adversary.

They circle, waddling in the shallow waters of the gathering tide for twenty or thirty seconds, both salivating and showing agitation, before Creek Bear sits down in the middle of the creek, a classic signal of submission, says our guide, Derek Stonorov, a ten-year McNeil veteran.

“He probably thought for that moment that you were another bear coming up behind him,” he grins. “Once he saw it was you, he was much more interested in the bear in front of him.” And he laughs.

It’s another day at the McNeil River sanctuary.

June 30 1999

The adventure of our lives had begun in Anchorage International Airport, sitting and waiting for our 10:30-ish Era Aviation flight to Homer, and we notice a young woman several seats down reading the book about McNeil, River of Bears.

As our flight is called to the gate — it’s open seating — and we begin lining up to board, I ask her if she is going to McNeil River, and of course, Molly Baumann is.

A marine biologist, Ted Mickowski, overhears us talking and says that’s where he’s going, too, and he sits down next to Molly in the row behind us on the Dehaviland Dash-8 double prop for the flight to Homer. Our conversation catches the attention of David Cary, a professor of finance at a California university, about three or four rows back. Suddenly, we’ve become a group.

It’s a thirty-five minute flight over the Kenai Peninsula, kind of cloudy but patches of ground open below us, quick glimpses of thousands of small lakes glimmering in the morning sunlight. By the time the hostess can serve us drinks and a cookie, we’re circling into Kachemak Bay and the town of Homer.

We hail a couple of cabs to schlep us over to Kachemak Air Service, a family business on Beluga Lake, a small body of water between the Homer Spit and town proper five minutes from the airport. There we meet Barbara de Creeft, who owns the airline with her husband, Bill; it’s one of the oldest, best-known air-taxi services in the area, well recommended, and rightly so.

We deposit our four bags and cooler of ice. David, Ted, Billie and I head over for lunch, our final real meal for four days, at Cups, the place which once was the location of The Homer News, the place where Steve and Sharon, our good friends in Anchorage, met. We have another pleasant meal and some good conversation on the outside deck of this fine restaurant. Like us, they’re pretty excited and anxious about our next four days.

We all pick up some last-minute stuff as we walk along Pioneer Avenue (wine for Billie, rum for me, and for Ted, who spends half his time in the Alaska and the other half in Maui and had just gotten his McNeil list when we got to Kachemak Air, a pair of hip waders (thirty bucks cheaper and still better than the ones we bought in Boulder).

By the time we get back, Mary Gilson, a lawyer from Anchorage, and Jenny and Jon Pascal, from Seattle, have arrived at Kachemak Air. Molly and the other two lottery winners, Dave and Cindi Harper, are flying over on Beluga Air, just a couple of docks down the lakefront from us. We’ll all be leaving at about the same time since there’s a short period of high tide at McNeil Cove, a window of opportunity that comes roughly at 5:30 p.m. today, when we’re able to land. Otherwise, it’ll be tomorrow.

I was concerned about drinking water out there, especially after reading the internet posting of a McNeil traveler from last August that suggested the water wasn’t drinkable and that you should bring bottled water or, like him, spend a couple hours a day filtering water.

So I had an empty five-gallon container I had bought in a Fred Meyer store in Anchorage to last us the four days, but Barbara quickly reminded me that if I filled it, it would constitute 40 pounds of my allotted one hundred pounds each of carry-on. Besides, she said, the water was fine out there.

We wound up only taking the ice in the chest and a couple of bottles of Evian I bought at a convenience store within walking distance as a precaution. We boiled creek water from a stream near the camp for our cooking, and when the Evian and ice in the chest ran out, we drank the creek water itself the last day.) Barbara was right.

Ken Day is the pilot of the de Havilland Otter, a plane built in 1954 that has been owned by Bill de Creeft for 23 years. Day is a middle-aged, burly, bearded, no-nonsense guy, the perfect bush taxi pilot, and he gets us loaded up and seated.

Like de Creeft’s other plane, a storied 1929 Travel Air S6000B “Limousine of the Air,” the 55-year-old Otter is still a state-of-the-art airplane and an important link in the history of Alaskan bush travel, able to haul seven of us and all our gear in style, just as it’s shipped eminent photographers Galen Rowell, Kennan Ward and Michio Hoshino to McNeil ahead of us. I didn’t buy it, but there was a book in the Anchorage bookstore on the plane’s history in Alaska.

De Creeft has painstakingly kept this Otter in perfect shape; it looks almost brand-new floating next to the dock there on the placid lake/runway. (On the way back, when I stepped out onto the pontoon, Day chastised me for stepping too heavily and possibly denting the wood. “That’s how it happens,” he says.) It certainly lives up to its reputation in Day’s capable hands. The take-off is sweet and smooth and after getting a glimpse of the bed and breakfast where we’ll return four days hence, we’re banking out of the bay south and west on a scenic, if noisy hour-long ride.

Before we take off, Ken gives us the basic rules and doesn’t say anything else during the flight; wouldn’t have made any difference if he did — the sound of that one enormous propeller makes it impossible to hear anything else.

The plane is equipped with headphones to deaden the noise, which is considerable. My favorite feature, however, is a little thing that you pull out of the wall above you which gives you air, just like in a jet, only it’s bringing in real air from the outside. Very cool.

Looking down, I’m thinking I’m seeing whales or porpoises in the water below among the whitecaps — the water is that clear.

We’re probably at about 1,500-2,000 feet, and as we move away from the Kenai coast, we begin to catch nice southward views of some ghostly, shrouded, white peaks which I later determine must be from Katmai National Park or perhaps Kodiak Island. The real eye-popper is a close-up fly-by of Augustine volcano and the island it’s creating near the mouth of Kamishak Bay. Utterly breathtaking is the volcano, a sentinel for the remote bay.

The Alaska Range is visible to the west; the Readout and Illiamna volcanoes dominate the west side of Cook Inlet. Below, huge, dark chunks of rocks seem to lurch out of the water. Sheer, dun, towering cliffs line either side as we head into McNeil Cove. I’m filled with anticipation as we get the first view of our campground area while the Otter circles before dropping ever so lightly into the cove.

Ken works the plane over closer to the spit, finally walking in the water to haul it over near the shore, where Brad is waiting to moor it while we unload. We had to wear our hip waders in the plane, and now we know why; there are several yards of water to wade to get to the sandy spit.

The sun is bearing down, and it’s really hot when we finally get our stuff on the sand. From there we transfer it into a small motorboat, where Brad will haul on the last couple hundred yards nearer camp. The Otter takes off again, and there’s no turning back now.

After months of planning and preparation, we’re here, baby.

It’s Brad’s first year at McNeil — he’s a summer intern from the university in Fairbanks. He has some problems with the motor, and at one point, just as he gets ready to take off, my foot gets tangled in a rope; I get it out of the loop just before it would have drug me into the water. Whew.

After we get our stuff up in the campground area and pick our spots, we gather at the cook building so Brad can give us the rules.

When we arrived at Brooks Camp last summer, we were marched immediately into a ranger cabin and given a heavy-duty half-hour lecture that included a video about bear behavior and many specifics about what we could and couldn’t do, tips on storing food and an admonition to stay at least 50-100 yards from bears.

Brad was a bit more succinct.

If you come across a bear, he said, move out of its way and let it pass.

Bears aren’t allowed in camp, he added. But anywhere else, including the luxurious, grassy meadow strewn with wildflowers behind us where the outhouses are, they have the right of way. If one comes into camp, we should find Brad or another guide, and they’ll chase them out.

All cooking takes place and all food is stored in the wooden structure in which we are sitting. Other than our daily guided walks out to the bear areas, we were only allowed in two places out of the immediate camp. We could go north up the beach and out on the spit or down to the creek to get water. Nowhere else.

After answering a few questions about food and cooking, he also informs us that Larry Aumiller, head of the project for most of its existence, is going on vacation tomorrow, and he won’t accompany any of our daily visits out to the bears.

We also find out that the bears are at Mikfik Creek and haven’t moved on to the better-known McNeil River location yet.

I’m pretty bummed at both of these two pieces of information.

I had known that the time period we chose was a transition period, one where the bears sometimes moved to McNeil and sometimes not. But the news about Aumiller’s absence was especially depressing. Since he’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on bear behavior and the key person in this program, Aumiller was one of the reasons we were looking forward to this adventure. His quarter century here qualifies him as knowing as much about bear-human interaction and behavior as anyone alive, and we both were looking forward to learning from him.

Somewhat stunned, we pitch our tent in the afternoon heat, just as we had practiced the last month. Our work attracts mosquitoes and other nasty little aphids or gnats to our overworked sweat glands and makes it mighty uncomfortable. (Shit. Which bag did I put the Skin-so-soft in, anyway?

It was the lowest point of the trip — and it was soon to change.

About fifteen minutes later our Streamside Four is up and secured to guy ropes on both sides to help anchor it against this wind-swept dip in the beach. The new, stronger stakes we bought after we heard about the high winds up here don’t fit in the Kelty’s tent holes, so we improvise and use those for the guy ropes, which works out better, anyway. I have to secure it a couple of times after the overnight wind blew the stakes loose in the sand, but our tent offers us a good place to rest after the long days.

Full disclosure: This is our first camping experience. A couple weeks ago we went with a friend into the foothills above Boulder and spent two nights car-camping to learn to pitch the tent and sleep outside.  But other than my Boy Scout trips in the fifties and a couple nights with the Old Goats more than a decade ago, we are virgins. Not that we haven’t spent many hours getting ready, buying a tent, finding just the right hip waders (an especially vexing and time-consuming task), but it’s a first.

Most people get their tents up before we finish, and a group heads out to the beach and up north, the only area where we’re allowed to be away from camp. I’m kinda bugged that we’re so slow and that we can’t join them, and I’m still finishing up the tent when movement catches my eye near the outhouses.

The brown movement in this lush green canopy can only mean one thing: I’ve already spotted our first bear. Two, actually; this sow has a spring cub, and Brad and a couple other tent stragglers join us, sharing binoculars and spending ten-fifteen minutes watching the mother and cub, which is so small it often gets lost from view in the grass, foraging through the wildflowers about 50 yards away. It’s the only spring cub we’ll see the whole trip, and finally the two come running through camp past our tent and out to the beach.

We make our way over to the other side of the camp area, just above the tidal flats, which are already quickly receding and mostly mud. We watch the cub, now less than six months old and no more than twenty or thirty pounds, clamber up on mom’s broad back for a piggy-back ride across the tidal mud flats to the sandy spit.

Soon they head off up the beach north toward the walking group, which gives everyone their first chance to follow Brad’s admonition as they pass on the beach some minutes later.

The anticipation and frustration are long gone.

We’ve made contact.

Dinner is a simple snack of Steve’s tasty, home-made smoked salmon with Premium crackers and a rum and pineapple-orange juice drink. Since we’re all pretty much confined to the cooking cabin, we’re all getting acquainted, but it’s crowded with the folks in the group ahead of us, and it’s already late by the time we finish. We’re in the tent in our bags just after sunset, around 11:30, and a half a chapter of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and I’m out.

July One

We’re up at about 8 a.m., after I spend time with the Gary Larsen bear cartoon gallery that Larry has taped on the inside walls of the outdoor privies. Reading old favorites reminds me how much I still miss my Larsen jolt every morning in the paper.

I am on the lookout for bears as I make my way out through the alder bushes, past the old wooden cache and the winding path to the outhouses. I see nothing brown moving, but I did admire the scratch marks on the outside of the door area of the john itself. Seemed pretty fresh and recent. Maybe that female and cub we saw yesterday.

Then it’s over to the cook cabin, where I’ve got to get our stove going to boil water for our breakfast. I’ve never tried the white-gas stove we bought in the Anchorage REI, and I’m pretty nervous about it. I’m much more filled with dread about working the stove than I am about heading out for the grizzly creek.

When I enter I notice that Dave, from Montana, already has bacon frying on a pan on his stove. The smell is great, but I’m intimidated even more as I’m stumbling about.

I had managed to get a little gas into the stove, and Dave, noticing my bumbling naivete, good-naturedly helps me get it started, reminding me in a nice way that I should perhaps read the directions first and maybe fill it completely with gas, which I somehow manage to do from a container just outside the front door next to the woodpile.

Back inside, I dig out a pot from our stuff, fill it with local creek water out of the big red hard-plastic containers on the wall and get it on the stove, which is burning bright blue like it’s supposed to. I’m pretty relieved.

At 8:30 Brad comes over, and we decide to leave at 10:30 for our first daytime trip out to the creek. It’s pretty crowded in the cooking room, with the last group of ten people still around tonight, along with several alternates from Homer.

It’s Brad’s first time in charge of the daily operation, and we’re also joined by Steve, a state biologist who knows a lot about bears but is enjoying his first visit here more as observer.

Though the smell of the bacon is overpowering in this small cabin, we are still approaching our oatmeal with some enthusiasm, since it’ll be our only food until lunch out on the trail somewhere.

Cindi and Dave prove to be indispensable when it comes to food and cooking. For one, they’ve learned the art of cooking outside and in camp, and their hot bread in the mornings becomes a part of the whole experience. For another, they have coffee bags, a concept that somehow had eluded me before we left, and they’ve got plenty more than they need and willing to share the bounty. Since I thought we were going to go without caffeine for a few days, our daily hit of Folger’s tastes heavenly, good to the proverbial last drop.

I’m still pretty amazed that we’re allowed to take food out with us on our daily hikes to Mikfik Creek. We can eat right there while we’re in the midst of the bear population, which seems bizarre after reading stories about the olfactory powers of bears, that they can smell food MILES away. But it doesn’t worry me; if it’s OK with the guides, it’s OK with me. Wonder if they like Snickers?

We settle into a morning routine. While I cook oatmeal and get water for coffee, Billie fixes us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich each and tosses in some fruit, Snickers and trail mix, for the field trip. It takes awhile to get our gear for the day together, and except for water, we do a good job of it all four days: cameras, film, lunch, our new creek chairs, extra shoes and rain gear that we never wind up using.

We get to meet Larry Aumiller. He’s shy but friendly. He admits that even though he’s eager to see his wife and young daughter, he knows he’ll be missing things he doesn’t want to miss with the bears every day he’s not out here. Still excited, 25 years later; he’s totally committed to the program and his point of view that it is possible for humans and bears to co-exist, a notion that many people, even some of his superiors in the Fish and Game division, still find abhorrent and scary.

When asked if he’d like to write a book about his experiences and feelings about bears, he says that he would like to do something, only he’s no writer. He does admit that River of Bears is a little too antiseptic, and he would like a chance to offer his real feelings about bears. (I’d like to ghost-write that one.)

When I ask if he has seen the web page that shows a picture of him apparently stopping a bear from getting too close that’s captioned The Man Who Says No to Bears, he allows that he’s heard of it but quips, “I wish it said, The Man Who Says Yes to Bears.” He’ll be gone tonight along with the last group, at around five thirty, a couple hours before we’ll get back from the creek. We have brought copies of the book for him to sign, which he does after we take off.

The walk out to Mikfik Creek begins with a few hundred yard stroll down the beach from camp. With our binoculars I can count off 10-12 bears up to a half mile away in this enormous green field of sedge grass. When I scope them, they look much like buffalo grazing in Yellowstone in the scope. We’re all having fun trying to count how many we see out there. There must be at least fifteen or twenty.

After we cross a creek, it’s tidal mud and sedge wetlands pretty much the rest of the way. Here is where the hip waders come into play, and though Billie falls the first time we hit the heavy gray muck and has some problems with her knees, with a little help from our friends we manage to get out to “the riffles,” a rocky shoal area along the creek with gentle, five-foot banks.

As we’re walking below a ridge, we pause to watch the brown shapes, and you can see easily that they’re not bison, even though they’re mostly munching away like buffalo, looking around or stopping to sniff the air or move along before returning to their grazing.

They are enormous Alaskan brown bears.

Brad stops us after he notices one that we’ve passed has decided to walk behind us on our path. So he motions for us to back against the moist wall of the ridge, which is leaking water from some spring above.

The bear, a beautiful brown color, strolls by on the path about 12 feet away. She swings her head our way a couple of times but never wavers in her gait. Brad thinks it’s Teddy, a 20-year-old sow that we will see plenty of in the days to come. It’s our first real close-up, but certainly not our last. And, a bit surprisingly, I’m not scared in the least. She could come closer and I wouldn’t mind.

We are here because chum salmon, a favorite food of the bears, are migrating to a lake a couple miles upstream. The bears are grazing in the sedge grass for the most part, but the sound of the fish splashing as they hit shallow spots brings them loping into the riffle areas, where they employ various ways to catch the salmon, an important, high-protein item in their diet that can help swell a male to more than a thousand pounds by the time they’re ready to den in the fall.

Later the bears will move over one drainage to the more famous McNeil River falls site, the one you see in most of the Discovery programs on Alaskan brown bears. But during our four days here, about 20 or 30 individual bears are in the Mikfik drainage going about their daily lives, their paths crossing again and again, as close to a bear social gathering as you can get.

We cross the creek in a shallow area — the tide is low this morning — and position ourselves along the banks where the bears fish. We find our places between the trail and the stream bank, and we set up equipment and get our stuff out. We’re mostly just going to be sitting, observing the bears’ lives for the next four days.

It doesn’t take long before a couple of bears walk over near us, and our cameras lenses are snapping like sharks at hunks of meat.

Brad identifies a few by name; they use names here not in an anthropologic sense, but just to keep track of individual bears over the years.

Sometimes, there are several bears around; other times not. We get used to the ebb and flow of bear life. Things don’t happen quickly here; this is no amusement park ride; the thrills happen at the pace of real life. As Larry put it in an interview: “This isn’t Disneyland.” This is bear life, and we are only here to watch, learn and munch our Snickers bars in wonderment.

We get our first look at Creek Bear, who passes in front of us at about 15 feet. This big bear, pretty ugly by bruin standards, is salivating. We know it’s Creek Bear because of the big scar across his nose, the result of some long-ago quarrel with another bear. Teddy is about 30 yards ahead. But though he walks close by us, he’s got Teddy, the female bear we saw a couple hours ago at the other end of the valley, on his mind.

Creek Bear catches up with Teddy, sniffing her butt. Teddy, Brad tells us, is probably the daughter of White, one of the best-known bears since the sanctuary phase began. We know a lot about White’s life and her children, which means that throughout her life she’s seen twelve people every day from June through August, walking her paths, talking, walking, sitting, munching and clicking cameras.

The reasons it all works are pretty simple and basic. Since we all do the same things, day in, day out, never offering a target for food or disturbing their fear detectors, year in, year out, Teddy or any of the other bears have no reason to think of us as anything but wallpaper, no more dangerous than alder thickets. And since each bear has its own comfort zone, we try and allow them each to establish that distance.

Soon they’ve moved across the creek and are munching grass, giving us the opportunity to observe the hump behind their shoulders that, along with their cupped faces, is the most significant visual sign of a grizzly. It’s a well-developed muscle, and it’s simply enormous …

The first fish catch is right in front of us, a bear watching the fish move along the surface of the shallow water and finally just running it down. He eats every bit of it right there on the spot. It’s early in the season, and he’s thin enough to imagine that he probably needs everything he can catch. Three more bears seem to come out of nowhere from every direction, but two of them wind up wrestling and cavorting right in front of us, nuzzling, grabbing each other. A later attempt to mate, however, is unsuccessful …

A bear comes up to about 15 feet. It pauses for a short while, makes a little grunting noise, and moves back. Then we notice, for the first of many times, a mother with three cubs. It’s Rollie and the trio up on the cliffs near Elephant Rock that rim one side of the Mikfik drainage, walking along the edge and looking down. Soon she is nursing her cubs, yearlings, three of them, right there along the edge …

A big, nasty-looking boar, a foot-long open wound at his right shoulder blade and lots of other, smaller red abrasions all over his gnarled, patchy hide, appears to the left and walks along the sedge between the bank we’re sitting on and the water. He seems older, moving slowly, gaunt rather than fat, with a slow, deliberate gait. He makes Creek Bear look like Tom Cruise. He could have walked around, but he parades in front of us instead. We’ll see him a lot today.

Brad doesn’t know its name, but I call it Gnarly Bear, and other people in the group came up with other descriptive nicknames for a bear that, like Creek Bear and Teddy, we would become pretty familiar with during our time there. Even though he was scarred, he was sort of looking for trouble with other bears most of the time. Seems to have as big a chip on his shoulder as the wound is deep. …

A particularly distinctive marked bear that is exceptionally dark on his upper back and light underneath gets the name Ranger Rick from Brad after the kid’s magazine hero …

We sit for ten or fifteen minutes without a bear in sight. So we decide to walk to the upper falls area, another half-hour hike that takes us away from the riffles, through a wonderfully lush, thick, overgrown alder underbrush, across the creek and up a steep hill so we’re looking down at the creek.

We walk up and down the hill tops above the creek for a couple hundred yards, trying to avoid all the bear poop in the path (always a reminder that we’re treading upon their pathways), before we find our spot above the falls area where there’s a good view of anything that might develop. We have to wait just a bit for a bear to vacate the pad area.

Another bear across the river and at least 100 yards away, spots us and immediately takes off in the opposite direction up this long draw. It’s still rolling at top speed as it dashes out of sight several hundred yards away, and it isn’t looking back. Obviously, some bears haven’t become habituated. Bear comfort zones are as different as their individual appearances …

Creek Bear is by himself fishing at an especially narrow point at the bottom of the falls. It’s almost more a sluice than falls; I can’t believe the fish can make this jump, and it takes a while to understand that they do it in stages. Which means an ideal location for one, or perhaps two if they’re tolerant, bears to catch a lot of fish in a short period.

Sure enough, Creek Bear, the small scar over his right eye, goes five for seven, then seven for ten, just swatting at fish trying to make it up to the next little pool.

Three or four bald eagles are standing on cliff areas, in their waiting stance, much like us, sitting, watching. The gulls are even closer, and Creek Bear doesn’t eat a certain part of the fish, leaving some entrails at his feet.

Several hungry gulls edge their way down to the fish guts, moving out of the way when Creek Bear looks away from his fishing, but trying to pick up the little red pieces. When Dave tells Brad how exciting he finds this, Brad grins: “Boy, this group is easy.” We all get a good laugh, and we’re getting to know each other even better …

A mother and three yearlings go by munching grass at about 15 feet, paying us no mind. Must be Rollie, but this is a long way from the ridge and the sedge field downstream where she hangs the other three days …

We have some lunch at the falls, but after awhile we hike back down the trail to the riffles area. By this time the tide is coming back in, and soon the fish and the bears and eagles and gulls, we hope, will follow …

Looking across the valley, I can now count 11 bears, some in the grass, some plunging their bodies into the river like little kids at the neighborhood pool. There are at total of five cubs in two groups along the river.

Suddenly there’s action everywhere. A fishing bear’s splashing alarms Rollie and the three cubs. Farther down, a mother shares her kill with her cub …

It’s fascinating to hear them masticating the grass — they sound like cows chewing their cud, and they take in great amounts at one time. Bears and humans are much alike in our eating choices. Like most humans, bears are omnivorous, but contrary to perception, bears’ diets are mostly grasses this time of year, and berries when they ripen later in the summer and fall. The love rancid meat, of course, and all junk food, and they’re opportunists who will eat anything to put on that fat, but mostly they’re grazers, vegetarians …

The sky is full of birds. A bald eagle swoops down and snatches a piece of fish. At least 30 gulls become interested and bomb around, screaming at the top of their lungs, but the eagle is much more agile. Another eagle is swooping around as well, and at one point, the first eagle loses his grip on the salmon gut and the second comes around to grab it in mid-air and take off for the goal line — as deft and smooth as a hand-off from Elway to Davis …

Winnie, with her two cubs, comes right up over the rise to take a look at us. The cubs seem really curious, and they make their way closer and closer to Ted, who’s at the end of the line of people taking pictures behind his big lens and tripod. The one cub gets about five feet away from the tripod when Brad decides to shoo them off; they’re that close!

As we observed last year at Brooks Camp, the bears are experts at what I call studied indifference. Bears like to look away when they’re in social situations, like they really aren’t paying attention. Kind of like what we humans do when we’re in an elevator. Look around, look up, just don’t look in their eyes.

For the bears, it’s an artifice; often they do it just before a bluff charge or when another bear gets too close for comfort. Part of a game of intricate, often subtle body language that seems to help prevent more violence. It’s not easy being a bear out here …

Late afternoon. Just over the rise down the trail we’re sitting on, there are about six bears in easy view, all fishing in a small area where a run of fish has gathered. Winnie and her two cubs, the same ones who were so close awhile back, leave the area as other bears approach, heading back up the trail toward us, stopping about 15 feet away from us.

Just as I can make out the mud on her back and the wind blowing through her coat, I can almost see the gears turning up there in mom’s head. “Which way should I go? Gotta keep away from that male to the left that challenged me yesterday? Where’s a fishing spot where I can go and still watch the twins?” The only thing she didn’t have to worry about at that point was us — she knew we’d just be chatting and taking pictures.

I would give my record and compact disc collection to be inside this bear’s head at this moment, feeling what she’s feeling right now. It won’t be the last time I’ll want to do that this week …

I’m struck by how much the bears appear to try to avoid conflict. Not that they won’t fight when they have to; there are plenty of visible signs — cuts, scratches, scars, open wounds — that these bears wind up in brutal conflict with each other.

In order to take advantage of the fish they all need, they’ve confined themselves to a relatively small area here. Though they’re often portrayed as loners, their paths cross often while they’re at Mikfik.

And mostly, as we see so often, they try to avoid troublesome encounters, either by running away, avoiding each other, using body language or their status on the pecking order (which seems to be in flux at this time of year) over actually drawing blood. A lot of hierarchy scuffles, movement and the little grunts and pushes and butts that are part of bear behavior with each other. Mike Tyson rules apply here: no penalty for biting …

We watch a male fishing, pretty much by himself for awhile. He just plunges into the water again and again, for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, without catching a thing, getting more frenzied all the time. It looks futile, but the odds are actually better than they seem from our vantage point.

Bears, in many circles considered to have poor eyesight, can see these fish, or at least their movement, in the water. And when there are big numbers of fish waiting to move upstream gathered in a small place, the bears smack those deadly paws into the area hoping to pin one against the sandy bottom.

This bear is getting stressed out; he’s hungry. But an hour later we find him happily munching on a couple of fish he catches …

Norma Jean is perhaps the most beautiful female we see; she’s a beautiful golden silver color with no scars. Watching with the sun behind her, she shows why some have called the grizzly the silvertip; the hair along her back is a translucent silver-brown texture.

Her single cub looks almost exactly like her, there’s the same silver tint to its coat. They run into Winnie and her two cubs down the creek and quickly change direction, backtracking toward us and walking past again to avoid the other female and family. Females can be protective of their young and have been known to snatch other bears’ cubs and kill them — just as males do. It’s a hard world out here at McNeil. But we have Snickers …

Late afternoon, tide at its highest, and there are 13 bears that we can count in the area, including many fishing right below us. The eagles are sitting on the ridge above across Mikfik Creek, two within fifteen feet of each other. Standing at attention; in the scopes they look like serious little bald men, military types with permanent scowls. Politicians. The kid in The Sixth Sense. The gulls scream in anxious anticipation. The tension is palpable; the tide on the move up the creek.

Lots of action in any direction. Teddy is mating with a bear across the creek a hundred yards off — we can’t tell who it is, and copulation goes on and on and on, often with hardly a movement. (We find out that it often takes 45 minutes.) They seem asleep much of the time. Boring.

It’s much more fun to watch them fish. One bear is in salmon heaven, running that way and then that, snagging one fish, noticing another grounded on the rocks and taking off up the bank with both of them flopping in his mouth.

To our right, about 50 yards up the path we’re on, one bear is chasing another, closing fast. There’s no time to move. Suddenly Brad steps past me, cocks the shotgun and says in a loud voice, “Ho.” The bears scatter off the trail back down into the riffles.

It’s the only time a guide will move quickly, and the only time a rifle is cocked. Nobody has ever fired a shot at McNeil in defense since this experiment began, and as Brad says afterward, Derek Sonorov, who will be taking us out the next two days, would probably have reacted differently in the same situation. I think Brad feels he had probably over-reacted, and perhaps he did, but I think we are all thankful he was watching out for us. His first day is a big success …

Tide back down, and about eight o’clock we cross and trek back across the creek, sedge fields, tide flats and the beach before falling into camp. First things first: Off with the fucking hip waders. Down a cold Coke with some ice from the chest.

Best Coke I’ve tasted in my whole life.

After checking the Gary Larsen Gallery, it’s into the cook cabin, heat up some water for dinner. We get another meal out of Steve’s smoked salmon and crackers, prolonging having to actually cook anything for another night. I also manage a couple of small rum drinks mixed with some pineapple-orange juice I had bought at the last minute before we left.

There’s a lot more space in the cook cabin with the last group gone, and we’re quickly getting acquainted, and getting along pretty well, too. We all have in common that we had to win a lottery to get here, and it certainly seems that everyone else has been thinking and planning this as carefully as Billie and I did. We all came to take full advantage of this chance to see bears, and sticking together seems to be the best way to manage it.

We all had the same anxiousness, and judging from the stuff we all brought along, we were all expecting the “horizontal rain” we had read about. Anybody who read River of Bears remembered that picture of people heading out to the river in full rain gear and prepared accordingly.

I’m noticing what everybody is eating, and it’s apparent we’re low on the “camp cooking” scale, which goes from Cindi and Dave, who are having steak tonight, and Mary, who has something hot she mixes up in a pan each night, down to Dave, who doesn’t have a stove and is cadging hot water from everyone for his freeze-dried bag mixes.

But the salmon is salty, the rum drinks still have ice, the conversation is good, and before we know it, it’s almost midnight, and I’m too beat to think about the sauna, the only real “accommodation” at the sanctuary. The sun has just passed behind the mountains to the north and west, and it’s indescribably beautiful and romantic.

During the night and through the morning I’m beginning to notice the lonely, three-syllable song of the golden-crowned sparrow and the equally memorable chirping yellow warblers that seem to follow the sparrows’ mournful song with a more upbeat one of their own. The sparrow’s song expresses perfectly the remote nature of this place, and the warblers’ reply a sense of the excitement and adventure of the moment. Whenever I hear either of these two sounds, or see a Larsen bear cartoon, I will be back in McNeil Bay.

July Two

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained I could stand and look at them long and long.” — Walt Whitman, 1855

We’re up between 7:30 and 8 a.m. to boil water for oatmeal and make the 8:30 meeting, where we decide once again to leave for the creek at 10:30. Derek is going to be our guide today. He’s been here for nine years and knows the bears almost as well as Larry. He’s laid-back and unflappable, as advertised, and extremely patient as we pester him with questions. Derek knows a lot about bear behavior, Steve knows a lot about their biology, and I’m determined to pick their brains dry while we have the privilege of spending time with them.

When we get to the riffles, two bears are playing, and we watch at least 20 minutes of roughhousing, with a third one joining the fun for awhile. As we noticed last year at Brooks Camp, they look a lot like dogs at play during these kinds of activities.

“And this is an animal that is considered anti-social or asocial,” interjects Derek while we watch; he loves to offer blanket “contemporary wisdom” comments like this as we watch something that contradicts long-standing bear knowledge. That’s why McNeil River is such a radical experiment. There are many people in the Fish and Game Department here in Alaska who would just as soon shut down this program. But we’re learning things about bears that challenge long-held, even ancient beliefs — what could be more important? …

It’s quiet on the bank where we’re sitting, when, about 80 yards below us, the fish start to splash along the surface as they surge through a shallow area. Suddenly three bears are heading full steam, making a commotion of their own, churning the waters, leaping into the water and pawing the waves …

Brad had told us that Derek knew of a bear path which had been worn down by the bears’ paws so that each one followed in the same footsteps, day after day, month after month, year after year. We ask Derek before we head for the falls, and he takes us a ways off the regular path so we can walk along it. “This is as touchy-feely as I get,” he warns us as we trod along it, our feet walking along trying to keep up with the bears’ longer stride.

At the upper falls: Even from up on the hill, I can see the salmon circling in the pool below the falls in my scopes. You have to think that Teddy, who is snorkeling around the pool, softly blowing bubbles, can see them, too. But she never takes off underwater after any of them; she seems content with padding and bubbling at the surface.

She moves up to the spot where Creek Bear was so successful yesterday and begins her patient vigil, whacking a fish against the bottom, grabbing it and walking up the hill to a bare area about 30 feet below us, sitting lazily and chowing down in the sun.

Her reverie is short-lived. Here comes Creek Bear, and he’s picked up the female’s estrus scent again. She gets up, runs across the creek at the narrow place at the falls where she had been fishing and heads up a steep dirt path to the top of the opposite bank.

Derek has already told us a story from last summer. In full sight of a group sitting where we’re at, Creek Bear chased Teddy and her cub, Toughie, up to a cliff on the other bank and pushed them over it into the creek bed 50 feet below. Both survived, and Teddy seems to be none the worse for wear. The cub, Toughie, however, we will see later, walks with a distinct and troubling limp.

But now Creek Bear, this time in an attempt to mate with her, is waddling along behind her right up to the same cliffs. Teddy hangs a left up to the very spot. We’re hollering, telling her not to go that way (not that she can hear us with the wind and the sound of the falls, or that she would understand, anyway), but as she reaches the crest of the hill, she veers off to the right and disappears into the bushes. Whew!

Creek Bear, perhaps thirty or forty yards behind, climbs the path in slow but steady pursuit and follows her away from the cliff. A couple minutes later, Teddy has made a circle back above the falls and finally disappears off into the alder thickets.

Totally engrossed with the action as Creek Bear is in Teddy’s smell, we haven’t noticed that another large male bear, Waldo, is watching, too. We look behind us, and he’s about 20 feet above us, contemplating the Teddy/Creek Bear saga just as we are. He’s probably been there awhile, too.

I think everybody had a camera or video in their hands and ready at that point, and we all shoot Waldo as he comes crashing down through the alders just six or seven feet right past our pad, making his way down to the falls, where he begins his own fishing ritual at the spot abandoned by Teddy a few minutes ago.

Creek Bear comes rambling out of the thicket to the top of the hill and seems to have lost track of Teddy, who’s out of sight. He looks down at Waldo and edges down the side of the hill toward him. This obviously disturbs Waldo, and he leaves his fishing spot and walks up the hill directly at Creek Bear, who retreats.

When Waldo gets to the crest, his head already lowered in agitation, he begins spreading his back legs apart, pissing all over himself and getting himself all lathered up in the process, working his way into what Derek calls the “cowboy stance.”

Indeed, the maneuver is well named — Waldo has become the bear version of Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, bow-legged, in a foul temper; all he needs is a pair of shining 45s strapped on his broad hips to complete the cowpoke-on-steroids image.

This is a maneuver, Derek explains, where Waldo is not messing around with Creek Bear; he is clearly establishing dominance. The maneuver works; Creek Bear, who we can’t see very well, backs off and finally disappears into the brush. Waldo stays in position for awhile before finally unloosening his legs — this takes awhile since he’s really dug himself in — and heads back down to fish by himself …

After lunch, we’re back down at the riffles. Gnarly Bear has Teddy’s scent this afternoon, and he eventually mates with her across the creek (“the slut,” we observe; she’ll do it with anyone). Norma Jean and her cub are sitting where we were earlier, so we move downstream to the Driftwood area, a spot at a high place where there’s a lot of old fallen driftwood that allows us to sit with our backs propped up against the logs — a nice touch. We watch a couple of bears walk past and begin to play when they catch up to each other. Another one joins the play for awhile before running off …

We’re back in camp at about eight thirty again, and while most of the group stops to watch a mother and cubs in the tidal flats from one end of the campsite, Billie and I have discarded the damned hip waders and nailed our final Coke each with the very last of the ice. The smoked salmon depleted, we’re down to actually cooking some of this freeze-dried food we brought along tonight.

Neither of us can remember what we cooked this night, but we mixed it with some freeze-dried peas that made it better. I do recall that we tried the F-D tirimisu for dessert, and just as Billie predicted — I had higher hopes — it was just awful, sandy, gritty, more like granola than a creamy, light Italian dessert. Suddenly it’s almost midnight, and we have a long day ahead. We don’t hit the sauna — I’ve pretty much decided that four days without bathing isn’t the worst thing that can happen and I want the experience. Besides, I’m beat again.

The wind is up tonight — a couple of times during the night in a half dream I think it’s gonna pick up the tent and blow it out to the outhouses. Dorothy and Toto at the McNeil River, on the other side of Oz.

But it’s just spectacular, not really dark at midnight, though the sun has just set behind the mountains to the north and west. In the scopes, you can see a couple of bears perhaps a mile or more away, tiny out on the mud flats out in the cove at high tide. The sounds of the sparrows and the warblers, the azure blue-red of the sky, the smell of white-gas stoves and the tidal flats and the outhouses, with the bears out there, too. Another perfect McNeil day.

July 3

We find out this morning that a bear wandered into camp last night and got a bit interested in Jon and Jenny’s tent. It snapped off one of the tent poles and left a huge amount of slobber around the immediate area. By the time they looked out of the tent, it was vacating the area through the alder thicket. It’s a North Face yellow tent, and I go over and take a couple of pictures of the broken tent, which, to North Face’s credit, is still standing. (Had it broken one of our two poles, the tent would have collapsed.) This means that we’ll take air-horns into our tents, and though I dream the next night that our air-horn doesn’t work, no one has to use them. (I’m still waiting to hear if North Face reimburses Jon for his new tent.) …

We have just crossed the little creek past the beach at the beginning of our 10:30 a.m. walk out to the riffles, and over to our left, about 50 yards off in a field of waving sedge grass, is Norma Jean and her cub; the sow appears to be digging beneath a log, but the grass is too high to really see. Derek stops us, and we stand there awhile, watching.

NJ seems to lose interest in the log, and they begin to walk in our direction until they’re just across the stream, chewing on sedge and interacting with each other in great affection. Perfectly placid and self-contained.

When she gets about 50 feet away, Derek suggests that we cross back twenty feet or so, moving slowly, staying together and being quiet. Sure enough, even crossing the stream doesn’t bother the bears as they forage. The cub moves away from mom as they reach an area that’s more mud than grass, and it almost seems that it’s looking for a small patch of grass to chew on so it can move closer to us.

The wind is blowing in from the bay, and the sedge looks like fields of wheat or grass in western Nebraska, or Kansas, or eastern Colorado. The strong breeze also blows the hair in their thick coats, and the colors change just as they did yesterday when they get between us and the sun. Again I get that silvertip texture down Norma Jean’s back; she’s as photogenic as her Hollywood namesake.

We’re shooting away, breathless. The wind breathing across the sedge. Then Norma Jean looks over near the edge of the field, stands on her hind legs and spots a male bear at the location where we first saw them 15 minutes before at the log.

Now remember that she’s been just 15 or 20 feet from us for twenty minutes. But she huffs under her breath quickly, moving the cubbie to strict attention. Without any of the usual bear hesitation, NJ and cub begin running in the opposite direction toward the beach, and they don’t stop until they get there, putting a good 150 yards between them and the other bear. They head on up the beach and out of sight, looking back as they walk.

As the undulating sedge indicates, we were far upwind; Norma Jean didn’t smell the stalker more than 50 years away. It was a visual sighting.

“And this is an animal known to have poor eyesight,” it’s Derek with another of his dry aphorisms as we move on back across the stream. Soon we’re past the alder thicket and in the mud moving toward the creek, avoiding bears as much as possible.

We sit at the riffles for awhile, but there’s not much activity. Rollie, with her three cubs, is again visible above Elephant Rock on the cliffs. Derek suggests that we head over to the driftwood area, where she can see us. “I’ll bet if we go over there and sit on the driftwood, they’ll come down and walk by us,” he says.

Sure enough, after we get settled into the Driftwood area, Rollie and the cubs cautiously make their way down the cliff, but not before giving the lot of us a good case of the heebie-jeebies by taking what we considered the toughest possible path down.

Of course we had the advantage of being able to see the whole cliff area, and we kept gasping as they headed down what seemed to be an impenetrable, slippery and precarious path while an easy passage was no more than 20 yards to their immediate right. We had already seen them use that way. Couldn’t she remember?

Rollie, all four or five hundred pounds of her, would get to a spot in the gravel, pieces of rock falling around her feet into the sedge below, square her body and look downward with that massive head.

Sometimes that head wouldn’t move for a couple of minutes, just looking downward like a baseball pitcher looks to the catcher for a sign. It reminded me of Panda, a huge male bear we saw last summer who would gaze from his spot at the middle of Brooks Falls down into the salmon wanting to get past his jaws, or Whitey Ford looking in for the sign from Yogi Berra in Yankee Stadium during a long-ago World Series. We’re talking serious concentration. Then she would traverse another small section, the cubs behind her almost squealing at her not to take this route.

They make it OK, though Rollie has to slide on her paws backwards to make the final ten feet. Within five minutes, they are strolling past us at about 15 feet, walking on the logs — Derek says that they love to walk on logs — and glancing over at us, Rollie with that adult studied indifference and the wide-eyed cubs with what I call immense curiosity.

She catches the scent of two males playing someplace below us on the river bed, huffs to the cubs, who immediately fall in order, and they walk on upstream. The two males come into view out in the water, and we watch them nuzzle each other, put their paws up on their faces, fall into the water, pushing each other, all indications of what Derek calls part of their ritualized play.

They splash for fish in that bear way, looking for movement underwater and then blasting into a school, hoping to pin the slowest fish against the shallow bottom.

I look around in the opposite direction, and here’s a boar walking directly towards me; he’s about 75 yards away and closing in. I slowly grab the binocs and observe his pigeon-toed gait as he gets closer.

It was a situation last summer similar to this that had ignited our bear imaginations. Unlike that time in Brooks Camp when Billie and I had our first close-up bear encounter, there are no hairs raising on my neck, no palpable increase in my heart rate, no pounding sound in the back of my head. For some reason, all I can think this time is that I hope he comes closer. I notice Derek behind, standing, watching, grinning. If Derek isn’t worried, I’m not worried.

He closes in to 25 yards, 20, 15, his gait unwavering, deliberate. At about 15 feet he moves left and walks in front of the group sitting along the logs, heads down the bank and on upstream. Wow.

The two bears who are playing are interrupted by a bigger boar who appears out of the sedge across the creek, and as he crosses to our side, they scatter, clambering up the sides of the stream. The boar seems satisfied with that and heads off into the alders behind us.

Rollie and the cubs have slowly circled back, and we watch them just eating grass below the cliffs for a long while. When it’s quiet, you can hear their jaws masticating all that green stuff. Then they decide to climb to the top again, which they do as we gasp at their bravado, up to a ledge at the top that Rollie seems to have dug out for herself.

As they get higher upon that ledge, the sound of cattle echoes from the heights. But it’s not a herd of cows, it’s the cubs crying for their supper. Rollie isn’t having it until they get to the top, and it’s a strange sight watching her get into place in her little dug-out area with her legs hanging out over the edge while the cattle sound is replaced by the intense humming of the nursing process. They’re so close to the edge that part of Rollie’s back left leg is out over it …

Creek Bear is back again, first time today, walking downstream toward us. As he hits the rise in the trail where we’re sitting, he checks us out, moves over about 15 feet, lies down for a bit and finally mosies on downstream.

A huge well-known bear, Woofie, is the alpha bear in this country. He’s the giant standing on his hind legs in the famous Larry Aumiller picture in the River of Bears book. Befitting his stature, he never comes close, stays, in fact, on the other side of the river when he walks through the sedge, a big scar on his right side and a new cut, probably the result of some other male contesting him, over his right eye. Bears are scattering all over the place as he approaches.

“His mouth looks like Jack Nicholson’s in Batman,” Derek says while bears are dispersing in all directions, some at great speed who don’t stop running until they reach the alders several hundreds yards away …

We can hear Rollie nursing again, her three cubs fighting for position near the edge of the cliff above Elephant Rock, humming away like an electrical generator---triple cub voltage.

Out in the water, another bear is the picture of domesticity, his head above the water, and he scratches his noggin, checks his feet for awhile, his head and feet both out of the shallow water. He looks like a bathing cowboy in one of these outdoor tubs in a western movie.

It’s quiet. Rollie and the cubs have scrambled down the cliffs, for once at a place that doesn’t seem so dangerous to crawl down. An actual path. They’re grazing at the edge of the sedge.

Then, just as quickly, there are a dozen bears in the area. Woofie, across the stream again, is loping along at a kingly gait, sending bears in every direction. Creek Bear is back, this time following Teddy, but Woofie breaks it up, and another bear arrives between us and Rollie and the cubs, moving them quickly back up the cliff again.

Four other males are on our side of the water, grazing, but soon they’re scattering at the sight of Woofie, whose dominance is pronounced.

We move upriver to the riffles as the late afternoon sun begins to warm our necks — it’s damned hot out here! Creek Bear has lost interest in Teddy for now, and he has the entire creek area, which is full of running fish at this high tide, all to himself. Even though he’s not particularly quick on his feet, he’s doing quite well, catching six or seven in a short 20-minute period before defecating and moving on to graze, though he manages to chase another fishing bear who tries to steal his fish.

Another subadult hears the splashing and cry of the gulls, and he runs right past Billie into the creek, only to be chased away by Creek Bear.

In a short few minutes, there are seven bears moving into these close quarters. Creek Bear, his jaws popping in that odd sound that seems to indicate tension, is in the midst of the action, and he starts waddling after one of the bears, while another one across the creek watches, waits and heads out to fish as CB and the other one head away. CB loses interest and sits down over about 20 feet off, his long nails protruding out in front of his front paws.

Teddy comes up to within five feet of Billie, who wakes up from a nap in time to watch Teddy watch her. Creek Bear picks up her scent and begins to stalk Teddy again. He passes at the same place and circles behind us and back again. Billie leans over and says, “Don’t wake me up unless they come within five feet,” and drops off to her nap again. By now we trust these bears. So strange, yet so right …

One of the things that Derek mentions often is that the more still you become, the closer a bear will come to you. It’s hard to remain still, and Brad had told us that a bear actually came up and touched Derek out on the McNeil pad.

So I ask him flat out: “Has a bear ever touched you?” He says that it didn’t happen, but I’m betting that Derek has gotten closer to bears than even any of us on this trip, and maybe even held still enough to let one nearly touch him, a move that would perhaps step over the edge. But he is so obviously at home in this situation. He speaks of Teddy almost as a friend. “I’m sure,” he says, “that if you sat down next to Teddy while she was eating her fish, she wouldn’t mind.” That image, sitting alongside Teddy looking out at the sunset, like so much else I’m seeing here, will always be with me …

We move on upriver, following the tide. There are no bears in sight, and we get to witness an eagle feeding frenzy while a school is running in front of us. There are seven eagles in the area, and innumerable gulls crying, but the eagles, with their strange squawk, are holding their own.

They’ve got their talons into a couple of beached salmon, and a mature and immature male are fighting each other and jumping around to throw each other off balance long enough to get a few bites. Both Brad and Derek say that eagles will eat so much at this time that they have trouble flying, and you can see why.

But the gulls’ cries have brought a bunch of bears back downstream. Soon, the screech of gulls, the sound of furious splashing and the bones of red salmon being crushed between powerful jaws are the only sounds …

On the walk back to the campsite, I talk with Derek about his involvement. He says it’s kind of a political dance, but that the current sanctuary rules, which deem that the bears’ needs come first and any human impact or any changes in sanctuary policy must be evaluated with that in mind, are in place and would be hard to change at present — especially with Aumiller’s presence.

When asked whether or not he plans a book, he says he isn’t a writer and directs me to a video based on his research of bear behavior. We picked up Way of the Grizzly in Anchorage after we got back, and it is indeed an excellent film with great footage from McNeil. He says that though he and Larry have spent years observing these bears, they have completely different opinions about them. I’d love to record their conversations for a book.

Tonight, our last night, Billie and I each have a freeze-dried entree, she a chicken-pot pie and I the chicken and noodles, and they are both quite good — or perhaps our tastes buds have become delirious by this time. Everyone is quite comfortable, the wine bottles are open, tin cups filled with rum drinks (no ice) and the conversation is, again, very good and the laughter plentiful at the picnic tables.

July 4

A bear has left its own deposit right in front of the first outhouse. But I don’t see a thing beyond the Gary Larsen Gallery.

This morning we’re going out with Brad and Steve, and it’ll be a different day; we have to be ready to board the Otter at 7:30 p.m. (the tide is thankfully late today) for the return trip to Homer. We discussed going out to McNeil River to see the more famous location. Billie and I aren’t nuts about crossing the mud flats on the way over to McNeil River, but as it turns out, we don’t have to go through that rough part.

After discussion and a great display of solidarity in the group, we decide to begin the day over at Mikfik and later in the afternoon hike over to McNeil, even though all indications are that no bears have arrived over there yet. And, even better, Derek will pick us up in the boat and take us across to the spit and not have to walk the flats on our way back …

Occasionally we’d pass a day bed, a circular area in the grass beaten down and sometimes dug out a bit by a bear to form a place to sleep or nap. Often they are situated right along the abundant bear paths that criss-cross the entire area like the paths that proliferate across the University of Colorado campus. We find two or three beds where the path crosses Mikfik and heads steeply up the hill to the upper falls. Apparently, bears sleep when they want to and for short naps rather than long periods of sleep …

We come across a wounded bald eagle on the trail. We had seen it earlier on our way hiking to the upper falls, having trouble trying to fly as we approached. We thought it might just be too fat to fly. But this time, we notice that it has a wounded wing and is seriously agitated at our presence. Finally we leave the trail and give it a wide berth. Another reminder of the unforgiving nature of this beautiful country …

There’s a timelessness at Mikfik. Time stands still here; the bears don’t celebrate Y2K or think about retirement or the latest pop culture fad. They live in the same way as they did when they first crossed the land bridge thousands of years ago, and quite successfully. The technological advances of our century make no difference to them at all. As Whitman said, placid and self-contained.

The view every morning is quite memorable; Walking along one cliff edge, the waves of blowing sedge grass undulating across the valley; the brown bears munching their way along; Elephant Rock and the cliffs on the other side; and the creek itself and the couple hundred yards of riffles where we do most of our observation and activity. The sound of our boots splashing through the mud and sedge is the only sound …

While we’re sitting at the upper falls, two bears spook as soon as they notice us, taking off at full gallop, while another one takes up residence and fishes awhile, snorkeling and sitting in the pool below the falls.

Far away and out of sight, perhaps over the hill opposite us, I can hear gulls screeching in a kind of frenzy. I wonder if the bears can hear it and are thinking of moving over to McNeil.

Three unmarked planes bank in over our heads and roll over west to east, seeming far below the 2,000 foot level allowed in the sanctuary. Two others follow about three or four minutes later …

Back at the riffles, it’s hot, and there isn’t much activity. Rollie nurses at the top of the cliff and then decides to come down, once again along the difficult path. I watch as she seems to contemplate every move, her body squared downward, before moving off sideways to another safe spot. Still, it’s a struggle for all of them get down, especially with two of the cubs playing and fighting each other every step. Why can’t she remember that path? …

Norma Jean and her cub avoid a confrontation across the creek, moving to a position in front of us, then dealing with a subadult that moves in too close for her own good. On her way back around, she skirts us at about 12 feet, the cub following her but looking over at us, too …

We walk down to the Driftwood area to watch Rollie more closely, and she and the cubs, walking on the logs whenever possible, cruise right by us again, not 12 feet away, then settle in the grass between 15 and 20 feet at the top of a rise. We just sit in a state of marvelous enchantment for awhile.

A bear that I can’t see because of the rise in the bank apparently starts moving toward them. Rollie chuffs, pops her jaws, and the cubs fall in right behind her. The sound is weird, but it’s more proof that we don’t pose any threat. I mean, here we are sitting about 15 feet away for awhile, snapping pictures and whispering and gasping in wonder, and she pays us no attention.

But another bear, even though farther away, riles her enough to move eventually to the cliffs, again right past us. I don’t want to read too much into it, but it appears that they actually enjoy our presence, or if that’s too strong a thought, at the very least they are comfortable with us.

It’s a weird feeling; a mother grizzly cub and her three children, considered the most dangerous situation in human-bear encounters, and here we are …

I’m propped up again against a big piece of driftwood. (The creek chair I bought for the trip broke on the third day, cheap piece of shit.) My point-and-shoot camera is within reach, as are the binoculars. I’m eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, contemplating Ivan’s magnificent hump as he slowly ambles toward me, grazing. He’s had his head in the sedge for almost 45 minutes, by my count, and the hump and his shoulders rise several inches above as he lowers his massive head, chewing large clumps of grass between his teeth, masticating noisily …

After an hour on the cliffs, Rollie is restless again, and she and the kids clamber down and amble over to the creek, where she actually lets down and plays a little bit in the water, letting her guard down ever so slightly when no other bears are in sight. One of the cubs tip toes into the water, a childlike gesture, while mother splashes her feet in the water. It’s hot and there isn’t much action today — the bears are looking to beat the heat …

To get to McNeil River, we have to walk from the driftwood through the sedge field toward Elephant Rock and around a beach area. As we mush our way through the slushy wetlands, I feel for the first time like Tim Treadwell in Among Grizzlies. (Treadwell camps several months every year somewhere close to here — in fact, he’s probably there right now — living in close proximity to bears, and Among Grizzlies is his account. Though I think he’s a little nuts, I can’t argue with his goals — to protect grizz and promote bear education — and his experiences of living among bears certainly ring true with our own here at Mikfik.)

Rollie and her cubs are grazing along the cliffs 50 years off, and Norma Jean and hers are equidistant from us at the water. Other bears are grazing nearby. We’re walking between them, trying not to cross paths, stopping and starting and waiting for bears to pass in front of us.

It’s a great moment for me, but all too quickly we’re past Elephant Rock and walking under the cliffs along the beach. We stop to take pictures of the huge bear tracks in the tidal mud. Dave puts a quarter down and then his handprint to show how huge the paw prints are there in the mud …

A short walk around the cliffs and we’re heading up to McNeil River.

We climb out of the beach and up onto a plateau. The Friends of McNeil River helped put in a wooden walkway out to the falls this spring, and we get to take our hip boots off for the pleasant, half-hour stroll out to the falls. It’s a beautiful walk; after we get up the hill, we can see our camp across the bay, Augustine volcano shimmering in the distance beyond it and the other mountains around us sharp in the clear atmosphere.

We can hear the falls before we can see them, and my first impression is that this is a wilder river than I expected from watching the films. Too, a movie camera always distorts to a certain degree, generally making things look further away, and the falls area is tighter and not as wide as I expected, either, I’m estimating seventy feet, about the same as Brooks Falls.

As we arrive at the tiny 20’-8’ pad where humans witness this late-summer feeding frenzy, we can see salmon already gathering in the pools below to make their try to jump the formidable falls. But there are no bears yet. They’re expected, says Brad, any day now.

The falls area has a lot of grass, but on both sides you can see the worn-out areas where bears rest and eat their catches. There are literally dozens of bare spots on both sides of the river.

On Day Two a National Geo photographer named Daniel Zatz was putting finishing touches on a Bearcam that he’s installing for the magazine’s website. We can see the solar panels on one side of the platform, and at one end of the viewing platform is a clever box that holds two cameras that from, from a distance at least, looks like a pile of rocks. The pile was designed by a wildlife artist.

The platform seems man-made, different from the natural setting at Mikfik. And, like at Brooks Falls, you’re mostly looking down at the bears, instead of being even with them at Mikfik.

All of a sudden, one bear along the other side becomes visible below the falls on the other side. It seems eager to get there, and soon it’s leaping into the pools, running along the rocks and rolling in the falls. It catches nothing and tires of the sport after awhile.

After about ninety minutes, we walk back to where Derek is waiting in the boat, toss in our waders and head across to get ready to go. Once we get across, we have about thirty minutes before our flight is due, and we’re all madly dashing around, packing our final items, saying quick goodbyes and schlepping our stuff to the spit.

Dave’s plane comes in first. He’s chartered a plane to take him from here to Brooks Camp. Then the red Otter comes into sight, and suddenly we’re loading out the next group and loading in our gear and we’re in the air, circling once so we can catch the mother and spring cub above the camp area and another larger bear near where we had just spent the day, past Augustine Volcano and across Cook’s Inlet. Jon pops Credence Best-Of into the stereo, and we’re back in Homer by eight-thirty, in time for the fireworks that never went off.