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River of bears

Set up along Mikfik Creek, visitors watch and photograph fishing bears and eagles on a perfect day in July. Photo by PAIGE and GINNY MERRIAM

By GINNY MERRIAM of the Missoulian

In the protected realm of the Alaska brown bear, humans defer to the majestic beast

MCNEIL RIVER STATE GAME SANCTUARY, Alaska - This is a place where bears rule.

Amongst tide flats, freshwater creeks, bright-green sedge grass and glacier-carved mountains off the southern coast of Alaska, a nation of bears gathers each summer to fish, graze and raise cubs. A sunny July afternoon on the McNeil River can pass peacefully, the only sounds the cry of the gull and the eagle, the bawl of a cub, the flop of a fish and splash of a fishing bear and the rustle of the tough grasses.

Humans can visit here, but only in groups of 10 or fewer, flanked at either end by bear biologists armed with tender sensibilities and Remington Model 870 shotguns that they never use. The guests must bunch together, talk softly, make small movements, never threaten or crowd a bear and never, ever allow a bear to get human food. In the 25-mile-long and 4- to 5-mile-wide McNeil River State Game Sanctuary at the top of the Alaska Peninsula and off Cook Inlet, no bear is hunted or even darted and tagged.

The operative word here is "sanctuary," says Larry Aumiller, who's in his 24th year as McNeil's manager.

"Human use is secondary to that," he said at the sanctuary a few weeks ago. "That's unique. And the decisions we make are based on that."

Days spent walking among bears at McNeil feel like days spent in a prehistoric terrarium. People are very small there.

"That's another special thing about this place," Aumiller said. "It's the Earth as it was 1,000 years ago. These bears don't even know cars have been invented. They never even heard of World War II. They're out of it."

Says Derek Stonorov, a bear researcher and 10-year employee of the sanctuary, "It's really back to the Garden, in a way."

A gathering of bruins

About 120 to 130 North American brown bears - grizzly bears, Ursus arctos - congregate at McNeil during June, July and August. They make the most significant gathering of bears in the world, brought to the falls on the McNeil River and the curves of Mikfik Creek by the remarkable runs of spawning salmon - first the reds in Mikfik, then chums at the falls and later silvers.

Summer also brings 285 people, 10 at a time, each the winner of a permit drawn in a lottery competition that can pit the applicant against more than 2,000 people. Requests for permits must be postmarked by March 1, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game writes to the winners around April 1.

My sister, Paige, a Montanan transplanted to Juneau, Alaska, decided at Christmastime that, being in our 40s, we should start applying. Stories of years of applications and disappointment are common; one fellow in our party in July, a bison rancher and mental health administrator from Iowa, had won his permit after 10 years of trying. A wildlife photographer and professor from Alabama, had, like us, tried only once.

McNeil is about 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage. Visitors get there by a one-hour float plane flight from Homer, a fishing and tourist town at North America's most westerly highway point. Homer air services begin soliciting permit winners immediately. We chose Barbara and Bill deCreef's Kachemak Air Service for their 30 years of experience, their in-the-ballpark fee of $335, their trustworthy de Havilland Otter, their old-time-y letterhead and their ownership of Missoula's Bob Johnson's old Travel Air airplane.

A McNeil permit allows the holder four days among the bears. Departure time depends on the tides. We flew in on the evening of July 4 for a permit time of July 5-8 and back out the 9th.

Three staffers generally are on hand at McNeil - Aumiller and Stonorov, and, during our week, a biologist intern and a visiting caribou biologist from Fairbanks filling in on Aumiller's days off. They help carry gear up to the camp just off the beach. The camp is two staff cabins, a toolshed, two outhouses, a rustic sauna, a shed on stilts for garbage that's waiting to be flown out and a small wooden building with two long tables and counter space to set up stoves - the "cookshack" - with tent spots around it for visitors.

All food stays in the cookshack, Stonorov tells new arrivals. To get water, take the plastic cans and walk 300 yards up the beach, then 300 yards left to the spring. If a bear comes into camp, blow the air horn. See you tomorrow morning.

Rules of the party

Our party, one short of 10, was made up of a couple from Miami, a couple from San Francisco, the Iowa bison rancher, the Alabama photographer and an Alaska woman from Sutton. Two others - Jim, a self-proclaimed "retired common laborer" and hunter from Glennallen, Alaska, and his friend Fred, a retired fisheries biologist from the same town - had flown in to wait on standby permits; they held two of the 95 given each year. If someone failed to show, as one had, or left, as five did after our second day, they could go out with us among the bears.

The wilderness experience levels among members of our party varied wildly, from zero, where most people fell, to lots. Sensibilities varied widely, from the very urban to the very rural Alaskan; Jim regarded us bemusedly as "some kind of women libbers," and we tolerated his anti-Patagonia, hunting-activist stance equally, laughing hysterically at his stories of drunken shootings of a "potato gun" ignited with Aquanet hairspray.

The days at McNeil begin and end with 2-mile-plus walks in hip waders, some of it through the deep mud of tidal marshes. The unpredictable coastal weather changes day to day from blowing rain to blazing sun, and usually windy. After one day out, our urban companions and the Alaska woman called back their float planes and left, leaving us an intimate party of four and giving Jim and Fred the chance to go out.

Mornings, everyone boots up and packs food - Bobby Harrison from Alabama wants to know if it's OK to bring tuna and berry-flavored Jolly Ranchers for lunch, and it is - and two staffers lead the party out. Walking through brushy alders along the rock cliffs - there are no trees at McNeil - the biologists call out, "Hey, bears," "Hello, bears" to let them know people are coming. Aumiller calls it "knocking at their front door."

Before the visitor spreads a magical kingdom of bears and eagles. The brown backs of grazing enormous bears and small cubs show in the blowing sedge grass, reminiscent of bison in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley on first sight. The sedge is 17 percent protein and an important part of the omnivorous bears' diets as they wait for the fish to come in. Bears stand up to look, then go back to their grazing.

Most of our time was spent among the meanders of Mikfik Creek, where the red salmon (sockeye) run was winding down. Salmon, who return to their birthplaces from the ocean to lay the eggs for the next generation, were just arriving at McNeil River Falls, not yet drawing many bears.

We would settle in for a few hours among wild iris, wild geranium and chocolate lilies, tripods at the ready.

"I like to sit on the end," said Stonorov. "It protects the bears from the people."

On sunny, comfortable days, apprehension melts, and visitors and biologists alike turn bear-y themselves and lie back for naps during slow times. They talk photography, talk bears, take pictures and watch and learn.

"Pretty much every day you go out, something special will happen," Stonorov said.

In the landscape before us, mothers nursed cubs so close we could hear the cubs purr, and bears showed us their various fishing skills, some sitting in the water waiting for fish to swim by, some standing and watching the water, some splashing until they grabbed a fish or multiple fish at once.

"Bears are smart," Stonorov said. "Sometimes I think bears are smarter than people. Why I like watching bears is the more you watch them, the more you see the possibilities in bears. A lot more could be going on. Of course, I could be all wrong. I'm probably biased, but I think they're capable of a lot."

A day in the life

Through the day, the bears bend their attention toward food. During the short season at McNeil, they need to gain 20 percent of their weight to make it through the long hibernation of winter. For

instance, Waldo, a sweet-tempered, middle-aged male bear well-known at the sanctuary, arrives in spring weighing 550 to 600 pounds and leaves a month later 100 pounds fatter.

Bears have home ranges but are not territorial. Instead, they have a social structure that colors and shapes their interactions with each other. Mostly solitary, they live in unusual closeness during their weeks at McNeil, and manage the proximity with elaborate avoidance behaviors that get them through a day with remarkably few confrontations.

The biggest, most aggressive bears fish and eat wherever they want to. Smaller, more timid bears move off to the sides. Females with cubs, usually one to three, are very wary of other bears, and the cubs stick close to their mothers. When the mothers are fishing, the cubs wait nervously in a little crowd. Often, when a mother returns, she sits back in the grass to nurse. Mothers go to great lengths to avoid other bears, even scaling cliffs with the cubs scrambling behind them.

Spring cubs are remarkably small, only about 15 pounds, having been born in January weighing about one pound in dens. Brown bear cubs stay with their mothers until their third summers. Only about half of them make it to that age. Some are killed by other adult bears, some fall off cliffs and some drown. The staff at McNeil always thrills to the first spring cubs that arrive, and they look forward to seeing familiar female bears with new cubs or cubs that made it through the winter.

"It isn't Disneyland," says Aumiller. "These bears have real, tough lives. You can see their scars. And we can see real life."

Occasionally, fights erupt on Mikfik Creek and at the falls, usually over salmon or the defense of cubs. Different bears have different ideas of "personal space," said Stonorov, who studied bear social behavior at McNeil as a graduate student. For instance, one day at the falls, we watched two 1,000-pound male bears, R.C. and Luther, fish quite close together without incident.

"They don't have to do anything to each other," Stonorov said. "They've been fishing together for 20 years.

"Special relationships and previous experience play an enormous role in bear behavior."

"We don't really have any way of measuring stress in a bear," he said. "These bears may have 50 encounters a day that look aggressive and stressful to us. But if they were that stressful, an animal's heart would blow apart."

People and proximity

Likewise, bears adapt to the presence of people, and that's the controversial side of McNeil. Aumiller, who has been called "the Dian Fossey of bears" and "obsessive," is recognized as one of the best in the world at reading bears. He believes passionately that people and bears can live together peacefully if the tone of the relationship is set up properly. Bears can be habituated to the presence of people if the people exhibit "inoffensive and predictable human behavior" rather than setting up an adversarial relationship in which we yell and shoot, and bears flee and attack, he says. His definition of habituation means the absence of a flight response and the absence of aggression.

Some bear biologists believe any habituated bear is a dangerous bear. Aumiller and Stonorov disagree. They say a key is keeping bears from seeing people as food sources, becoming "food-conditioned."

"That's why it's sort of the religion here," said Stonorov. "It's why it's worked so well. The bears don't associate us with food."

Some say it's not natural.

"Derek and I say it is natural," Aumiller said. "Bears can and will adapt."

"If you look at reality, for 25 years we've been walking around here, and we've had eight or nine serious charges, and those have been from non-habituated or only slightly habituated bears," he said. "The reality here so far has been that habituated bears have been way safe."

Indeed, the problems between bears and people at McNeil happened before the people were curbed, Tom Walker writes in his book about McNeil, "River of Bears." The area, named for prospector Charles McNeil who built a cabin at the mouth of the McNeil River and filed his first mining claims in 1911, was closed to bear hunting in 1955 and established as a sanctuary in 1967. But it wasn't until 1973 that the permit system restricted the number of visitors and controlled the way they visited. In 1972, a photographer shot and killed a female bear, causing the death of her yearling cub, after he crept up on her and surprised her. That same year, two groups of photographers were careless with food, and bears destroyed their tents. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game ended intrusive handling and tagging of bears that year. Jim Faro, the first wildlife biologist on the Alaska Peninsula, led the argument for the Alaska Board of Fish and Game to establish a permit system in 1973.

Among the arguments for preserving McNeil as it is are the dwindling brown bear habitat and numbers of bears. The western United States used to hold 100,000 bears, but now Alaska's 30,000 to 40,000 bears are 99 percent of U.S. bears. McNeil bears themselves can and have been killed when they travel outside the sanctuary.

Aumiller believes bears are in peril in Alaska.

"It's mostly because we have the same attitude as in the other states," he said.

According to Aumiller, the up side of the recent controversial installation of a 24-hour-a-day camera at McNeil River Falls, which will spy on bears and broadcast the footage on National Geographic's Web site, is that it can show potentially millions of people that bears are peaceful animals worthy of our protection.

Perhaps the viewers can be as changed as McNeil's 285 visitors are each summer.

"Even though it's a limited number of people, most people come away thinking bears are pretty neat," Aumiller said. "And then when something comes up, they might tend to vote for the bears."

If you go

To apply for a permit to visit the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska, write for an application from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, P.O. Box 228080, Anchorage, Alaska 99522, Attention: MR Application. You also can call (907) 267-2182 or print an application off the Internet by going to: www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/wildlife/region2/region2/mr-app.htm. Applications must be postmarked by March 1 and require a $20 fee. If you get one, the permit will cost $350 for out-of-staters. After visiting, you can apply again in two years.

Many people fly from Anchorage to Homer for the flight to McNeil, but you also can rent a car and drive, then spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula camping and sightseeing. In Homer, fishing charter businesses abound, and its Pratt Museum is noteworthy. The Cook Inlet has the second-highest tides in the world, at 35 feet, affording great beach walking. In July, it's light for 21 hours each day, so there's plenty of time for recreation. Air charters offer bear viewing and sightseeing, and the Glacier Drive-In offers garlic reindeer knackwurst German dogs. Cups Cafe is great for dining, and you can visit the Surfin' Salmon Internet Cafe if you're so inclined.

n Our favorite business in Homer: the Washboard, where you can wash clothes, drink an espresso, send out dry cleaning, rent a mailbox, get messages, take a tan on a sunbed and buy a shower for $3.69, including tax and a clean towel. Soap is 25 cents extra.

n Our favorite airport sign: "All ulu knives must be checked."

n Our favorite book for the trip: "River of Bears: The Famed Bears of Alaska's McNeil River," by Tom Walker, with photos by Larry Aumiller and forward by John Craighead, from Voyageur Press.

- Ginny Merriam, Missoulian

Thursday - 8/5/99

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