Grizzly Encounters in the Last Frontier
Grizzly bears once roamed all the western states from the Arctic Circle to southern California. Now this species is relegated to a few small strongholds in the lower 48, but Alaska still boasts historic numbers of these magnificent beasts. Biologists have estimated that the Alaska Grizzly population is holding strong at about 40,000 individuals, about 40 times the number in the rest of the United States.
Grizzlies, called "brown bears" when they live near the coast, are wild creatures. But seasonal feeding patterns make it possible for relatively predictable viewing possibilities. Particularly in regard to coastal brown bears, which depend on the annual salmon runs as a mainstay for their diets. There are a number of areas in Alaska where bears congregate on rivers and streams. If you can visit these places at the right time, the viewing opportunities can be superb.
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge
Kodiak Island has some of the biggest bears in Alaska. The Kodiak brown bear is considered the world's largest carnivore. Although there are no developed viewing areas in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, large numbers of bears congregate at the salmon streams from June through September. The refuge has public-use rustic cabins (no stove, plumbing or electricity) accessible by charter plane only. For more information contact Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, 1390 Buskin River Rd, Kodiak, AK 99615. (907) 487-2600. On nearby private land, commercial bear viewing trips are available. Contact Kodiak Wilderness Tours at 907-486-8101.
McNeil River Game Sanctuary
McNeil River is Alaska's most famous bear viewing area. A number of brown bears can be observed every year as they congregate at McNeil River Falls to feed on salmon. There are no commercial outfitters to this site; everyone must apply through a highly competitive State of Alaska lottery system (only about one in ten applicants wins the lottery each year). The bear viewing season runs from mid-June through late August. Applications must be postmarked by March 1 of each year. You may also apply for"standby" slots in April. Lottery fees are $20 per person, and lottery winners will pay an additional $250 user fee. Successful applicants will spend 4 days camping at McNeil River. There is a campground area where visitors sleep (bring your own tent, food and gear) and a cook shed for food preparation and storage.
Pack Creek on Admiralty Island
The local Tlingit know Admiralty Island as Kootz na Hoo, or"Fortress of the Bear." Admiralty Island is a lush rainforest wilderness in the heart of Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The 60,000-acre Stan Price Bear Sanctuary is prime habitat for brown bears as they feed on the salmon running up Pack Creek. Visitors will experience the luxuriant rainforests while marveling at the countless bald eagles and brown bears in the region.
Pack Creek runs through an open intertidal meadow before spilling into the ocean. An elevated sandy spit at the edge of the meadow is the official bear viewing area. There is also a beautiful one-mile trail through the rainforest to an elevated viewing platform above the creek. The Sanctuary allows a limited number of visitors to Pack Creek during the salmon runs from early July though August. The only access is via boat or floatplane. Juneau is the closest city. There are no facilities, phones or outhouses. Camping is not allowed at Pack Creek; however you may camp at Windfall Island just offshore of Pack Creek. Sea kayaks are available for rent.
You may apply for a lottery permit through the U.S. Forest Service at 907-586-8751 and go on your own (permit fee is $36/person and charter air transportation is approximately $200/person), or you may go with a commercial outfitter (Alaska Discovery, 800-586-1911; Wilderness Swift Charters, 907-463-3466; Fly-n-Fish Charters, 907-790-2120) who will provide permits, guides, and transportation.
Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park is famous for its fascinating geological history and formations, extraordinary salmon runs, and propensity of bears. Adventurous travelers can bring their own tents and camp at the small campground, or there is a private lodge with all the amenities. Both are located at Brooks Camp. Lotteries are held in late February for camping permits. Camping is limited to four nights and four-person parties. Floatplane charters are available out of King Salmon.
Brown bears abound in Brooks Camp all summer, but are most numerous in July and September. A bear viewing platform is perched on the edge of Brooks Falls, where bears intercept the leaping salmon. Photographs of bears standing at the top of Brooks Falls with a salmon jumping into their mouths are common. For information on camping and getting to Brooks Camp contact: Katmai National Park, Box 7, King Salmon, AK 99613. (907) 243-5448. They can also give you information on tour operators and fishing guides. There is one lodging concession at Brooks Camp (Katmailand, Inc., (907) 243-5448).
Denali National Park
Like all wild places in Alaska, Denali National Park has impressive wildlife populations. The open tundra provides excellent opportunities for viewing animals, including grizzly bears. Most visitors see wildlife from the shuttle and tour busses that run constantly along the Park's main road (private vehicles are generally not allowed). Backpackers can break away from the road. There are seven campgrounds, a hotel at the park entrance and several inns nearby. Plan to spend a little time here as you may need to wait for the clouds to part in order to see Mt. McKinley, and you may need to wait for the crowds to part in order to catch one of the shuttle busses. Denali Park is accessed by car, bus or train from Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Bears are often visible from the park road throughout the summer. Most shuttle bus tickets and park campground spaces can be reserved no more than 2 days in advance, in person only, at the park. A limited number are available in advance. Contact central reservations: (800) 622-7275 or Denali National Park, Box 9, Denali Park, AK 99755. (907) 683-2294.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing Guide ($8.95)
by Michelle Sydeman and Annabel Lund
Falcon Press Publishing Co.
Helena MT 59624-9948
River of Bears ($35.00)
by Tom Walker and Larry Aumiller
Photo book of McNeil River
Backcountry Bear Basics ($10.95)
by Dave Smith
A guide to understanding bears and avoiding negative encounters.
1001 SW Klickitat Way
Seattle WA 98134
A Gathering of Bears ($19.00)
30-minute video on the Bears of McNeil River
Anchorage, AK 99511-2808
Wild Neighbors ($19.00)
30-minutes: Pack Creek bears, Humpback whales and Haines
Bald Eagle Preserve
KTOO public TV
360 Egan Dr.
Juneau, AK 99801
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication