Isolated Hyder a hot spot for bear viewing

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The small Southeast town of Hyder becomes a showcase for the food chain this time of year.

Large chum salmon swim up nearby Fish Creek to spawn. Bald eagles, brown and black bears arrive about the same time, ready to fish for their dinners. Then come the spectators.

Almost 40,000 people worldwide make their way to Hyder to get an up-close view of bears in their natural environment. That's a huge audience compared to the number of visitors who travel to other bear-viewing sites in Alaska.

The fish, bears and humans in one location at Hyder is considered a unique treat by some and a danger by others.

The prime viewing season starts now when the salmon are spawning and ends in September. A handful of tourists visited Fish Creek last month and saw their first bear outside a zoo.

Jeanne Pike, of Houston, Texas, was among the people who saw a brown bear walking along Fish Creek. The bear was far enough away that it wasn't a danger, but close enough to appear large in a pair of binoculars.

''If it had been closer I would have been nervous,'' Pike said.

The distance between bear and human often shrinks by late summer, when feasting bears walk less than 20 yards away from people on the highway, in the parking lot and along creek banks.

Paul Larkin, a forest technician with the Ketchikan-Misty Fiords Ranger District, said people can see a handful of bears in one day, sometimes without leaving their cars. He said his staff recognized 14 different bears last year.

Hyder's bear-viewing area is unlike other Alaska sites that charge fees, limit visitation and remain secluded in spots accessible only by airplane. The Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site is Alaska's most accessible bear-viewing area. People can stop while driving to or from Alaska on the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia.

The old mining community is 1,000 driving miles from Seattle and 1,400 miles from Anchorage.

The Ketchikan-Misty Fjords Ranger District within Tongass National Forest oversees the Fish Creek observation site. The staff doesn't charge for bear-watching, nor does it ask for reservations or permits.

Signs near the observation site remind spectators that bears are wild and that people are visitors.

''You're at your own risk,'' Larkin said.

In the 11 years he's worked at Fish Creek, no bear has injured or killed a visitor. But Larkin's had a few scares. He said many people don't realize they're in danger when bears are walking or eating nearby.

A juvenile bear once approached a visitor in the parking lot, stood on its hind legs and put its paws on the man's back. Eventually, the bear backed away when staffers approached, Larkin said.

''That's just too close,'' he said. ''He could have easily bit that person on the neck, and the guy would have been dead.''

Utah State University wildlife instructor Barrie Gilbert has studied bear-human interactions for decades. He visited Hyder in the early 1990s and noticed several problems.

''Hyder is laissez-faire bear-viewing from the highway,'' Gilbert said. ''I think it's a recipe for disaster.''

The Forest Service is now stepping up safety measures with a $1 million project that should begin this year.

Among the improvements: better viewing areas with about 600 feet of elevated platforms. About 10 years ago, Larkin became the first forest service technician assigned to the Fish Creek site. He'd visited Hyder since the late 1970s and eventually joined Hyder's Forest Service staff in 1989.

As the only Alaska community with an telephone area code of 250 instead of 907, Hyder is a town rooted in Canada. There's no local school. Instead, the state pays for Hyder's children to be schooled in Stewart, British Columbia.

Hyder's most notable feature is its bear-viewing site. Gary Benedict, a 40-year Hyder resident, called it ''probably the best in the world for a place you can drive to.''

Over the years, the rules have changed as the crowds have grown. Visitors used to be able to walk near the creek and carry food. No more.

Today up to 200 people a day walk on a combination of gravel roads, highways and platforms.

''The objective is to have everybody . . . who is viewing bears to do so from an elevated platform,'' Larkin said. Once the platform is in place, people will be prohibited from viewing bears from the roadways.

Plans also include improvements to the parking area. Mike Brown, a wildlife biologist with the Ketchikan-Misty Fiords Ranger District, said the site will accommodate about 35 vehicles.

But Utah State's Gilbert says more should be done. He suggests restrictions on the number of people who can visit the bear-viewing area at one time and that visitors be guided by a staffer.

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