McNEIL RIVER Each summer, the falls at McNeil River turn into a mosh pit of bears.
Instead of thumping music, it's the sound of salmon slapping their way up the falls at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary that sends the bears into a fishing frenzy.
''It is just awesome,'' said Uleta Clark, one of 257 people selected by lottery to visit the brown bear salmon feast this year. ''You aren't going to see this anywhere else.''
The exclusive number of people allowed into the 114,400-acre state sanctuary provides an extraordinary opportunity to see close up one of the most feared predators on the planet.
''It is not that we let people get close to bears. We let bears get close to people,'' said sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller, who since 1976 has been leading small groups to the falls to watch the bears swat at salmon.
''Obviously, a close bear here is not a dangerous bear.''
In the peak weeks in July, the falls draw more brown bears than anywhere else in the world. On a typical day, 30 to 40 bears gather to fish for salmon and fatten up for the winter. The record was 72 observed at one time in 1999.
The trail crosses tidal flats littered with mounds of bear scat, and past bear beds dug out in the beach or made from flattened marsh grasses.
A 1,200-pound brown bear named McDougall, center right, relaxes on the large center rock in McNeil River Sunday July 25, 2004, as he and a group of other brown bears try to catch salmon swimming up the river in the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary about 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage. Each summer a limited number of people are chosen by lottery to watch the bears. The small number of people allowed into the 114,400-acre state sanctuary provides an extraordinary opportunity to see one of the most feared predators on the planet close up.
AP Photo/Al Grillo
It goes along a rocky shore where mother bears doze in caves, nursing their cubs. The trail leads to a meadow crisscrossed with bear trails where the huge bruins nap in waist-high grasses, poking their heads up as Aumiller sings, ''Hey bear, hey bear,'' to alert them that humans are near.
McNeil is about 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage in a roadless area reachable by float-plane near the lower shores of Cook Inlet. Most of the sanctuary guests, loaded with gear that includes camping equipment and thigh-high rubber boots, fly in from Homer, 100 miles away.
There were 1,500 applicants this year for 257 permits. Groups of no more than 10 people are escorted in to the sanctuary for four days of bear viewing between early June and late August.
''It's like you are in a kaleidoscope of bears,'' Aumiller said.
Alaska has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 brown bears, also called grizzlies. Nearly all the brown bears in the United States live in Alaska. Populations in Russia, once thought to rival those at McNeil, are proving smaller, Aumiller said.
The sanctuary was named for Charles H. McNeil, a LaCrosse, Wis., prospector who settled near Kamishak Bay in the early 1900s. He used the money from bear skins and skulls to help pay for grub stakes. When his claims expired, McNeil abandoned the property in the early 1930s.
Hunting brown bears at McNeil has been prohibited since 1955, even before Alaska became a state and took control of the reserve. The state designated McNeil as a sanctuary in 1967 and enlarged it in 1993. The sanctuary consists of a cook house, two outhouses, a wood-fired sauna and no-frills staff lodging. Guests bring their tents.
The bears don't live entirely protected. Between one-quarter and one-third of them go outside McNeil boundaries where hunting is allowed. When a bear fails to return to the sanctuary, Aumiller presumes it's dead.
Aumiller an agile man with an impish grin who still looks boyish at 60 is comfortable around bears. So comfortable that when seated at the edge of a 10-foot by 20-foot gravel viewing pad he didn't notice the 400-pound bear using the stairs 5 feet away.
''Oh, hello,'' Aumiller said, glancing over his left shoulder at Kali, a 7-year-old female as she headed for the falls.
Aumiller estimates that he's spent more than 12,000 hours watching bears during his summers at McNeil.
''Every day the scenario is unwritten. It's not Disneyland. Because you don't control it, you are accepting a small amount of risk. Something could happen,'' he said.
Aumiller carries a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with bear slugs, but he's never had to fire it. There have been 13 incidents in 29 years never when the 10-person groups are together in which bears have acted aggressively, he said. No bears or people have been hurt.
The McNeil experience is designed to minimize the danger in human-bear encounters. People in the sanctuary are neutral entities, Aumiller said. They don't hunt the bears and don't feed them, therefore, the bears find salmon much more interesting. Sanctuary guides also give the bears plenty of warning when humans are about because bears hate surprises.
Bears do occasionally wander into the camp. Guests are given air horns with instructions to only set them off when a bear is spotted in camp. The horns don't scare away the bears, but will alert camp staff help is needed. Guests are told not to run from a bear not even one step back but instead to act like the toughest thing in the wilderness. Clapping and waving of arms can usually frighten off a bear, Aumiller said.
''Hold your ground and act tough,'' he said. ''Most often it will run away.''
A 2003-04 study found that the McNeil bears are bigger than previously thought, with males weighing between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds and females about 600 pounds.
The bears pack on hundreds of pounds in the summer. A bear named Ears weighed 700 pounds when he was tagged and radio-collared in June 2003. When he went into his den several months later, he weighed 1,050 pounds.
Female bears easily can eat 75 pounds of fish a day, males even more.
Robert Armstrong watches a sow brown bear walk about 10 feet past him to fish in the falls at the McNeil River in the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary about 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage, Monday July 26, 2004. Each summer a limited number of people are chosen by lottery to watch the bears. The small number of people allowed into the 114,400-acre state sanctuary provides an extraordinary opportunity to see one of the most feared predators on the planet close up.
AP Photo/Al Grillo
''We did watch one bear catch 90 fish one day,'' Aumiller said.
Fishing techniques vary among bears. Some perch for hours at the water's edge ready to pounce. Others stand braced in thigh-high water, looking for fins. One bear dubbed ''the diver'' held his head under the water with only his rump exposed, often coming up with a fish clenched between his teeth.
One bear did a running belly-flop, perhaps hoping to impact the fish like a percussion bomb. His efforts failed.
McDougall, at 1,200 pounds, arrived stylishly late one afternoon, swaggering on to the scene to recline on the large center rock. When ready for a bite, he walked to a prime spot, displaced another bear and plucked a salmon from the water, stripping its skin and shredding the meat.
Exertion over, the big bear returned to the rock for more rest.
A young bear named Otis, alias ''the thief',"stole fish from other bears. The resulting bear brawls threatened to spill over onto two gravel viewing pads.
Vanilla, an older female, clashed with Otis over her stolen fish. The two bears stood on their hind legs, roaring and slashing at each other with their claws, about 20 to 30 feet from the humans hunched down in camp chairs on the viewing pads.
Clark, 46, of Upper Kenai, scooted her chair closer to Aumiller's when the fight broke out.
''I didn't think we'd be this close or they'd be this big,'' said the woman, who is a residential manager for people with disabilities.
Even after all these years, the bears can keep Aumiller guessing. He said he wasn't sure what inspired a young bear one evening to emerge from the marsh grass and walk straight for the group. The 350-pound bear eyed Aumiller and changed course to come closer. When it got about 15 feet away, Aumiller said calmly, ''You're not allowed to get too close.''
The bear changed direction, passing about 24 feet away.
''That scared the heck out of me,'' Clark said.
Aumiller assured the group that they weren't in danger because the bear showed no sign of aggression no crouching, huffing, flattening its ears, salivating or popping its jaws.
Bill Barnes, a 60-year-old physician from San Pablo, Calif., making his fourth trip to McNeil, said what draws him back to the sanctuary to watch bears hour after hour is a fascination with bear behavior.
''Bears are individuals, just like humans are,'' he said.
Just look at McDougall, Barnes said, no other bears dared mess with him.
''The bears have something that I wish humans had, and that's learning when it's important to fight and not to fight. I respect that,'' Barnes said.
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