After a half-hour flight south from Juneau, over what looks like complete wilderness, thickly wooded mountains and island-dotted waters, the float plane lands just off a rocky...
After a half-hour flight south from Juneau, over what looks like complete wilderness, thickly wooded mountains and island-dotted waters, the float plane lands just off a rocky spit of Admiralty Island, and we wade ashore. An Alaska fish-and-game ranger followed by a couple and their 7-year-old son greet us.
“Do you have your permits?” the ranger asks.
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We do. My husband, 10-year-old son and I had sent for them two months earlier. Planning our Alaska summer vacation, this was the side trip I was most looking forward to, so I wasn’t taking any chances that we wouldn’t be among the 24 people per day allowed during “the season” at Pack Creek.
“Two bears just went running by along the beach, right in front of us!” the little boy tells us in a rush. Like us, his family is here to visit the bears in their wilderness sanctuary.
The ranger, loosely hanging onto his Winchester .375-caliber rifle which he later tells us he has no intention of using has been waiting to see where in the forest the bears went, before allowing the other family up the one-mile trail through the rain forest to the bear-observation tower.
“But I guess now that there are more of you, it’s safe if you go on up the trail together,” he says. Not that it’s really unsafe; bears know that humans use the trail, too. Still, you don’t really want to surprise a bear.
The ranger isn’t going along; rangers stay on the two beach spits. “Best to keep talking loud,” he adds. And he warns us to stay on the trail or at the tower.
Humans are forbidden anywhere else.
He reads us the rules: All food and any drink other than water has to go into the locked metal caches, in a hole in the ground don’t even keep a breath mint on you; if you want to eat, do it at the tide line, so all the crumbs will be washed away. To have bears start to associate humans with food would be dangerous for both bears and people.
If you have to go to the bathroom, do that at the tide line, too, the ranger says. We look around the spaces are wide open; there is nowhere to hide.
The ‘Fortress of the Bears’
But I’m excited. I’m reveling in the feeling that we humans are merely tolerated guests on the bear’s home territory this place the Tlingit people named Kootznoowoo, or “Fortress of the Bears.” At one brown bear per square mile, Admiralty Island, now a national monument, has among the densest concentrations of grizzlies anywhere. (In Alaska, coastal grizzlies are called brown bears; they are genetically identical to other grizzlies, but are generally somewhat larger because they have a richer protein supply from abundant salmon.)
And we’re tolerated only as long as we behave and don’t let the sun set on us. Even the rangers’ camp is on a nearby island; no one is allowed to spend the night here, in this part of the island’s Stan Price Wildlife Sanctuary known as Pack Creek.
We’re here because it’s pretty much a sure bet to see a “brownie,” as they’re commonly dubbed, this time of year. The protected watershed has been a bear-viewing area since the 1930s.
These days, about 25 bears are recognized by rangers at Pack Creek yearly because they regularly pass through the observation area. Although they are wild something the parks people emphasize they behave a little differently than the other 1,500 bears on Admiralty.
Naturalists called this “habituation” meaning the bears have common experience with people, which they incorporate into their daily routine. Some habituated bears are shyer or more wary than others. But if people stay where the bears are used to seeing them, and do what the bears are used to them doing, the bears adopt a kind of live-and-let-live attitude.
There has never been a bear-related fatality at Pack Creek. The only time someone was injured by a bear was reported by Stan Price, who first homesteaded the area in the 1950s. He tried to get a bear out of his garden by whopping it on the nose with a stick; it whopped him back, breaking his collarbone.
Tracking the bears
It’s high tide a good time to hit the well-groomed trail leading to the bear-viewing platform. At low tide, we’d be more likely to find the bears feeding on salmon at the spit a distance away, where Pack Creek drains from the island’s shore into Seymour Canal. During high tide, they’re more likely to head for the hills.
Thickly criss-crossed with tree roots, the trail was first built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, which also built the first observation tower. It follows an ancient bear trail.
We chat loudly with the other family. We find they’re from Watsonville, Calif., and are cruising along the Alaskan coast in their own boat.
Finally we cross a Swiss Family Robinson-type wooden bridge across the creek and clamber up a wooden ladder to reach the small, roof-covered platform. Poised over huckleberry and blueberry bushes that the bears like to crunch, it overlooks Pack Creek, whose shallow waters are teeming with a late-summer run of jumping, wiggling humpback salmon.
The bears come down to eat the salmon. The people come to watch the bears eat the salmon.
We train our binoculars across the dense bushes and along the creek. Twenty minutes pass no sign of bears.
There’s a hiker registry at the platform; a check shows that this week some people saw no bears, a few saw two; two weeks earlier someone saw three. A number commented they’d seen more bears at the spit.
I start to get a little worried. After all, this is one expensive gamble. We’d opted to go without a guide which would have been $500 per person way too much money for us. But the float plane to get here was $435 for five people unfortunately, we hadn’t found anyone else to take the other two seats. Add the cost of permits ($50 for adults, $25 for children), and we were out $186 per person.
The forest service makes it clear you may not see bears, but you generally do, especially in July and August.
Bears in view
Just as I’m getting a sinking feeling, my husband, Jerry, taps me urgently on the arm, pointing in the direction opposite from the one I’m pointing my binoculars. “Bear,” he mouths. I wave my arms excitedly toward our son and the other family.
Through the berry bushes below us, about 10 feet away, a fat, glossy-black bear lumbers toward the stream, waddles over a log, disappears briefly behind shrubs, then emerges in the water.
For the next 20 minutes, we watch as he splashes to and fro, almost haphazardly swiping at the salmon, missing more than he grabs, then pulling up one and taking a bite. He makes his way to a fallen log in the stream, beneath which salmon like to hide. This late in the season, we’ve read, the bears sometimes only go for the richest, fattest part of the fish. Pawing in the waters underneath the log, the bear pulls up a salmon, splits it, chews off the head and skin and then discards the rest.
Then we see a second bear. This one also has thick, lustrous black fur. (They’re all brown bears on this island, but Alaskan browns come in many colors, from light brown to black.)
He heads in the opposite direction from the first bear, and proves a more diligent and successful fisherman, snacking steadily on one salmon after another.
When we later describe the bears to the rangers, they say these are probably adolescents. The adolescents and females with cubs are the most likely to be seen by visitors. Adult males prefer less-accessible feeding spots.
We watch the feasting and frolicking until the first bear heads into the woods. Shortly afterward, the second bear moves further downstream and out of view.
We wait a while longer, but no more appear. A check of our watches shows that the tide’s going out; viewing might be better at the spit.
Bears on the beach
Back at the beach, we dig our food out of the cache and barely have time to finish eating before my husband spots a bear in the distance, at the observation spit. A ranger admonishes us to keep together and walk below the tide line to get there, over the crunchy rocks and seashells.
The observation spot, overseen by another ranger who sets up a high-powered viewing scope there for visitors, is Pack Creek Flats, at the mouth of a large watershed that empties into an estuary. The steady supply of sand, gravel and woody debris makes it attractive to salmon. The flats are rich in clam and mussel beds, which, in turn, attract eagles and bears.
For the next several hours we sit in steady drizzle, swatting the mosquitoes that gather toward dusk, and watch as seven bears move in and out. The advantage of the observation-log site is the greater number of bears, and being able to watch them eating, sleeping and playing. The disadvantage is we can’t see them as well as we could from the platform, as they’re about a football field away.
The viewing area is also on the edge of the old homestead where Stan Price and his wife lived from the mid-1950s until his death in 1990. Price, an electrical engineer, fisherman, logger, miner and fox farmer, played a large role in habituating Pack Creek bears. He and his wife raised several orphaned cubs, who stayed in the area to raise cubs of their own. The bears became comfortable with the presence of people.
It’s getting close to twilight when a ranger points to the grass behind and to the right of us: Here they come the sow and her two cubs, frequent visitors to the area this summer.
The cubs are 1-½ years old. The sow will keep them at least one more summer, then boot them out on their own.
We’ve been on the island for almost seven hours; it’s 6:15 p.m. Our plane is due to pick us up, so we make our way back to the landing spit.
A half-hour passes; no sign of the plane. We sit with one of the rangers, who tells us the rangers leave for the winter Sept. 10. After that, anyone who comes here is on his own. The ranger says he’s ready to leave, and ready for some sunshine.
He talks about some of the plane companies being more reliable than others. One company I talked to made a point of saying that, though rare, people have been left overnight, so make sure to bring emergency gear.
Eventually our pilot shows up; we’d had a mix-up on the appointed time.
So, was it worth it?
To me, it was. We saw bears; we stayed safe. It wasn’t the only time we saw bears on our Alaska trip. Later we’d see black bears by Glacier Bay National Park, and we saw another out of the window of our woodsy B&B in Gustavus near Glacier Bay.
But to me, Pack Creek was special. We’d had the privilege of entering the Fortress of the Bears, and being a respectful part of their habitat.
Carey Quan Gelernter is special sections editor at The Seattle Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.