McNeil River: Site Description and Preparations


And so to the Alaska Peninsula we come, seeking the limits of the known world at the ends of the Earth…A cloud-cloaked landscape, the Alaska Peninsula is accessible only by air or water. 

– John Grabowska, Katmai,  2013. Alaska Peninsula

The McNeil River portion of the trip will consist of 5 days off the grid, without running water or electricity dropped by a sea-plane in a (relatively) remote corner of Alaska that is crawling with brown bears…sounds like the perfect way to celebrate Jenna’s birthday!

Location of McNeil River
Location of McNeil River
Detail of lower McNeil River and Lagoon, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska, USA
Detail of lower McNeil River and Lagoon, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska, USA

McNeil River Game Sanctuary is about 210 miles southwest of Anchorage down the Alaska Peninsula, and 100 miles west of Homer (where we are coming from) across the Cook Inlet.  The Game Sanctuary portion of the McNeil River State Park consists of the McNeil River and Mikfik Creek drainages.  Near the beach where we will camp is McNeil Lagoon, which is formed by a long spit that almost entirely separates the lagoon from Kamishak Bay, an arm of the Cook Inlet.  Both McNeil River and Mikfik Creek drain into the lagoon, which is channeled mud flats at low tide and entirely submerged at high.    Due to the drastic variation in tides here, our seaplane landing/departure must coincide with the high tide (SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993).

McNeil River is most famous for its high density of brown bears gathering to feed at the McNeil Falls during the peak of the Chum salmon run in July.  (PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013.)

The Chum salmon run isn’t the motivation behind our mid-June trip…but observing early season bear behavior is. This means, God willing, spring cubs and families, mating, and territorial disputes.  

Historically, bears begin to arrive each year to McNeil in late May, immediately concentrating their feeding on the protein rich sedge flats.  This food source is readily available this time of year,  and a bear goes where the food is.  A few weeks later they capitalize on an early run of red sockeye salmon in Mikfik Creek in June.  The feeding behavior shifts in late June to mid-July to coincide with the chum salmon run in McNeil River (SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993).

A bear stand motionless on the top of a rushing waterfall, hold her paw up and ready to swipe a jumping salmon out of the air.  It is amazing feat of strength that this bear is able to stand so still in such a rushing torrent.
A bear stand motionless on the top of a rushing waterfall, hold her paw up and ready to swipe a jumping salmon out of the air. It is amazing feat of strength that this bear is able to stand so still in such a rushing torrent.

With regard to our trip, we have chartered a 3-seat plane out of Homer, scheduled to depart in the late evening on June 10, arriving to McNeil at the high tide.  There we will meet our guides and the 7 other visitors we will share the park with.  The biggest constraint on this trip, when compared to others, is the weight restriction of our tiny aircraft. We are permitted a payload of 775 lbs for gear and people.  Quite the challenge, considering I can easily bring upwards of 70-80 lbs of camera gear alone, not accounting for other Cub Profilenecessities, such as tents, clothing, and food. However, as this is Alaska, you are wise to must prepare for the worst and expect it. If we are lucky, the days will be spent viewing bear cubs playing in the warm sun surrounded by mosquito-free air.  While I hope a few of the days are like this, it would be unreasonable to plan on it.

Alaska Rain
Alaska Rain

 Given the current weather forecasts, we should expect a significant amount of rain during our time in the far north….we are prepared, and so are our cameras.

[The Alaska] peninsula endures a maritime climate described as “notoriously miserable”: long winters, cool summers, frequent storms . . . and sudden bursts of wind called williwaws — so fierce, bush pilots say, they can rip the numbers off a plane.”  – Grabowska, John. 2013.) 

Literature Cited:
Grabowska, John. 2013. Katmai: Ends of the Earth. Alaska Peninsula.

PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013. Interactions between brown bears and chum salmon at McNeil River, Alaska. Ursus Journal 24(1):42–53.

SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993. Brown bear population characteristics at McNeil River, Alaska. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 9(1):283–293.

SCHEMPF, J.H., AND J. MEEHAN. 2008. McNeil River State Game Refuge and State Game Sanctuary management plan. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication No. 08-01, Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

McNeil River: An Overview

Introducing McNeil River
NOTE: All photos posted here were taken in Katmai NP
McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Preserve is internationally recognized as being the world’s premier brown bear viewing destination because of its uniquely high concentration of bears living within their natural environment (Sellers and Aumiller 1993).  

Created in 1967, this game sanctuary, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has the stated goal to “provide permanent protection for brown bears and other fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, so that these resources may be preserved for scientific, aesthetic, and educational purposes” (Schempf and Meehan 2008:3).  

In other words, in McNeil the bears come first. Period.Katmai: Green Fog Bear

This mission statement is consistent with the mission statements of other ecologically significant parks across North America (such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Canadian Rockies, and even Katmai). For example mission of Glacier NP is stated as follows:

To provide opportunities to experience, understand and enjoy the park consistent with the preservation of resources in a state of nature” – NPS.gov

A difference between parks like Yellowstone and Glacier and McNeil River is that the management responsible for McNeil River has taken drastic steps to enforce their vision.  In 1973 it was determined that human visitation to the preserve was adversely impacting the bear population.  In response, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game established a strict permit lottery to limit human visitation (Faro and Eide 1974).  The bears have responded positively, and the lottery has become more and more competitive each summer. 

At any given time, only ten visitors are allowed in the viewing areas of McNeil River Preserve, which has an area of 6000 mi^2 and is 500 mi^2 larger than the state of Connecticut. 

10 people, dropped in the Alaskan bush by float plane, spend 5 days in tKatmai: Bear Screamhe midst of thousands of coastal brown bears.

Over the entire season the preserve will host only around 200 people.  Applicants may have less than a 4% chance of winning a permit. There is a limit of three people per application, and each group specifies their preferred date blocks, according to a schedule.  If you do win a permit, you may not enter the lottery the following year, so I cannot apply in 2016.  In January 2015, when I sent in my lottery application, I was not holding my breath that I would win.  McNeil River is a big deal in Alaska and an even bigger deal in the world of wildlife viewing.

The Peninsula of Bears

On the Alaska Peninsula, McNeil River State Game Preserve shares a border with Katmai National Park (I have made 3 trips to Katmai over the last 2 years).  Both parks boast high densities of brown bears. This is no coincidence, the two parks have been instrumental in the other’s success (Sellers, R., and Aumiller, L.).  The wildlife conservation efforts of the Alaska Dept. Fish & Game and NPS are to be commended. Katmai: Stroll along river

While I have not yet been to McNeil River; my knowledge is limited to the academic journals describing the region.  Based on my research, it is fascinating how divergent the bear behavior can be between McNeil and Katmai. I am eager to explore this new region on the Alaska Peninsula, and document the behaviors of the brown bears that call it home.

More to come in next blog post (time permitting):
 – Site Description – Food: sedges, chum, sockeye
 – Bear Behavior
 – Preparation
 – Goals
 – Post Trip Follow up

Literature Cited:

FARO, J.B., AND S.H. EIDE. 1974. Management of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for nonconsumptive use of Alaskan brown bears. Proceedings of the Western Association of State Fish and Game Commissioners 54:113–118.

PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013. Interactions between brown bears and chum salmon at McNeil River, Alaska. Ursus Journal 24(1):42–53.

SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993. Brown bear population characteristics at McNeil River, Alaska. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 9(1):283–293.

SCHEMPF, J.H., AND J. MEEHAN. 2008. McNeil River State Game Refuge and State Game Sanctuary management plan. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication No. 08-01, Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

Memorial Day: California Bears, Sequoia National Park

Memorial Day weekend 2015

As I am apt to do before a big trip, I try to get into the right mindset and hone my skills as much as possible.

With an Alaska trip centered around brown bear photography at McNeil River State Park set for early June (less than two weeks away), it is important to ensure you are in top condition for bear photography.   Additionally, it was Jenna’s first time seeing a bear in the wild AND doing bear photography.   The single day trip to Sequoia National Park was wildly successful. Not only did we see bears, but we were able to get close to bears, and photograph them doing what bears do.  It was wonderful practice for McNeil River.

And while the american black bear is a different species from what we will see in McNeil, and has different behaviors and environments, it is still a bear, and within the genus ursus. 

When considering all 50 US states, California probably jumps out to the casual observer as the most “bear proud” state of them all. Their flag brandishes a grizzly, the top state universities’ have grizzly bear mascots, and California’s extremely short-lived independent nation was named the “Bear Republic”.  Given all the love there seems to be for the California grizzly bear, it is somewhat astounding that this subspecies was extirpated by humans.  Hunted completely to extinction, the California Grizzly lives only on the flags and mascots.

But I am not writing about California grizzlies here. I am writing because California still has plenty of bears; albeit the less ferocious and smaller type: the American Black Bear.

When comparing brown vs black bears, many people may shrug off a black bear sighting in a location where both inhabit (such as Yellowstone or Glacier NP), some even consider it as being the less interesting species, unworthy of their attention. The black bear is more common, has wider distribution, and can be a nuisance (especially in the Sierras). The grizzly is rarer, requires a larger range, and is more dangerous.  Given all of my past trips to Alaska devoted to brown bear photography, I am also guilty of this too…but it isn’t for my lack of love for the black bear.  Yes a black bear is more common and more accessible than a brown(grizzly) or polar bear, but the bottom line is that Black Bears are difficult to photograph.

A black bear is not typically a bold animal.  Among all the large north american predators, the black bear is probably only behind the mountain lion in terms of “shyness”.  This species does not like to be seen by humans. This characteristic makes it especially difficult to achieve top quality photos.

The behavior of some of the bears we observed this past past weekend in Sequoia National Park was mixed in terms of typical “flight initiation distance”, but the relative abundance of bears present, and gave good odds of making quality images…

Lone Star Geyser Erupting

Lone Star Geyser Erupting with the sun poking through the clouds at 14:04 on Feb. 4, 2015, after a ski drop from near the continental divide. This is one explosive geyser. Its firehose nozzle shape forces the water from below with high pressure force. The fallout fell down in the form of a geyser shower, soaking me and my camera. You can see a droplet of the geyser’s spray on the front element of my lens on the left side of the image.

Yellowstone
Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park.

Seven Mile Bridge Bobcat 2015

Seven Mile Bridge Bobcat delivers again in 2015…

…and was quite active today, forcing me to trudge through deep snow to keep up with him as he made his way up and down the opposite river bank. He went after a muskrat 10 minutes before we arrived, splashing into the Madison River. I arrived to see him preening his wet coat, only to be attacked by a coyote, which tree-ed the cat. Then saw him stare down some golden eyes (who saw him and changed their direction), and finally multiple successes in the mousing effort. The warmer temperatures this year made for sharper photography, because there wasn’t as much steam coming off the river to soften the image, but this “heatwave” made things a lot warmer when post-holing. 

Yellowstone National Park, Madison River #7milebridgebobcat #bobcat#yellowstone

 

Bear 410 Weight Gains

Carefully look at the bear captured in these two photos. Would you believe it is the same bear?

Many people immediately recognize the photos of grizzly bears catching salmon leaping mid-air as the fish make their way to spawn up river. Most of these photos are taken in July at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in Alaska. But what those famous photos taken in July fail to convey is the impact all that salmon eating can have on an individual bear’s appearance over that season. These animals undergo a substantial transformation of their body’s form factor. 

The top and bottom photos contain the same bear, at two different times of the year, but separated by only 7 weeks time. Allow me to introduce you to Bear 410, an old sow at 26 years old, and a top fisher at Brooks Falls. Her nickname is “Four-Ton”, and she was one of the only bears in 2014 that I saw successfully fishing the lip, the premier spot atop the falls. In fact, while I was observing in July, none of the larger male bears were able to forcefully displace her from this spot. And she was far more proficient at catching salmon than the alpha male(s) below the falls in the jacuzzi.

These photos highlight a bear’s innate ability to eat …and gain a lot of mass in a short amount of time. I hope to see Bear 410 back in Katmai this July for what will be her 27th year in the Brooks River…
 

Yosemite, November 2014

Quick break from the Churchill processing to upload some photos from the group camping trip to Yosemite! Photos featured here are taken from Taft Point and Glacier Point.