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.

Katmai After Hours: The Story of 856 and 402

The “What”

I was in Katmai National Park July 17 – 21, and during that time I had the opportunity to observe the courting behaviors of the now famous couple: bear 856 and bear 402. 

402 next to the platform
402 next to the platform

Before I left for Alaska last week, I had been aware that 402 had abandoned her yearling cub and may have gone into estrus while big and burly 856 was hot in pursuit (thanks to Having this knowledge in the back of my head, I understood the motivations behind the playful teasing and flirting when I first witnessed it between these two bears at the falls. Given how low salmon counts were and, at times, driving rain, this courtship became a source of comic relief for those of us on the platform, and we projected our human emotions onto the couple.  Several times 402 came inches from the platform, and when 402 was near, you knew 856 wasn’t far.  At times their behavior was cute, but most of the time it was as you would expect from a bear: aggressive.  856 behaved like a jealous boyfriend. He would let his frustration be known to his fellow bears at the falls by frequently chasing them off. But who wouldn’t be frustrated after a fruitless week or two of female stalking?

Sharing the falls
Sharing the falls

The “Who”

July 20 was a beautiful day in Katmai, sunny, warm, and a cloudless blue sky, and a far cry from the washout on the previous day. Despite the nice weather, the salmon counts were low (at most 2 or 3 jumping the falls in a minute) and the bear activity at the falls reflected this.  The sub-adults and cub-adults were doing their belly flops in the riffles and Otis was in the jacuzzi.  Despite this lull, Meril and I maintained our position at the falls from 08:00-23:00.  By mid afternoon, 402 (for the non-bear community’s sake lets call her what the bearcam watchers call her “Brooke“) came up the river with 856 shadowing close behind (lets just call him “Hank“)  . They continued to play this mostly one-sided game of follow-the-leader.  Hank’s aggression was clear to everyone- human, bear and seagull- he even drove Otis away from the whirlpool. As the shadows began to make their way across the river, and the quality of light increased, Brooke decided, while Hank observed, to tease another large and dominant bear…

Bear 747 had been fishing in the jaccuzi when he decided to climb the waterfall and stand in the sun.  Brooke got up from the bank she was sitting on and went up to where 747 was standing. The angst was instantaneous for Hank. The agitated big bear jumped the falls to be by Brooke’s side, and a small standoff ensued. Hank and 747 settled their dispute like true bear gentlemen, requiring only jawing and light pawing. Once it was settled Hank took his prize and headed away from the falls into the woods…I thought it would be the last I saw of the pair that evening…

Bear Business
Bear Business

The “Deed”

Grazer walks in on something she doesn't want to see
Grazer walks in on something she doesn’t want to see

At 21:40 we decided to leave the falls and make our way back to camp along the walkway. We had an early morning boat ride to Margot and could use the rest. We passed through the heavy metal gate closest to the falls, and were stunned to observe what was in front of us.  Brooke and Hank, right before us, getting it on, bear style. The coupling was hot and steamy. Literally. There was steam escaping between their wet bodies in the forest light. There was a lot of snarling, nuzzling, ear nibbling, and vicious growling and biting. As the steam picked up, they heard a noise and quickly scattered. It looked like the farmer’s daughter and the traveling salesman were busted. I could see Grazer (blondie with big ears) up on the hill, but Grazer could not see the couple, and the couple could not see her. Both sets of bears tried to sniff out who or what was there. When Grazer realized that Brooke had suddenly spotted her. Grazer didn’t need any further instructions, she took to her heels and sprinted up the hill away from them, but Brooke chased after her, and Hank chased Brooke.  Brooke and Hank made a short, but speedy, loop on the hill and returned to the same spot they were before. Without skipping a beat, Brooke and Hank were at it again – the Grazer disruption lasted 54 seconds in total (according to the time stamps in my photos).

Small bear at 23:00 looking for salmon at the mouth of the Brooks River
Small bear at 23:00 looking for salmon at the mouth of the Brooks River

In its entirety, the mating session lasted about an hour, and during that hour Brooke and Hank moved and changed positions. It seemed that several times Brooke tried to tell Hank that she wasn’t having much fun anymore, but Hank didn’t seem to care, and would growl or cuff her when she objected. At one point while pointing my 600mm lens at the bears, I whispered down to my friend Meril who also had his 600mm out:  “This isn’t weird, right?”

At the end, when both bears separated, and they began to vigorously pull tufts of grass and eat it. Then Brooke skipped off towards the river. Hank still followed, but with the deed done, he moved with less urgency and even found the time to stand up and get a good backscratch on a tree…

We were left with a 1.6 mile walk back to camp, and a lot to discuss along the way.  And there were plenty of other bears still out as we reached the lower river in the gentle Alaskan summer twilight…

More Blog Posts to follow on the results of this trip.

Link to Meril’s Photos

Grizzly Mating

Previous Katmai Posts

2014 Katmai: Pre-Spawn Preparation
2013 Katmai: Gear People Bears
2013 Katmai: Bear Behavior
2013 Katmai: Float Plane Lift
2013 Katmai: Cubs
2013 Katmai Packing List
2013 Otis Eats a Salmon

The gallery below is in chronological order, the events on July 20 unfolded in the order shown (the first photo is from the day before):

Back to Alaska: Pre-Salmon Spawn Preparation in Katmai

While sitting in my Mountain View office counting down the days/hours, it is difficult to contain the excitement I feel before my return to the Alaska Peninsula and the coastal brown bears that live there. 

July is all about the falls. Brooks Falls.  In the pre-salmon spawn days, this fall line acts like a speed bump, and delays the salmon’s arrival at its spawning ground.  This bottleneck also happens to be the spot where the bears are at their highest concentration. In some years 70 bears have been recorded in the river at one time, jockeying for prime fishing spots. The falls typically feature the largest and most dominant males, but at times there are some bold (or starving) females+cubs. It is at the falls that I will spend the bulk of my time on this trip.

In preparation, I have been viewing the webcam, scouting the behavior trends of the bears. Based on the behavior of the last week, as the salmon run started to ramp up, most of the activity was early to late afternoon, and continued long into the evening and after midnight (sunset is after 23:30).  Another good sign is the salmon have really started jumping today, with much higher frequency than in previous days. This is an important consideration because, like the bears on the falls, we humans may have to share time on the platform. So it will be good to know when the best times to be on the falls platform is. 

As such, the photography may take a slightly different focus than other wildlife trips.  First, the bears are going to be close. So close that my 600mm may not be the most practical focal length.  Of course, I am still planning to bring that behemoth and will use that predominantly with the 1D-X, but lets see what my secondary lens on the 6D will be.  Most likely will keep the 70-200mm at the ready, but am planning to bring my 300mm F/2.8 and give that a bit of a workout. At the moment, my plan is to be a “normal” person and only have two cameras strapped on, but this concept will be cancelled upon arrival and you will be able to see me with three massive body+lens combos (if I decide to re-activate the 1D-IV and use it with the 300.)

Only time will tell….

In the mean time, I finalize my trip preparations and read “The Beast that walks like Man: The Story of the Grizzly Bear” by Harold McCracken (1955)….see you in Alaska..