In the land of Grizzlies In today's Alaska, tourists must share ground and game

March 07, 1993|By Galen Rowell | Galen Rowell,Universal Press Syndicate

Thirty-six wild grizzlies were fishing for salmon and arguing over riverside real estate within a stone's throw of us at McNeil River Falls in Alaska.

Like their human counterparts, each grizzly seemed to have its own idea of how best to catch fish. Some yawned at the top of the falls, waiting for salmon to jump near their mouths. Others used paws and claws to trap fish against the rocks. Still others swatted fish out of rapids or dived open-mouthed into pools.

During the peak salmon run in July and August, these falls are generally conceded to have the largest concentration of grizzlies within a single field of view anywhere on earth.

My wife Barbara and I were at the McNeil River Game Sanctuary, the last of three stops on our Alaskan bear safari two summers ago. The spectacle of so many great bears, unfenced and cavorting, was more powerful than any of our previous wildlife experiences.

The human fascination with bears begins with the fact that among the large mammals of North America, only we and the bear walk with plantigrade feet that touch the whole sole to the earth. From a distance, a standing bear appears remarkably human. Reports of "Bigfoot" suspiciously overlap bear habitat.

Francis Parkman's classic, "The Oregon Trail," first published in 1849, predicted that a time would come when the plains of America "would be a grazing country, the buffalo give place to tame cattle, farmhouses be scattered along the water courses, and wolves, bears and Indians be numbered among the things alaska, that was."

During the 19th century at least 50,000 grizzlies were spread across the American West from California to Kansas. Today, fewer than a thousand seldom seen and legally threatened grizzlies remain in the lower 48 states, although Alaska still has about 40,000.

But to see the bears in the wild, particularly their annual salmon orgy on the vast Alaska Peninsula southwest of Anchorage, can be an expensive proposition and often a logistical nightmare.

We had to make a 500-mile detour back through Anchorage via four scheduled and chartered flights to link locations within a hundred miles of each other. But the results were worth it. We were able to compare how the federal government manages bear viewing in Katmai National Park with how the state does it at McNeil River Game Sanctuary and how private enterprise handles it at Chenik Brown Bear Photography Camp.

We had decided to center our attention on the coastal bears of the Alaska Peninsula for two reasons. First, inland grizzlies tend to be solitary and less interesting to watch. Coastal grizzlies of the same subspecies, often called Alaskan brown bears, gather in groups beside falls that salmon try to jump during their summer run.

The second reason had to do with access and close approach. Barbara and I had already been inland to Denali National Park, 200 miles north of Anchorage just off the Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway. Since visitors cannot drive private vehicles through Denali, most people travel by free shuttle bus. On several visits, we spotted single grizzlies at a distance through our vehicle window.

Our first stop was Katmai, an isolated national park without private vehicle access. We arrived by float plane from the nearest village of King Salmon, and set up our tent in a full campground, where we had made reservations months before. After locking our food in the elevated camp cache, we went to find the bears. We didn't have to go far.

Just beyond the log buildings of Brooks Lodge (booked for months in advance, but open to the public for excellent meals), the banks of the Brooks River were alive with nearly a hundred bear viewers and sport-fishermen. As two ecstatic anglers were reeling in an arm's-length salmon and an equally big rainbow, a ranger appeared and gave them an order I couldn't hear. Their smiles vanished and they cut their lines.

Cocky cubs

Had they broken regulations? No. They were following precisely a park rule: to release your fish if a bear approaches. This time there were three. In the lead was a 600-pound mother, followed by two yearling cubs who swaggered with the cocky uncertainty new members of a street gang. They hardly acknowledged human presence, and the regulations are designed to keep things that way. If Katmai grizzlies connect humans with a source of fish, sportfishing and bear-viewing alike will be in big trouble.

Both bear and tourist visitation to the river have more than tripled over the past decade. The campground and lodge hold about 120 visitors, but an increasing number of people beat the overnight quotas by chartering 40-minute flights from King Salmon to come for the day. While we were there, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted two Katmai rangers, three fishing guides, one outdoor journalist and five tourists as saying, word for word, the same thing: "an accident waiting to happen."

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