If you’re having one of those days where it is just tough to get going, have no fear, you’re probably not alone!
Well, maybe this little, well not so little blurb will wake you up. Imagine Flying home only a few hundred feet over the ocean thru banks of fog as your plane threatens to fall from the sky; or looking eye to eye with a massive Grizzly Bear practically close enough for you to touch. Man, it all happened and iit was off the charts. Where did all this go down you ask? The McNeil River Falls in the McNeil River Brown Bear Sanctuary. This place was always on my radar as a "bucket list" must do. I know now that I had been confusing this place with the famed Katmai National Park. Turns out they border each other, but they are separate entities. They also are entirely different experiences. Both require that you be flown in by float plane. That is no cheep endeavor. Spindy as it may be, that flight takes you to a place that is almost unreal. I have to say I concur with every other person I know who has been there when I say “it was worth every dollar”.
If you have ever seen an image of a bear on a waterfall catching a salmon the odds are it was taken at one of these places. What I have come to learn is that Katmai is a little more “city person friendly”. Katmai has a lodge, running water, power, and paved trails. McNeil on the other hand offers some great gravel tent pads, a cook shack, and a sauna (of sorts). Oh, the park staff have a little cabin each, three in all. The only running water at McNeil is water in the nearby creek, or the water that you're pumping thru your filter. Yes, you have to purify the water before you can drink it. Now, as most of you know that is way more my style than a lodge. As much as I would enjoy the accommodations at Katmai, the back country style of McNeil added another dimension to the experience. It just puts you more in the experience rather just bouncing in and out of it as you go from a Lodge to the viewing area. We were living pretty much in the viewing area. In fact they counted over 100 Bald Eagles from the camp one morning and bears often walk right by.
Here's an Eagle we saw on the Spit a stones throw from our campsite.
There was a 2+ mile trek to get to the falls. The trek included a river crossing. With all the rain we were warned it might get pretty deep. Juanita opted to duck-tape the top of her hip waders to her pants, completely sealing out the elements. The trek to the falls also included slogging thru mucky, silty, sulfur smelling river banks. The suction created as your foot all but disappears in this stuff seemed like it was powerful enough to pull your entire boot off … for that matter, the suction sometimes seemed like it could pull your entire body in. At 6’3 I am no feather weight. Add an additional 45 pound pack filled with camera gear and you can see how falling into this muck would be no pretty sight. A funny sight for sure, but not pretty. No one fell, at least not there. There were a few spills along the way though. That bear scat is pretty slick stuff. LOL, kidding, it probably is, but I don’t think that’s why people took the spills. They just took a wrong step, slipped on the grass, slick wooden walkways, or were paying attention to the sights that surrounded us and not their footing. Easy to do in a place like this, I took a misstep or two myself, but never bit the dust : ). My fleet footed partner also emerged unscathed. Thanks to her umpteen layers of gear and duck tape job she remained cozy and dry too. No easy feat considering the second day was basically one of perpetual rain while being seated in a virtual wind tunnel. The wind would come in off the ocean and just whip up the river flats. I think some of those guys with us had nicer rain jackets for their cameras than I did for my own human self! My camera never left the bag a lot of that day.
A shot of the camp. Three staff cabins, two pit toilets, a cook shack, and a sauna. Oh, and a bunch of tent sites.
Ah, the weather. Well, what can I say, it’s Alaska. We had periods of sun, clouds, wind and rain, no snow though : ). The first day we were there was decent, the best one actually. It sort of deteriorated from there. Hence our nearly getting stuck out there for two days more. Short story is we had to get dropped off at a backcountry cabin on our way out and they were not sure if they would be able to come back and get us. The weather was moving in pretty hard, and visibility was anything but good. I was sleeping, but apparently it was a pretty bumpy ride home!! The few times I was up, I did see some ocean waves, and Otter or two, a lot of fog, and my fiancee gripping the door handle pretty tightly. Apparently she almost tossed her cookies. I admit, there was one free fall where suddenly my hands were at eye level until I slowly lowered them back down. Who needs Disney and Universal Studios with local rides like this trip!
The neat thing about this place is it's all about the bears. You wait patiently for a bear to do what it wants, then you go about your way. In stark contrast to the way we move about on the trails around town the movement and pace out there is at a snails speed. Makes sense, the last thing you want to do it startle a bear. If you look at most of the attacks that do occur it almost always involves someone scaring a bear. Here, there were no such surprises. It helps also that they have been using the same routes and been in the same areas for 40+ years. The bears have seen people before, they are habituated if you will. With the Sanctuaries management they do not have a taste for human food, nor have they had negative experiences with humans that alter their normal behavior. As we went to leave in the morning on the first day we had to be a little patient. Someone was on the trail before us and had the right of way.
He was not there long. He saw us, took a few sniffs of the air and slowly sauntered on down the trail. Speeding ahead in the story, we moved forward too. Where to? The Falls, but we checked out MikFik Creek first. What did we see? Some pretty cool stuff. Stuff like this ..... more to follow once I finish editing (and get some sleep!)