Most Memorable Moments: McNeil River, Part 1

A much younger Mrs. WC and WC at McNeil Falls, Brown Bears in background, July 1995 (photo by Nancy Gordon)

Some Most Memorable Moments last three days. And it should have been four. In this two part post, WC describes his 1995 visit to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. WC has reported on parts of the trip before, and a few of the photos have appeared earlier, but many photos are new and this post will try to provide context. All photos are scanned from Kodacolor prints and are less than perfect, but should convey the sense of what we saw. This is part 1 of 2.

Unless you are famous or politically hardwired, you get to go to McNeil River Game Sanctuary by winning a lottery. In 1995, Mrs. WC won. In the third week of July, we drove from Fairbanks to Homer and, after one day’s delay for lousy weather, flew by float plane from Homer to the southwest shore of Cook Inlet at McNeil Cove, on Kamishak Bay.

Cook Inlet, Alaska. Homer on the lower right; McNeil Cove, part of Kamishak Bay, at lower left, Anchorage at the upper right. Wide yellow line is the path of your float plane flight. The island three-quarters of the way across is Augustine Island, an active volcano. Via Google Earth Pro.

The view of Augustine Volcano and the other volcanoes on the west shore is very impressive. The landing approach to McNeil Cove involves a loop over McNeil Falls. It’s pretty exciting to see the bears before you even land.

Aerial view of McNeil Falls from a single engine Otter aircraft on floats. Blurry because a single engine Otter’s engine vibration will rattle the fillings right out of your teeth. The brown dots are bears; the white dots are gulls and a few Bald Eagles. The viewing platform, where most photos were taken from, is the bare area at upper left.

It’s a “wet” landing; you wade through a bit of Cook Inlet to reach the shore. Cook Inlet’s famous tides are an issue. The flight can only land there in in the high tide range, so the wade across mudflats is mercifully short. You lug your gear up to the camping area – a grassy area between the shoreline and the cook shack – and, after an extensive orientation (punctuated by roars of bears from McNeil Falls) pitch your tent.

Camping area, McNeil River. Cook Inlet and Chenik Mountain the background

WC understands there is an electric fence around the camping area now, but back in 1995 it was open to perambulating bruins. They gave you an airhorn if a bear wandered too close. We had no problems.

The cook shack, McNeil River (photo by Nancy Gordon)

One of the reasons there have been no bear-human problems at McNeil is that you are required to be scrupulously careful with food. All food is stored and cooked in the cook shack. Except for packed lunches, all food is consumed in the cook shack. The staff and guests are extremely careful to make certain that the bears do not come to associate humans with food. In addition to the cookhouse, there are staff cabins and a sauna/bathhouse, where you can wash-up and, on cold days, thaw out. Otherwise, it’s wilderness.

The camping area is about 1.25 miles from the bear viewing area. It’s a pretty easy walk, across Mikfik Creek Flats and Mikfik Creek to a low river bluff, then across the bluff to the viewing area just above McNeil Falls. You stay there for the better part of the day. No one gets to leave unless all leave; you travel only in a group.

Mikfik Creek Flats, with one of the locals crossing the trail ahead of us

The walk to Mikfik was never tedious. The ubiquity of bear sign was astonishing.

WC’s hand next to brown bear print, Mikfik Creek Flats

Not just paw prints: bear scat, obvious bear sleeping spots, partially eaten fish parts and the backs of bears, mostly concealed in the grass, moving to and from the river. The density of bears was stunning.

You clear the low ridge behind the bluff and drop down into the McNeil River channel, just at the Falls. This is what you see.

McNeill Falls, McNeil River, Alaska

Tomorrow WC will focus on the bears, bear behavior and hanging out with the bruins as they go about the serious business of catching and eating salmon.

There’s a certain amount of “Kodachrome Effect” in these photos, which, in the words of Paul Simon, seem to imply it was always a sunny day. The weather on west side of Cook Inlet, where winds off the Gulf of Alaska pile up against the Chignik Mountains, is famously nasty. We had our share of wind, fog and rain. We counted ourselves lucky to have a fair amount of good weather.

Tomorrow: the Bears.

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