In The Wild

Eagles and Bears of Mikfik Creek and McNeil River Alaska 2002

This trip probably started on my first trip to Anchorage in July 1997. While in Anchorage I stopped by Alaska Fish and Game and picked up a poster of a river with many bears, The McNeil River of Bears. I am not sure of how many years I’ve applied for the McNeil lottery, maybe three, maybe five. I nailed it this year because I put Ethel’s name on it.

We were out of BWI June 21st at 5:45 pm arriving in Anchorage at 11:00 pm. When my prearranged rental car got botched and a rental at the airport fell through a bit of panic set in. It was 1:00 am and we had to be in Homer by 9:00 am. ERA came through with a flight to Homer at 6:35 am June 22nd. A taxi took us to Kenai Fjords Outfitters via a liquor store (I needed Alaskan Amber for McNeil). We made it just under the 70 lbs per person weight limit. Glenn and Greg, the other two on our charter, showed up with a ton of stuff. Some of their things went to McNeil via Beluga Air.

A little after noon we were packed into an Aztec and flying over Cook Inlet. A sunny day, our third plane, a cool pilot (Russ Smith) and we were headed for McNeil Sanctuary 1 hour away. Landing at high tide at a small spit at McNeil Cove, there was no turning back now. Our 140 lbs was carried 200-300 feet to the camping area at the cook shack. Facilities at McNeil are: cook shack, 2 outhouses, a sauna, about 10 gravel tent sites and another cabin and shed.

Those there to help us with all our bear activities were Larry Aumiller (McNeil manager for 27 years), his wife Colleen and their daughter, Tom, Joe and Samantha. We were given the rules and went about setting up camp. Ten was the number in our regular permit group. Anthony Tamer, who we met at airport in Anchorage, was from Chula Vista, California. We flew into McNeil with Glenn Elison and Greg Syverson, both from Anchorage. Frank Maxwell and Jeanie Cole were from Fairbanks. Tony Dawson (no relation) and Mary Banaszak were from Anchorage also. Number 10 in our group from the Netherlands was a leading bear researcher. We were informed by the departing group that the weather started dismal but improved everyday of their four days. That was about to change!

June 23rd, 9:00 am, Larry checks with the group to see if everyone is ready for a 10:00 am departure. At 10:00 am we are on our way. Everyone in hip boots or waders, all loaded with camera gear, lunches and rain gear. Some carried 50 lbs of gear. With the rain coming down they called it liquid sunshine. Across the mud flats, wading through the tidal basin, our first stop was at the wall, a cliff like area on the other side of Mikfik Creek. Sows with cubs were plentiful. We set up photo camp at the wall and the bears came to us, again and again, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a rush. Our guides are like bear traffic cops. They redirect charging bears with a clap of the hands and some sweet talk. After about two hours we are headed towards our two mile destination of Mikfik Falls. It’s us and the bears on these trails. Moving again, we cross a slippery rock stream, march uphill, make our way through a snow bank and we are at our viewing area above a small falls on Mikfik Creek. Now it is bear fishing, fighting and loving time. Bears are fishing singularly, with cubs, sometimes together and some submarine style. Some bears watch others catch, then steal. The eagles and gulls are scavengers.

The real story is when bears chase bears. They almost always come to us. Our guide promptly diverts them with clapping and words. Our stay at this area usually lasts until 7:00 pm. Our trip to camp sometimes prolonged by multiple bear encounters.

Back at camp between 8:30 and 9:00 pm, it’s dinner time, sauna time, and party time. At home we practiced a McNeil diet (no cooking) for a week. It was ok. But once at camp everyone had stoves and were fixing gourmet meals, we were screwed. On day one of our bear viewing our cook house was somewhat divided, a quiet side and a party side.

June 24, 2004 my 55th birthday (nobody knows except Ethel, Colleen and me) starts wet. Ethel, Tony and Greg decide to stay at camp this day. A standby heads out with us. The activity at the falls was exciting. Bears, violating other bears space, fought. At the end of the day Tony and Greg were a little pissed at missing the bear fights they were shown on my digital D60. Oh well!

The fact about the 24th being my birthday got out. Glenn surprised me with a Miller Genuine Draft, ice cold! Mary had a special witch’s brew, potent stuff. The cook house no longer had a half and half atmosphere, we were one now. There was a so so sunset, and a birthday rainbow. The prettiest I had ever seen. Most did not want to the leave the cook shack, the wood was burning, the hooch was good, and the rain was coming down. I retired to the wet tent around 1:00 am and found my birthday card on my sleeping bag.

Tuesday, the 25th brought more dismal weather. No one mentioned liquid sunshine anymore. Everyone went out today. Tom and Joe were our protectors. Once we reached the falls overlook, guess what? The sun came out and stayed out. Sunny photos are the best photos and the cameras were smoking. Great bear experiences this day. Eagles and bears and fish, Oh My! More cold beer from Glenn this night. I’m spoiled.

Ethel and I opted to stay behind on the 26th. It was a weather thing. Michelle Barnes, the standby, was happy to go. The weather did not cooperate at all and the bear viewing was slim. We played that day right. Three new permit holders showed up. I did manage to keep the fire going. Wet bear viewers appreciated the warm shack. Serious rain that night.

Our last day, sky was breaking up and we got to hike up to McNeil Falls with Tom and Colleen. No bears or fish there yet, but bears along the way. Russ and the Aztec arrived around 5:30 pm to pick up Ethel, Woody, Glenn and Greg. Good weather this day similar to the day we arrived. We bid our goodbyes and back to Homer we flew. This group, Larry, Colleen, their daughter, Tom, Joe, Samantha, Tony, Mary, Anthony, Frank, Jeanie, Glenn, Greg, Ms. Netherlands, Ethel and Woody was a great group. McNeil River Sanctuary is one of those special places on Earth. If I were a mountain climber this trip would have been my Everest.

Back in Homer we stayed at Beach House B&B and Kittiwake cabin. Two very nice places not far apart near the beginning of the Homer Spit. After suffering through our second McNeil diet at camp, food in Homer was our main priority. Café Cups was our choice and halibut the catch. Homer is the Halibut Capitol of the world. Three times there, three Steamer’s Pots, halibut twice and King Crab once. Homer’s weather was even better than the seafood. Many photos were taken of Kachemak Bay with the Kenai Peninsula background. If not for our two 50 lb duffel bags we could have walked to everything in Homer. The spit is three miles long with a bike trail.

ERA took us out of Homer and back to Anchorage on a blue day, June 29th. United took us on a bumpy ride from Anchorage to Chicago. Our eighth plane took us home.

This once in a lifetime trip has to be done again. Crossing paths with any or all of our McNeil group would be a pleasure.

Ethel and Woody Dawson