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Bears on the water

WINDFALL HARBOR, Alaska — Last summer, my boyfriend Bjorn and I went for a three-day sun-drenched kayak trip at Admiralty Island’s Windfall Harbor. We squinted into the merciless horizon to see an orca with a hooked fin swimming slowly past us. Two brown bear cubs played in the water like they were auditioning for a Disney movie while their overheated mother lay on her back in the shallows with her paws up in the air.

The area around Pack Creek, a bear-viewing area on Admiralty Island, offers some amazing sights not far from Juneau. So for the final multi-day trip of my brother Chip’s visit from the East Coast, and the undertaking known as Operation Convince Chip and his girlfriend, Carrie, to Move to Alaska, Chip, Bjorn and I, Bjorn’s mom and dad, Nils and Lynnette, and Nils’ always-up-for-an-adventure cousin Robin took a float plane to Admiralty.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and squinting this time around. It was a bit more, well, Southeast. Rain. Bears. Fog drifting in the gaps between mountains and trees.

We flew out in two Cessna 206’s on a Sunday evening. About 30 minutes later, we landed at Windfall Island, about a half mile into Windfall Harbor, off Admiralty Island, and set up our tents.

“Want to paddle to Middle Creek?” Bjorn asked.

Middle Creek is a drainage about two miles south of Pack Creek. Last summer, that’s where Bjorn and I saw a medium-sized brown bear walking along the beach. He’d stood up, sniffed the wind coming from our direction, and kept walking.

In all the times Bjorn had been to Middle Creek, he’d never seen more than one bear at a time in that area. We had no idea of the bear show that was in store.

We dragged out three of Above and Beyond Alaska’s double kayaks (the guide company regularly takes clients on Windfall Harbor kayaking trips to Pack Creek and other places; one of the benefits of Bjorn being a part-time guide for ABAK is that they’re nice enough to let us occasionally use their equipment.)

When we showed up at Middle Creek, three bears were fishing in the drainage, one after another. Another bear appeared farther up the creek. The six of us gestured furiously to one another.

Chip whispered, “There’s another!”

And another.

Two more bears approached from a cove. One disappeared into the forest. The other lumbered closer along the shore. He disappeared into the high grasses along the riverbanks, still walking our way. The bear fishing closest to us froze, watching the grass.

The big bear emerged over the hill, lumbering closer until the first bear turned away, ceding his prime fishing spot.

Nils paddled closer from the back seat of a kayak; Lynnette, her face serene, paddled backward from the front. (Once, years ago — restrained by Nils — she attempted to clobber a flour-stealing black bear out of her pantry with a broom; perhaps a paddle doesn’t inspire as much confidence.)

The big bear now stood in the stream where the other bear had been. One after another, five bears, as far as we could tell boars, fished the creek. The big bear put his head down and squared his shoulders at us. Now we all paddled backwards. We were a ways out, but the banks at Middle Creek decline very gradually. Even where we were, it was only a few feet deep.

The big bear appeared mollified to have all cede ground to him as the alpha, and he took up fishing. He caught a fish almost immediately and dropped it on the bank. He left it there, certain no bear would dare to steal it, until he’d caught another. Then he ate both. Behind him, other bears kept fishing.

We watched this bear show for around two hours as the tide, and the mist, rolled in. Then we paddled back to the island, cooked dinner, and prepared for Pack Creek the next day.

Pack Creek, which is jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is one of Admiralty Island’s biggest draws. Every day during the summer season, which runs from June 1 to Sept. 10, an average of 12 guided permits and 12 non-guided permits are available to tourists, Southeast residents, or whoever would like to see some bears. We’d purchased non-guided permits for $50 each.

We paddled up to the designated area, where Forest Service crew supervisor Harry Tullis and ADF&G Wildlife Technician Carl Koch met us. We attached our kayaks to a rope system that pulled them out about 100 feet into the cove and put anything remotely food-like in a bear box.

Fifty to 80 percent of Pack Creek bears also use nearby Middle Creek (where we’d seen bears the night before) or Swan Creek, though, Tullis said, Pack Creek tends to draw more sows, and, subsequently, cubs, than some of the other non-habituated areas around Admiralty Island. Boars tend to avoid people — perhaps because they know they’re targeted during hunting season; perhaps because they just want more space.

Pack Creek is a different sort of place to see bears than Middle Creek. Here, they’re habituated, and the rangers and wildlife technicians are there to make sure you don’t inadvertently do something (like stand on the logs in the viewing area) that might get construed as a threat. If you’re lucky, bears gambol to within feet of you. Cubs nurse as their mothers watch you like a harmless illusion in which they don’t quite believe. Bears lie down, scratch themselves, eat grass, chase fish — all without really acknowledging you, but also without getting too close.

There are two places to see bears at Pack Creek: in the estuary, which is best at low tide, and in an elevated observatory a mile or so back in the woods, which is best at high tide. It all started with a man named Stan Price and his homestead; the remains of his time there are still visible just off the estuary. The sanctuary is actually named for him; Pack Creek’s official name is Stan Price State Wildlife Sanctuary.

The bears were more “ornery” with each other this year than normal, perhaps because of a low chum and pink run, Koch told us. Indeed, for the first few hours we watched the fishing at Pack Creek, we saw a lot of work and no fish. A mother bear charged one of her (now grown and independent) cubs for fishing to close to her.

“The bears are on edge,” Tullis told us. “They’re stressed out.”

Flood conditions due to heavy rain this summer haven’t helped, either, he said; deeper water makes it easier for fish to get away. That might be why we had such an unexpectedly good show at Middle Creek at low tide the night before.

The oldest bear Koch knows of at Pack Creek was 27, he said; in the 1990s, Admiralty Island was estimated to have between 1,200 and 1,800 brown bears. Those estimates hold today.

One biologist Koch knows calls this “bear utopia,” he said, adding that Chichigof and Baranof are comparable. As most Southeast Alaskans know, the Tlingit name for Admiralty is Kootznoowoo — Fortress of the Bear.

At Pack Creek, the rangers’ primary job is to mitigate any negative interaction between bears and human beings, Koch said. If the bears keep acting natural and everyone goes home safe, it’s a successful day.

It’s a fine art doing enough bear management to keep people safe and little enough to keep bears unafraid of people, Tullis said. Pack Creek managers learned by going to McNeil River, a wildlife sanctuary in Cook Inlet. They react with as small a dissuasion as they can, gradually escalating should they need to. On our day, we saw nothing at all threatening to people, though I’ve heard stories of guides having to false-charge bears that accidentally (while being chased by another bear) stray onto the area where people stand.

The habituation of most bears in the area doesn’t mean you should let your guard down; not all are habituated, especially if you walk the trail back to the observatory area higher up the creek. Tullis and Koch offered precautions and guidance, but were also encouraging of guided and non-guided visitors.

“Here at Pack Creek, people need to understand you can walk around in bear country on your own. You can do this thing on your own,” Tullis said.

In the estuary, we saw two mothers with a cub each. One had a yearling; one had a cub born this year. Until a week or two before, that cub had a sibling. It’s a struggle for cubs; they have about a 40 percent survival rate, Koch said. This cub strove, mewling, to keep up with its hungry mother, swimming across rising waters to follow her and trying, without success, to nurse. (That afternoon, when she finally caught some fish, he did get to eat her leftovers.)

The next day, before our float plane pick-up, we kayaked to Windfall Harbor, but the tides were wrong and a line of kayakers unloaded, improbably, from a yacht anchored not too far away. It was a pleasure, however, just to kayak along the rain-rippled water. Besides, we had plenty to keep us happy. Middle Creek and Pack Creek had provided unforgettable — and very different — bear-viewing experiences.

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Admiralty Island's Middle Creek area, located near Windfall Harbor, Alaska, is packed with male brown bears feeding on salmon during an evening low tide. Photo by Mary Catharine Martin / Juneau Empire
From left, Robin Hanley, Bjorn Dihle, Lynnette Dihle and Nils Dihle watch bears on the shore of Middle Creek on Admiralty Island near Windfall Harbor, Alaska. Photo by Mary Catharine Martin / Juneau Empire