At the McNeil River Falls in July and August, up
to 100 brown bears can be seen gorging themselves on the Salmon
run. It is a unique event rarely seen in nature as bears
seldom congregate in numbers anywhere else in the world. Mc
Neil River is a road less area undisturbed by development
about 250 miles south west of Anchorage and 100 miles west
Bear hunting is possible in Alaska, but female bears with
cubs cannot be killed. The bears around McNeil River are protected
Visitors to the McNeil River must be entirely self sufficient
and be prepared for the real and dangerous life in the wilderness.
A good tent, water proof clothing and hip boots are necessities
in wading through the knee deep waters around the falls. You
will need a permit from the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary
to photograph in the area to limit human invasion. If you
want to visit, demand is so high amongst photographers than
permits are issued using a lottery drawn on the 1st March
If youre into bear watching, you should treat the beasts
with respect, and stay at least 100 yards away. To minimise
bear conflicts, keep food odours to a minimum, sore food away
from camp and dont camp on known bear routes.
The Bear Facts
Brown bears live throughout Alaska, and they also
frequent Asia, Canada, Europe and a few USA states. There
is even a pit of bears in Switzerlands capital city,
Bern, whose name translates as bear. However,
the brown bear very much epitomises the face of Alaskan wildlife
and 98% of bears in the Americas live here. The concentration
of bears in Alaska range from one bear for every 300 sq miles
to one bear per mile nearer food sources and rivers.
Brown bear is commonly used to mean either brown
or grizzly bears. The brown bear resembles the black
bear, but is larger with longer claws used for digging in
small animal burrows. They are capable of running the chase
with moose or caribou. During the winter in their extreme
fatty states, a mature male bear can weigh from 500 to 1,400
pounds and standing on their hind legs can stand up to 9 ft
tall. This is not usually to charge but to test the wind and
gain a better vision. Most bears live to the age of around
20 and are born with a great sense of smell and can sniff
a meal up to a mile off.
Bears mate from May to July, June is the big month for lovemaking.
They rarely have strong ties to their mates and males often
mate with more than one female in a season. Litters are born
in the winter and range from one to four cubs, usually two.
They will stay with their mother for 2 to 3 years and she
will fiercely protect her young against larger predators and
even their own father who may attack the young. when the mother
will breed again.
The mighty beast will eat a wide range of foods, from grasses,
berries, fish , squirrels, roots and plants to moose and caribou.
They also like wallowing in human rubbish dumps if they have
Bears hibernate throughout the winter, the length depending
on the coldness of the region; some do not hibernate at all,
others further north may hibernate for up to 7 months a year.
The mother will oftenstill be in hibernation when her cubs
are born. The baby bear, who is bald and blind at birth, will
snuggle into a nursing position to suckle on her fatty milk.
By the time she awakes from her long sleep, baby bear will
be able to walk out of the den on four legs. If only child
rearing were as hassle free for humans! Half of bear cubs
die within a year of birth. Disease, predators and starvation
are all threat to a cub if it becomes stranded from its mother.
Bears are usually solitary, and do not hang around in groups,
unless there is a place like the McNeil river when
food is concentrated, then many bears may centre around the
salmon. This is why the McNeil river is unique in the world
as the site for seeing so many bears simultaneously, where
their favourite dish is dog salmon which they guzzle by the
tummy load. The bears have different fishing techniques, ranging
from observing the stream and pining down the fish to snorkelling
and diving for fish.
What to do if you come face to face with
If you're in Alaska and come face to face with a bear, there
are dos and donts. Dont run because
bears can run faster than humans and if you flee it is a natural
signal for the bear to attack. Back up slowly and talk to
it. If it charges, theres a good chance that it will
be bluffing. It its going to attack, drop to the ground
in the foetal position, put your hands behind your head and
hope for the best. The chances are, despite their size, the
bear is more frightened of you attacking its child or food
supply than it is sourcing you out for its next meal.
Its assumed that men and bears do not mix, but at the
McNeil sanctuary has proved this wrong. There have been no
cases of bears attacking humans since the sanctuary was opened
in 1972. Feeding of bears is forbidden throughout Alaska,
and no bears are allowed in camps. The bears at McNeil falls
are usually highly tense as competition for salmon is fierce
and it is rare for the bears to be in the company of one another.
But strangely for their aggressive personality, bears rarely
fight one another, the smaller bear will usually back away
but never turn and flee, or this triggers an aggressive masculine
instinct in the superior bear and he will instinctively attack.