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Where brown bears hold sway at McNeil River

Nancy Lord
Bob Hallinen

McNEIL RIVER FALLS -- Luther, the big old boy, swayed down the grassy hillside and then out onto the rock ledge, his amorous eyes on Waterfall. Droop kept his vigil below the falls, whitewater breaking around his legs. Braveheart caught a fish and slung it up a trail, followed by the covetous Ears. Plunger kept on plunging in the big pool as salmon scattered before him. Rocky cowboy-walked right in front of us, displaying his John Wayne toughness.

Wild bears don’t really have names; they’re nobody’s pets. The biologists and wildlife technicians who study them at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary are careful to say, "the bear we call Hotlips," "the bear we call Chops." It’s easier to remember a bear with a name than with a number, particularly when the name references a characteristic or behavior. The bear we call Al looks like an old leather couch; he’s practically hairless, and impressively scarred. Al is short for alopecia, the fancy name for baldness. Easy to remember.  

In the earlier McNeil days, bears were sometimes named after actual people -- biologists, family members, women who worked in the Fish and Game office. But as one of the current Fish and Game staffers put it to me, “What if the person turned out to be a jerk? Then you’ve insulted a nice bear.” It’s more “scientific,” in any case, to anthropomorphize less, to avoid human connections, to keep some distance between the species. Each bear is, nonetheless, an individual. It didn’t take my group of McNeil permittees long to recognize various bears by their characteristics and habits. We had plenty to choose from -- at any time, 20 to 40 bears were in sight at the famous falls, the Olympus of bear-fishing spots. Most were older males sporting distinctive scars from years of negotiating rank in close quarters. New arrivals appeared each day.  

At the height of last year’s chum salmon run, visitors counted 57 bears.

At the beginning of July this year, we wondered whether the bear peak might come even before mid-month. Not so many years ago, the gathering of bears was most intense toward the end of July, but the timing has been creeping forward. This year, spring and then summer came early, and already the fireweed around camp was budded at its tips, close to bursting forth.

Seven years ago I visited McNeil in the same time block. When we surveyed the falls then, cold water poured over the rock ledges in a lonely scene. Neither chum salmon nor bears had arrived. Instead, our group watched bears chasing sockeyes a few miles away, in Mikfik Creek, and grazing on sedges.  

This year, the bears had already moved on from Mikfik.

I’d like to name a bear Phenology; we could call him Phen for short. That way bear watchers and others might learn the meaning of a science we all need to understand better. Fish runs, bird migrations, insect hatches, plant blooms — the study of all these cyclic biological phenomena, especially in relationship to climate, is the stuff of phenology. A new bear, a growing bear, with his impressive presence, could remind us of the future we share in a warming world.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include “Fishcamp,” “Beluga Days” and “Early Warming.”