There are a number of places in Alaska where you can see bears, but when I heard that Admiralty Island near Juneau has a protected bear reserve and that the best way to get there is by paddling a kayak for a couple of days, I couldn’t resist. The irony: it took us three days of paddling and while we were there a crew from the Today Show flew in on a float plane to shoot footage for the following morning’s broadcast.
You can see the story online here, and see a photo of Jacqueline Yau paddling, or read the text below:
By Michael Shapiro
“Don’t run,” I tell myself as a pair of young grizzlies leap out of the forest and scamper down the beach toward us. Then I say it out loud to my wife: “Don’t run!”
We had just beached our kayaks on Admiralty Island, part of Tongass National Forest near Juneau. Our guide, Ed Shanley from Above & Beyond Alaska, had us check every pocket to make sure we weren’t carrying any food that might attract bears. Yet the grizzlies seem to be running through the drizzly afternoon straight at us.
We freeze. The Admiralty Island National Monument ranger accompanying us, Carl Koch, a former paramedic from New Jersey, says the two bears are three-and-a-half years old and that this is their first summer on their own.
Never run, Koch had said in his briefing. “Even if they are not going to hurt you they would love to chase you. It’s instinct.” Koch carries a .338 rifle but assures us he’s never had to use it.
It’s early July, the bears have been awake for a couple of months, and the salmon are running late this year, so there haven’t been many fish in Pack Creek. The bears get closer. Suddenly they’re within 20 yards of us. Jackie follows them with her camera; I implore my feet to stay planted in the sand. Then with a deft motion the bears veer left around us and shoot back into the spruce forest; they’re gone.
We exhale and share the exultation of seeing bears in their natural habitat. We’ve paddled three days to see them on their own terms, carrying all our gear, camping in the rain, becoming part of the surrounding environment. But nothing can prepare you for such a close encounter.
Our five-day trip begins on an overcast Sunday evening when we meet Shanley in Juneau, get outfitted with Wellington boots and raingear, and drive across a bridge to Douglas Island. We board a motorboat and chug through the Gastineau Channel to Oliver Inlet.
That’s where we unload our kayaks and put them on a manual tram atop rails, then begin pushing the rig about three quarters of a mile to our home for the night: Seymour Cabin. Two bald eagles in a towering spruce across the bay stand over us; we sip Alaskan Pale Ales as dusk envelops the forest at about 10 p.m. The spartan cabin has a wood stove and bunk beds, utter luxury compared to what awaits us in Alaska’s wilderness.
The paddling begins the next day but not until we portage our heavily laden kayaks about a mile through the shallow water of Seymour Canal until we reach open water. We’re entranced by the caw of the ravens, the laughter of the loons. At King Salmon Bar, dozens of seals perch on a rocky shelf, then slide into the water where they feel safer, curiously surfacing to peer at us with big aqueous eyes.
On a beach we lunch on smoked salmon, admiring snowcapped peaks – in July! – and catch sight of a humpback whale spouting in the distance. After an afternoon of paddling alongside orange and blue jellyfish, the halibut tacos for dinner complete a perfect first day.
A relentless downpour hits us the next day. Paddling into battering headwinds is futile; we’re barely making progress. So Ed, an easygoing guy, leads us to shore. In the forest, he erects a tarp to shelter us and heats some water for hot chocolate.
I pull out a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon and pass it to my wife. A virtual teetotaler, she declines, but I say, just try one sip. She lifts the bottle to her lips smiles as she’s warmed from the inside out, takes another swig then pours a generous shot into her hot chocolate.
Day three is the big day: we paddle from our camp on Swan Island to Admiralty Island National Monument, a 955,000-acre preserve on the east side of Admiralty, where bears are protected from hunting. The island has 1,500 to 1,800 coastal brown bears (grizzlies) on its 1,646 square miles, one of the highest ursine concentrations in the world.
The Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area has been established to protect both bears and people. When we get out of our kayaks we have to line our craft at least 50 yards out to sea to keep our food from the bears. It’s not just to protect us – no one wants the bears to get a taste for human food.
After the heart-racing encounter with the two juvenile bears, Jackie and I hike to a viewing area, passing paw prints as long as our feet and twice as wide.
Through Swarovski spotting scopes provided by the park, we watch as a bear with a pair of cubs catches a salmon after a long pursuit. The cubs had squealed with fear when their mama went into deeper waters and they couldn’t follow, but when she emerged with a fish they bounded with excitement.
Another bear, with silver-tipped ears and walking with a limp, trots out of the forest and heads toward the creek. She had broken her femur several years before; the rangers thought she’d die. But she emerged the next spring with a cub, showing how resilient bears can be. She lumbers over to the creek, takes one swipe with her enormous paw and emerges with a writhing salmon. Eagles circle overhead, ready to collect the scraps.
“The fact that you can just watch bears being bears, that’s what I love about this,” says Ken Leghorn, who guides day-trippers to Pack Creek via floatplane. Leghorn tells us that “generations of brown bears have become habituated to seeing, but not fearing, human presence at Pack Creek,” ever since a homesteader named Stan Price cared for an orphaned bear in the 1950s.
Those who arrive aboard floatplanes have to leave by 7 p.m. But since we came in kayaks we can stay a bit longer, and we see a large adult bear chasing the two juveniles we saw when we first got to the island. Their speed is astonishing.
By the end of our day at Pack Creek we’ve become as comfortable among the bears as they are among us. We don’t want to leave, but camping overnight is not an option. We reel in our kayaks and paddle away, leaving the island to the bears.
For multiday kayak trips: Above & Beyond Alaska: beyondak.com
For day trips via float plane: Pack Creek Bear Tours: www.packcreekbeartours.com