The Bush Sights


McNeil River State Game Sanctuary

McNeil River State Game Sanctuary Review

At the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula, 200 mi southwest of Anchorage, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary was established in 1967 to protect the world's largest gathering of brown bears. Since then, it has earned a reputation as the finest bear-viewing locale in North America, and likely the world—the standard by which all others are measured. The main focus is McNeil Falls, where bears come to feed on chum salmon returning to spawn. All those National Geographic films you've seen of bears fishing? Odds are this is the spot. During the peak of the chum run (July to mid-August) dozens of brown bears congregate at the falls playing who can slap the most fish out of the water. When the salmon are running thickest, the bears only eat the fattiest parts of the fish—brains, roe, and skin—which means the leftovers are a smorgasbord for other animals; even the plant life depends on nutrients from bear leftovers. As many as 70 bears, including cubs, have been observed along the river in a single day. More than 100 bears have been identified within a single season. Not just the sheer number of bears makes McNeil special; over the years several bears have become highly accustomed to human presence. They will play, eat, nap, and nurse cubs within 15 to 20 feet of the falls viewing pad, sometimes closer—which will let you learn firsthand that bears smell like very wet dogs. Do not think the bears are tame; they are still wild animals and the sanctuary staff makes sure that visitors behave in a nonthreatening, nonintrusive way.

To that end, no more than 10 people a day, always accompanied by one or two state biologists, are allowed to visit bear-viewing sites from June 7 through August 25. Because demand is so high, an annual drawing is held in mid-March to determine permit winners. Applications must be received by March 1 to be eligible. Nearly all visitors fly into McNeil Sanctuary on floatplanes. Most arrange for air-taxi flights out of Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula. Once you are in the sanctuary, all travel is on foot.

Updated: 06-12-2013

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