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Swazicar

Return to McNeil River (Alaska) State Game Sanctuary

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Swazicar

In July 2017, my wife and I visited the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska.  A brief report of that trip is here:  http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/17768-mcneil-river-alaska-state-game-sanctuary/

 

 

Visits to McNeil River are via permit only.  Permit winners have to sit out one year after visiting the sanctuary, so I was unable to participate in the permit lottery in 2018; no such limitation existed in 2019, however.  This time, I applied as a solo visitor and, presumably as a result of one or more permit winners not purchasing their permits, I was eventually contacted to say that a permit was available for me, if I wanted it.  After making and confirming travel plans, I accepted the permit a few days later.

 

This will be a brief report with a few images, primarily discussing the differences in visiting in June (in 2019) vs. visiting in July, in 2017.  In both cases, however, here's what the visitor was after:

48116004311_0bea891265_b.jpgDSCF3291 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

 

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Swazicar

In July, daily activities are almost exclusively at the falls on McNeil River, where a significant run of chum salmon attracts large numbers of bears.  Each day, visitors spend eight hours, give or take, at the McNeil River Falls.  It's a fantastic experience, but I wanted a little more variety this time around, so I applied for permit blocks in June, when bears (generally) are involved in more diverse activities.

 

This shot from the 2017 trip report shows the general lay of the land:

35924923991_93ae537aae_b.jpgDSCF0999 JPEG 80% (sRGB) by Tom Argent, on Flickr

The camp is visible to the left of the airplane's strut.  Above the strut and behind the spit that extends most of the way across the frame, is McNeil Lagoon.  McNeil River flows into the lagoon from the right; the smaller creek snaking its way into the lagoon from the upper center is Mikfik Creek.  In June, most activities focus on the sedge flats near the lagoon and on the sockeye salmon run on Mikfik Creek.

 

In early June, before the salmon arrive, bears feed primarily on sedges that line the periphery of the lagoon,  As I understand it, sedges (surprisingly, to me) contain 18% (or so) protein, so they're a very important source of protein for bears who have come down from the mountains after their winter hibernation.

48146681492_1b67a62f3b_b.jpgDSCF5135 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

Our group arrived at McNeil on 9 June.  Although there were some fish visible in Mikfik Creek, most bear activity involved eating sedges and, for the adults, mating.

48116077537_eb9735510f_b.jpgDSCF2196 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

Mating was typically preceded by "following," in which a male bear would--literally--follow a female persistently.  If she was receptive, she eventually would allow him to catch up; if she wasn't interested, however, she would keep moving or otherwise give him the slip.  In this image, a large male known as Chops follows a female.  I believe she opted not to accept his advances:

48115986861_c4f2d48f54_b.jpgDSCF2345 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

 

 

 

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Swazicar
Posted (edited)

Generally, the bears we saw in July 2017 included a larger number of large males, relative to what we saw on this trip, in June 2019.  We did see several large males in 2019 (including Chops, Ted, Ted-Like, and Hot Lips, most of whom we also saw in 2017), but it seemed many of the large males had not yet entered the area, presumably because they were pursuing females elsewhere.  The big males we did see this time around weren't particularly interested in the salmon, except as a post-coitus snack.  I think this fellow is Hot Lips, but I could be wrong:

48117031661_29581c0316_b.jpgDSCF3618 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

Most of the activity we saw this time around involved mothers, their cubs, and recently emancipated (my term) young bears spending their first days alone, after their mothers unceremoniously gave them the boot after caring for them for two-and-a-half years.  In this shot (not a great shot, but interesting, a mother, on the left, oversees the interactions of her two cubs (second and third from the left) with three young bears who are without a mother for the first time in their lives:

48153658961_06895c4232_b.jpgDSCF6423 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

Brown bears typically stay with their mothers for two-and-one-half to three-and-one-half years.  The image above shows five bears in that age range:  two still with their mother, and three without.  The two still with their mother may spend another winter with her in hibernation, or they might be chased off before them, if the mother's biology tells her it's time to move on.  Until then, however, they move as a unit, and the cubs display the confidence and bravado of children who have a 600-pound mother to back them up.

48155714967_7a2a8ca67f_b.jpgDSCF8070 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

 

 

 

Edited by Swazicar
Correct typos

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Swazicar

By the second or third day of our stay, visibly more salmon (in this case, sockeye) were present in Mikfik Creek.  To reach their spawning ground in the lake from which Mikfik Creek flows, the sockeye first had to pass a riffle, then two small sets of falls.  The riffle and the reach immediately above it were low enough in elevation to be influenced by the tides.  Consequently, the fish would attempt to pass across the riffle at high tide.  Those who were still present at the riffle when the water receded were destined to have a very bad day.

 

The riffle:

48115969591_50d89c2a80_b.jpgDSCF5062 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

At low tide, the water in the riffle is no better than ankle deep; at high-tide, it's closer to knee-deep.  Logically, but perhaps not immediately obvious, is that smaller fish have a better chance of making it to the lake and breeding than do larger fish.  Consequently, the sockeye in Mikfik Creek tend to be smaller than, for example, the sockeye at Brooks Falls, to the south.  When the sockeye start to run on Mikfik Creek, the bears arrive in moderate numbers:

48123824147_ef6dd8ecfe_b.jpgDSCF4760 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48115967796_ee7d7b59ce_b.jpgDSCF5039 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48155640731_cb12a63454_b.jpgDSCF8307 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

 

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Swazicar

I don't think I have too much more to say, as I provided the general overview of McNeil River in the 2017 trip report.  I will say that in July 2017, we probably saw more than 40 different bears per day on virtually every day of our stay.  This time around, we saw more than 20 on at least two days, and probably just below 20 on the remainder of the days.  That said, I found visiting in June 2019 to be more interesting, given the greater variety of bear activity, and the consequently more varied movements of our group.  I'll close with a few more images, but I'm happy to respond to any questions that come up.

 

48153747482_1990d29882_b.jpgDSCF7069 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48153073201_128e866662_b.jpgDSCF5644 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48153075011_3d14bbf216_b.jpgDSCF5816 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48153160927_5072e244e0_b.jpgDSCF5995 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48146601066_1527949fbd_b.jpgDSCF5327 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48116087242_8d93c1288c_b.jpgDSCF2750 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48116082637_40b3cd03ce_b.jpgDSCF2408 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

48153162687_c314b927e1_b.jpgDSCF6258 by Tom Argent, on Flickr

 

-tom a.

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Treepol

@Swazicar how lucky to win the raffle for a second time in 2 years. Thanks for your comparison TR and the lovely photos - my favourite is the shaking bear with the gulls (and it was hard to find a favourite).

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Wildship

My favorite place on earth. Was there in June 2017 and going back in August. Because of the tides only will have two days with bears.

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ice
Posted (edited)

@Swazicar

 

Hi there, I've checked both of your reports out, very informative, thanks. I've got two questions, though: 

 

As far as I understand, the permits are valid for 4 days / nights. However, if one (stupidly) decided that he / she only wants to stay 2 or 3 nights, would the fee still be the same? And what if two people applied (as a group), won and then one of the two decided he / she does not want to go after all? Would both still have to pay the entire permit fee?

 

thanks

Edited by ice

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Swazicar
6 hours ago, ice said:

@Swazicar

 

Hi there, I've checked both of your reports out, very informative, thanks. I've got two questions, though: 

 

As far as I understand, the permits are valid for 4 days / nights. However, if one (stupidly) decided that he / she only wants to stay 2 or 3 nights, would the fee still be the same? And what if two people applied (as a group), won and then one of the two decided he / she does not want to go after all? Would both still have to pay the entire permit fee?

 

thanks

@ice Here's how it works:

  • If a group of two wins a permit, but one person decides not to go, it's okay; you can purchase just one permit for the person who does want to go.  (Each person is listed separately on the application; when you log in online to purchase the permit, you can select just one person.)  The permit not being used would then be offered to another applicant who didn't win a permit in the first round.  (This is true for what they call "Guided" permits, but not for standby permits; if a standby permit isn't purchased, then it's not offered to someone else.)
  • The cost of the permit is always $525 for non-residents, even if you arrange to stay a shorter period of time.

Even if you want to stay the full four days, you may not be able to, depending on the tides; it's very important to look at the tides as posted on the ADF&G website.  The default practice is to fly in the day before your permit starts, and to fly out the day after your permit ends (staying five nights).  However, it's possible you'd have to arrive later, or leave earlier, depending on the tides.

 

-tom a.

 

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ice

thanks Tom....here's a follow up question:

 

In your 2017 report you mention that as a couple you were allowed to carry a total of 520 US pounds. Does that mean that a single traveller would only be allotted 260 pounds? (which I'd find rather little, considering that a single traveller would still have to bring almost the same camping equipment as a couple) 

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Wildship

It depends on you fly in to McNeil with. This year my weight limit is 270 pounds, two years ago it was 240 with another pilot. You can pay extra if you go over. Because of the tides my optional this year was three days or eight days which only four I could  go out to see the bears. I picked three days with only two going out with the bears.

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ice

ok, thanks

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Swazicar
10 hours ago, ice said:

thanks Tom....here's a follow up question:

 

In your 2017 report you mention that as a couple you were allowed to carry a total of 520 US pounds. Does that mean that a single traveller would only be allotted 260 pounds? (which I'd find rather little, considering that a single traveller would still have to bring almost the same camping equipment as a couple) 

@ice As someone noted above, it depends.  About five or six companies are allowed to fly passengers in to McNeil; as a practical matter, one company flies about 90% of guests, in part because they have two planes that, together, can handle all 10 "guided" guests.  The volume allows them to set prices on a seat basis rather than on a charter basis.  That company used to base weight allowance on whether a guest bought one seat, or two (a couple was allotted slightly less weight per person than was a single person.) They've changed, however, to 270 pounds per person, regardless of how many seats one purchases.

 

This year, I was told I could take up to 50 additional pounds (for a theoretical grand total of 320 pounds) at a cost of $1.50/pound. I say "theoretical" because if all 10 guests took 50 additional pounds each, the planes night not be able to handle that extra weight.  (The planes also carry supplies for staff at the sanctuary.)  As I understand it, an additional 10 or 20 or 25 pounds (at $1.50/pound) typically would not be a problem, but the company would want to know in advance how much additional weight someone hoped to carry.

 

-tom a.

 

 

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ice

thanks for your comprehensive answer

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Soukous

Fascinating  report @Swazicar, it is not a place that was even on my radar until your report. 

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TonyQ

Thank you, really interesting with great photos 

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shazdwn

Wow awesome photos. What an experience. 

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pomkiwi

@Swazicar Thank-you for this follow-up report and the excellent pictures. Very timely as I will be exploring the bays of the Katmai NP just to the south next week.

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