Alaska brings to mind some very specific images of playful sea otters, graceful humpbacks, sleek orcas, and gangly moose. For me the majestic grizzly was the one animal I hoped to see up close. Bears are fascinating creatures, protective, playful, predatory, and pretty. To be able to observe them in their own habitat without the confines of bars or fences was one of the top items on my Alaska checklist.
Since bear viewing was at the top of Geoff’s list too, I jumped into research mode finding Michelle with Island Wings Air Service. There was not a negative review to be read about Michelle’s operation, so after having both our parents jump on board, we set aside a large chunk of our vacation money to book a float plane excursion to Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory. This is not an excursion to book late. With only 80 passes procured each year, Anan Creek bear watching is for the advance planner.
So nearly one year after booking, we were boarding a van to the Island Wing’s dock where we would meet Michelle before packing ourselves into her DeHavailland Beaver named Lady Esther II. There is no hyperbole when I say we packed ourselves into the plane which seated our party of six, our bear guide, and Michelle.
Michelle was a great guide, talking to us about everything from life in Alaska, to her plane, to the bears we were going to see. She did her best to make us all feel at ease, especially my mother-in-law who is afraid of flying. Michelle told her that she had the best seat since she had no window to see out of easily.
The 45 minute flight lead us along the outer boundary of Misty Fjords National Monument before dropping us off in Wrangell where we would hike the half mile to the viewing platform. While the flight was mostly smooth, the tiny confines and bumpy arrival did not help with my motion sickness. Upon landing and disembarking the plane, my first stop was to the latrine to promptly throw up in the cleanest latrine I have ever seen.
Feeling immensely better, we began the hike to the viewing platform. The forest rangers at the trailhead reminded us to leave any and all food with them before heading down the path. We knew not to bring food, so we left nothing. The hike to the platform was uneventful and our shotgun armed guide pointed out all the signs of bear activity along the route.
We paused to look at salmonberries which bears love to eat, and come to find out so do I. Ferns and mushrooms covered the forest floor, but no bears were to be seen. Our guide pointed out bear claw marks and scat, but still no bears. Anticipation was running high, and I was so hopeful that we wouldn’t be disappointed. After all we had forked out over two-thirds of our excursion money just on this one trip.
About a half an hour later we arrived at the viewing point perched on the side of Anan Creek. As soon as we climbed the stairs to the platform, we were greeted by another forest ranger who motioned us over to the railing to view our first bear–a grizzly.
The bear was beautiful. His slick fur glistened in the misty air like overgeled hair. He entertained us like a playful puppy with his splashing and pouncing as he tried to fish for salmon for over a half an hour before catching one to eat. When he tired of fishing, he wandered upstream running and splashing in the cool creek waters and providing us with the best show.
Only after our grizzly wandered upcreek did the black bears feel safe to fish for themselves. The forest ranger informed us that the black bears don’t like the grizzlies and will hide until they leave.
One by one they started to show themselves. They climbed out of the trees, from under our viewing platform, and from across the creek bank all converging on the salmon-filled stream. In those moments, my camera never stopped snapping. In fact I was so absorbed with capturing their fishing skills on camera, I didn’t notice that a bear was literally inches from me. The only thing separating me from her was a wooden railing that provided no protection at all.
My own mama bear was watching though and pulled me away from the railing to a safer distance.
Our viewing continued for a few hours with Geoff and I taking turns capturing photos and making trips to the photo blind directly on the creek bed. In the moments when the bears weren’t visible, we focused our attention on the eagles, like winged rats, scavenging the fish carcassas from the shoreline. And when we grew board of the eagles, there were always the impressive salmon expending their energy to make it upstream where they would spawn then die.
The highlight of our trip came about forty minutes before leaving Anan Creek. We were blessed with what the ranger called, a rare appearance. A mama and her cub came out to eat. That cub was the cutest thing I have ever seen. He followed his mom everywhere. He tried to imitate everything she did including fjording the rushing stream. Smartly, the little cub realized the rushing waters were too much for him, and he ran around a rock outcropping to meet her on the other side.
His best antic though was his tree climbing. This little cub could scale the tree quick as lightning, but he hadn’t quite mastered the descent part. Stuck, he began bawling for his mama which literally sounded like he was saying, “maaam,” over and over again.
Somehow mama talked him down and the began to retreat into the forest, but not before a bear fight erupted six inches to the left of the platform. As mama and cub walked towards the forest, mama did not like something that the male bear did and she charged him. As the mama bear charged, everyone on the platform retreated to the far side. We watched in terror and awe as mama bear chased the male bear up the tree that was precariously hanging over the platform and our heads. Being around wild animals never really frightens me, but my adrenaline was pumping as I was thinking how quickly someone on that platform could easily become bear lunch.
Once mama had eliminated the threat, she didn’t pay any attention to the petrified humans watching her retreat.
After such a climax, it was time to make our retreat to catch our flight back. Our guide rounded us up and secured us a passage back to the trail. We hiked bearless to a new pick-up point up and down the rocky shoreline. As we heard our plane approach we were a little bit away from the pick-up location, so our 70-year-old guide kicked into high gear, leaving us all huffing and puffing to keep up with him.
Carefully we reboarded the plane smiling as we remembered the seventeen bears we had encountered that afternoon. Sadly, a short 40 minutes later we were returning to our cruise ship and bidding a fond farewell to Michelle. Even though the highlight of our trip was over, I will never forget that first glimpse of the circle of life completed by a fishing grizzly on the banks of Anan Creek.