Bear viewing on a beer budget. That is how most people come to visit and view the Chilkoot River bears in Haines, Alaska. Higher echelon opportunities such as Brooks Falls and McNeil River in the Katmai offer a somewhat more exclusive and reliable opportunity for bear viewing. They also run toward $1000/night/person (or equally exorbitant day fees) or require “packing in” over miles of wilderness. Perhaps this is how it should be. On the Chilkoot River there are no fees, and people can drive right to the source. On the positive side, this makes an important experience accessible to many who would not otherwise be able to afford such an opportunity. It also presents its own challenges and problems. I will present a series of blogs that addresses some of the issues that put pressure on the Chilkoot River bears. The Chilkoot River Bear Chronicles.
Volunteerism on behalf of the Chilkoot River Bears
For several years I have been a volunteer working with the Alaska State Parks to help control and constrain the interaction between bears and humans. Having retired from a career in teaching, I am now a wildlife photographer and an independent tour guide working in and around the borough of Haines Alaska. I take advantage of and delight in the pristine corridor of the Chilkoot River. I fish the river for char (trout). I have documented many seasons of fledgling eagles and bears with cubs through my photography. I have come to know the critters who have made the river their home. I have shared information and insights with guests visiting from afar. The Chilkoot River corridor is one of my great “happy places.” I have felt an obligation to give back to the river and its inhabitants through my volunteer efforts.
My volunteerism is focused in the evening hours after my supper. Recently I have felt compelled to make the 16-mile sojourn to the river on a nightly basis on behalf of both bears and people. During the usual business/daylight hours (9 to 5?) the Alaska State Parks has a hired “Bear Monitor” working in the Chilkoot River corridor to help monitor and constrain the interactions between the Chilkoot River bears and the Chilkoot River visitors. Bears sometimes need instructions on how to behave. More often than not, it is the human visitor who needs the insight into common sense. People get excited when they see a bear. Adrenaline often kicks in as common sense gets kicked to the curb. While our “bear monitor” (we all concede this is a misnomer) is on duty the interactions tend to proceed reasonably and smoothly. After she retires for the evening things start getting a little dicey again.
Lots of bears, not so many fish
There are as many bears and bear families focused on the Chilkoot River as I have ever seen in my ten years working in the corridor. This surprises me since there is currently a significant shortage off pink salmon in the river. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) reports about 5,000 pinks have been counted to date as opposed to seasonal norm of 15-20,000. More on this dynamic in a later blog.) A lot of the bears are feeding on sedge grasses, which is a normal part of their protein intake. Perhaps due to the lack of fish in the river, I recently counted ten bears (three families of sows and cubs) on the Fish and Game weir (an enclosure of stakes set in a stream as a trap for fish). I have never seen that many bears on the weir.
Lots of bears, lots of humans
The number of bears concentrating around the weir draws visitors. The number of visitors and their behavior puts pressure on the bears. The number of bears puts pressure on the people, as well as pressure on each other within their bear community.
I am seeing a lot of confusion. The bears are crowding each other. The people are crowding the bears. Bears are starting to crowd the people. There is a “weir safety zone” extending a few hundred feet along the road on either side of the weir. People are directed by signs (when a monitor is not present) to keep the zone free of pedestrian and vehicle traffic when bears are in the area. A few nights ago a sow with three cubs was making her way up the river and people on the road were correctly remaining on the road while watching her family move toward the weir. I was at the southern end of the weir safety zone helping to advise human and vehicle traffic when I noticed this family of bears move up on the road and start following the pedestrians who were unaware of their presence. I called out to them to keep walking toward us at a normal pace (one DOES NOT RUN in bear country thank you). I collected the viewers and photographers who were scattered around the end of the zone, as well as the people who arrived from down the road into a tight group and we all stood quietly behind my car (parked on the side of the road) as this bear family warily passed by within about twenty feet. This particular sow is well known and very habituated to humans in the corridor. That being said, we must realize that these are still wild animals and require the respect they deserve. Bears are unpredictable creatures of habit, and I do not often see this bear travel the road in the manner she did this night. As is usually the case, I believe the human traffic at the time appreciated being given the direction and assurance of a retired middle school teacher who projects a certain sense of authority at a critical moment. The rest of the evening was spent controlling the human and vehicle traffic as bears accumulated on the weir until it was dark enough that everyone but the bears went home.
Confusion and poor choices continue
Last night was different and concerning to me. Recently (yesterday as of the writing of this blog) ADFG placed an electric fence barrier along the length of the weir to control bear access to the boardwalk used by the ADFG personnel. Bears have been coming onto the boardwalk in the course of their harvesting and placing personnel in some danger. This came to a critical situation a few days ago when Louie had to bale off the weir into the river to avoid a charge. My wife and I went up the the river primarily to see how the bears would react to this new deterrent. What I observed caused me great concern. As I approached the Safety Zone, I could see a bear up the road at the far end of the zone. People were standing within perhaps thirty feet casually photographing this wild animal with their phones and the like. I could not move up the road in my vehicle to “advise” these cavalier tourists as that would drive the bear toward them, exacerbating an already critical situation. I did drive up the road sufficiently to block the road from other vehicles behind me proceeding. In time I observed another car approaching the bear from the opposite direction, which I hoped was a measure to “coral” the bear away from the casual by-standers. When the bear went up into the woods, I proceeded carefully to the far end. I was concerned with even getting out of my car with that bear close to the road in the woods (we could see him). I did so carefully, and asked the crowd of people what they could possibly be thinking remaining so close to a wild grizzly bear. The difference between genius and foolishness is that genius has its limits. I posed my question with concern but without anger or derision (I hope) and everyone pretty much agreed they had not been smart in their choice.
Our observation of the newly installed electric fence along the weir showed that the young cubs had no problem accessing the boardwalk.
The need for a plan
Most everyone appreciates being directed with some common sense and information. More often than not I am thanked by our visitors for being available for both. I am feeling increasingly compelled with a sense of responsibility to offer my volunteer service on a nightly basis. What we need is a State Parks program that trains and schedules regular volunteers to help monitor human-bear interaction in the Chilkoot River corridor.
Remain calm, stay tuned; there will be more to come. Pray for rainy days?
Next up in the series: The Chilkoot River Saga Continues
For those wishing a quiet opportunity for enjoying the wildlife of Haines, Alaska, I offer private tours and workshops designed for individuals and couples.
I have devoted a gallery to the bears of Haines and Alaska on my Smug Mug Gallery for Bears/Wild Things.