Now that we have your attention, let’s talk about BEARS!
by Purrenrage with True Love Trucker
Hands shaking with adrenaline and excitement I frantically texted, “WE WON THE LOTTERY!” In Alaska, of course, that means you’re either going hunting, get to drive the Denali National Park road, or you get to go into the wilderness and view bears. Ours was the latter, and we immediately began to plan our “girl’s trip” of a lifetime to watch bears at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.
Most “Girl’s Get-Aways” probably don’t involve roughing it in a tent, and float plane rides into the back country completely off the grid, unless you live in Alaska. True Love Trucker and I met playing roller derby, so we were all about adventure, a little danger, and exciting life experiences. The hardest part of the whole experience was trying to call each other by our real names vs. derby names while with non-derby people. I finally gave up on calling her Jill-it felt too weird coming out of my mouth. She managed to call me Emily a few times and then resorted back to Purr (short for PurrenRAGE). I knew that even if it rained the whole time and we rode the metaphorical struggle bus that Trucker’s effervescent and infectious personality would make the adventure fun.
Our floatplane landed in the water, next to our camp on a sandy beach at high tide. A biologist named Beth offered me a piggyback ride from the floatplane pontoon to the shore, so I would not get my shoes wet. I had immediately made a new friend. Our group and the sanctuary biologists formed a daisy chain half of us wading in the ocean and half on the beach, to pass gear and backpacks from the plane to the shore, and then hauled our 300 lbs of gear and food up to camp in rusty wheel barrows. Fireweed painted the landscape a glorious shade of pinkish purple. From the bear viewing overlook at camp, we could see four bears out on the spit right away, the sun sparkled on the water, and the mountains painted the perfect backdrop. This was paradise.
Camping with bears sounds dangerous, but special precautions help assure safety for humans and bears alike. The sanctuary was founded in 1967 after gaining popularity in the 1940’s for high bear activity. Currently the sanctuary holds the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. Bears have been conditioned over the years to stay out of camp, and all food and scented items are kept in the cook-shack to take away the temptation of a young curious bear. In the history of McNeil, there have been no injuries, or deaths to bears or humans due to a negative interaction. The pristine safety record made me feel at ease and oh, so excited. The floatplane flight was actually the most dangerous thing about our trip, those things fall out of the sky on the regular.
Our guides to the bear-viewing experience were extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the bears. Larry Aumiller, retired sanctuary manager of 30 years, was witty and especially fun. He is modest and won’t tell you up front, but there is a whole book about him and his bear adventures called “In Wild Trust.” When I reached the mainland, the first thing I did was order a copy of his book online. I wish I would have known in advance so I could ask him if he would put our names on his list of most memorable visitors, how he avoided cow parsnip while hiking naked that one time, and about the bear that was bouncing on his inflatable raft. Larry nicknamed us the “Glitter Girls”, as between the two of us everything we own is either pink, neon pink, purple, and/or sparkly. We nicknamed him “Gandalf the Orange” (he gave us Cheetos and guided us to down winding hobbit trails). Larry taught us about bear behavior and how they think differently than humans. One bear (we nicknamed Kanye West) kept stealing fish from another bear (that we nicknamed Taylor Swift). We told Larry that was a real “dick move.” He explained that maybe it gives Taylor better survival skills, and that bears see the world differently than humans. We taught him that the proper response to a bear walking up from out the brush is a spirited, “OoohoooOoh!”
The bear-viewing permit program limits the number of humans allowed to trek out to see bears in their natural habitat to 10 people a day. Our group of permit winners had a great sense of humor and were very chill about being near giant, potentially deadly wild animals. Getting dressed to see bears involves donning on waders, classic Alaskan XtraTuf rubber-fishing boots, filling your backpack with a day’s worth of snacks, and having plenty of purified water. A hike through tall swamp grasses with evil cow parsnip takes you to a lagoon where the bears fish. We were told to hike in a single file line and stay close together. Trucker would relay messages to the rest of the group in roller derby terms; on multiple occasions she yelled, “Pack it up!”, if one of our many photography buffs in the group fell too far behind. We watched the dynamics of bears fishing, playing, and being dicks (stealing each other’s hard-earned fish). Years of studying the bears has created guidelines for safe bear viewing. Sometimes you need to be loud to let your presence known, and trust me; we were GOOD at that. Does giggling manically alert the bears of human presence? YES! Other times, we sat quietly and watch the bears in hopes they would come closer. The goal for all visitors is not to disrupt the normal day-to-day bear activities. The more predictable we can be to the bears, the less likely they are to perceive humans as a threat.
After spending time at the lagoon, our group would hike to the falls up river. We would sit on either the lower or the upper level of the viewing platform and observe the bears. An obvious and observable bear hierarchy existed, with the seagulls who also had a hierarchy crowded around them screaming and vying for scraps. Multiple bears fished for chum, each with a different method of catching their prey, and a preferred fishing hole. One bear looked like he was just sitting in a bubbly hot tub (we called him Hot Tub Time Machine Bear) he rarely moved, and now and then would just scoop up a fish from the river! Another bear just kept jumping in the rapids, making a giant belly flop splash each time. The biggest stockiest bear, and clearly the boss, named Chops, caught more fish than all the other bears combined (we called him The Godfather). Chops was territorial about his fishing spot, and rightly so. Tina Fey (the allegedly sassy bear), tried to hone in on Chop’s fishing hole, and was chased upstream where he laid exiled, only able to watch the other bears fish for the rest of the day. Ted-Like, a very beautiful old bear with a deep scar on his nose moved slowly through the river grabbing some fish scraps. He carried the scraps up to a comfortable grassy spot adjacent to our viewing platform, where he ate, napped, and watched the world go by. Watching the bears fish, eat, and do all the bear things made the time fly by. Trucker painted the bears and scenery with watercolors while I took thousands of photos. At one point Trucker looked at me and said, “This is the best day of my life.” I felt the same way.
We spent four days with the bears, and I would trade my sparkly pink and purple derby skates for boring brown XtraTufs in a heartbeat to go back tomorrow. Camping with bears was one of the most interesting, awe inspiring, and profound experiences of my life. As the floatplane approached to take us home, a mama bear with three yearling cubs walked down the beach toward us. I took a few last photos, and said goodbye to a place that will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Learning about the nature of bears and visiting the game preserve was a priceless experience. Many people don’t even know that this experience exists, and to those who are far away I hope you can live vicariously through my adventures. I feel so lucky to be an Alaskan and have opportunities like this in my giant backyard. Where else in the world can you walk around with bears every day and enjoy the beauty of nature with experts? This experience and the sanctuary are currently under threat by the potential existence of the Pebble Mine. The impact of the mine on salmon and the fishing industry that relies on Bristol Bay for jobs and food, is currently under much scrutiny, but many people do not realize the close proximity of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to the proposed mine. It will put the bears, their food source, and decades of bear research and positive human interaction at risk. The protection of brown bears, fish, and wildlife was the goal when the sanctuary was established. Noise pollution alone from the pebble mine could influence bear behavior, albeit the whole project directly violates the purpose of the founding principles of the sanctuary. Humans long to be close to nature, but environmental concerns are being pushed aside for profit and political gains. Why are we ignoring the bears and jeopardizing a pristine untouched corner of our planet?
After Alaska Governor Dunleavy’s meeting with President Trump, EPA protections of Bristol Bay salmon were dropped. We’re talking about the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world here, which many would consider a priceless treasure. The lack of transparency in this project and permitting procedure behind closed doors raises reasons for concerns. Pebble mine is a project of a Canadian owned company called The Nothern Dynasty Partnership. A letter from Governor Dunleavy to an investor conveys his dedication to allow the mine to be permitted without opposition, or as he says, “frivolous and scurrilous attacks.” What’s in it for Governor Dunleavy? He promises a “fair and just permitting process.” His statements suggest the fate of the project has already been decided. A thorough environmental impact study is essential and fair. The bears and salmon are a part of Alaska deserve a voice in this process. Are we putting a price on the environment? Moving forward with the mine, and blatantly ignoring all of the negative effects for the short-term gains of a few politicians and mining executives seems like a real “dick move.”
About the Glitter GRRLs
Purr studied biology at Michigan Technological University, and has a Doctorate in Pharmacy. In addition to being jammer for Rage City Rollergirls, she is the wrangler of two brown dogs, an amateur photographer, an avid outdoorswoman who enjoys hiking, fishing, biking, and making snow angels in Alaska’s outdoors. When she’s not outside, or lighting up the track in a blur of spinning pink glitter and gusto, she works as a pharmacist in Anchorage, AK. She is the best person to travel in the backcountry with as her first aid kit is on point!
Trucker, studied Fine Art and Psychology at the University of Montana. While she is currently retired from skating, she spends as much of her time outdoors as well, and considers herself to have the coolest job in the world as the Director of Development for the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, an organization dedicated to conservation of wild habitats and wild animals. During the winter months, she stays warm by spinning wool into yarn, and knitting warm wool bits! She is the best person to have nearby during an apocalypse.
These opinions are their own.
What can I do to help the bears? KEEP ALASKA WILD!
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Check out the BEAR adventures of The Glitter GRRLS at Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. #glittergrrls #bears #alaskalife #keepalaskawildTweet
Shop our Teespring store, where all profits will be donated to groups dedicated to protecting Alaska’s wildlife. We’ll be giving all proceeds through the end of 2019 to Friends of McNeil River and then switch it up!
Dear Senator Murkowski,
The bears of McNeil River are magnificent and precious creatures. However, the Pebble Mine threatens the environment of their home. The ecosystem relies on a delicate balance of predator and prey, and McNeil bears are known to travel and eat salmon from rivers near the proposed mine. A threat to the salmon is a threat to the bears. The world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and largest population of brown bears are not worth trading for anything. Noise pollution alone could disrupt the everyday activities of the bears, and years of positive human interaction that produces world class bear viewing could be destroyed. The McNeil bears are a true Alaskan treasure and deserve our respect and protection. Please help preserve our wildlife for future generations.
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We appreciate your comments! To all the trolls out there, Purr is a high level Druid that turns into a bear. She tends to roll above 15 quite frequently and has a sparkly D20.