Photos courtesy of Tom Reale
By Chris Cocoles
I’m jealous of our associate editor, Tom Reale, who’s been able to get up close and personal with the majestic brown bears of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. This is not a destination everyone traveling to Alaska can make a point to stop at. Visitors are limited, so a draw takes place every year, and just a select few are allowed to go. Tom’s story that runs in the February Alaska Sporting Journal provided all the details. Tom’s photos were amazing, and unfortunately we were only able to use a small amount in his story. So while we’ll provide you with an excerpt of the story, we’re also some photos that we weren’t able to run in the magazine. Enjoy:
Visits to the refuge are very structured – you apply for a specific four-day time block. You can apply as a party of up to three people, and there are 10 permits issued for each block. In addition, it’s not cheap, it’s not luxurious, and you’ll have to give up your Facebook and cell phone addictions for a while. However, if you can jump through the hoops, you will have the wildlife experience of a lifetime.
The payoff is the chance to see these animals at very close range, to watch as they fish, frolic and fight along streams chocked full with salmon. You’ll be accompanied to viewing sites by armed ADF&G personnel members who will guide you to and from the site. The guides will stay with you the entire time, keeping an eye out for potential problems, and explaining the bear behavior on display.
The word unique is overused in describing many wildlife experiences, but it applies here in spades. Since 1967, the refuge has hosted visitors from all over the world. In spite of the very close interaction between people and some of the biggest bears in the world, according to the ADF&G website, “No one has ever been injured by a bear at McNeil River, and, since the permit program was initiated, no bears have been killed by visitors who felt threatened.”
This place offers up one of the prime wildlife viewing experiences to be had anywhere. For four days you’ll be standing and sitting on a gravel pad as these magnificent, huge carnivores walk by. It is often literally breathtaking – when a half-ton bruin saunters past less than 10 feet away, it’s not until he’s gone that you discover that you have forgotten to breathe.