Book Excerpt: A Career In Bears

Guest and lots of bears.

Editor’s note: Larry Aumiller might just have one of the best jobs in all of Alaska, especially when you consider his office setting and work buddies: the majestic brown bears that call Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary home. The protected land and its ursine residents are so popular, potential visitors must participate in a lottery draw to earn a precious permit to view the bears (Alaska Sporting Journal, February 2014). Aumiller has been the head poobah at McNeil since January 1976, and as you can imagine the veteran bear savant has plenty of stories among 30 years’ worth of his adventures, including on his very first day on the job, when a young and enthusiastic brown bear hijacked his raft and gear before Aumiller yelled loud enough to shoo away the animal. Author Jeff Fair has compiled many of those memories in a new book. The following is an excerpt from In Wild Trust, published by the University of Alaska Press and reprinted with permission from the author. 

BY JEFF FAIR

PHOTOS BY LARRY AUMILLER 

Never, ever step between a mother bear and her cubs. This is the cardinal rule in grizzly or brown bear country. Most of the Northern Hemisphere has heard this maxim by now, and all nine of us knew it well, long before we came here.

It is the evening of August 7, 2005, and we are hiking down along the McNeil River – home of the world’s largest concentration of brown bears – in Southwestern Alaska, 100 miles from the nearest digression of the road system. We have left the observation area at McNeil Falls and hope to reach our tents and the cook cabin at the mouth of the river before the incoming tide renders the broad estuary flats uncrossable. As we descend a low bluff toward the flats, however, we encounter a delay. To our left we notice two young brown bear cubs at play. To our right, 50 yards from the cubs, stands their mother, snout deep in a fat chum salmon but with eyes averted in our direction. Our route of travel (proposed) goes right down the middle.

Our guide on this day is Larry Aumiller, manager of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). Fit, trim, of average height, he’s in his standard uniform: flannel shirt, hip boots, sweat-stained ball cap, beard, and backpack.

Careful and conservative as he is in such situations, he has suggested we pause here. One of his guiding tenets across three decades in this job is to not intrude enough to change a bear’s behavior, and he’d rather not disturb this young family. Aumiller carries a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs, a state requirement, but in 30 years here, he’s never had to shoot a charging bear and he prefers not to spoil that record. The weapon remains lashed to the side of his pack.

So we wait. We make a modicum of noise to subtly reiterate our presence. We watch. One of the cubs rolls over onto its back, unconcerned. Opposite him, the female peers at us, then reinvests her attention in the salmon she is dissecting. She turns her back to us.

Minutes pass. Aumiller scrutinizes the situation. He’s watched this bear, the Spit Bear, tend her yearling cubs all summer and knows that she’s a little less protectively aggressive and more likely to allow them to wander farther away. Finally, he suggests that we move slowly as a tight group down to the beach, then turn hard right and proceed along the base of the bluff, which will take us fairly closely past her but never put us between her and her cubs. An eagle alights on the beach out beyond the mother bear, which moves off to investigate, giving us a little more room. We commit ourselves and make all of 10 yards’ progress before the female moves all the way back, past her fish, to the base of the bluff. We halt. She sits down, back to us again.

Meanwhile, the cubs have moved farther off in the opposite direction. Aumiller takes it all in. “Anyone bring camping gear?” he says. The answer is no, and he knows it. His touch of humor helps calm the tension.

“Any volunteers to test that old maxim about a mother bear and her cubs?” he inquires. None step forward. “Well, let’s see; who can we afford to lose? We have two accountants in the group, don’t we?” Nervous laughter.

Someone brings up the old joke about the slowest runner. Mom rolls us an attentive glance. More long minutes transpire; the tide seeps onto the flats, slowly but perceptibly rising. Aumiller eyes the bear closely, the tide, each one of us.

“OK,” he says, “how about we try breaking the rule this one time?”

He isn’t kidding. He has a strong measure of this bear’s unusual tolerance and has assimilated the cues from her behavior this evening. And, he points out, we’ll still have room to react to her behavior – to retreat if prudent.

It’s Aumiller’s judgment that must prevail, and he offers the group little time for worry: Stay close together, look slow but walk as fast as you can (looking slow) – and off we go, bisecting the bear family and the cardinal rule with ten human spirits and the Aumiller acumen for this specific and unusual case.

Mom reels about immediately to watch us. We proceed (not looking that slow, I’m thinking) into the estuarine shallows toward camp and salvation. She moves, deliberately but unhurried, perpendicular to our course, toward her delinquent cubs. We keep going; she crosses our trail behind us, pauses to sniff and look our way, then ambles on toward her offspring, never once offering an interpretable threat.

Aumiller in the lead, we wade into the deepening estuary. Half a mile later, ascending the shallows back onto hard ground on the other side near camp, he stops and faces us with a grin, offering high fives to each as we pass – a parody of himself and all that he stands for – as though we’d just escaped a certain death. He knows, and we do too from his drollery, that this is not a case of beating the odds. This is a case of knowing the bears. (And of getting back to camp with the cold, incoming tide barely below the tops of our boots.)

Larry Aumiller ready to guide.

IN 1967, THE NEW Alaska State Legislature, driven by major movers, including Clem Tillion, a state senator from a small town across the bay from Homer, and Jay Hammond, created the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, closing to hunting, mining claims, and other development 131 square miles (later expanded to 200 square miles), including the McNeil River and Mikfik Creek, that little creek to the south, which also drains into McNeil Cove, in order to forever preserve this unique congregation of bears. The legislative act presented the sanctuary’s priorities: First and foremost, to protect and maintain this concentration of brown bears; and secondly, to provide for human use, including viewing, research, photography, and so on, in such a manner as not to obstruct the first priority. It should be noted that state sanctuary status is the highest level of protection available through Alaska state wildlife management; the closure was deemed appropriate and necessary in order to protect this rare gathering of brown bears – the largest in the world. The following year the McNeil Sanctuary was declared a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior. There seemed to be little disagreement then about the area’s importance or its precious nature.

Sometime during those same months, ADF&G hired Jim Faro, a sentient biologist and hunting-minded conservationist to work out of King Salmon, some 85 air miles southwest of McNeil Falls, covering a huge region of Southwestern Alaska.

Participating in a brown bear research project at McNeil in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was not a job priority for him but rather a personal interest, Faro noticed how human visitors were crowding the bears at the falls, and in fact driving them away. Somewhere there is a photo of a photographer’s blind erected on a large rock in the center of the cascade, ruining shots from both banks of the river and asking for trouble. Trouble in the form of risking the bears’ reputations and his own physiology by encouraging such close proximity to the bears and their food. The private airplanes parked on the beach and the scattered, unmanaged campsites with food to lure in the bears were asking the same. One summer day, an off-season bear guide, there from Kodiak to take photographs, walked up to within 15 feet of a sleeping bear and her cub, startled them awake, and elicited a rush from the mother bear.

He then fatally shot her in the back after she quit the bluff and turned to run away. Faro found it necessary to kill the cub rather than let it starve or be injured by other bears. This he detested. The tide of unregulated tourism was rising, and in his mind this was the last straw. McNeil had been discovered, and its magnetism was tripping up the delicate dance of bears and salmon and fouling the very objectives of sanctuary formation. Faro recognized the value of this wild nexus to the bears and to all walks of Alaskans and wildlife watchers, and pondered the pressure of human stampede it could handle.

McNeil falls with people.

MEANWHILE, ON THE LAST day of summer, 1970, a dull black Volkswagen Bug with a red petrol can on its hip rolled into the city of Anchorage. From the Pentagon on July 11, Aumiller had made it to Fifth Avenue in Anchorage on September 20, all on freedom and a whim. He had selected Anchorage over Fairbanks simply for its reach to the open sea. It just felt good.

Ah, but now what to do? His art degree seemed like an anchor to indoor work, and he hadn’t come all this way to remain indoors. Nonetheless, he took a job in a pet store, enabled by his experience working at animal hospitals all through high school. It was animals, but it was indoors. No good; move on. He reasoned that perhaps he might use his art degree and abilities to teach art – which would provide him with summers off to explore wilder Alaska landscapes.

He went back to school, got a teacher’s certification, and tried that. At the end of one year, he was done with teaching. That, he discovered, was still too much of an indoor occupation. What, he wondered, would he like most to do with just this one summer before him? He made a list, which came to only two goals: work outdoors in the hinterlands, and work with wildlife. The options were suddenly obvious.

He drove to the regional ADF&G office, walked in, and told the receptionist he was looking for summer work; were there any jobs open in the back-of-beyond? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, there were. Two doors down on the left; talk to Darwin Biwer. Aumiller walked out five minutes later with an assignment to King Salmon in Southwestern Alaska to assist on a fisheries research project. (This was May of 1972, when one could still pull such a stunt in the Last Frontier.)

A few days later he was onboard the M/V Kittiwake in Bristol Bay, counting salmon in the gillnets of modern science for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. He spent the better part of two years on the bay and on the Kvichak River counting red salmon on the largest red salmon (also known as sockeye) run in the world. Then he switched to the Division of Sport Fishing and catching and tagging and cataloging Arctic char and rainbow trout on tributaries all around Bristol Bay. Big rainbows in that country, he discovered. Not a bad-paying job for a guy who likes to fish. Throughout those four years he was always working out of King Salmon, where he crossed trails with Jim Faro, who at the time was tagging bears in the area.

One night early in his career there, Aumiller paid a visit to one of the little fishing town’s social clubs (a backcountry Alaska bar) for a bit of community fellowship before going to sea. Sometime around midnight one of the regulars announced that it was “time to see the bear” and the whole place emptied (drinks in hand) out the back door, Aumiller floating with the tide. There before him, in the bed of a pickup in the parking lot, lit by the midnight sun, stood his first-ever brown bear – peeling garbage out of plastic bags and chewing up stale bread, rancid steak bones, and tinfoil with impunity. The crowd encircled the truck and watched for several minutes, enthralled as usual by the presence of the bear, while the bear was drunk on the provenance of free calories.

When refills were called for and the troop trooped back into the social center, Aumiller found himself to be the last one near the truck, watching the bear and forgetting to be afraid – or even thirsty. His trail had just converged with Ursus arctos.

Jim Faro (left) with his supervisor John Vania in 1978.

FARO HAD WATCHED HUMAN disturbance at McNeil grow, until in 1972 he noted, “The bears gave the falls to the people.” In order to uphold the objectives of the sanctuary, he proposed, and in 1973 installed, a permit program to limit the numbers and activities of visitors there.

Faro was a mainstream, company-man kind of biologist, but he was a thoughtful wildlife biologist and a true conservationist with vision. His region offered the largest harvest of brown bears in the state, which steeped him in the bear-killing tradition but also provided the absolute counterpoint to this new set of values. McNeil was a nontraditional, nonconsumptive-use sort of place that offered a lot to those who just wanted to see and appreciate the largest terrestrial predators on Earth, and Faro went out of his way and beyond his agency priority list to conserve this value.

That year and the next, he spent time at McNeil to monitor and oversee visitation, working out of the researchers’ cabin that had been cobbled up near the sea on the south shore of the estuary, 2 miles from the falls. (It would become the tool shed in a later iteration.) In 1975 he hired Walt Cunningham to be stationed there throughout the visiting season to provide education, safety, and enforcement of the basic rules.

The summer went well. Cunningham was a phenomenal field biologist, but he had a new project to start in 1976. Aumiller had been voluntarily helping Faro with some bear tagging around King Salmon and in Katmai National Park, and so Faro had quietly become Aumiller’s mentor and had taken his measure. He knew that Aumiller had no wildlife or science degree, but he recognized savvy, creativity, good judgment, and a close-to-the-ground center of gravity. 

On a late summer day in 1975, they were in Faro’s state truck talking about Walt leaving McNeil, when Faro looked Aumiller in the eye and said, “Are you interested in McNeil?” Meaning the job.

“I don’t know much about the place,” Aumiller answered, hesitant at first. “What kind of job is it? What exactly do you do there?” And finally, within a minute or two, “When do I start?”

Another serendipitous, seat-of-the-pants decision destined for adventure. And from another perspective that even he had yet to perceive, here was a better way than war for Aumiller to serve his country.

The true moment of convergence for Aumiller and McNeil and its bears occurred on June 28, 1976, after he had touched down on the spit for that first time, unloaded the plane, and listened as the airplane’s engine faded back into the sky and the quietude of the wilderness (“that most blessed of sounds,” he called it) filled in around his soul. Just before the bears commandeered his raft, and not so much later, the course of his life. 

A few days after his arrival, Aumiller rendezvoused with his first permit-holding visitors. He was boating back downriver from the falls with Faro as the permittees disembarked their seaplane onto the beach at camp. Aumiller swallowed hard.

“They’re all yours,” Faro told him.

“Where’s the manual?” replied Aumiller. Faro smiled. There wasn’t one.

Aumiller would have to depend on his own artful and sensitive savvy, his engaging manner, and a conservation ethic that would reach from the upper McNeil to thousands of human hearts from Alaska and around the world. He never looked back. With the test of a lifetime before him and the passion of one as well, Aumiller had found his wilderness. ASJ

Editor’s note: To purchase In Wild Trust, go to amazon.com/Wild-Trust-Aumillers-Thirty-McNeil/dp/1602233233.

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