Alaska Bears

Anan Wildlife Observatory: Bears, Bears and More Bears

Saturday, January 09, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

We love bears: Black bears. Brown bears. Big bears. Small bears. It doesn't really matter. As long as they're not too interested in us, we're super-interested in them. So making a trip to Anan Wildlife Observatory to watch them fish for salmon has been on our list of things to do for years. It’s not a park or a zoo. The bears are wild and free to roam wherever they like. They are, however, habituated. The bears who fish in Anan return to the creek year after year and are used to seeing humans. That doesn’t mean they won’t attack if they feel threatened (though none ever have), but they’re not too curious or interested in people . . . just fish. And that’s our kind of bear.

Getting there was half the fun.

Anan is located south of the city of Wrangell, about 70 miles from Petersburg. There are several narrow channels of water where the current can be strong, so timing is important. To make things easier, we split the trip into three parts: Petersburg to December Point, December Point to Madan Bay and Madan Bay to Anan, skipping Wrangell altogether.

We chose Madan Bay for one reason – location. It’s just north of a section of water called The Narrows, where the current can run up to several knots. But it’s a canny anchorage and a really nice place to spend the night. For some reason I didn’t take any pictures of it, not that I can find anyway, and I regret that because we really enjoyed our time there, however short it may have been: We were off again the next morning to take advantage of the push down Blake Channel and to reconnoiter Anan Bay before moving on to our next anchorage, Fool’s Inlet at the southern end of Wrangell Island.

As we were approaching Anan, we heard a call on the VHF from JouJou. Jim and Laurie were able to purchase a permit in Wrangell and were on their way, so we made plans to meet in Fool’s Inlet for the night. Being a few miles closer, we arrived first and dropped anchor behind a small island in the northeast corner of the bay. They arrived shortly afterwards and rafted up to us.

It’s funny. Until we tried it, we were rafting-snobs and found the idea of tying up to another boat at anchor contrary to the whole purpose of cruising – being self-sufficient. But our opinion quickly changed after trying it out ourselves. Not only is it bloody convenient, it can be a lot of fun. In fact, it’s how we met Jim and Laurie in the first place. 

The day we’ve been waiting for.

Anan Creek is home to one of the largest salmon runs in Southeast Alaska and attracts a large number of bears, both brown and black. In fact, it’s one of the few places in the world where you can see both feed at the same time (just one more reason to go!). And it was finally our turn to spend the day there.

We left Fool’s Inlet at 7:00 am and made our way over to Anan Bay where we safely anchored the boats (more on that in a separate blog) for the day before taking the dinghies to shore. We checked in with the Forest Service representative who gave us a quick orientation before sending us off on a half-mile boardwalk that leads to an observation deck overlooking the creek and a bear blind. The blind is right off the creek and bears walk underneath it, only inches below your feet, to catch salmon that are stuck in an old fish pen – it’s crazy! But the real action takes place on the other side of the water in one of the best fishing spots.  

There was an old black bear hiding out in a cave that would come out every now and again to fish. He reminded me and David of Sally (our dog) and how difficult life can be for a geriatric animal, especially in the wild. The poor old guy had seen better days and it showed: His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be and he panted a lot as he struggled to catch a fish, but he finally got one before going back to his cave . . . we couldn’t help but cheer for him.

It started to get busy around noon with tour groups arriving from Wrangell, so we decided to go to the boats for a break. On our way to the dinghies, there was a juvenille brown male fishing just off the trail. We did as we were instructed (talked loudly to alert him of our presence and stayed on the boardwalk while we continued walking) but, honestly, what I remember most about the experience is the hope that this guy really would be more interested in fish than us and that he’d stay put. Well, he was and he did. But that didn’t stop the adrenile from rushing . . . or my instinct to freeze (but that may have just been an excuse to pull out the camera).

We went back a couple of hours later, after things had quieted down, and had the place to ourselves (along with a Forest Service Interpreter). At first there were three black bears fishing in the creek, but they all disappeared into the bush about the same time. Shortly afterwards, Laurie spotted a brown bear downstream moving toward the falls (where the fish pool). She had three young cubs with her and was very thin . . . and very nervous. The Forest Service gal told us that there were four cubs that morning, but the runt got separated from its mother and was killed by a juvenille male. We watched from the bear blind as the family made their way upstream, the cubs eager for a taste of salmon. Her fishing wasn’t going well and they had to settle for scraps left behind by other bears before Mom rushed them back into the bush . . . and to safety: A larger brown male had come out to fish downstream.

Closing time came all too quickly, and we walked back to the dinghy with the gal from the Forest Service, calling “hey bear” along the way. We saw another grizzly fishing just off the trail but I didn’t feel as nervous this time around, probably because she was carrying a gun (though my instinct again was to stop). We said our thanks and our good-byes and went back to the boats, upped anchor and made way for Fool’s Inlet for the night, JouJou rafting up to us again.

The day had been one big adrenile rush and we had trouble assimilating the experience – I mean, really, who does this? Who goes bear-watching in their spare time? I’m sure there actually are a lot of other people who do, but that doesn’t make it seem any more real. Not for a girl from Kansas and a lad from Yorkshire, anyway. For us, it was an opportunity of a lifetime . . . and well-worth the wait!

Note: This blog was written on Friday, 12 August 2015. 

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  1. Wow incredible! I'd love to do this.

    1. It really was an experience of a lifetime. One that I highly recommend! If there weren't so many miles to travel to get there (or if we could sail the whole way), we'd do it again in a heartbeat.