By BILL WAGNER
Scripps Howard News Service
February 03, 2009
The salmon carcasses the bears leave behind attract the eagles.
And all those salmon, bears and eagles attract the tourists.
It's a win-win situation for all involved, except those spawning "humpies" that are sacrificed for the greater good.
In midsummer, Anan Creek is the place to be, especially if you happen to be a hungry bear. Instinct drives several hundred thousand pink salmon (it used to be more than 1 million) to their spawning ground. Black and brown bears congregate to chow down on the humpies as they fortify themselves for winter.
While the U.S. Forest Service's Anan Wildlife Observatory is on Alaska's mainland, the only way in is via boat or float plane.
Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, a noted marine artist and owner of Alaska Adventures, is our guide. Her powerful jet boat has made short work of the 40-mile trip from Wrangell, a city on an island with the same name, to Anan Creek.
Once ashore, the ranger on duty at the head of the trail and Schwartz-Yeager are all business. The rules never change: Nothing edible in pockets or backpacks. That includes breath mints and gum. This is bear territory. Stay in a group on the trail and make lots of noise, so we don't sneak up on any of the hungry bears as they wander down to the creek for a snack. Bears have the right-of-way. In case of a close encounter of the bear kind, tourists must stop and let the hungry mammal make its way to lunch.
The guide carries a rifle. While she has never had to shoot a bear, she has had to fire a few warning shots over the years to discourage a couple from coming too close.
People have been coming to Anan for centuries to take advantage of the abundance of fish.
"For this reason, most of the bears that we will meet on the trail today will not be particularly surprised to see us or astonished by our human presence. With that said, however, it is our goal to not surprise any of these animals. This is really their home, and we are just stopping in for a visit," Schwartz-Yeager said.
It's a picturesque half-mile hike through an old-growth forest from the shore to the observation deck. It is mostly boardwalk.
The first thing most everyone notices is the dark bed of the creek. It must be strewn with boulders. Or not.
"I was watching the dark bottom of the creek, and it was several moments before I realized the bottom was moving. The bottom is actually a sandy color at that point and the dark color was thousands and thousands of salmon," said Mark Hummel, the head ranger for the Wrangell District in the Tongass National Forest, which includes Anan.
The 30-minute hike is uneventful.
The observation deck overlooks the creek with a photo blind almost at water level for a much closer look.
With the deck sitting between the forest and the creek, the big black bears often amble right by the railing. Every so often a cub will try to squeeze through the railing. Meanwhile, cubs and even older juveniles (called sub-adults) will climb a tree adjacent to the viewing area.
This isn't exactly foraging for food for the bears. The salmon are there for the taking. More often than not bears need only thrust their snouts into the cold water once or twice before coming away with a tasty reward. While they chow down on the entire salmon when the fish first return in early July, they're pickier as time passes.
By the end of July, the bears are gourmets; they only eat the brains and the roe, loading up on protein.
Fish carcasses are strewn on both sides of the creek, which is just fine with the eagles. Although they'll dip into the creek to grab a live salmon, they're more than content to swoop in to chow down on leftovers.
A huge ancient boulder slide forms the rocky wall opposite the deck. The mountainous pile of boulders has huge gaps, which are almost mini-caves.
"It makes good cover," said Dee Gallas, a USFS recreation planner who manages the wildlife observatory.
Not only is Anan unusual because of its observation deck that gives folks a close look at the bears in their natural habitat, but also because both brown and black bears are attracted to the creek.
"It's unusual for them to be seen in such close proximity to each other and to be feeding," Gallas said.
She said bears are not social by nature, but they tolerate each other.
Toleration is one thing, but the black bears know their place and make way when one of the Alaskan coastal brown bears (grizzlies to most everyone else) decides to stop in for a meal.
Access to Anan is restricted through permits, with 60 passes available daily from July 5 through Aug. 25.
Alaska Charters (www.alaskaupclose.com) charged $198 per person for the Anan roundtrip from Wrangell in 2008. We usually stay at the Grandview B&B. However, there are several other tour-boat companies and more places to stay.
For more information, visit www.wrangell.com. For details on Anan and permit reservations, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/, clicking on the link to Anan.
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