If there is only one thing I could do in Alaska, I would definitely choose the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. McNeil is 100 miles west of Homer and 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, accessible only by floatplane during the high tide.
While I will describe the photography part of McNeil at KominiakPhoto’s Blog, here is a review of our trip, experiences and recommendations for others considering to visit McNeil.
Access to McNeil is mainly based on the luck (although some special permits are available for example for professional photo- and videographers and researchers): Alaska Department of Fish and Game has annual lottery for the permits, and signing up for lottery is in the beginning of the year, by March 1. There are two permit categories that people can sign up for: stand-by and guided viewing access. Stand-by’s can get to see the bears if guided viewing permit holders have not shown up, or are not heading out to bear-viewing on a specific day. Lucky winners can spend four days on McNeil, observing bears and camping far away from busy life. Bear viewing in McNeil occurs typically either in Mikfik Creek before July or McNeil River Falls for the rest of the season. These two locations are very different: Mikfik Creek gives an opportunity to see bears catching sockey salmon heading up to the creek, while at the falls bears are catching spawning salmon that are slowly making their way higher and higher on the falls. My first time at McNeil was on the falls, and some pictures can be seen here. The second time at McNeil we spent time observing the bears at Mikfik Creek, see images here.
We headed out to McNeil on June 19, with a return scheduled for June 22. Permit holders are allowed to arrive a day prior and leave a day after their viewing period, however, other scheduling aspects required us to be as efficient as possible with our photography trip. There are only a handful of float plane companies allowed to fly to McNeil, and this year we flew with Stellar Air out of Homer. Flights were quick and smooth, plane well maintained, as well as pilots & office staff very professional and friendly. While slightly more expensive than some competitors, Stellar Air was a great experience that we are happy to recommend.
We got very lucky on our trip: the weather was sunnier than sunny, and we only saw one quick rain shower during our stay. However, this is not typical experience in this area but the weather can get gray and windy quickly, hence it is important to pack proper rain gear, and carry it with while heading out to see the furry friends.
On our first day on McNeil we hiked to see the bears immediately after getting our tent pitched, and stayed out until almost 2200. Hikes to the bear viewing locations can be somewhat strenuous to the people who are not used to muddy (aka peanut butter muddy, sticky mud where you sink & get stuck if you stop) and slightly hilly terrain while carrying backpack at the same time. This is a good thing to remember when considering McNeil: some other bear viewing locations such as Brooks Falls are way more accessible.
Next two days were full days at bear viewing, in the direct sunlight. It’s hard to believe but one can get some serious sunburns even in Alaska. I ended up to having blisters on my ears after sitting or standing behind my cameras for 10 hours straight every day. Mosquitoes seemed to enjoy the great weather as well, and as I am allergic to mosquito bites, I am now soaking myself in cortisone and enjoying the Zyrtec-shakes. Yep, I feel pretty itchy, and have awesome reddish bumps all over my arms. But nearly 6,000 photos later, I have nothing to complain. It was all worth it! The last day on McNeil we decided to hang out at the campsite photographing bears digging out soft-shell clams and munching grass next to our tent. I also downloaded all the pictures onto an external hard drive, and charged our electronics with solar energy: small, portable solar panel is one of the (light) luxuries I love to backpack with.
As far as the bear viewing goes, McNeil is the best experience ever. Small group of outdoors and nature enthusiasts are getting very close to the bears, professional Fish&Game guides guarantee guests’ safety as well as talk about bear biology, share their insights from every area of biology from botany to ornithology, and are such a great company in general. We saw bears catching fish, mating (and mating some more – X rated pictures will follow later), chasing each other, munching grass, wondering on the huge mudflats, enjoying the sunny days in the sanctuary… the more time you spend with the bears, the more you start to learn about their behavior and personalities.
And then to quick lessons learned after two trips to McNeil… some ideas to keep on mind if you are thinking of bear viewing in a primitive location. However, Jason and I are very proficient backpackers and used to survive out in the woods without modern conveniences so something that may be self-explanatory to us may not make any sense to others…. that being said, if you have questions about getting ready for a trip like this, don’t hesitate to ask.
- Choose the float plane service carefully: quality and professionalism vary quite a bit. Also, float planes have rather strict load limits, typically 250 lbs/passenger, including the person and the gear, so light packing is a good idea.
- Bring good, high-quality rain gear (even though our pictures are from sunny days). Double check that you have packed the rain gear. Check it again. Just in case. And you will need hip boots or chest waders with wading boots in order to make it through the streams and mudflats.
- Check the tide tables also yourself in order to have a clue about the arrival/departure times: float planes typically require 15+ ft tides for landing/taking off.
- If you are into photography, quality gear is a great plus without forgetting extra memory cards, batteries…. there is no power on McNeil.
- McNeil is not suitable for children: viewing days are long and can be in direct sunlight or rain, and the whole group has to stay together at all times. Children not able to stay rather quiet in one place for hours will unfortunately ruin others enjoyment, as well as disturb photographers who are working.
- As said, there is no electricity, no cell phone reception or no extra food on McNeil but you will have to bring everything you may need. Breakfasts, lunches (on the field), dinners, snacks ….. the whole nine yards.
- Have high-quality tent and sleeping system. Tents are pitched on the gravel, and worn-out, el cheapo sleeping pad will become a real misery, real quick. McNeil is also windy. Did I say windy? Walmart tent is not going to be able to make it but you need a sturdy 3-4 season tent with rainfly.
- There is no running water but all the water is hauled from a nearby stream, and has to be processed somehow prior consumption: boiling, filtering, something. You definitely want to avoid Giardiasis.
McNeil is absolutely awesome adventure with some of the coolest animals in the world. It’s a perfect adventure for people who don’t need to wear make-up on daily basis, who can go through a few days without showering and don’t mind about getting muddy.