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home : columns : columns May 28, 2016

9/10/2013 12:15:00 PM
The bears of Mendenhall
Mendenhall Glacier, on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska offers outstanding geology and wildlife viewing. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
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Mendenhall Glacier, on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska offers outstanding geology and wildlife viewing. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

The bears around Sisters tend to be pretty well-behaved and, even given the considerable amount of time I spend in the woods, I'm not likely to see one more than once every few years. Having spent seven years with the Coast Guard in Alaska, however, that hasn't always been the case.

When we lived in Valdez, Alaska, during the 1980s, we saw bears on a regular basis, whether out in the woods or just around town. Those were often brown bears - or grizzlies; but sometimes we saw black bears, too - like the time we had one up a tree in our front yard.

What do you do with a bear in your tree? The custom in Valdez was to call the dogcatcher, who drove the bears away by launching firecrackers from a slingshot. On the trails, we always carried his-and-hers .44 magnum pistols and grew accustomed to seeing other backcountry travelers heavily armed.

When I was stationed in Juneau, Alaska, we certainly had bears but didn't see them much more often than we do here in Sisters. In recent years, however, if you want to see Juneau bears during the salmon runs, all you have to do is drive out to the Mendenhall Glacier. Last month, as we periodically do, my wife and I returned to Juneau to visit friends and get our much-needed "Alaska fix."

Honolulu, Hawaii, and Juneau, Alaska, share the distinction of being the only state capitols you can't drive to. Juneau is the only state capitol situated beside a glacier. There are several nice trails that I've hiked near the terminus of Mendenhall Glacier; they are short, and range from easy to moderate. On this trip, however, our chief interest was to check out the extent of glacial retreat since our last visit and - of course - to see the bears.

Mendenhall Glacier is part of a mountainous 1,500-square-mile icefield that grinds its way down to the outskirts of Juneau. Average annual snowfall on the Juneau Icefield is more than 100 feet each year. Still, the glacier has retreated about three miles since 1760 and nearly a mile since since Coast Guard Bering Sea patrols first sent me to Alaska in the 1970s. More than half of that recently lost mile has disappeared since I was permanently stationed in Juneau during the 1990s.

At 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and comprises the largest coastal temperate forest in the world. The Forest Service maintains an excellent visitor center at the foot of Mendenhall Glacier; but the first thing we noticed is that the center was noticeably farther from the glacier than it was during our last visit, only a few years ago.

"Official" bear watching at Mendenhall is a relatively new activity. For years, Alaskans have offered expensive fly-in bear watching adventures in remote parts of our largest state. To observe the Mendenhall bears, however, it is only necessary to drive to the end of Glacier Spur Road and walk out on the raised pedestrian walkways that allow adequate separation between bears and humans.

The raised walkways were installed only a few years ago but, already, they are regularly visited by thousands of people looking for a peek into the natural world of Alaska. Busses loaded with cruise ship passengers offload hundreds of visitors each day. These glacier tours are not usually billed as bear watching events because the bears operate on their own rather nebulous schedules.

Still, many such visitors are "surprised" to see bears on these excursions to the Forest Service visitor center. Even when bears are not present, salmon can be seen spawning in the shallows of Steep Creek; and many other wildlife viewing opportunities abound.

I've seen bears on each of three visits to the "bear" walkways; although, admittedly, the second time I only saw a bear butt vanishing into the bushes. These were all black bears, although I'm told that an occasional grizzly wanders through late in the season.

On our first walkway visit we saw two bears at quite close range, actively and successfully engaged in salmon fishing; although a friend came up with better photos than mine. On the third visit I watched a mother bear and two cubs feed on salmon, completely oblivious to dozens of human gawkers only a few feet away. The bears even wound their way under the walkways, as the crowds followed them along the creek.

The last time I encountered bears this close, my wife and I were hiking in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, 350 miles farther north, without the benefit of raised walkways and wire fencing. Fortunately, it was also a black bear, but the biggest one I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few.

The bear was only about 30 feet away, right smack in the middle of our trail, and I had my .44 out of the holster in seconds. My wife immediately said, "Don't shoot it!" I responded, "I don't plan to if I don't have to!" At first I was glad there wasn't a cub involved. Then a cub appeared on our left.

The mother bear casually looked at us and then looked at her cub. The cub ambled over to her; and, together, they slowly wandered off down the trail. Every few feet, the mother would look back over her shoulder at us; and that was that. My best advice about bears is to encounter well-behaved ones.

If you find yourself in Juneau, the bears are easy to find. Just drive out to Mendenhall Glacier during salmon season. Experienced bear watchers say that the best chances to see them are later in the day, but they can appear - or not appear - at any time. Play it safe. Do not disturb the bears, and follow all Forest Service guidelines. During prime viewing times, Forest Service personnel and volunteers are usually present on the walkways to provide assistance and bear "intel."

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