From the platform, we could see the drama at the outhouse unfolding, predictably, almost comically, if not for the fact that the climax could be a dangerous human-bear encounter.
The older gentleman had scurried across the boardwalk to the outhouse, about 100 feet away from the viewing platform. Once he closed the door behind him, a large male black bear ambled out of the woods and approached the outhouse. On the other side, a second bear climbed up the creek bank and began to shuffle towards the same location.
Inside the outhouse, the occupant had no idea that he was surrounded on all sides by very large black bears. If he looked out the peephole, he wouldn’t be able to see the bears. People being people, he probably had half-listened to the ranger’s instructions to watch for the “all-clear” signal before exiting the outhouse. That was the purpose of the peephole — to watch for the signal, not to spot bears.
Upon opening the door, he came face to face with Bear #2. Quickly, he shut the down as the ranger began to shout. “Stay in the outhouse. DO NOT OPEN THAT DOOR! Do not open the door until I give the ‘all clear’ sign.”
This time, he listened. And waited for the bears to do their thing, that is, to amble along. They had no interest in the outhouse; to them, it was just part of the scenery, like the man and the rest of us on the platform.
At last, the ranger gave the “all-clear”. The man rescued himself from the outhouse (used by 60 or so people each day). Later, he smiled when we teased him about his adventure.
Just another ordinary extraordinary day at the AnAn Creek Bear Observatory in the Tongass National Forest, near Wrangell, in southeast Alaska.
Both black and brown (grizzly) bears have been coming for eons to AnAn Creek in July and August to eat spawning salmon. For many years, this locale was known mostly to Wrangell locals as THE place to see bears. But about 20 years ago, when visitors started to heavily discover AnAn, the U.S. Forest Service began to actively manage the site to prevent human-bear problems.
During spawning season, a permit system limits visitors t0 60 per day. A small boat is needed to get to the AnAn trailhead, so most visitors come with a guide. At the trailhead, a ranger or guide leads visitors up the half-mile trail to the viewing “platform.”
“Platform” is just that: a platform, surrounded by a waist-high fence that bears could easily climb across or squeeze through if they were so inclined. These are not tame bears, but hungry ones here to stuff themselves with as salmon. At times, bears come so close to the fence that a dumb person could reach out and touch them. Rangers quickly move people — and their cameras — back from the fence if bears approach it.
On the magical morning that I spent with my son (The Seal) and friend Elizabeth at AnAn in August, we saw at least 15 different black bears doing their thing: killing and eating salmon, ambling to and from the forest, sniffing at the outhouse.
Each bear had its own preferences and ways of doing things. One liked to grab a salmon, take a couple of big bites, then dip into the creek for a fresh meal. Another would bring his catch up to a small knoll overlooking the creek and eat the entire fish while keeping eye on the world around him. A third liked to eat his salmon in privacy, in a little nook made from big boulders on the side of the creek.
Especially memorable was the visit of a mama bear and her cub, as these photos illustrate.
AnAn is the only bear viewing place in Alaska where visitors can see both brown and black bears feeding in the same location at the same time. However, when we visited, we “only” saw black bears. The brown bears must have been off eating berries, or maybe were eating on a later shift.
Despite the fact that AnAn is teeming with bears in close proximity to people (including those trips to the outhouse), no humans have been attacked by a bear in the 20 years of Forest Service management, although at least one bear has been killed at AnAn when it charged a human. I don’t know the details of the incident, but I suspect the charge had more to do with human stupidity (getting a good photo) than predatory bear behavior.
However, our guide, Brenda Yeager, carried both bear spray and a gun on the hike up to the platform, as did the ranger at the trailhead.
I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with bears. Or maybe love-fear relationship is a better way to describe it. I’m fascinated by bears and always hope to see one, safely, at a distance.
But I never sleep well in a tent if I know bears might be around. I worked in Yellowstone during a summer when a bear pulled a hiker from her tent and ate her. A few years later, I woke up in a tent in Alaska’s Brooks Range to the sound of something large brushing up against the tent. And yes, it was a bear. And yes, my heart pounded with fear and adrenaline, even though it was a black bear, not a grizzly.
That bear got into our group’s food supply (locked in an allegedly bear-proof barrel) and began to settle in for a long munch until we managed to drive it off with a couple of well-placed rocks targeted at its rump. But we didn’t stick around either, packing up our tents at about 3 a.m. so that we could begin putting as much distance as possible between us and the bear.
At AnAn, the opportunity to view bears up close in what felt like very safe circumstances was a magical, almost mythical opportunity. I wouldn’t even have minded being trapped in the outhouse — as long as I didn’t have to sleep inside.
More bears: Alaska really is teeming with bears, and they come out of the forest during salmon season.
On our first day in Alaska, in Juneau, the Seal and I headed out in the early evening to Mendenhall Glacier to take in the glacier after all the cruise-ship crowds had departed. On our way out, we took a short stroll on the bear-viewing walkway around Steep Creek. Within minutes, (as seen in the video below) we had seen our first bear, killing and eating a salmon.
The bears grab all the headlines but the salmon are just as beautiful, here in the clear shallow waters of Steep Creek, Juneau.
From Wrangell, we visited AnAn in a jet boat with Brenda Yeager of Alaska Charters and Adventures. There are several similar outfitters in Wrangell, all reputable. We chose to go with the Yeagers because they specialize in smaller groups.
AnAn probably isn’t the best destination for small children because they may get bored and hungry during the several hours most outfitters spend at the platform. No food is allowed on the trail or at the platform.
In Wrangell, the lumber industry ruled for many years, but today, fishing and tourism keep the town going. Large cruise ships can’t visit Wrangell (a plus, in my opinion) although several smaller adventure-type cruises visited where we were in town.
We stayed in a roomy suite at the Wandering Channel Bed & Breakfast. The Stikine Inn is a full-service hotel, with a good restaurant. The Wrangell town website lists all lodging establishments. You don’t need a car in Wrangell unless you want to explore more of the roads and trails of the Wrangell Island. A daily Alaska Airlines flight provides service from Seattle or Juneau.