ANAN WILDLIFE OBSERVATORY — When the bear faced her, Forest Service ranger Trina Wade had a gun and pepper spray. She used neither.
“Ho bear, c’mon bear, hey!” she called, stamping one foot and waiting.
The bear sat on the wooden boardwalk and used a hind paw to scratch behind one ear.
“That’s their way of trying — ho bear! — to show that they’re being submissive and don’t care about us,” she said, half-turned to us and half to the bear.
She repeated her calls, her stomp, and the bear got the message. It stumbled off the boardwalk and into the woods. Our group of seven hikers walked past the spot it had been, keeping wary eyes on the brush.
“Don’t stop to try to take pictures,” Wade warned.
At this site 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, this is a common experience. The bears are wild: Humans must stay within the lines.
“We manage people here,” said Bob Dalrymple, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in Wrangell.
As district ranger, Dalrymple manages people at Anan and in a wide swath of Forest Service territory in and near Wrangell.
Managing people is the critical issue here and throughout Southeast. Nowhere is it more critical than at the region’s increasingly crowded bear-viewing sites.
In summer 2016, Alaska saw 1.86 million tourists, according to surveys conducted by McDowell Group on behalf of the state. That figure was 4 percent higher than it was the year before. This year’s tourist tally is expected to be even higher.
Most, according to surveys, are coming to Alaska to see landscapes or wildlife in their natural habitat.
That means Anan, like other bear-viewing locations in Southeast Alaska, is caught in a dilemma. As a place gets more human visitors, it becomes less attractive to wildlife.
“How many people can you let go in there before you start adversely affecting the bears?” Dalrymple asked. “If you affect the bears, that would adversely affect the viewing experience.”
It’s “the loved to death syndrome,” said Dee Galla, a planner for the Forest Service in Wrangell.
Currently, the Forest Service allows 60 tourists per day to visit Anan between July 5 and Aug. 25. That figure hasn’t changed significantly in about 20 years, and demand is building like rising waters behind a dam.
The Forest Service runs a daily permit system — 36 passes to guide companies, 20 to the general public online, and four in a local lottery — but demand vastly outstrips supply. When the general-public permits become available in February, they sell out almost instantly.
That leaves drop-in visitors hoping someone doesn’t show up to their once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Juneau resident Karla Hart has been to Anan; she’s also been to Pack Creek, the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Site, and similar sites across Southeast Alaska.
“When I go to Pack Creek, I know I’m going to see brown bears. When I go to the Mendenhall Glacier, I know I’m going to see black bears. When I go to Anan Creek, you can see either or both,” she said.
That makes Anan distinctive. The facilities also distinguish it.
Pack Creek is an exclusive site within a wilderness area — it’s accessible almost solely by floatplane. Anan is reachable with an hour’s boat ride from Wrangell, and a significant number of Wrangell-based companies sell it as a local attraction.
After being dropped off at the beach, tourists walk two-thirds of a mile along a winding, bear-crossed boardwalk enveloped by trees. At the end of the boardwalk is a cliffside observation deck, complete with photo blind, that overlooks Anan Creek. Black and brown bears come within feet of the deck’s railing and often crawl beneath the deck as they fish in the creek.
It’s harder to reach than the Mendenhall Glacier or Fish Creek, north of Hyder (both are road accessible) and carries a rustic, primitive feel.
“There’s still a sense when you transfer from your boat or floatplane to the shore that you’re in someplace wild,” Hart said.
Even wild spaces need maintenance.
Anan is accessible only by a beach landing, and in March, the Forest Service started work on improvements to that landing. Those improvements finished before the start of the tourist season here, and on Wednesday, the Forest Service held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate a new stairway and a new latrine. It provided jet-boat travel and access to the wildlife observatory for Alaska journalists and dignataries from Wrangell.
Alaska Regional Ranger Beth Pendleton said at the ceremony that Anan fits into the Forest Service’s idea of providing a range of options for public access to the wild.
Though this year’s improvements are physically small, they’re symbolically large. Guides and locals worry the new stairs may be literally a first step to other things.
“When you build infrastructure, they will come. It is an invitation to bring more transported guests,” said Randy Burke of Bluewater Adventures, one of the Forest Service’s approved guiding services here.
Burke doesn’t believe the Forest Service wants more visitors to Anan — he believes the agency has done a reasonable job of managing the site — but he thinks any improvements may force the Forest Service to succumb to pressure. If the improvements can allow more visitors, they eventually will.
“There’s always more pressure to improve,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say pressure. I would say there’s interest to increase the use,” Dalrymple said.
Galla, who has worked with Anan issues for more than 20 years, spoke plainly: “We’re not looking at increasing the capacity,” she said on a boat en route to the site.
Dalrymple confirmed that there are no current plans to raise the number of per-day permits at the observatory. That comes with one caveat: The number of permits could change when the Forest Service writes the next comprehensive plan for Anan, and the work for that draft is under way, he said.
The arguments to come over that plan were foreshadowed two years ago when the Forest Service announced plans for a floating dock at Anan. Existing tour operators and Wrangell residents criticized the idea as a move to cater to floatplane operators from Ketchikan, a stop for mainstream cruise ships. (Wrangell gets some cruise ships, but they tend to be smaller.)
The dock idea has been deferred for now, Dalrymple said.
The Forest Service’s management plan contains other ideas for Anan. In the next few years, trail improvements and a renovation of Anan’s cliffside observation deck are on the list.
Those plans are sure to renew the argument over access.
How many people can Anan accommodate without destroying the rustic and wild atmosphere that distinguishes it from the Mendenhall Glacier?
“There’s always a tension there,” Dalrymple said.
At the beach, a line of tourists walked down the stairs and to their jet boat. Julia Horsburgh, an Australian visiting from Melbourne, seemed stunned among them as she described watching adult bears and their cubs pull salmon from the water.
“It’s magical. Absolutely magical,” she said. I feel very honored. Don’t take your country for granted. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place.”
Forest Service bear-viewing sites in Southeast Alaska
• Pack Creek, Admiralty Island: Access by boat or plane, 1,200-1,300 visitors per year
• Dog Salmon, Prince of Wales Island: Road access, 1,450 visitors per year
• Margaret Creek, 25 mi north of Ketchikan: Access by boat or plane, 1,700-2,100 visitors per year
• Anan Wildlife Observatory, 30 mi southeast of Wrangell: Access by boat or plane, 2,500-3,000 visitors per year
• Fish Creek, 3 mi north of Hyder: Road access, 13,000 visitors per year
• Steep Creek, Mendenhall Glacier: Road access, 500,000 visitors per year
Source: U.S. Forest Service
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.