In 1976, when Larry Aumiller was dropped off by floatplane for his first season to oversee the McNeil River Bear Sanctuary, he had little inkling that the place and its wildlife would become an integral part of his life. Leaving gun and gear in an inflatable raft on the beach, he walked up to open the cabin that unbeknownst to him at the time would become his home for 30 seasons. Suddenly, something didn’t seem right. He looked back to see a young bear jumping on his raft like it was a trampoline, the loaded gun bouncing up and down.
That’s one of many stories author Jeff Fair, a freelance writer and independent wildlife biologist, relates in a recently published book celebrating Larry Aumiller’s legacy. Fair tells a different sort of bear story than we’re used to hearing — that of a man who lived amongst, and helped thousands of people experience, a dense concentration of wild brown bears for 30 years without a single individual, human or bear, being hurt by the other.
Douglas H. Chadwick, a wildlife biologist and author, wrote in the foreword: “Aumiller would be too modest to tell you himself, so I’ll say it for him here: he broke through the longstanding walls of myths and misconceptions to reach a new level of understanding these creatures.”
The book also offers the history of McNeil River and its brown bear viewing. Located around 250 miles southwest as the crow flies of Anchorage, the river drains from the mountains of the Aleutian Range into Cook Inlet. Even if you’ve never heard of the sanctuary, you’ve probably seen photos of giant male bears fishing at McNeil Falls. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that as many as 74 bears have been viewed at the same time.
From June 7 to Aug. 25, 10 visitors, drawn from a lottery, are allowed to visit the McNeil sanctuary each day. Fair writes that most spend four days and return to civilization changed for the better. I’ve known three folks that visited McNeil — two were seasoned Pack Creek rangers — and all said it was a special experience well worth the time and money. For wildlife-viewing junkies, McNeil River is a mecca. Much of the models other established bear viewing areas like Pack Creek and Brooks Falls use were taken from the program Aumiller developed.
Fair writes that first season at McNeil, however, Aumiller had little idea what to expect from bears. He also had no manual on how to manage people and bears. Fair quotes Aumiller as saying, “Not only did we not know what to do, we didn’t know what not to do.” Fair goes on to say, “when he (Aumiller) started at McNeil, he was saddled with that popular negative romance of fright — the modern human mythology about the dangerous, fearsome, ferocious and unpredictably hot-tempered grizzly bear.”
Fair shows how during the four months that season, spent in close quarters with bears every day, Larry’s understanding quickly deepened and grew. Bears weren’t demon monsters but neither were they teddy bears. The potential for harm was always present but by acting in a respectful, routine and mindful manner it was possible to peacefully coexist.
Many people have a hard time believing it’s possible to be near brown bears without substantial risk. Until Aumiller the canon of bear literature mostly dealt with stories — many of which were grossly exaggerated or misrepresented — of hunters killing bears and ferocious bears stalking and mauling people.
“In Wild Trust” shows how Aumiller gently bucked that dominant paradigm and offered a perspective of restraint and something akin to trust in our relationship with brown bears. It’s not magic. As Fair relates, Aumiller said this of how he kept bears and people safe at McNeil: “It’s a pretty straightforward deal where through experience they (bears) learn a certain thing. It doesn’t mean they like you or that there’s any spiritual connection or whatever. It just means they’ve learned you are no threat — it’s safe to ignore you. I call it neutral habituation, in the sense that there’s no reason for them to seek us (no food available), no reason for them to be particularly wary, no reason for them to flee when they see us. Therefore neutral.”
“In Wild Trust” is both simple and profound. Combined with Larry Aumiller’s amazing photos of brown bears, life and landscapes of McNeil River, this book is for wildlife lovers and anyone interested in or afraid of bears.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book, “Haunted Inside Passage,” is now available most places books are sold. Follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.