I first visited the Pack Creek Brown Bear Sanctuary on Admiralty Island seven years ago during a kayak trip. It was the third week of April. There was still snow many places at sea level and most bears were in their dens — I saw only two in the 11 days I spent circumnavigating the island. The estuary and mountains surrounding Pack Creek were beautiful, but being in a hurry and more preoccupied with not becoming fish or bear food, I didn’t even get out of my kayak.
The following year I was lucky enough to begin guiding bear-viewing trips and experience the flux and flow of the bears and other wildlife of Pack Creek. I, like many people who’ve gotten to know this particular estuary, have learned to greatly appreciate it.
Pack Creek is one of the few places on Earth where wild brown bears and people tolerate each other. The Forest Service designated the watershed a brown bear viewing area in 1935. Southeast Alaskan icon Stan Price, who homesteaded in the estuary for more than 30 years beginning in the mid-1950s, played a big role in habituating bears and guiding visitors.
In the late 1980s, shortly before Stan passed on, the Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game rangers began to regularly monitor Pack Creek to assure the safety of visitors and the well being of bears. In the nearly 30 years the rangers have managed Pack Creek, no person or bear has been hurt from the other species.
I once asked my good friend Ken Leghorn, the creator of Pack Creek Bear Tours and a man who spent nearly four decades vested in and exploring the wilderness of the north, what he found so special about Pack Creek.
“It’s the only place in the world I have found unchanged over three decades. Bears travel the same pathways, scratch on the same ancient trees, and silently accommodate the same small groups of respectful visitors, season after season,” Ken said, after some thought.
The first day of every season at Pack Creek is always exciting. Often you’ll see less habituated bears, particularly large males, in early May that will clear out once visitors begin coming regularly. May and early June is the height of breeding season. When bears are hormonal they, just like humans, lose certain inhibitions and offer unique viewing possibilities.
My first trip in 2016 had one of the more interesting dynamics I’ve witnessed. It was May 7, and since it had been a warm winter, the bears had been awake for awhile. Alaska Seaplanes dropped me, co-guide Maia Wolf and our clients off at the edge of the south spit of the estuary. The first indication we were going to have an unusual day was when we spotted a tiny spring cub wandering around by itself at the water’s edge, as if it were trying to stay as far from the woods as possible. Earlier that spring, elsewhere on the island, I’d watched two males with questionable intentions chasing females with spring cubs.
We walked to the main viewing area and watched a seemingly docile big sway-backed male browsing sedge grass on the other side of the creek. After a short while he grew nervous and moved off into the cover of the woods. A few moments later another even larger male, who had a rub or scar around his neck, emerged panting and randy. He gave us a wide berth, forded the creek and swaggered his way around the meadow to a post, one of the few remaining vestiges of Stan Price’s shed. He then rose, scratching his back and urinating simultaneously before disappearing into the forest.
A few minutes later, on the opposite side of the estuary, a frightened sub-adult ran out of the woods. It glanced over its shoulder as it ran past us and across the tidal flat. Thirty seconds later, an angry female emerged from the same spot in the woods and came running along the small bear’s trail. She paused when she noticed us and huffed for a moment before continuing. A few hours later we returned to the south spit. The cub was gone, hopefully reunited with its mom.
I’d see the large randy bear twice more that May. One time he was on very good behavior and in the company of a female with what appeared to be a cyst over one eye. I’d go so far as say he acted like a gentleman but you’re not supposed to talk about wildlife that way. After people began regularly visiting Pack Creek, he, like a lot of adult males, cleared out.
This May, as I watched what appeared to be the large sway-backed male resting and eating sedge, I was reminded what a honor it is to be able to part of the legacy of Pack Creek. Each time I visit I try to remember to thank the bears for tolerating us. I also thank the people that came before me for having the wisdom in seeing the inherent value of Admiralty Island and its bears.
Note to reader: From June 1 to Sept.10, there is limited entry at Pack Creek and visitors must get permits in advance. During peak season, July 5 to Aug. 25, there is a limit of 24 visitors each day. If you’re considering going, I recommend getting your permits long ahead of time. For more information on the Pack Creek Brown Bear Sanctuary visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/tongass/recreation/natureviewing/?cid=ste....
• 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.