Working among Brown Bears

Pack Creek rangers have the rare chance to get to know brown bears well and educate the public about them

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

Lush, green and wild, Admiralty Island offers one million acres of wilderness just a few miles from Juneau. Among the island's many attractions is a modest creek flowing into Seymour Canal. What makes Pack Creek unique is the predictable presence of bears.

"We're here to protect the bears from the people," Paul Converse said. "The way to do that is by managing people."

Converse is one of six wilderness rangers who spend the summer managing the people who come to Pack Creek, the popular brown bear viewing area about 30 miles south of Juneau on Admiralty Island. It's a job that might be envied by many.

It's also a popular enough job that there was only one vacancy this year. George Schaaf, from Portland, Ore., who was selected from more than 200 applicants, said the job sounded amazing. "Watch grizzlies; live on an island. I couldn't pass it up."

The other five summer Pack Creek rangers couldn't pass up returning for another season. Jennifer Humphrey, from Fairbanks, is back for her seventh year.

"This is an amazing job," she said. "You're in the wilderness. You meet interesting people. It's a great place to spend the summer."

Converse, from Juneau and back for his third year, described the job as "a whole bunch of hobbies rolled into one."

Chad Rice, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee from Juneau, returned for his ninth year. "I really enjoy the upper Seymour area, and I can't complain about watching bears."

After a summer watching bears and managing people, Converse said, "We get to know the bears and their behavior pretty well. People are less predictable than the bears."

To help reduce the unpredictability of people, the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Game each assign three employees to Pack Creek for the summer. The two agencies cooperatively manage the Stan Price State Wildlife Sanctuary, named after the man who lived next to Pack Creek - and the bears - for 40 years.

During the peak viewing season, in July and August when pink and chum salmon are spawning, six rangers are assigned to Pack Creek. They work 10 days on, followed by four days off in Juneau, on a rotating system.

The rangers' main job is education.

"Everyone comes to Pack Creek with preconceived ideas of what it's like to be in bear country," said Harry Tullis, the lead Pack Creek ranger for the Forest Service. "Our job is to make sure everyone has the most current information on bear safety."

One ranger greets each visitor, most who arrive by floatplane. After permits are collected and orientation is completed, most visitors walk to the viewing area a quarter of a mile away on a gravel spit reaching out from the trees where Price's float home once stood. A second ranger waits on the spit.

Rangers see a variety of reactions among the approximately 1,200 summer visitors.

"Some see a bear for 15 minutes and they're ready to go," Chad Rice said. "Others sit in the rain for 10 hours."

Paul Converse recalled a couple that arrived at Pack Creek on their sailboat.

"They spent nine hours looking and didn't see a bear," he said. "Then just before they were going to leave they saw one for 15 minutes. They were thrilled. That's what makes me happy."

Rangers also have noticed visitors, perhaps reflecting a look-click-and-move style of tourism, are staying for shorter periods. Some who see a bear in the first few minutes, but then none for next several hours, may leave disappointed.

"In the culture we live in, it's almost as if the viewing should build to a climax," Schaaf, the new ranger, said.

Viewing bears at Pack Creek, however, isn't like seeing them on TV.

"This isn't the Discovery Channel, where every shot is from a highlight reel," Converse said.

Some visitors are surprised there are no facilities at Pack Creek. The wilderness area has no bathrooms, shelters or cabins. Others come ill-prepared for bad weather, wearing cotton clothing and plastic bags for raincoats.

Most of the Pack Creek visitors are from out-of-state.

"The main reason is that Alaskans know there are alternatives for brown bear viewing," according to Forest Service Wilderness Manager John Neary. Those alternatives are free. During July and August, a $50 per person permit is required at Pack Creek.

Like anyone in the visitor industry, rangers get questions ranging from the silly to the serious. Some ask the elevation of the "lake" where Pack Creek flows - Seymour Canal, at sea level. Others just getting off a plane wonder how the rangers arrived at the landing site first. (They use power boats to get from their nearby tent site.) And they wonder how they can stand going for 10 days without a shower. "We tell them we get washed by the rain," said Jennifer Humphrey, laughing.

Most of the questions are serious and most are about bears. Despite their experience, and a library of bear literature at their camp, some questions are tougher to answer than others. For example, Converse has been asked how much salmon the bears eat.

The answer, he said, depends on the individual bear, how much of their food comes from fish and whether they are stripping off the fatty portion of the fish.

"Even if we don't know the answer, we can help them through the thought process," Converse said.

When they're not on duty, rangers live on Windfall Island within sight of the Pack Creek beach in what Humphrey describes as "very comfortable" accommodations. Home is a large wall tent made of canvas with a wood floor. In addition, propane powers a stove, refrigerator, heater and lights. A solar panel charges the laptop computer and radio. Two additional tents have sleeping cots.

"This is better than most places I've rented," first-time ranger Schaaf said, laughing.

"One of the traditions is to be the best fed wilderness rangers in the world," lead ranger Tullis said.

The tradition is aided by ready access to fresh food brought in with the crew change. The rangers are paid a field per diem for food, and they do their own shopping. Supper one night, for example, was chicken parmesan, yeast rolls and salad.

"We eat embarrassingly well," Humphrey said.

During free time there is usually a cribbage game. Rangers also kayak, fish, read and work on little chores.

"None of us owns homes," Converse said. "So we putter around camp."

Because the ranger's camp is in a wilderness area, it gets taken down at the end of the summer and flown back to Juneau. Then the rangers head back to their other lives. But based on their return rate, most will be back at Pack Creek next year.

"I can't imagine not doing this," Converse said. "It's the only job I've had that at the end of the summer, after a few days, I'm looking forward to the next season."

Scott Foster is a writer and outdoorsman living in Juneau.

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