Bear activity shuts down glacier trail

Popular viewing platforms remain open at Steep Creek

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2007

Due to some close encounters between bears and people, the U.S. Forest Service has temporarily closed a substantial section of the Steep Creek Trail at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

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Portions of the popular bear viewing area and trail surrounding the prosperous sockeye and coho spawning grounds could remain closed for the rest of the season due to safety concerns, said Wayne Ward, assistant director of the visitor center.

"It was just unmanageable for us back there in ensuring the safety of the people and the bears," he said Wednesday.

The viewing platform adjacent to the parking lot and a main section of the raised walkway above the creek remain open, however, and are as popular as ever. With more than 400,000 visitors expected to visit the Mendenhall Glacier this season, the Forest Service has found it difficult to keep the tourists on Steep Creek Trail and the bears off it, Ward said.

Be bear-aware

at Steep Creek Trail

• Stay on the marked trail.

• Don't bring food on the trail.

• Don't take dogs on the trail.

• Don't run.

• Talk quietly on viewing platforms.

• Don't approach bears.

"It was just easier for us to temporarily close that down, and I don't know what temporary means right now, whether that is a week, a month or the rest of the season," he said. "I imagine it will be a long time because the bears are there and they are likely to be with us as long as we have salmon in the stream."

About 60 percent of the trail, primarily the back side of the loop, has been roped off and closed to visitors as of late last week, Ward said. With hundreds, even thousands, of visitors in the area each day, there were just too many people wandering off the trail and potentially putting themselves in harm's way, he said.

"Sometimes the visitor wouldn't realize they had a bear just a couple feet in front of them until they heard a growl," Ward said. "It was kind of mayhem out here for awhile, for the bears and the people."

No injuries have been reported at the glacier this year, Ward said. The renovated Steep Creek Trail viewing trail opened last summer.

The partial trail closure hasn't hampered visitors' world-class bear viewing. Dozens of people clamored for better views from the raised platforms on Wednesday as bears rambled through the creek, climbed trees and snacked on salmon.

New York resident Erica Hartog and her 9-year-old son Steven witnessed their first-ever bear sighting.

"A bear was within a few feet of me and it was amazing," she said emphatically.

Hartog said she was pleasantly surprised with the bear viewing area and would encourage people to come see it.

"I actually didn't know there was going to be bears here," she said. "I thought we were just coming to see the hatchery and the glacier. It was just a bonus that we got to see the bears."

Ed Murphy arrived in Juneau in his recreational vehicle via Georgia after touring Alaska this summer for the first time. He said he has seen many bears between Fairbanks and Juneau, but was still thrilled as he watched a bear cub frolicking only a few yards away.

"Any time you see a bear is exciting," he said, adding that the viewing platforms contributes to the experience. "I think it's great. I like the way it's built up. It's really safe for people to see them."

Mayank Sanghvi of London said people don't have bear viewing opportunities like this in England.

"It's great. You can get close up to them," he said. "It's unique, you know. You can go up and see them fishing."

Forest Service naturalist Ruth Legg said they keep a close watch on the trail to make sure visitors are respecting the temporary boundaries and not bringing food near the trail.

"With the bears around and as many bears as we have, we prefer that people don't go off the trail," she said. "We probably have nine or 10 bears that are active down here."

Dogs are also prohibited on Steep Creek Trail due to close calls between bears and canines.

Ward said he doesn't think the Forest Service has taken away the experience from the visitors by closing a section of the trail. In fact, he said, it probably has enhanced their experience by directing visitors to the prime locations to view and take pictures of the bears.

"We think it's a win-win situation," Ward said. "A win for the visitors and a win for the bears, both in terms of safety and people observing bears."

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