Long before Pack Creek visitors see any brown bears, they feel the bruins' presence.
It starts with a splintered wood sign marking a path through the bear-viewing area on Admiralty Island, like a cat's scratching post magnified tenfold. From there the mile-long forest path passes patches of uprooted skunk cabbage, a spring snack for bears. In a muddy stretch of trail, bear prints trod over boot prints.
But the bears themselves stayed hidden for several hours after the visiting Januszkiewicz family, of Roslyn, Wash., arrived at the observation tower on a mid-August afternoon. A book kept their 12-year-old son, John Montgomery, entertained while everyone waited quietly, trying not to scare away any bears considering fishing in the creek 20 feet below the tower.
The creek itself was noisy with salmon splashing against the current. The visitors trained their binoculars on the fish, or on the eagles, herons and ravens feeding on them in the stream.
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When the bear finally appeared he slipped silently from the shadows several hundred yards upstream. The bison-sized beast waded into the water and nonchalantly plucked out a salmon, ignoring the quiet frenzy of binocular fumbling, neck craning and shutter clicking downstream. After he disappeared with his afternoon snack, the hushed watch was more alert.
Fifteen minutes later the snap of twigs turned all heads to the right, where they watched a cub tumble down the bank and land in the river with a splash. It bounded and pounced on a salmon, letting it dangle, silver, from his mouth. Then the cub splashed downstream, presumably catching up with a mother bear.
Bears were easier to spot from a separate viewing point on the beach, though they were much farther off. Five to seven bears fished along the stream for the next two hours.
"It's like a calendar picture," said Diane Januszkiewicz, looking across the tidal flat at the bears fishing in the creek, eagles flying overhead and ravens cawing from the trees.
Though no population survey has been done of bears at the popular viewing area 28 miles southwest of Juneau, on peak days people see 12 to 15 bears, said Bruce Dinneford, management coordinator with the state Department of Fish and Game.
The area has been set aside as a bear-viewing area since 1935 and is jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and state Fish and Game.
The best time to see the bears is on a cloudy day, in the morning, when the tide is low, said Fish and Game technician Chad Rice. On one such morning in late July, Forest Service Ranger Donald MacDougall counted 16 bears from the viewing point on the beach.
The busiest time of year for bears is July 5 to Aug. 25, when Pack Creek is so full of salmon the brown bears can scoop them out with an ease that leaves visitors awestruck.
"He's just sitting in the water, up to his shoulders, eating a salmon," said Andy Januszkiewicz, looking through a 60-power Swarovski telescope set up for visitors to use.
"I don't think that salmon even had a chance to die," said Naomi Edelson, visiting from Washington, D.C. As wildlife diversity director for the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, she has worked to pass the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which provides funding for places like Pack Creek.
Even 12-year-old John was impressed.
"I'd never seen a bear that close for that long," John said. "They were fishing a lot, but it didn't look like they were actually working. It looked like they were playing."
Now and then the bears would splash into the water after a salmon. A mother and year-old cub tussled by the creekside.
"Bears frolic a lot more than I expected," said Julie Aurand, visiting from Pennsylvania.
Of the 1,400 people who visit Pack Creek each summer, fewer than 20 percent are locals, Dinneford said. Most Juneau residents have seen bears before, scrounging in trash bins or padding down a neighborhood street. The Pack Creek bears are different. It's not just that they are brown bears, twice the size and heft of Juneau's black bears. These lumbering giants know nothing of garbage. But they are habituated to people, which means they are so used to having people watching they just ignore the voyeurs.
"It kind of allows us to see what's happening on other streams, only these bears allow us to watch them," said Rice, who's worked at Pack Creek for seven summers.
The Forest Service and Fish and Game work hard to keep it that way. Upon landing at Pack Creek, visitors are instructed to leave all food in the locked metal boxes provided. Eating is allowed only in the tidal area of a small spit, where the crumbs and dribbled gorp wash away. Visitors are given instructions for how and where to walk, where to go to the bathroom (there are no toilets), where to stand and how to speak.
"We want to make ourselves neutral," said Forest Service Ranger Jeff Day. "We want to be just another log on the beach, just another rock."
The rules work. The Forest Service rangers and Fish and Game technicians carry guns, but they haven't had to use them.
The number of people visiting Pack Creek each day is limited during the peak season from July 5 to Aug. 25, so permits are required. Visitors are less limited before and after the peak, and may find some cheaper deals on trips in those shoulder seasons. Alaska Fly and Fish has seen bears at Pack Creek from April through September.
"We've found there's sort of a good spring season, which is a time to expect to see bears out on the beach," said Sarah Dunlap, co-owner of Alaska Fly and Fish. "It's also their mating season, so you also do see kind of a different interaction than during salmon season."
In the fall, after the salmon runs end, the bears disperse in search of other food. There's still a chance of seeing them, just not a guarantee.
"It's always worth going and looking," Dunlap said.
Kristan Hutchison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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