Bear watchers get an eye-full at glacier

Part of Steep Creek trail reopens after being closed due to unexpected number of bruins

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2007

Thousands of visitors and Juneau residents saw bears this summer at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center - so much interaction that part of Steep Creek trail was shut down for safety reasons.

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With the wild black bears and occasional brown bear, people such as Juneau photographer Michael Murray flocked to the area to catch glimpses of the animals. He regularly spent three to four hours per day hoping to observe them.

"I see the bears almost every time I am out here," he said. "I have probably seen six or seven of the bears that live around here, and my favorite thing is seeing the mother and her cubs."

The Steep Creek trail reopened about two weeks ago after being closed off in August because there were so many bears. With more than 400,000 visitors expected at the Mendenhall Glacier, the Forest Service found it difficult to keep the tourists on Steep Creek Trail and the bears off it, officials said earlier this summer.

Next year the U.S. Forest Service will probably extend some of the loose cable railings along the trail to contain visitors from places they should not go in order to keep the bears and people safe.

Tourists, residents and biologists visited the area to watch the bears devour sockeye salmon. Though the prime viewing season is winding down, there are still bears to be seen.

Motioning toward a creek, Juneau biologist Robert Armstrong said, "Two weeks ago there was a bear sleeping right underneath the observation platform over there. Several people were right there looking down at it."

His friend John Hudson cued in, "and that is priceless when it comes to exposing tourists and people to wildlife. They are going to go home with an amazing story and they are going to cherish nature all that much more."

Author of the kids book, Dragons in the Ponds, Hudson usually searches for bugs and insects in the streams. But he also takes time for bears.

"This is an amazing place to watch bears," he said. "I am really impressed with the whole design of this trail and what a great job they have done with elevating it and putting rails on each side. They clearly put a lot of thought into trying to minimize interaction or at least prevent people from walking right by bears, by allowing the bears to move up and down the stream underneath these elevated walkways."

The area proves excellent for bear-viewing because bears are drawn to a source of food, Forest Service naturalist Laurie Craig said. The number one rule is, "Don't feed the bears."

By spending enough time in bear country, a run-in with one of the documented 10 bears is likely, and close encounters are not uncommon. Armstrong said he frequently bumps into wild black bears.

"I've had many, many times where bears come right toward me, sometimes after catching a fish, and pass within two or three feet of me."

When a bear passes within two or three feet and no harm occurs, someone is doing something right.

"Stay on the trail, move slowly, and remain quiet because the bears respond to everything we do," Craig said. "Behave in a consistent manner and do not approach, chase, or run from the bears."

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