Never, ever step between a mother bear and her cubs. This is the cardinal rule in grizzly or brown bear country. Most of the northern hemisphere has heard this maxim by now, and all nine of us knew it well, long before we came here.
It is the evening of August 7, 2005, and we are hiking down along the McNeil River — home of the world's largest concentration of brown bears — in southwestern Alaska, a hundred miles from the nearest digression of the road system. We have left the observation area at McNeil Falls and hope to reach our tents and the cook cabin at the mouth of the river before the incoming tide renders the broad estuary flats uncrossable. As we descend a low bluff toward the flats, however, we encounter a delay. To our left we notice two young brown bear cubs at play. To our right, fifty yards from the cubs, stands their mother, snout deep in a fat chum salmon but with eyes averted in our direction. Our route of travel (proposed) goes right down the middle.
Our guide on this day is Larry Aumiller, manager of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). Fit, trim, of average height, he's in his standard uniform: flannel shirt, hip boots, sweat-stained ball cap, beard, and backpack. Careful and conservative as he is in such situations, he has suggested we pause here. One of his guiding tenets across three decades in this job is to not intrude enough to change a bear's behavior, and he'd rather not disturb this young family. Aumiller carries a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs, a state requirement, but in thirty years here, he's never had to shoot a charging bear and he prefers not to spoil that record. The weapon remains lashed to the side of his pack.
So we wait. We make a modicum of noise to subtly reiterate our presence. We watch. One of the cubs rolls over onto its back, unconcerned. Opposite him, the female peers at us, then reinvests her attention in the salmon she is dissecting. She turns her back to us.
Minutes pass. Aumiller scrutinizes the situation. He's watched this bear, the Spit Bear, tend her yearling cubs all summer and knows that she's a little less protectively aggressive and more likely to allow them to wander farther away. Finally, he suggests that we move slowly as a tight group down to the beach, then turn hard right and proceed along the base of the bluff, which will take us fairly closely past her but never put us between her and her cubs. An eagle alights on the beach out beyond the mother bear, who moves off to investigate, giving us a little more room. We commit ourselves and make all of ten yards' progress before the female moves all the way back, past her fish, to the base of the bluff. We halt. She sits down, back to us again. Meanwhile, the cubs have moved farther off in the opposite direction. Aumiller takes it all in. "Anyone bring camping gear?" he says. The answer is no, and he knows it. His touch of humor helps calm the tension.
"Any volunteers to test that old maxim about a mother bear and her cubs?" he inquires. None step forward. "Well, let's see; who can we afford to lose? We have two accountants in the group, don't we?" Nervous laughter. Someone brings up the old joke about the slowest runner. Mom rolls us an attentive glance. More long minutes transpire; the tide seeps onto the flats, slowly but perceptibly rising. Aumiller eyes the bear closely, the tide, each one of us.
"OK," he says, "how about we try breaking the rule this one time?" He isn't kidding. He has a strong measure of this bear's unusual tolerance and has assimilated the cues from her behavior this evening. And, he points out, we'll still have room to react to her behavior — to retreat if prudent.
It's Aumiller's judgment that must prevail, and he offers the group little time for worry: Stay close together, look slow but walk as fast as you can (looking slow) — and off we go, bisecting the bear family and the cardinal rule with ten human spirits and the Aumiller acumen for this specific and unusual case.
Mom reels about immediately to watch us. We proceed (not looking that slow, I'm thinking) into the estuarine shallows toward camp and salvation. She moves, deliberately but unhurried, perpendicular to our course, toward her delinquent cubs. We keep going; she crosses our trail behind us, pauses to sniff and look our way, then ambles on toward her offspring, never once offering an interpretable threat.
Aumiller in the lead, we wade into the deepening estuary. Half a mile later, ascending the shallows back onto hard ground on the other side near camp, he stops and faces us with a grin, offering high fives to each as we pass — a parody of himself and all that he stands for — as though we'd just escaped a certain death. He knows, and we do too from his drollery, that this is not a case of beating the odds. This is a case of knowing the bears. (And of getting back to camp with the cold, incoming tide barely below the tops of our boots.)
* * *
He calls it the world's greatest summer job. He should know: he held it for thirty years. Every spring for three decades, he returned to the wilder side of Cook Inlet, two hundred and fifty miles away from Anchorage and one hundred miles southwest of Homer by seaplane, to perform as manager, boss, chief tinkerer, itinerant beachcomber, tireless firewood cutter, field chef, bear whisperer, guide, teacher, philosopher, mild agitator, and eventually the very personification of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. His is the story of one man's love for solitude in a wild landscape, and of his ability to establish and maintain a trust between visiting humans and the world's most fearsome terrestrial carnivore, the brown bear (blood kin to the fabled grizzly bear, only bigger). How he got the job in the first place is a classic Alaska tale. Why he ever left it is another. The story of his journey through life here along the legendary McNeil River — what he saw and what he learned and shared and the many joys and sorrows and frustrations and encounters both sweet and heart-stopping — is the subject of this book.
Aumiller's penchant for the wild took root during his boyhood in suburban Denver. His parents were not outdoors people, but his grandfather was, and under his guidance they found local habitats in which to hunt and fish and escape the city. The young man developed a keen appreciation for wildness, be it a good trout stream, the Denver den of a suburban red fox, or the spectacle of a weed pushing up through the tiniest crack in the pavement. He eventually ventured off to college and began spending a lot of weekends alone in the hinterlands, forming what he would later call an intellectual realization: a bond with wild places and solitude.
A natural graphic artist, he earned a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Kansas, and, those being the days of the Vietnam conflict, he walked out of academia and right into the army. In the final days of basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, he watched most of his comrades shipping off to Asia and war action that Aumiller says would have killed his spirit if not his body. His assignment — delivered as a last-minute reprieve from his original orders for active duty in Vietnam — was singularly dissimilar: the Pentagon needed an illustrator. Serendipity had struck.
He served his hitch far from the killing fields, but close to the day-by-day planning for that war and the assessment of its cost in human lives. In artful protest, he painted his VW Bug with bright, psychedelic color patterns, rendering it a singular symbol of peace in the wartime Pentagon parking lot. His was no insurrection — just a reminder of a more charitable perspective. Inside the great war house, he did his job.
On July 11, 1970, his stint completed and none too soon, Aumiller received his Good Conduct Medal, shook a general's hand, and was instantaneously reconstituted into a free man. He departed DC that afternoon, pointing the Flower Bug westward across the Beltway, away from wartime and the crowded East and toward Colorado, home, and open spaces. No idea what was next, or where he was going. Well, not at first. Before he reached Denver, however, a notion had germinated and taken root, and he liked it. Very much. Alaska. Huge quiet spaces, wilderness by the leagues, open horizons, solitude, wildlife, and even more distance from the Pentagon and its vocation. Why not? Now or never. Free at last, his internal compass pointed him north by west toward the Last Frontier.
His stay in Denver was brief. He said hello and good-bye to family. Without money or plans, his major preparation for the drive north was to repaint the Bug — in half an hour with a can of black paint and a brush. Denver could accept a hippy car, but he calculated that Alaska might be a bit more conservative. Little did he know that painting a car with a paintbrush was far more Alaska than either the psychedelic colors or the conservative cover.
One day north, in Laramie, Wyoming, his brother Jim inspected his outfit. "You got a rifle?" No. "Well, you can't go to Alaska without a rifle. Here, take mine." Aumiller shoved an old family .30-30 lever-action behind his seat. His brother, meanwhile, was looking over the little Bug. "You're gonna need extra gas on that Al-Can Highway." That afternoon they bolted a big red jerry can onto the rear flank of the Volkswagen, and Aumiller was Alaska-bound.
* * *
In the meantime, as well as a bit beforehand, Alaska had been preparing for Aumiller in its own serendipitous fashion. Across the millennia immemorial, the geology beneath the Great Land had been scraping up huge piles of mountainous grandeur in various places. One of the more recent ranges, and the hottest volcanically, is the Aleutian Range, which makes its beginnings where the Alaska Range (think Denali) leaves off at its southwestern extremity, and carries the higher elevations on south and west, forming the spine of the Alaska Peninsula. It continues westward, gradually disappearing along the 52nd Parallel and into the sea but for its greater plutonic crests, which constitute the arc of the Aleutian Islands, reaching for the Kamchatka Peninsula of eastern Siberian Russia and forming the bright northern strand of the Pacific ring of fire. In the area where the Alaska Peninsula attaches to the body of the continent, just south of Iliamna Lake and northeast of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, lies a maze of low mountains — nothing much over 4,000 feet, but grand and rugged nonetheless. In a high divide lies an unremarkable lake drained by a river, small by Alaska standards, that flows eastward into Kamishak Bay of Cook Inlet, as we know them today. A geologic uplift created a line of high coastal bluffs, so that many of the rivers draining the neighboring landscape into the bay have a magnificent falls or high cataract from plateau to sea, completely blocking the incursion of marine fish. But this particular little river flows down serendipitously through a broad gap in those bluffs, emptying into a protected estuary, and then into the sea.
Of course, the Pleistocene ice and snow intervened time and again, but sometime over the recent hundred thousand years, the ancestral brown bears wandered into Alaska from Asia. As the ice melted and fed the creeks and rivers, the salmon returned to spawn in great runs. The little river flowing into Kamishak Bay attracted a run of chum salmon, and a creek just south of it, feeding the same estuary, attracted a run of red salmon. A small tectonic readjustment two miles upriver from the sea had resulted in a set of steep cascades in the river, not so resistant as to deny passage to the spawning chums, but taxing enough to cause them to pause, gathering sometimes in great numbers in the pools immediately below. This gathering of salmon led to a gathering of hungry bears. That it carried the earliest run of large salmon in the area each year, with its neighbor creek's run of reds as a pre-chum appetizer, made it even more attractive as the first major animal protein focal point for the bears each spring. (Many of the other local salmon rivers supported silvers, which run later.) In fact, these falls in the little river would become the gathering point for the largest concentration of brown bears known in the world.
Here we might note that it was salmon that created the brown bear. Considered the same species as the smaller grizzly of interior Alaska and the American West, the brown bear lives a coastal life and grows larger than the grizzly due to a diet rich in marine nutrients, mostly from salmon.
At least fifteen hundred years ago, and perhaps three thousand or more, another rather curious omnivore arrived on the banks of the little river, this one on two legs and hungry as the bears. These late-model humans built sod houses and apparently stayed seasonally, and for brief seasons at that. The evidence is as thin as the incipient archaeological surveys conducted so far. Many more recent sod house depressions, including some right in the camp area where we visitors sleep today and others on the bluffs overlooking the river below the falls, appear to represent at least three hundred years of continuous seasonal occupation, up to about 250 years ago. The Alutiiq Eskimos and the Kachemak tradition before them were itinerant cultures. They migrated to and lived by the little river, on the south shore where the sod was good for shelter construction, to fish for salmon and gather other coastal and marine provender. Their tracks in the estuarine mud alongside those of the bears provide an early suggestion that the two species can coexist, not necessarily competing for the salmon so much as sharing them. But these Native people drifted away and have not been back for some two and a half centuries. No one knows why. Perhaps they were repulsed by the early Russian visitors, or perhaps some improvement on the wintering grounds kept them there. Their time capsule, buried in the strata beneath the footprints of their homes, remains unplumbed.
Charles H. McNeil, adventurer, fur trapper, and entrepreneur, left Colorado in 1887 and drifted up to Alaska to poke and prospect around its southern edge, reaching by chance this little river around 1904 in his search for copper and gold. He visited the area regularly during the more comfortable seasons from about 1910 to 1924, occupying a cabin and a cave across the estuary from where camp is now located, staking a gold claim nearby (and later one for gas and oil to the south) and doing some pick and shovel mining as well as some fur trade. Like the Alutiiq before him, he was a seasonal migrant, but unlike them, his life support was not subsistence from the land, but support from civilization. He did not have to get along with the landscape; he was here to profit from it. He wasn't the first. Russian explorers had hired Native Alaskans to trap out the sea otters in the area for their pelts over the century before. During his visits he made photographs of the aftermath of the Katmai eruption of 1912 that created the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, shot a few bears and sold a hide or two to the Smithsonian, and ate plenty of salmon. Later he disappeared toward California. By 1936 his buildings were gone, demolished by the wild gales and drifting snow or perhaps a squatter's fire — but he had left his mark nonetheless. The little river was now labeled McNeil River on the maps, and the great gathering place for bears would be known as McNeil Falls.
Gradually, word was getting around, particularly among the early Alaska pilots, that there was a wonderful concentration of brown bears to be found here. In August of 1954, Cecil Rhode, a photographer, published an illustrated article in the National Geographic Magazine about giant Alaska bears fishing. He had heard a few reports about McNeil and gone there to witness the gathering of bears and photograph it for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), but he refused to identify the site in print. He saw thirty-two brown bears at once, fishing the falls. Clarence, his brother, was the head of the FWS in Alaska at the time, and perhaps the influence for not only the photographic record, but the secrecy as well. In 1955 the Alaska territorial government (a federal assemblage including the FWS) closed the McNeil drainage to bear hunting, recognizing it as a special phenomenon four years prior to statehood.
In 1958, an FWS patrolman, Ivan Marx, was stationed at McNeil from May 5 through the summer to enforce the bear-hunting closure and monitor the sport fishing. He noted in his diary that there were many flyovers (Alaska pilots and hunters were hearing about the McNeil phenomenon). In early June, a few days after the reds began to run in Mikfik Creek, four fishing boats appeared; he noted that the captains of each were "strong against bear." One told him he didn't want them extinct, but that we didn't need this many. Later in June Marx would note of the bears, "They don't run from me." On July 21 he was run over by an adult female with new cubs. Twice. This was not an attack; Marx was simply too close and in the way. She tore the skin of his knee in her accidental contact, but he wrote, "Sure glad I didn't have to kill her."