Captain Bob and I have spent the last three weeks scanning every inch of shoreline with binoculars looking for one thing with no success, bears. We're in southeast Alaska, and we've run across several people who's camping plans have been interrupted by a visit from the friendly neighborhood grizzly, but nothing for us. Nothing until now.
A visit to the Anan Wildlife Observatory changed everything. The Anan Wildlife Observatory is unusual in that it is one of few places where brown bears and black bears coexist without conflict. This is due to the abundance of salmon and ease of fishing at Anan creek during the summer months. Even though the bears coexist, there is still definitely an awareness of each bear of who else is fishing the creek at the time they are there and weather or not they need to give the others space. Momma bears chase other bears up trees to protect their young, while also fleeing up trees with their cubs when big males come to fish.
The wildlife observatory is not just home to bears, but bald eagles fill the trees and the skies as they wait for a turn to compete for the bear's leftovers. Bears can be pretty sloppy eaters, and even the cleanest of them leaves plenty behind for the eagles and crows to enjoy. The messiest of all are the brown bears. A three year old female brown bear that we were able to observe was good enough at fishing that she could afford to discard entire fish that she determined were male and without eggs. Unfortunately for the poor eagles that looked on they were tossed dead into the water, and the salmon were too big for the eagles to lift out of the water, so they went uneaten during the hours we were there.
The observatory is simply a wooden deck with a guardrail, very much like you would have coming out of the back of your house. There is a social contract that exists between the bears and the people viewing them, we each stay on our side of the guardrail. The bears often traveled under the wooden deck, and also used the space right up to the guardrail, but they spent their time pretending we weren't there. In exchange for this we agree to not use the bear spray, shotguns, rifles, and .44 magnums that the forest service and tour guides carried. However, it was not this arsenal that kept us safe, it was good behavior like not bringing food with us and making noise along the trail that did the majority of the work protecting us.
Even though we were provided relative safety, it was not without excitement. The bears used their keen sense of smell to determine who was coming or going, and there were a few territory disputes while we were there that had larger bears chasing smaller ones uphill at full steam. How fast is full steam? Fast! This is one of the reasons they say to never run away from a charging bear, you're not going to get away from it. Lucky for me that although I can't outrun a bear, I'm pretty sure I can outrun Captain Bob!
If you ever find yourself in southeast Alaska near Wrangle, make the trip to the Anan Wildlife Observatory. It can be reached by boat or by float plane. You need a permit to get in there, and permits book up well in advance, but several tour companies have many available with a little bit of notice. Bob and I relied on our good luck and took advantage of a couple of permits that didn't show up on their scheduled day, but it would definitely be worth planning your entire trip around a visit to this magical place.