Weighing more than half a ton, a bear named Rocky ambles toward me. He fills my 300mm lens frame. Through the viewfinder, I notice scars on his face and shoulders, and tattered skin on his sides. He’s a fighter, hence his name. And he’s healthy. His distended belly almost scrapes the ground. His enormous head melds into his massive girth. And each paw is bigger than my head. He’s hungry. Fortunately for him—and me —there’s a river full of fish just steps from where he stands and I sit. Other bears give Rocky a wide berth as he charges into the water. Welcome to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska.
Established in 1967, the 200-square-mile sanctuary is a protected wildlife habitat and home to the world’s largest congregation of brown bears (Ursus arctos). As many as 144 individual bears have been identified in a single summer. Seventy-four bears have been observed at one time. But bears don’t live in packs like wolves. And from the looks of Rocky’s battle scars, they’re not particularly social animals. So why would 74 bears all gather in the same place at the same time? The same reason we gather at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
From early July through mid-August, chum salmon return to McNeil River to spawn. A series of boulders upstream from the mouth creates the McNeil River Falls. The falls produce a salmon traffic jam, providing excellent fishing opportunities for bears and outstanding viewing experiences for humans. That’s why I’m here, along with nine other lucky Homo sapiens who won four-day viewing permits in a lottery system through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Only 10 people a day are allowed to view the bears. This is wild country and accessible only by seaplane. We camp in our tents and bring our own food. There are no steel fences, bear traps or armed guards keeping watch over us. Something much stronger protects us: respect. At McNeil, the bears come first, and everything we do—eat, sleep, walk and talk—is done with respect to the bears and their home. It works. Since the permit system was enacted in 1973, no bear has ever been killed by visitors who felt threatened, and no human has ever been harmed by a bear.
But countless humans have forever been moved by the McNeil bears. There aren’t many places in the world where we can see the age-old scene of predator pursuing prey in a setting devoid of roads, motorized vehicles, crowds of people or—gasp—cell phone coverage. When a 1,200-pound bruin waddles past close enough to hear his breath? When two males spar and roar over a fishing spot? When a mother nurses her cubs a hat’s toss away? Experiences like this trigger something deep within us. That wild part of our DNA, long dormant, awakens from its domesticated slumber. Places like McNeil River make us feel alive, not because we’re seeking a thrill, but because what we didn’t know we were missing reintroduces itself. Connecting to our true nature makes us whole.
At McNeil River, it’s easy to focus on the big furry brown things and little else. But over the course of four days, I pay more attention to the salmon. While people come here to see bears, the bears come here to catch fish. So, if it weren’t for the salmon, we wouldn’t be here. For salmon to complete their life cycle, they need to get past the falls and spawn. The female chums are ripe with bright orange eggs, and the males fight each other to fertilize them. But many salmon end up in the claws and jaws of bears and don’t pass on their genes to the next generation. Their lives, however, were not for naught.
Rocky faces the falls in solid defiance of the oncoming water tumbling over the boulders and swirling past his legs. The salmon defy gravity as they slip past the big bear and swim upstream. Rocky darts his head into the churning water and emerges triumphant with a flopping fish. It’s a female, and as the clamp of the bear’s teeth forces the eggs from her body, in that moment her life force is transferred to his.