Tuesday, March 13, 2007

There’s a Bear in There

Story and photographs by Roderick Eime

Beyond the well trafficked sea lanes and cruise ship haunts of Alaska's Inside Passage lies the true Alaska. Still a wild frontier where, if you stroll in the woods, you take a cut lunch and a .303!

“Walk loudly, sing songs, whatever,” says the pimply young ranger at Anan’s visitor station, “you don’t want to surprise the bears. If they hear you coming, they’re a lot more relaxed.”

We’ve just arrived at the Anan Bear Sanctuary in Jim Leslie’s 600hp jet boat, Chutine Warrior. The trip took less than an hour from the quaint little seaside village of Wrangell, tucked delicately into a sheltered bay on the island of the same name. It’s here that Jim and wife Wilma operate, Alaska Waters, a tiny tour company that caters for small groups and independent travellers in search of the ‘real’ Alaska. For many, the postcard perfect fishing hamlet is just another whistle stop on a big ship Inside Passage cruise.

Australians are travelling to Alaska in record numbers, the vast majority travelling aboard any of the huge luxury liners plying the pristine waters of the Inside Passage between Vancouver and Anchorage. But I'm here for a longer look at the charms of small town Alaska.

I stood by and watched as the enormous Norwegian Sun disgorged its cargo of 2000 sandal-clad, rubber-necked tourists onto the wharf at Wrangell. I saw them disappear into the little stores and boutiques while some others were whisked away on whirlwind city tours to the museum and native monuments. All the while I wondered what they were really experiencing of the wild, untamed Alaska that lurked just a few miles way.

Back at Anan Jim corrals us together for the short trek to the viewing station. The path is a plain dirt track leading into the woods and along the edge of a rushing stream overflowing with spawning salmon. Jim slings his .303 over his shoulder, but his big can of pepper spray is our first line of defence. “I’ve never used either so far,” admits Jim, “… here.”

Around the first corner we sight a massive Grizzly Bear sitting in the middle of the stream. We all immediately gasp in unison, some clutching nervously at each other, but Jim invites us to linger a moment and watch.

“Hey buddy,” yells Jim at the big carnivore, making sure he knows we’re there,” howya doing?”

The burly bruin turns momentarily in our direction, but just as quickly goes back to playfully swatting salmon with his huge paw. He’s completely unconcerned at our presence.

“The only time you’ll get into trouble,” Jim reminds us, “is if you get between a mother and her cubs or their intended destination, whatever that is. The bears are so full of salmon they’re not interested in eating you.”

The viewing station is little more than a picnic shelter and gives us somewhere to hide from the light rain that continues to fall. It’s not long before a female black bear and two gorgeous cubs amble past the station en route to the fish-laden river.

She barely glances our way as she leaves her two cubs to wait on the bank while she deftly extracts a salmon from the stream. The trio then trot off into the woods to enjoy their meal. This scenario plays out several more times over the hour as mothers and cubs come to feed on the ridiculous oversupply of pink-fleshed fish.

The river spills into a lagoon where the corpses of expired and half-eaten salmon wash up on the shore. Each of the tall pines encircling the lake contains one or more juvenile Bald Eagles. These magnificent birds are almost swarming on the smorgasbord laid out for them and overhead many more weal in formation just for the heck of it.

My stay with Jim and Wilma is for a scant five days, but in that time I’ve explored glaciers, fished for and caught salmon, hung on for dear life as Jim shoots the rapids and experienced daily life in the little town when it wasn’t thronging with tourists.

You’ll see an awful lot of fabulous scenery from the deck of your cruise ship, but step off and disappear into it to discover the true wonders of wild Alaska.

Fact File:

Where: Wrangell, Alaska [see Google maps]

Local Sights and Attractions: Stikine River, Shakes Glacier, Telegraph Creek, LeConte Glacier, ancient petroglyphs and Anan Wildlife Observatory

Activities: Hiking, fishing, sightseeing, golfing, bicycling,

Accommodation: Stikine Inn, Zimovia B&B, GrandView Bnb, Rooney's Roost B&B, Fennimore's B&B, Thunderbird Hotel

How to Get There: Alaska Airlines flies daily to Wrangell from Seattle (AS65) or Juneau (AS64). The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system visits Wrangell four times a week in summer.

Contact: Australians can arrange travel to Wrangell with local Alaska specialist, Spectrum Holidays.

Spectrum Holidays,
511 Whitehorse Road,
Mitcham VIC 3132

Email: enquiries@spectrumholidays.com.au
Web: www.spectrumholidays.com.au

Tel: +61 3 8804 2420
Fax: +61 3 8804 2426