Visiting Alaska’s Fortress of Bears

Admirality Island has more brown bears than the entire lower 48 combined

Aug 11, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
alaska

More brown bears than the lower 48.    Photo: USDA Forest Service

Alaska is home to some of the largest brown bears on the planet, and southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage includes several remote islands that have more giant bears per square mile than anywhere else in the world. We flew out to explore this wild marvel—here's how you can do the same. 

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The Fortress of the Bears

Admiralty Island is one among the hundreds that make up the rain-soaked Alexander Archipelago in southeast Alaska.  Called “Kootznoowoo” or “Fortress of the Bears” by the native Tlingit tribe, the island has one of the highest concentrations of Ursus arctos on the planet, fed and nurtured by the annual drumbeat of pacific salmon drawn to its shaded streams. Abundance: ad infinitum. 

These bears are big, really big, frequently tipping the scales at over 1,000 pounds. Here’s another surprising fact: there are so many of these brown beasts patrolling the shores of Admiralty that there are no black bears—another southeast Alaska icon—to be found. All told there are more than 1,500 brown bears inhabiting this one island: that’s more than all the grizzlies in the lower 48 states combined. 

Float Plane into the Wild

Raindrops crawled slowly across the cold glass as I peered through our float plane window at the forest below. Down below, a sea of undulating waves bordered rocky shores of pointed hemlock and spruce. Old-growth forests are often lauded for their serenity and solitude, but flying over the vast Tongass National Forest on a blustery day felt foreboding. A frayed yellow cord tied to the wing flapped violently as we flew along through wind and rain. The guttural roar of the single-engine motor was constant. As one side of the plane dipped down, we began to circle our landing spot. Sea and sky came together as we touched down on the water. 

"Well, here we are," came the hissing welcome of our float plane pilot through the intercom system. He turned and flashed a brief smile. Water vapor from my breath collected as I pressed my face closer to the window. Twisting my neck, I removed the intercom headphones cupped around my ears and heard the noise of the propellers come to an end. We had landed on the shores of Admiralty. We were in bear territory now.

"Any of you got waders?" asked our pilot, raising a bushy eyebrow. One quick look at the passengers gave him his answer. "Well, we'll figure something out," he chirped. Swinging open the doors, the waist deep water lapped against the floats of the plane. 

Coming to Alaska brings to mind images of rugged landscapes and self-reliant adventurers. So, for this particular outing into the wilderness, I find it best to compartmentalize the moment when I was hastily slung like a sack of potatoes over another man's broad shoulders and carried briskly ashore. Didn't seem to bother him. Who needs waders?

Once we were all safely on the wind-swept shore, we were greeted by two Forest Service rangers in faded-green rubber rain jackets. I was thrown for a moment when the words “Welcome to Admiralty!” in a strong Australian accent came out of one of the woman's mouth. Being originally from South Africa myself, I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. The last truly wild places now draw adventure seekers from around the world. 

I had made this journey to Admiralty with my longtime friend, Dan Kirkwood of the Alaska Wilderness League, an experienced bear guide who had generously offered to host me in his Juneau home and show me around. It’s his job to keep wild places like this safe for future generations of Americans. Together, we would explore the island. 

pack-creek-2
During July and August, it's not uncommon to observe up to 25 bears visiting Pack Creek at a time.   Photo: USFS

Big Bears and Towering Trees

We drew our coats closer against the cold wind. The rocky beach soon gave way to a small, earthen bank and a natural amphitheater, walled by dark trees and focused on a 400-acre mudflat, a meandering stream at its heart blanketed by thick sedge grass along its banks: Pack Creek. This gateway between temperate rainforest and the waters of the Inside Passage is a natural rendezvous point for bears and salmon. 

The salmon need to fight up stream into the quiet rocky stream beds shaded by mature trees to spawn; the bears just need to be fed. At this particular moment, however, neither actor was making an appearance. Aside from a lone raven gliding overhead, its wing beats audible, the amphitheater was empty and quiet. 

The rangers quickly suggested we walk one of the nearby trails to another viewpoint further upstream. 

I’ve been to a lot of places in the world that make a person feel small. Sweeping canyons, soaring mountain peaks. But coming to a halt in front of a massive lump of partially digested sedge grass—the remnants of a passing bear—in the middle of a claustrophobic trail walled in by gigantic tree trunks, I was struck by just such a sensation. The trees felt like pillars of a Greek temple, as if they held the clouds aloft. A land of giants.

Reaching the viewing platform, we reflected on the quiet beauty of this place. We waited, but the thought that we may have come too early in the year, beaten the salmon to the stream, seemed to push the possibility of seeing a bear further away. So we decided to head back to the shore. 

I was trailing behind Dan when we reached the mouth of the creek. Dan, crested on the bank with binoculars in hand, turned and flashed a smile. Just over the rise, about 200 yards from where we stood, grazed an awesome brown bear. The sight was fairly predictable, yet absolutely surreal. We watched the bear graze, paying little notice to our group sitting just a short distance away. Bears and humans have met at this point for sometime now, and each is gracious with the other. 

After some time, we hit the point where the plane that brought us needed to return to Juneau. The outgoing tide had removed a blanket of water and exposed a vast stretch of beach hundreds of yards wide. The wind had returned, and in the distance we spotted a large dark body. It was another bear taking advantage of the low tide, browsing through the daily buffet of clams. The distant bear turned to look in our direction and raised itself onto its hind feet. Its height and presence seemed to draw us closer. 

Reaching the plane, we were greeted by the smiling pilot. “Ready?” he hollered. We nodded back in the affirmative, and said our goodbyes and thanks to the rangers. Then, one by one, we were slung over the shoulders of our pilot, a smile on our faces.

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A large brown bear emerges from Pack Creek.   Photo: USFS

Get Out There

One million people visit southeast Alaska every year. Sadly, most are confined to crowded cruise ships and souvenir shops for the majority of their time in the last frontier. If you happen to find yourself in Juneau, hop on a float plane (it's a 30-minute ride) and get out there with a good guide. Admiralty is truly a jewel among many in the Tongass, and your experience in this land of giants will be unforgettable.

A guide will source permits and can arrange transportation. If you wish to travel on your own, you should plan to apply for a permit online ahead of time. The bear sanctuary is open from June 1 to September 10, but the best time to see bears season is during July and August. You can't stay overnight in the sanctuary, but you can camp, permit free, on the island itself, and there's even a cabin you can rent. Obviously good bear conflict prevention measures should be practiced. Kayaking is hugely popular in the area, and there's great lakes and portage trails throughout. You can rent kayaks from Pack Creek Outfitters

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