2013 Spring Volunteer Project

We have been informed by the staff for the Sanctuary that there will not be sufficient tasks this year to support our normal spring volunteer project in 2013. We are hoping that they will need our help next year, so if you’re interested in volunteering for this effort for 2014, please let us know anytime by writing to us in the comment section of our website at www.mcneilbears.org


2012 Spring Volunteer Project

We have already selected this spring’s volunteers from the names gathered since last summer. If you wish to be considered as a volunteer for the next 2013 trip, please email your interest to us. We are anticipating this year’s spring project to be primarily the “normal” tasks undertaken each spring in opening base camp. Final dates are June 1st or 2nd-June 6, 2012.

Tides, weather, and staffing will contribute in the final selection. We have already selected this year’s volunteers based on a random selection within those that have previously applied this spring. Please remember:

You must be a member to be a volunteer helper for us at the Sanctuary. It is recommended that you be in relatively good shape and work well with others! We allow two names per application. You must not be a felon and a state waiver must be signed and approved prior to final acceptance by F&G for anyone to volunteer at McNeil River. ADF&G has the final decision for dates of service and numbers of volunteers needed.

As a volunteer, you are responsible for your own transportation, safety, clothing, tenting, bedding, etc., just as though entering the sanctuary as a viewer. Friends of McNeil River or ADF&G will be helping with some of the food provisions. Be prepared with your hip waders and warm, layered clothing, along with a willingness to hike and repair the same trails the visitors will use later in the summer, along with whatever other tasks are assigned & you’re capable of doing. Homer Floatplane fare will be approximately $700 for each volunteer.

Float plane travel is restricted by weather and frequently must occur on days with tides over 15 feet, so some flexibility in travel planning is necessary at both ends of the trip.
Two flight services:

Beluga Air, 2886 Bay Vista Place, Homer @ (907) 235-8256

Northwind Aviation, 1170 Lake Shore Dr, Homer @ (907) 235-7482
(others fly there too)

Contact us immediately by email if you are interested in being considered this spring to be a volunteer helper to help the rangers open the Sanctuary! Please read below for this year’s specific needs before responding. Thank you.

Fax: 907-522-1707, 907-688-1356 or email Mike Adams at madams@rmconsult.com, president – FOMR.

Friends of McNeil River appreciates the efforts of its dedicated volunteers!


McNeil River 2008 Volunteer Projects


McNeil River 2007 Volunteer Projects

Volunteer Comments:

Visitors and volunteers comments & Feedback

We always ask visitors and volunteers that are going to McNeil to send us comments, photos and articles for the newsletter & website regarding their trip and experiences. Here are some:

Kristen Westwood re: 2010 FOMR Book: The guide book is fantastic! I’ve already read it cover to cover. The photos of the bears along with the descriptive text are wonderful. The maps of the trails and camp are magnificent. The plant and bird info is very useful too.

Kristen followed up with an early June trip report: I have wanted to visit the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for a very long time, and this summer I got the opportunity to do so. After many years of anticipation as well as knowing what kind of experience McNeil offers in comparison to the other bear viewing options out there, I had high expectations going in, and those expectations were exceeded! The entire operation is magnificent. Getting the opportunity to spend several days observing Alaskan brown bears in their natural habitat was like a dream come true for me. The guides are all extremely knowledgeable, did a wonderful job of keeping the group informed, and graciously answered all of my questions. I purchased a copy of the 2010 Photo ID book prior to the trip that proved to be of great benefit during my visit to McNeil, and I am still referencing it almost daily as I tag photos and log trip notes. It is also a great visual aid for helping to explain more about the Sanctuary to others. I have thought of the trip every day since I returned and I can’t wait for the opportunity to visit again.

From Norma.B.:

My trip to McNeil in August, 2011 was a delightful surprise. I did not win the lottery but was able to fill a permit for the end of the season when someone else couldn’t go. Thank-you someone! But, I was a little worried. It was supposed to rain every day and the salmon were almost done spawning. Would I still see bears? Did I still want to go? Yes!

Brave Heart Napping © Norma Broten

It did rain every day, but not all day. The gray skies made for beautiful lighting when the sun streaked through the clouds. It was fun to walk out on the spit and take photos. Off in the distance, I could see bears fishing. What a blessing to just be there. One day, at low tide, we walked down the beach past McNeil Head. The female fox from camp joined us for a while. We saw a tufted puffin looking out from a hole in the rock wall above our heads. We found bird bones and flip flops that had been washed up by the tides. All the other days, we walked up the river drainage to watch the bears.

The guides were excellent route finders through the lagoon to the bluff at the far end of the bay. From there, we would meander up the trail and over to the falls or drop down to the river and head to Enders Island. On our first day at the falls, we watched Brave Heart, a 9.5 year old male, chase Diamond Eyes. She is the lightest colored bear at McNeil and we saw her catch and eat many fish. Brave Heart napped right in front of us and then walked down the shore of the river. Next, we could see his ears and head sticking out of the white froth as he returned to fishing.

The last day of the 2011 season started rainy and windy and it was supposed to get worse. Three of us headed out with Tom. We didn’t see many bears, ate lunch in the shelter of the rock ledge below the upper viewing pad at the falls and decided to head down river. We nestled in by Enders Island and watched and waited. It was pretty quiet but we
decided to stay a little longer. Then, we saw something big and dark floating down the river. It was XL! She is BIG and in her prime. She stopped to catch fish and eat and walked right by us. What a thrill! And it wasn’t over. A good sized female appeared on the other side of the river, caught a fish and walked across. She stood in front of us and faced us as she ate the fish. It was Waterfall! We were so excited, we were giddy. A beautiful gift…a beautiful last day of the 2011 bear viewing summer at McNeil.

Shawn C., A former FOMR Board Director and 2011 visitor to McNeil wrote:

Yes, I had a fantastic time out there. One of the days I was there had more animals at the falls than in around 40 years. There were 70 or so bears out that day. It was truly incredible. The hat gets a few looks here in Illinois. I was at the grocery store and a lady in line asked me what it meant and where I got it. I still think she didn’t get it. The whole McNeil experience is hard to relay to those who haven’t seen it. I plan on the doing the McNeil lotto again as soon as I am eligible. I can tell you what a wonderful job you and the others do at FOMR. I am glad you are looking out for such a wonderful place. Steve and Susan Skrocki wrote: We attended the FOMR talk “McNeil River Bears-Past and Present” this spring and were fortunate enough to draw a permit for this July. The experience left us utterly moved and in awe. Given the unique nature of McNeil, we will be joining your organization tonight. In the meantime, for what it’s worth, please find attached a letter we have sent with regard to our experience at McNeil River this summer advocating to Fish and Game a “no change” position to the program, as well singing the praises of Tom, Tony and Drew. What an amazing place, and what an amazing program. We look forward to staying informed and perhaps getting involved. Monday, 8/1/2011, the Anchorage Daily News had a photo on the front page of “Combat Fishing at McNeil River”, with a brief discussion on the record numbers of bears fishing at McNeil.


Beth wrote after her volunteer week:

clip_image002_0001Great week at McNeil River, thanks again for all your help getting us organized. It was a really nice group and it seems like we got some of the needed work finished. Plus the bears were out in full force, and we got to see some of the old-timers. It was pretty amazing. Thanks again. (She has also contributed an article seen in the 2012 newsletter & her photo above).


Glen wrote after his volunteer trip:

I think everyone would agree it was a good trip, we had a good time and feel like we finished most if not all that Ed and Tom had in mind for us. PLUS we saw a lot of bears as well as some territory that we (Wayne and I) had not seen during our visit in 2004. Transport to and from worked out fine, typical juggling act of small airplanes and lots of gear. Weather was good with some wind, some rain, some sunny skies and not enough of either to be a problem. The statement that McNeil is about one month behind the other side of the inlet proved very accurate.

Everyone’s equipment seemed to work ok with the exception of footgear: two or three had leak problems but not to a show-stopping degree. Food worked out fine. The food purchased at Costco for us helped, and some of us augmented that with food we purchased on our own. My suggestion would be shop from specific menus for each meal. Pretty much what you said as I recall. Tom supplied all the cooking gear we needed except no refer or oven. I took freeze dried but never even considered using it. So like I said, good time, good people, good trip.

Mike S. wrote:


Quite an experience we shared – I’m grateful we could do it! Mike S. set up a shared site for the volunteers to exchange photos between each other and FOMR. It looked like a great trip.

Wayne wrote:


Hope to cross paths with all of you again, Thanks!
Eva wrote: Speaking of the staff, Drew and Tony were there as new employees and are both great additions to the team. All of the crew are fantastic, we had a lot of fun working with them. It was a really exceptional experience and we are really glad we got to go.

Summer visitor comments:

Steve Scrocki, 2011

Steve Scrocki, 2011

Pam H.:

This summer was the most amazing trip of my life. I’ve travelled the world and there is no comparison to the beauty and thrill of being close to brown bears. I will gladly pay the amount on the website for your book. Looking forward to being eligible again soon for another fantastic visit.


The book stays on our bar and everyone is just fascinated by the bears. We truly loved our trip in so many ways. I don’t know if we’ll make it back again, but we sure hope we can encourage others to support this wonderful, spectacular place and experience the bears in their habitat which has been unchanged for hundreds of years.

We here at FOMR appreciate hearing from all the visitors about how their trip went, what they saw, photos they’d like to contribute, etc. It helps everyone keep in touch. Thank you.

Mike Adams, FOMR President & Treasurer.


A Volunteer at McNeil River

by Beth Rosenberg

I had wanted to get out to McNeil River SGS since 1993 when I wrote a paper for an environmental writing class on the mythology of the grizzly bear. My professor (in the margins of a rough draft I still have) suggested that I find a specific population of bears and weave their story into the paper which he had felt was too “broad.” As a willing college student, on the other end of the country in New Jersey, I began researching griz populations in Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. Having just spent time in the Absaroka Mountains in WY and also having decided I was going to be a wildlife biologist in Montana, those two states were my focus. I remember being in the basement of an east coast library and fantasizing about being out in the places I was researching with the bears that I had grown to admire from afar. I also remember when I first came across McNeil River quite unintentionally. I was reading in The Great Bear and was struck by the passage by John McPhee about the tracks of the grizzly and the great, wild space implied by the presence of that animal. That started my Alaska research. It wasn’t long before I saw the August, 1954 National Geographic article on McNeil and then, it seemed, the sanctuary was everywhere I looked. I remember reading about Larry Aumiller and his gifted management of the sanctuary, his philosophy of respect for the natural state of the bears and the habitat and his desire to establish a system that would allow for a limited number of people to co-exist with the bears for a few days at a time. That whole article was a revelation to me, and even though my life would go on to take a different turn, I always kept track of the McNeil bears and vowed that one day I would make it out to the sanctuary.

Fast forward to 2008. Several years (clearly) had passed and I finally applied for the lottery to McNeil. No luck. Same in 2009. I applied and no luck. Then, in March or so of 2010, I got an email from Friends of McNeil River saying that they were signing up volunteers to come out to the sanctuary and work to get camp and trails ready for the summer’s permitted visitors. I couldn’t respond to the email fast enough. The problem was, I lived in Southern California and had a Brooklyn cell phone. This seemed like it would not appear promising to Alaskans trying to get work done in the backcountry. I prepared a long explanation of my history working and wandering in the woods for whomever I might have to convince over at FOMR. This, however, proved unnecessary. I emailed Mike Adams that I was in, and he emailed me back to ask about travel plans. From there, everything fell into place and really I spent the few months between March and May in anticipation. My mother even got involved, knowing how long I had waited to make it out to McNeil. She read the list of “needed items” and asked if she could gift me a new pair of chest waders in celebration of finally getting out there. She, of course, had no idea what chest waders were or more importantly where to find a pair, but she did her research and ended up at the Bass Pro Shop in Maryland with a perfect pair of neoprene, booted chest waders. Needless to say, even as an outdoor girl in MD, this was a first for my mom.

At the end of May last year, I headed up to Alaska from California. The volunteer group of six had all been in touch over email making plans for meals and travel, so when I arrived in Anchorage I felt like I already had a friend in the other volunteers. Eva, the only other woman in the crew, came and picked me up for a drive north out of Anchorage to show me around. I ended up staying with her and her husband that night, then driving with them down to Homer. They put me up for the night in Homer at a friend’s cabin that was probably the coolest place I’ve ever stayed, despite being (or maybe because it was) unfinished and way out up on a hill overlooking the Cook Inlet, the Kenai mountain range across Katchemak Bay and the Alaska Range across the Cook Inlet. There was another house down the hill with a roving troop of four dogs. I called them BADs (Big Alaskan Dogs) and we threw sticks for hours that night. I wasn’t used to the lightness and stayed up late pretty much every night I was in AK last summer thinking it was a waste to sleep when there was so much to see, and so many sticks to throw.

When we finally landed on the dock at Beluga Air the next day, I felt like I had been in Alaska for a while when really it was only a couple days. Chest waders on and everything weighed out, we headed over with John B., past Augustine, to McNeil River. I remember circling the spit and seeing camp and the flats and the expanse of grasses and low alders. Later on, when Ed Weiss was bidding us all goodbye, he advised staff to check the outhouses for me as I would most likely be trying to hide out in there and stay. He was right. That first sight of McNeil is all anticipation and excitement, and it never went away.

We were six and so it took two planes to get us all out there. We did our introductions with the AF&G staff after arriving and then wheel-barrowed and carried our stuff to camp from the spit. There were biologists leaving on the plane we were arriving on and I remember wanting to know more about the sea otter survey they were researching. We set up camp and got the “bear talk,” which basically consisted of the things one already knows heading into bear country but that seemed slightly less viable when the 1200 lb. bear is wandering through camp. We learned that camp is a no-bear zone and that we were to come get an ADF&G staff member so that bears in camp could be “clapped out.” This seemed like an unlikely prospect at first, as did the trip out to the stream get water, but it is amazing what changes of mind happen there over the course of a very short time. We set up camp and got water and filled the cook shack with our food for the week and when it was all done went out for our first walk. It was late but since the sun is out, time is flexible. We saw two bears that first night and I will always remember it. Being out with just a small group of people in that huge place and feeling strangely comfortable sitting on the bluff by camp watching a young male eat grasses, not really caring much about us at all.

The rest of the week was pretty much just like that first night. We would work all day, on the trail or chopping wood or epoxying and sanding the boats, and stop to see bears as they wandered around us while we worked. At night, we would cook a big dinner all together and share stories, then head back out for an evening walk. One night we hiked to the mud flats to pour plaster of Paris into tracks in the mud. I carried the plaster track wrapped up in my lap on several plane trips back from AK and gave it to my father for his 70th birthday. It is sitting, along with a picture of “Jordan” (its originator) with mud and stray grass stuck to the pads, on their mantle in Maryland.

When I got back to Anchorage from Homer, I wrote a letter to the supervisor of the sanctuary letting him know that my week at McNeil River was one of the most profound outdoor experiences of my mostly outdoor life. I was grateful to have spent time in a place that felt as if it functioned the way the natural world is supposed to. We were visitors and the bears were bears. I guess I would end by saying to anyone reading this that volunteering at McNeil River SGS is time well spent. And I will continue to send in my yearly donation too, for the duration, holding out for the day that I win the lottery (the bear lottery, that is).


Researcher Ian Gill writes: Dear Friends of McNeil River,

In addition to our population-level data collection (hourly counts of bears present and chum salmon eaten), we honed in on 26 readily identifiable individual bears this summer. We developed a sampling scheme that allowed us to observe each of those bears every day they showed up at McNeil Falls, and we kept track of how efficiently they each caught salmon there.

Foraging efficiency is important among bears because they have such a limited amount of time in which to get fat enough to survive the next winter. Ecological theory holds that over time individual animals that catch and consume food quicker (and with less energy expended) than their competitors will be healthier and more successful reproductively. So, knowing which bears fish more efficiently and why will help us better understand their life histories — and bear-salmon ecology in general.

There has been a bit research into bear-salmon predation previously, including the four studies carried out by researchers affiliated with Utah State University at McNeil River in the 1970’s. A more recent researcher from USU, Danielle Chi, did a similar study at Anan Creek in Southeast Alaska (where, incidentally, Tom Griffin and I met and worked together way back in 1997). Also, researchers at the University of Washington have become interested in bear-salmon predation recently due to the growing awareness of the importance of salmon to riparian ecosystems. All these studies have suggested that large adult males will be the most efficient foragers at a given stream because their dominance allows them to use the best fishing spots.

What we found, however, is that dominant bears aren’t always the most efficient when it comes to catching chum salmon at McNeil Falls. Instead, we saw several less dominant bears with catch rates as high as the more dominant bears. Most notably, Yolanda (a smallish female with no cubs) was one of the most efficient foragers by our count, second only to the large adult male Luther. Yolanda was frequently pushed out of her preferred spot, but she kept returning and managed to make far better use of what time she could squeeze in between other bears.

To be fair, some large adult males (such as Luther, Rocky, and Ivan) did fish productively by dominating a preferred location. However, it was interesting to see that other adult males (such as Ears, Plunger, and Jordan) were just as efficient by using different strategies. Rather than displacing other bears to get to where they wanted to fish, both Plunger and Jordan used unique locations to out-fish their competitors. Plunger, of course, gets his name from his technique of diving in the deep center pool. While other bears do occasionally try this technique, none come anywhere close to his success rate (informal counts had him coming up with a fish on eight out of ten dives). Jordan, as you may remember, sits mid-channel and faces down-stream. When fish swim past they occasionally rest in the eddy created by his body, where he catches them and proceeds to pin them to his foreleg to eat them. Finally, Ears wanders widely, preferring no particular location but stealing about one quarter of the fish he ate. Rather than exploiting a particular spot, he seems to key in on other bears and exploit their fishing success. These three adult males are the best examples of bears that could try the strategy of being dominant, but choose instead to employ alternative strategies to catch fish at McNeil Falls.

What this all means is that bears use different strategies to catch fish based on their experiences at McNeil Falls. I think they develop a conceptual understanding of the situation and seek a technique and location that will make them as efficient as they need to be. While some bears find it easy to dominate their favorite spot (such as Luther with his enormous size), other bears seem to work around their competitors and develop new techniques that suit the spaces available to them.

As with many scientific studies, this project raises more questions than it answer. Questions like how do bears learn and develop these techniques? Are they based on physical advantages (such as better eyesight), or on cognitive traits (such as the ability to learn and adapt quickly to changing conditions)? However, we’ve made an important first step in determining that bears that use alternative foraging strategies can be just as efficient as dominant bears. Anyone who has watched bears knows that they are intelligent animals that exhibit complex and subtle behaviors. Through your support we’ve been able to express some of what we know from watching bears in scientific terms, which will hopefully open the door to continued research and conservation of these fascinating animals.

I am deeply indebted to the National Geographic Society, the Waitt Institute for Discovery, the National Park Service, Western Washington University, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Friends of McNeil River for their support (both financial and moral) of this project. And a special thanks to anyone who visited over the past two summers and expressed interest in the project by asking questions or helping count bears. It’s been a fantastic experience.

Cheers, Ian Gill, Graduate Researcher (and former McNeil staffer)


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