Pack Creek offers visitors a chance to see bears in their natural environment.
[by Bjorn Dihle]
The brown bear’s claws glowed in the morning light as it trudged toward us. Its rubbery lips spread, revealing yellow canines and a slobbery tongue. Behind me, a woman whom I was guiding, gasped and grabbed my arm.
“Let’s sit down,” I said. “We won’t look so threatening. The bear’s just licking clam juice off its lips.”
The bear passed within 10 yards, without acknowledging us, on its way to the estuary to eat sedges.
Located a 30-minute floatplane flight from Juneau, Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area on Admiralty Island has attracted bear viewers for decades. It’s often said that Admiralty, at 100 miles long and with nearly 700 miles of coastline, has the densest concentration of brown bears and bald eagles in the world. The true name of the island is Kootznoowoo, which in Tlingit means “fortress of the bears.” The observatory is surrounded by 95 square miles closed to bear hunting and offers a safe window into the lives of brown bears.
From June 1 to September 10, Pack Creek is comanaged by rangers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Forest Service. Visitors need to attain a permit in advance (1-800-877-444-6777 or recreation.gov). Before or after those dates, no permit is required. During peak season, from July 5 to August 25, the number of permits is limited to 24 per day. The best time for bear viewing begins when salmon are spawning, which generally commences the first week of July.
Don MacDougall, who spent 14 seasons as a ranger at Pack Creek, said, “We need places like Pack Creek because they offer a chance to see brown bears in their natural environment and learn that they aren’t predatory killers. Pack Creek teaches us how we fit into the world and how to interact and respect other species we share the planet with.”
There are two main viewing areas. The first, at the estuary, allows visitors to watch bears eating sedges in the early season and chasing salmon later on. The second, a viewing tower, requires a mile-long hike through the rain forest. The tower is above the creek and, when the salmon are running, can offer views of bears prowling and fishing the shadowy stream.
Most visitors use one of three Juneau guiding companies. Each company is aligned with one of two local floatplane taxi companies, Alaska Seaplanes or Ward Air. Pack Creek Outfitters, the company I work for most, offers the longest tour with generally 5½ hours spent in the observatory. Group size does not exceed five, unless special arrangements are made ahead of time. Bear Creek Outfitters trips are shorter and generally have larger groups of clients. Above and Beyond Alaska (ABAK) offers a combo kayak-and bear-viewing tour and overnight trips. Visitors camp on nearby Windfall Island and visit Pack Creek when it’s open to people, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. All three companies take care of logistics.
Ken Leghorn, who manages Pack Creek Outfitters in partnership with Kootznoowoo Inc., the Native corporation of Angoon (the only settlement on the island), has spent 30 years guiding from the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest to the far Arctic. Because he has so many adventures under his belt, it still surprises me that Leghorn calls at all hours, even the middle of the night, to talk about bears and Pack Creek. It’s gotten to the point that my girlfriend is a little jealous when we “bear talk”—a manly form of pillow talk.
I asked Ken “Why Pack Creek?” and he said, “It’s the only place in the world I have found unchanged over three decades. Bears travel the same pathways, scratch on the same ancient trees, and silently accommodate the same small groups of respectful visitors, season after season.”
Some visitors, such as Edwin Sanchez, a photojournalist from Madrid, venture to Pack Creek on their own. In May of 2016, Sanchez spent six days at the observatory during a monthlong tour of Southeast Alaska’s northern islands.
“It was worth coming all the way just for Pack Creek,” Sanchez said. You can also kayak to Pack Creek from Juneau—the trip is 40 miles one-way including a short portage using a trolley from Olivers Inlet to Seymour Canal. ABAK offers kayak rentals, boat taxi across Stephens Passage (the six-mile crossing of Stephens Passage to Admiralty Island a few miles out from Juneau can be intimidating), additional information about tricky tides, and ideal camping locations on Admiralty Island.
Harry Tulles, a U.S. Forest Service employee and Pack Creek program manager, summed up Pack Creek well. “It’s a place where visitors from near and far can experience the wonder of an intact natural ecosystem. From fish and birds to the magnificent coastal brown bear, people need to experience this wilderness to appreciate it.”
Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong Alaskan. He enjoys exploring wild landscapes and watching wildlife on foot and by boat. His first book, Haunted Inside Passage, was published May 2017.