Kayak to See the Bears at Pack Creek

“Don’t run,” I tell myself as two young grizzlies leap out of the forest and scamper down the beach toward us. Then I say it out loud to my wife: “Don’t run!” Even though our guide, Ed Shanley from Above & Beyond Alaska, had us check every pocket to make sure we weren’t carrying any food that might attract bears, the grizzlies seem to be running trough the drizzly afternoon straight at us. Perhaps this is a traditional welcome on Admiralty Island, part of Tongass National Forest near Juneau. We do as we should; we freeze. The Admiralty Island National Monument ranger accompanying us—Carl Koch, a former paramedic from New Jersey—says the two bears are 3 1⁄2 years old, and that this is their first summer on their own. Never run, Koch says again, as he had in our initial briefing: “Even if they are not going to hurt you, they would love to chase you. It’s instinct.” Koch carries a .338 rifle, but assures us he’s never had to use it. It’s early July. The bears have been awake for a couple of months. The salmon are running late this year, so there haven’t been many fish in Pack Creek for them to eat. The bears get closer. Suddenly they’re within 20 yards of us. Jackie follows them with her camera; I implore my feet to stay planted in the sand. Then the bears veer left around us and shoot back into the spruce forest. They’re gone. We exhale, sharing the exultation of seeing bears in their natural habitat. We’ve paddled three days to see them, carrying all our gear, camping in the rain, becoming part of the surrounding environment. But nothing can prepare you for such a close encounter. Our five-day trip begins on an overcast Sunday evening when we meet Shanley in Juneau, get outfitted with Wellington boots and raingear, and drive across the bridge to Douglas Island. From there we board a motorboat and chug through the Gastineau Channel to Oliver Inlet. That’s where we unload our kayaks and put them on a manual tram atop rails, then begin pushing the rig close to a mile to our home for the night: Seymour Canal Cabin. Two bald eagles watch us from a towering spruce across the bay; we sip Alaskan Pale Ales as dusk envelops the forest at about 10 p.m. The next morning, we portage our heavily laden kayaks about a mile through the shallow water of Seymour Canal. And then we’re paddling, entranced by the caw of the ravens, the laughter of the loons. In King Salmon Bay, dozens of seals perch on a rocky shelf, then slide into the water where they feel safer, surfacing to peer curiously at us with big, aqueous eyes. On a beach we lunch on smoked salmon, admiring the snowcapped peaks of the Coast Range, and catch sight of a humpback whale spouting in the distance. After an afternoon of paddling alongside orange and blue jellyfish, we complete a perfect first day with halibut tacos for dinner. A relentless downpour hits the next morning. Paddling into battering headwinds is futile; we’re barely making progress. Shanley leads us to shore, erects a tarp to shelter us, and heats some water for hot chocolate. I pull out a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon and pass it to my wife. A virtual teetotaler, she declines, but I say, “Just try one sip.” She lifts the bottle to her lips, smiles as she’s warmed from the inside out, takes another swig, then pours a generous shot into her hot chocolate. Day three is the big day: We paddle from our camp on Swan Island to Admiralty Island National Monument, a preserve that occupies more than a million acres on the east side of Admiralty Island, where bears are protected from hunting. The island has 1,500 to 1,800 coastal brown bears on its 1,664 square miles, one of the highest ursine concentrations in the world. The Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area has been established to protect both bears and people. When we get out of our kayaks, we have to line our craft at least 50 yards out to sea. It’s not just to protect us—no one wants the bears to get a taste for human food. After the heart-racing encounter with the two juvenile bears, Jackie and I hike to a viewing area, passing paw prints as long as our feet and twice as wide. Through Swarovski spotting scopes provided by the park, we watch a mama bear pursue salmon into deep waters. Her cubs squeal because they can’t follow her, but when, after a long pursuit, she emerges with a fish in her jaws, they bound toward her. Another bear, with silver-tipped ears and a limp, comes out of the forest and heads toward the creek. Apparently she broke her femur several years before; the rangers thought she’d die. But she emerged the next spring with a cub, showing how resilient bears can be. She lumbers over to the creek, takes one swipe with her enormous paw, and snags a writhing salmon. Eagles circle overhead, ready to collect the scraps. “The fact that you can just watch bears being bears, that’s what I love about this,” says Ken Leghorn, who guides day-trippers to Pack Creek via floatplane. Leghorn tells us that “generations of brown bears have become habituated to seeing, but not fearing, human presence at Pack Creek,” ever since a homesteader named Stan Price cared for an orphaned bear in the 1950s. Those who arrive aboard floatplanes have to leave by 7 p.m. But since we came in kayaks, we can stay a bit longer. Our wait pays off: We see a large adult bear chasing the two juveniles we saw when we first got to the island. Their speed is astonishing. By the end of our day at Pack Creek, we’ve become as comfortable among the bears as they are among us. We don’t want to leave, but camping overnight is not an option. We reel in our kayaks and paddle away, leaving the island to the bears.