Low clouds wrapped depressingly around the harbor as we prepared for a day exploring the wilds of Wrangell. Day packs stuffed with rain gear, hats, gloves, and extra socks, AK Fam tentatively emerged from the office of Alaska Vistas, peering suspiciously at the dripping morning from beneath our hoods.
We were bound for Anan Wildlife Observatory, one of the most popular bear-viewing sites in Alaska, and home to the only place where black and brown bears fish within the same breathing space. Located 30+ miles southeast of sleepy Wrangell in beautiful Anan Bay, the area is a lush, green, and verdant reminder of just how crucial a healthy fishery is to our bruin friends. Well into our two-week family vacation aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System, we had been told over and over to visit the “bears of Anan,” and now we were on a jet boat, speeding along pristine shorelines naturalist John Muir found most reverent of all during his explorations of the late 1800’s.
The Tongass National Forest, who regulates the number of visitors to Anan July 5-August 25, manages and maintains the observatory and its bears in the hopes that encounters will be only of the distant kind and that guests to the 1/2-mile trail, viewing deck, and cabin will respect the subsequent rules of the road. Popular for its accessibility and unique makeup, Anan’s visitorship had increased so much that the USFS instigated a permit-only system, issuing 60 permits per day to Anan during peak bear-viewing months (July/Aug). Of those 60 permits, 30 are “reserved” for guiding outfits who provide transportation and a guide for their party to and through the observatory. It was one of these outfits, Alaska Vistas, that we chose for our day among the bears of Anan.
Why choose an outfitting/guide service instead of just paying for transportation to and from Anan? While many visitors do indeed go it alone, armed with bear spray or a gun, it is my humble opinion that a well-educated guide, familiar with both the terrain and the bears who travel it is a wise investment, especially with children. Alaska Vistas operator Sylvia Ettefagh welcomes kids, but warns that parents must be extra-vigilant, since bear sightings and encounters are all but a sure thing at Anan. She recommends children over seven, but will happily chat with parents about the trip’s appropriateness for younger visitors.
Ettefagh is a fisheries biologist by trade and a longtime resident of Wrangell, making her the perfect guide for the watery portion of our trip to Anan. During a 1.5 hour boat ride, Ettefagh makes the most of her knowledge, slowing or stopping to observe orca whales dipping beneath the calm water, nervous seals along the rocky shores, and oodles of sea birds bobbing along our wake. With her extensive palette of geographic and geologic information, too, we learn about the marble tucked underneath towering trees, and of slides that come roaring down the mountainsides on a regular basis. Ettefagh makes the scene before us come alive, and AK Kid, from his position in the front seat, cranes his neck to see as much as he can.
Our arrival at Anan comes with a sharp warning; no food, no drinks, not even a peppermint hidden inside a coat pocket are to leave the boat. We eat our lunches inside the craft, being careful to set aside anything going with us up the trail. The bay is quiet, save for high-pitched chattering of bald eagles and gulls waiting for the turing tide and incoming fish. It’s an atmosphere that makes us want to whisper, this cathedral of Alaska, and the sense of respect for what we are about to do is almost palpable.
A Tongass National Forest interpretive ranger makes her way across the slippery rocks and down to our boat. Charged with issuing permits and checking off those reserved for us by Ettefagh, she is armed with bear spray, a radio, and a mild manner that also resonates the Forest’s authority. Not a guide, she is here to caution, inform, and enforce rules dictated by both the landscape and the agency, and does all three before we head up the trail, accompanied by our Alaska Vistas-provided guides, Denny and Robert, both former Fish and Wildlife biologists. Armed with shotguns, our guides are taking no chances, yet make clear this is not their preferred method of deterring bears; our awareness and reactions become the keys to safety. Denny is a master of storytelling and regales us with tales of Stikine Tlingit natives setting up fish camps at the mouth of Anan creek for the 300,000 salmon that make their way upstream to spawn. Old fish traps can still be found in the sandy mud, and it is not difficult at all to envision the tribe’s summertime spot of salmon bliss.
The trail to Anan’s viewing deck is short, only 1/2 mile, but bear sign is evident from the moment we step upon the tread. From paw prints in the mud to scat on the boardwalk, bears are a constant presence and Denny and Robert sandwich our group close together, reminding us to talk loudly and stop our feet on the trail (not hard at all for AK Kid). As we round the final corner, our vigilance is rewarded by a black bear sow crossing within spitting distance of Denny. The sight, while anticipated, is still surprising, and we immediately bunch together and wait for her to nestle in a salmonberry patch and chew away while warily watching us skirt past.
The Anan platform has a covered area with interpretive material and a photo blind below, where guests may sign up for 30-minute stints of up-close viewing. A fence that provides a boundary for humans surrounds the area, but bears are known to sit on nearby stumps and in trees within arms reach, so beware, moms and dads. An outhouse just outside the fence’s perimeter is handy, but Denny tells me that more than one potty-goer was forced to sit and, er, wait a while due to a bear planting itself right at the doorway. Bears are everywhere, fishing (check out this fishing video), lounging and doing what bears do.
AK Kid is well-behaved at the platform. He spots bears and joins me in the photo blind to watch a particularly engaging mother brown bear and two cubs fishing together. Cubs were a highlight of the day; we spotted eight total and enjoyed their antics up in the hemlock trees. After an hour, though, AK Kid was ready to call it a day. Full of new experiences, sights, and smells (bears stink like big, wet dogs), our little adventurer was nearing the end of his day-tripping rope.
On the trip back to Wrangell, eyes and hearts full of mother nature, my son’s eyes drooped and his head nodded in time with the bobbing boat, but a smile remained on his peaceful face. Living and learning, the Alaska Vistas way. Perfect.
Alaska Vistas offers guided and unguided travel opportunities out of Wrangell, Alaska. Kayaking, boat trips up the Stikine River, and hiking adventures are all part of their commitment to service. Prices vary according to ages, services, and destinations. The Anan trip features transportation, access permit, and a guide to/from Anan Wildlife Observatory runs $210/pp plus tax. There is no child/youth rate, but this is a deal compared to other bear-viewing opportunities around Alaska. Reach Alaska Vistas through their website, or call them toll free at (866) 874-3006.