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McNeil River bears

Magical is the first word Doug Kelley uses to describe being in the middle of the largest concentration of brown bears in the world.

He scored a permit in a lottery drawing to pack his camera and enjoy four days in the intimate proximity of huge bears living their normal routines in Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game receives applications from around the world for the 185 viewing permits - the only ticket to access the sanctuary during the early-June through late-August season when the bears congregate to feed on spawning salmon.

“I have had the luck and privilege of visiting McNeil five times and will likely continue to seek permits,” Kelley said.

Daily viewing is guided by state game officials who lead a maximum viewing group of 10 for a full day in the field. Seeing these magnificent creatures at distances as close as 20 feet - with no fence for protection - is not only stimulating, but makes the time fly, he said.

Depending on the day, the group might move along the river for bear-level photography during the early red salmon run. Or, they might set up at McNeil Falls where the larger concentrations of bears arrive in July, often hitting their peak numbers around the second and third weeks.

“I have observed as many as 36 bears at one time in this area, all vying for the chum that make up the McNeil River runs,” Kelley said. “While many think of bears as solitary animals, these bears are in very communal and social situations. They are all there to bulk up on the high-fat portions of the returning salmon. Occasionally they get into fierce fights. Many bears have distinguishing scars.”

Access to McNeil can be a challenge, from securing a rare viewing permit, to the transportation issues including having to charter a float plane into McNeil for the one-hour flight out of Homer, the only means of access. Visitors are subject to weight restrictions - 250 pounds, which includes not only your body weight, but camping, food and camera gear.

The experience is bare bones with one exception: “the campground sauna, which is a great comfort if you have spent 10 hours in the wind, rain and cold of Alaska,” he said.