Bears gel in Wrangell

Bears gel in Wrangell

Home to some of the best surviving examples of petroglyphs in Alaska, Wrangell's cascading waterfalls where salmon swim up river and bears wait and catch them, regale Vatsala Vedantam

Approach to Anan

The initial thrill of the Anan bear territory in Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You have seen wildlife at its spectacular best ­­— an experience that cannot be repeated. I don’t ever wish to go there again. I like to savour the wonder of my first visit to this incredible haunt of wild bears. 

It was late August — said to be the best season for viewing these extraordinary animals — when we reached Wrangell some 30 miles away. Wrangell itself is a sleepy town where friendly neighbours greeted each other and life moved at a leisurely pace. From our bed and breakfast lodge, we could see snow-capped mountains as we savoured hot scones and coffee while our host described the 8,000 year-old petroglyphs on the beach and the garnet hills beyond, where one could actually scoop out these precious jewels.

Anan Sanctuary river
Anan Sanctuary river.

Creek for predators

Our immediate destination, however, was the Anan Creek which is home to the country’s largest collection of pink salmon that literally dye the blue waters red as they bob up and down the waves. The creek is also home to their predators — the bears, who travel miles to gorge on their favourite meal. Visitors also travel miles to witness this macabre show that is exciting and revolting at the same time.

Each time the waves rise, hundreds of salmon are thrown up in the air to feed the hungry bears who also leap high to devour them. It is nature’s gruesome cabaret executed with fiendish precision and grace. Brown and black grizzlies feasting on delicate pink salmon while eagles, seagulls and a variety of smaller birds patiently wait their turn to feed on the remnants left behind.

Visitors to the sanctuary keep their cameras poised to capture that precise moment when a large grizzly opens his mouth into which the innocent salmon simply glide in. Five, six at a time are devoured greedily. We also devour this grisly sight, wondering why the salmon continue to come to this creek in thousands every year just to be slaughtered by their killers.

We reached the observatory deck in Anan Creek after a steep climb of 300 steps. We did not dare the even higher photo blind where hungry bears and their gullible victims were being filmed. Our guide, who belonged to the local Tlingit tribe, suggested a walk later on the forest trail to see the natural habitat of the Alaskan bears.

Bald eagle
Bald eagle

Crown jewel

That was one walk that I will never forget. The trail was muddy and slippery. The Tongass National Forest, known as the “crown jewel” of the designated wilderness areas of America, stretched across 17 million acres of land and was home to wild bears of all shapes and sizes.

We were warned not to even whisper during the 60-minute trek. With a rifle slung over her shoulder, our guide brought up the rear as we silently marched in single file.

The bears had retreated here after a hearty meal and watched us from their perch on trees. We counted at least seven black and brown grizzlies. We walked inches away from a cuddly baby bear with the mother watching us intently from a distance.

Our guide had warned us not to stop to look at the frolicking babies as the mother bears were dangerously wild and ferocious.

We breathed freely when I stepped into the small boat at the edge of the forest. The next two hours of travel down the Zimovia Strait under the vast Alaskan sky was another surreal experience.

Huge seals drifted in the water, while a bald eagle travelled with us, unconcerned. I kept asking myself, is this America or a dream?

Returning to Ketchikan, I was still thinking of bears that night when I woke up with a start to see a huge bear’s face pressed against the glass pane of my window while her paws scratched the wire mesh. She had come in search of food stacked in the trash bin outside the home!

Bears playing in water.
Bears playing in water.