Longtime Alaskan Bud Rice has had ample face time with bears. But even the former Katmai back country ranger was awestruck by McNeil River, home to one of the world's largest concentrations of brown bears.
A visit to the state bear sanctuary two summers ago etched such an impression into Rice's psyche that the Eagle River resident vividly recalls details.
"This bear with no ears walked by us and my heart nearly stopped," said Rice, a National Park Service environmental specialist.
A 29-year-old bear, nicknamed Earl, who had lost his ears in a fight ambled within a few feet of Rice and his wife, Lulie Williams, and stared them down with steely eyes and a snarl. They stared back at the half-ton hulk from a gravel pad nearby.
The couple then witnessed another massive male rip into a fellow boar in a bloody ruckus over who got the preferred fishing hole. The bear that started the paw-to-paw combat bore scars from earlier feuds, Rice said.
"He looked like Frankenstein. He had scars all over his body," he said.
The bear vented his frustration by charging toward the humans watching from the gravel pad. Thankfully, former McNeil refuge manager Larry Aumiller stood his ground and chased the bear away, he said.
Like most others who visit the place, Rice described his four-day trip as the experience of a lifetime.
"It represents the ultimate we have in bear viewing," said wildlife biologist Paul Joslin, a board member with the nonprofit Friends of McNeil River.
Bear viewing has grown exponentially in Alaska in recent years, with new venues and guides to choose from every year. Permits for commercial bear viewing in Katmai and Lake Clark national parks have nearly doubled from 58 in 2000 to 106 last year, according to the National Park Service.
But McNeil, 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage on Cook Inlet's western shore, still stands out as the premier spot for tourists, photographers, scientists and regular Alaskans to see bears.
Unlike in other locations, only 10 people a day are allowed at McNeil, a limit the state strictly enforces. The visitors are chosen by a computerized lottery each March.
Visitors who go in June typically see more bears at Mikfik Creek, close to McNeil River, because of a sockeye salmon run that peaks in the second to third week of the month. In July and August, when chum salmon flood into McNeil, the bears and the tourists migrate over there.
While declining, the number of brown bears that gather to fish for salmon at the McNeil sanctuary is still the largest anywhere, said Joe Meehan, manager of lands and refuges for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In its heyday back in the late 1990s, as many as 60 or 70 bears could typically be viewed at the same time. Now, because of a weaker chum run and, possibly, increased hunting pressure in areas surrounding the sanctuary, 30 to 40 bears is more the norm, Meehan said.
That's still a lot of bears, and because they're habituated to humans, the animals generally just go about their business -- in other words, fishing, cavorting and occasionally fighting.
The combination of small group size and the big gathering of bears makes for "a high-quality visitor experience," as tourism industry people say.
Throw in the detailed, scientific commentary provided by state Fish and Game staffers who guide the tourists and most people say the McNeil experience just can't be topped.
But McNeil is rustic and not for everyone. There are no catered meals, cozy beds or hot showers. It's a flat-out camping experience. Most people stay for the maximum four days that Fish and Game allows. Expect to bring enough food for that time, sleep in your own tent and hang out by the campfire. If the weather is lousy, some might find it miserable.
There are plenty of other ways to view bears that don't involve tent camping. Consider an all-day bus ride into Denali National Park or a half-day excursion to Wolverine Creek in Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area on the west side of Cook Inlet.
In Southcentral, most bear-viewing trips start in Anchorage or Homer. There are numerous companies and packages from which to choose.
For a high-end experience, many people stay at lodges inside Katmai National Park, home of the famed Brooks Falls. Brooks is about as world-class a bear-viewing spot as McNeil, although the numbers of bears is generally not as high, Meehan said.
If McNeil is where you want to go, apply for a Fish and Game permit early and often. The deadline is March 1. Some people try for years and never get picked. Others get lucky their first time.
If you don't get selected the first time around, don't get discouraged, state officials say. There are some tips for boosting one's odds.
"I encourage people to keep applying and don't pick the peak season," Meehan said.
Peak season for McNeil River is the second and third week in July. The chances of getting picked for that period are slim, because that's when most people want to go. Applicants get to pick two time periods, and Meehan suggests choosing peak and off-peak dates. The season runs June 7 to August 25.
Because more bear-viewing opportunities have sprung up in recent years, the odds of getting a McNeil River permit are improving. Last year, 960 people applied and 195 got to go -- 1 in 5 odds. In 1993, 225 people went out of a pool of 2,150 applicants, or about 1 in 10, according to Fish and Game statistics.
The cost of applying is $25 per person, and three people's names can appear on each permit. The permits cost $150 for each Alaska resident and $350 for each non-Alaskan. The information is on Fish and Game's Web site at ww.wildlife.alaska.gov/mcneil/index.cfm.
At 128,000 acres, McNeil has been a state game sanctuary since 1967. Hunting is permanently barred in the sanctuary. Although closed to hunting now, the neighboring 120,000 acre McNeil River refuge could be opened to bear hunting if the state Board of Game approved.
Some McNeil watchers expect the issue to arise at the board's next meeting in March.
"There's a lot of worry about what might happen with this area," Joslin said.
As far as the sanctuary is concerned, nothing is likely to change anytime soon, Meehan said. That includes the 10 person limit and the lottery system.
"The public has directed us to keep McNeil remote, to protect the bears, keep impacts down and maintain a high-quality viewing experience," he said.