We hated to leave Gustavus but we were scheduled on an afternoon flight to Wrangell which we had chartered thru Sunrise Aviation. Our pilot, Steve, arrived just in time to pick us up and we boarded immediately.
We had to overflow several glaciers and icefields on our way to Wrangell and Steve gave us a bird’s-eye view of the stunning scenery.
We had made a reservation at the Diamond C hotel in Wrangell because the Stikine Inn, the only other hotel, was full already. We quickly learned why the Diamond C had vacancies, what a dump! The guy who runs (or owns?) this hotel makes Norman Bates seem like someone you’d trust your small children with. For starters, our reservation was bungled and we didn’t get enough beds for all of us. We were afraid to argue and be left out in the cold so instead we asked for a roll-away cot. The manager got so annoyed at being called away from his body-building session that when later on the wi-fi failed, we asked if he could reset the server and he rolled his eyes at us; we decided to just make the best of the isolation. Don’t get me started on the room, the carpet was soiled and sticky, we had to hang a towel on the bathroom window since it didn’t have a curtain and the bed was worse than sleeping on a cereal box that’s been filled with metal coils. Terribly tired the next morning, we made our way to the hotel restaurant only to find the same guy sitting behind the cash register and although the waitress took our breakfast order on an Ipad, they still managed to get it wrong. The kicker though was that during our meal, a lady came in to ask this guy to repair her laptop and we noticed a painted sign on the restaurant window that announced that he also was a computer repairman. A computer repairman who can’t keep the wi-fi running at his hotel, go figure.
Wrangell used to be a logging town up until about 5 years ago. The town has been losing residents who move away now that those jobs are gone and it has the feel of a ghost town where every business is closed up by 6pm, the streets are abandoned and big fat ravens perching on roof corners remind one of that old movie: “The Birds“.
Most of the residents are nice enough once you get under their rough exterior but there is an angry undercurrent in their speech when they speak of the EPA and “those government types”. The town is slowly changing its businesses to cater to tourists instead of loggers but are doing so grudgingly and they’ve still got a ways to go.
There are several totems scattered around town
and some others grouped together at Totem Park
We didn’t come to Wrangell for the ambiance though and early the next morning we met our guide, Mark Galla, at the dock. Mark took us to the Anan Wildlife Observatory, debatedly the best place to watch bears feed on the returning salmon, located in the Tongass National Forest. This was an incredible treat and although I had thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, it was amazing! We began our tour with an hour ride on a very small boat which seated 12 including our two guides.
Once at Anan Bay, we disembarked and checked in with a Park Ranger. Only 60 permits are given per day for people to come out to the Observatory and I was lucky enough to snag the last four of the day. After checking in with the Ranger, we had to walk on a wooden boardwalk to reach the Observatory.
On the way, we slowed down to take a look at the salmon rushing upstream. The river water is black with the hundreds of salmon making their way back.
It is possible to walk to the Observatory without a guide but I was glad we had two as well as the other 6 people making the tour with us. Mark went in front while John brought up the rear carrying a 12-gauge shotgun. Mark carried a 404 revolver. I don’t think I had taken the bears seriously until I saw the weapons. We began our walk happily enough until John yelled out to Mark that we had a bear following us. I didn’t panic as much as I thought I would but I certainly didn’t appreciate looking back and seeing this bear on our tail.
When we were living in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts I had a brief encounter with a black bear. My son, then barely two, and I were happily chatting and playing on our play-scape and although I kept hearing noises behind me I didn’t think much of it. When you live in the woods, it’s normal to have rodents, birds and even the occasional skunk as neighbors. It was only when the neighbor’s dog began barking excitedly that I looked back to see the bear right behind us. At the dog’s bark, the bear became enraged and stood up on its hind legs before chasing it away. I took advantage of that opportunity to grab my son and, very slowly so as not to attract the bear’s attention, walk the 70 yards back to the safety of our home. I have been terrified of bears since, to the point where I couldn’t approach the bear enclosure at the zoo without shaking and our friends back in Mass. are still laughing at me about it.
You will appreciate then the enormous effort it meant for me not to run when another bear rounded the corner on us. They were a pair of grizzly twin juveniles and I got the feeling that they were more curious about us than aggressive. Nevertheless John and Mark kept yelling at them to go away and they finally did once the guides pretended to attack them.
We kept walking at a rapid pace until we reached the “safety” of the Observatory. As you can see from these pictures, no enterprising bear will be deterred by these low railings but the bears have grown accustomed to the observatory being human territory and I didn’t see any bears make the attempt to cross over.
The observatory is a wondrous place. We saw so many bald eagles and their chicks here that one would be led to believe that bald eagles are common.
The awesomeness of this Observatory is that this is the only place where you can watch brown and black bears coexist. So many bears come by to feed on the spawning salmon
that we lost count in the first ten minutes. We saw several mothers, both brown and black, with their cubs;
many juveniles and other solitary bears.
If you have the patience for a two minute video, this will not disappoint:
They all fished next to each other and no fights ensued except for this one where an eagle had enough of a curious cub:
This was a very aggressive eagle and when momma bear came up to defend her cub, the eagle drew blood from her face with its talons:
After filling his belly with as many as 30 salmon (from our count), this guy climbed a tree and quickly fell asleep:
This other guy did his business right outside the outhouse after finding it occupied:
The person inside the outhouse had to wait until, from the Observatory, other people signaled that it was safe to exit.
We were at the Observatory for several hours until our grumbling stomachs demanded we head back. No food at all is allowed on the Observatory for obvious reasons and thus lunch had to stay behind on the boat.
As we were leaving the Observatory another bear crossed our path but he was so intent on getting down to the river that he didn’t even notice us.
This was an amazing adventure and one that we may just need to repeat at some future time.