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So, over the Fourth of July holiday, I watched while as many as 40 brown bears assembled at time. They gather to catch some of the estimated 50,000 salmon that swim up the McNeil River every summer to spawn. The bears mated, fought, skinned fish and delicately maneuvered bodies that can weigh more than a thousand pounds. There are no fences or other physical separation from the bears — they’ve had decades to get habituated to the presence of humans.

On a trip like this, the weather is a pretty important part of planning. The extremely detailed McNeil Sanctuary website made clear that I should expect rainy weather and low temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4 degrees Celsius) that would reach highs around 60 Fahrenheit (16 Celsius) if I was lucky.

But, during my whole stay, daytime temperatures hovered in the 80s Fahrenheit. The day I arrived at the sanctuary, Anchorage (roughly 160 miles away) broke it’s high temperature record when it hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit. (Normal temperatures for Anchorage at that time of year peak around 65.)

Despite the heat, we had to wear long pants and long sleeves on our hikes to and from the viewing spot. That’s because of Cow Parsnip, a common weed in Alaska. If it rubs against bare skin that is then exposed to direct sunlight, you can get a nasty rash.

The bears arguably had it worse — they had to endure the same unusually high temperatures wearing fur coats.

The sanctuary was also experiencing a drought, which my guides said was probably reducing the number of salmon heading upriver. Salmon, apparently, rely on smells to navigate their way back home to the tributary of their birth. With the water levels lower, the salmon weren’t getting the message to head home.

The bears I saw didn’t look hungry, but they weren’t yet so well-fed that they could afford to be picky about which parts of the salmon they were eating. When they get really stuffed, they only eat the fatty parts.



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