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Twenty years ago Anan Wildlife Observatory was only known to the locals of Wrangell, Alaska. Before the observatory, before the photo blind, outhouse and 300 stairs, there were only salmon and the bears. Tourists wandering into Wrangell had to be convinced to take an hour boat ride, land on a rocky beach and hike into a dark, overgrown forest with only the guide they had just met a few hours before. But for those brave individuals who listened to Eric Yancy from Breakaway Adventures in Wrangell, they were rewarded with an experience right out of a Michener novel. 

“People would come into town with a wish list of wanting to see some bears and I would tell them, “Have I got the place for you!”

Today, Anan Wildlife Observatory is a world class bear viewing destination. Located 30 miles southeast of the town of Wrangell and nestled in the Tongass National Forest, the observatory offers visitors a chance to be within feet of  these giants of the forest.  Anan Creek was an ancient fishing ground for the Stikine Tlingit clans who would catch and preserve the large salmon run for their winter food reserves. Today this creek still has the largest pink salmon run in Southeast Alaska. Both black and brown bears are attracted to the creek with mainly mothers, their cubs and juvenile bears taking advantage of the abundance of fish. 

Dee Galla, Outdoor Recreation Planner for Anan with the Wrangell Ranger District, said that during the July-August salmon run there are approximately 40-60 black bears and 8-12 brown bears that use the area during the season, however, Anan Creek seems most suited to the black bears.

“I haven’t conducted an official study on this,” said Galla, “but the black bears seem to have a fishing strategy. They like the small crevices and deep waters of the creek and tend not to plunge into the water and sit down like brown bears.” 

Getting to the wildlife observatory requires a boat or float plane and a permit. Permits are regulated by the U.S. Forest Service, with only 60 permits given out per day from July 5th-August 25th. Most permits are allocated to experienced tour operators such as Breakaway Adventures and Alaska Waters, both located in Wrangell, Alaska. The Anan Management Plan limits the amount of visitors during the salmon run out of respect for the bears, as this is their main food source used to bulk up before winter hibernation. There are a very small number of permits set aside for individual people and those can be purchased through www.recreation.gov beginning February 1st at 8am or through a weekly lottery from the Wrangell District Office. 

“It’s very difficult to roll into Wrangell these days and expect to go to Anan,” said Yancy from Breakaway Adventures. “With the limited number of permits, we start booking the previous November and within a few months we already have dates that are sold out.”

Beside the issuing of permits, there are advantages to visiting Anan with an experienced guide. Tour operators like Breakaway Adventure and Alaska Waters both employ local guides who are familiar with the area and are able to give their customers a rich and in-depth experience. Tours include guides, the permits and a hour boat ride from Wrangell to the Tongass National Forest. Upon landing, groups are met by a U.S. Forest Service representative who instructs everyone on the rules, trail conditions, safety and bear activity. The talk includes valuable instructions such as, “stay on the trail, don’t give up the trail to a bear, and in order not to have bears associating humans with food, there is absolutely no food allowed on the trail.”

Guided tour operators will then escort the group on the 1/2 mile trail to the observatory. Tour operators are armed, and while there has never been an incident between bears and humans, bears can be unpredictable, especially the teenage ones. The trail consists of wooden planks smaller than a sidewalk, as well as natural terrain. There are over 300 stairs from the Anan trailhead to the observatory deck.  The photo blind, which is located at the bear observatory, is also accessed through a stairway that is the equivalent to three stories tall. Once at the observatory, visitors will be enthralled at seeing bears in their native and natural habitat fishing, eating and lounging only feet away, offering priceless, once-in-a lifetime photo opportunities. 
There are many other opportunities to view nature from Wrangell besides Anan. The Stikine River, the fastest free-flowing river in North America, enchants visitors with sweeping mountain vistas of lush rainforests, majestic waterfalls, icebergs and glaciers. Bears, moose, seals and eagles are just some of the wildlife frequently seen on the Stikine tour which can be organized by both Wrangell tour operators, Breakaway Adventures and Alaska Waters.

“Wrangell really needs to be a destination place,” said Eric Yancy from Breakaway Adventures. “We have golf courses, bike trails, hiking and glacier tours. Plus we rent canoes, kayaks and skiffs. Anything to do with water, we got you covered.”

If travel plans have you in Wrangell from July 25th-29th, you will definitely want to check out Bear Fest which bills itself as “an event dedicated to bears”. There is an activity to please every member of the family during this five-day celebration that started as a way to educate people about bears. Now in its 8th year, the event attracts researchers from all over the world who conduct symposiums on issues such as noninvasive sampling methods for climate change and bear populations. Renowned wildlife photographers and cinematographers enthrall audiences with their work highlighting wildlife images. Biologists, who have spent years in the field, entertain and educate people with bear stories. 

Children can take their teddy bear to the clinic where local nurses will give the precious bear a complete physical, or they can participate in one of the many art workshops. Adults can join a nature walk or attend one of the workshops on bear safety, photographing wildlife or a music jam session. Bands play throughout the festival, which concludes on Sunday with a 5K marathon. 

The whole town gets into the spirit of Bear Fest and visitors will find food and drink specials throughout Wrangell. One highlight that can’t be missed is the fresh grilled salmon demonstration by Jake Harris of the Stikine Inn.  Over 80 pounds of sockeye salmon are prepared on a cedar plank with tips on cooking and seasoning. Read more about salmon recipes and tips from Jake in his interview on the following page. 

From the experienced outdoor enthusiast to the weekend traveler, Wrangell can be your destination for good Bear Fest fun, amazing wildlife photography and exceptional adventure tours. While Bear Fest lasts for just a few days, the bears of Anan Observatory can be seen from approximately June through August. Spend a few days in Wrangell and you will make memories for a lifetime. 

Breath of the Bear recommends these tour operators:

Breakaway Adventures:
Phone: 1-888-385-2488
email: info@BreakawayAdventures.com

Alaska Charters and Adventures:
Phone: 888-993-2750, (907) 874-4157
email: info@alaskaupclose.com

Alaska Waters:
Phone: 800-347-4462, (907) 874-2378
email: info@alaskawaters.com
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