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Haines, AK  09/04-05/06 (Day 133-133)
Watch Your Head

Leaving Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, via our Skagway Air flight out of Gustavus and back to Haines, proves every bit as eventful as our trip into the area, but for different reasons.  

A weather front has settled into the area and we take off eye to eye with ominous skies. It doesn’t take long for us to run into enough turbulence to toss our small plane around like a rag doll. At one point the plane loses altitude so quickly and so drastically that we hit our heads on the ceiling even though we’ve ratcheted our seatbelts down tight.

But we survive the white knuckle trip (honestly, the pilot never even looked very bothered) and find ourselves in Haines once again. If you ever find yourself in Haines (which you should—it’s a charming place, more on that later), we recommend you settle into the Chilkat Eagle B&B. It’s the perfect combination of affordable and comfortable and your charming and worldly host, Dave, who lives in the other half of the house, is a wealth of information about the area—or any area, really.

Set aside some time to sit down and talk to him, perhaps over his delicious made to order breakfast (try the Tutti-Fruitti pancakes made with fruit from his own garden in the back).

Dave is the one who tipped us off to the nearby Kroschel Films Wildlife Park where Steve Kroschel, Steve’s son and Mario Garrett have collected an array of Alaskan animals which they have habituated and regularly handle and loan out to movie producers and wildlife film makers who are looking for a sure thing when they simply must get footage of animals engaged in a particular natural behavior.

These are not trained performers—no bears on balls or anything horrible like that. Steve and Mario can simply ensure that their wolves, minks, lynxes, owls and other charmers will dig a hole, or chase a rabbit or run up a tree or emerge from a den on command saving the film makers from days or weeks of waiting for a 100% wild animal to do the same. We hate to break it to you, but you know all of that footage you see on the National Geographic Channel and wonder “how did they get that shot”? Well, in a lot of cases, this is how.

Kroschel Films Wildlife Park augments its income by walking groups through their facility ($20 per person) on an unpredictable schedule that seems to be dictated by the presence of a busload of folks fresh off the ever-diminishing number of cruise ships that dock in Haines (Dave at the Chilkat Eagle B&B or the local tourism office can generally tell you when the next tour will be).

As we drive out of town to join one of the tours we are prepared to be appalled at the animals’ living conditions, working conditions and their level of exploitation. But, as we’ve said, this is not a bears on balls operation.

Okay, the “comedy” shtick that Steve and Mario have worked up together is a bit cheesy as they guffaw their way through the tour, but when they aren’t cracking lame jokes they manage to teach us a lot about animal behavior and the issues facing Alaska’s wildlife. We are also impressed at how still-wild all their creatures are and even more impressed at the healthy, respectful report both Steve and Mario have with the animals.

But don’t take it from us. Oprah Winfrey is such a fan of the Kroschel Films Wildlife Park that she wrote the boys a check in 2004. Okay, it was only for $1,320 but still….

Since we can never get enough animals, we follow up our Kroschel Films Wildlife Park adventure with some close encounters of the grizzly kind. Write this down: One of Alaska’s best kept secrets is the free, uncrowded and extremely up-close grizzly bear viewing at Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site just 10 miles northeast of Haines where all summer and into fall (as late as November)  bears can be seen scooping up their share of salmon in the Chilkoot River every evening like clockwork.

When we arrive around 6:30, there don’t seem to be any bears in the river yet but there are a handful of cars and about 30 other people gathered there to watch—mainly not-from-around-here types (like us) plus a couple of obvious die-hard locals who are wearing camouflage clothing and toting expensive cameras and lenses. These are the people to watch—when they turn tail and head to a section of river, shamelessly follow.

That’s what we do and there, under a gently spreading tree is a grizzly, chest deep in the river, eyes locked on the current and ready to pounce. The bear seems completely unbothered that there are a few dozen people less than 50 feet away all just staring at it. As long as we haven’t come for the salmon, he seems to say, then we’re cool.

There are still so many salmon in the water that the bears (our first guy is soon joined by some friends and one obviously more dominant bear who causes nervous ripples amongst the assembled animals) eat only their favorite part of each fish, which seems to be the head, then they toss the rest of the carcass into the current for the bald eagles to swoop down and enjoy. Yes, not just grizzlies but bald eagles too. Alaska is awesome that way.

Part of what makes this stretch of water so popular with the bears is that the parks folks have set up a fish weir across the water upstream—a sort of trap that allows officials to collect and count the number of salmon spawning in the river each year which is an indication of their well-being. More than 88,000 have passed this way already this season.

The weir means that fish become concentrated in the river, making the “fishing” even easier for the bears who merely have to scoop their claws lazily through the water to come up with a big, discolored, half-dead spawned-out salmon which is called a “humpie” at this final stage of its life. Dinner!

Actually, yes. After a couple of hours of bear watching we have a powerful craving for some salmon, so we swing by the fish market in Haines, get lucky and find some fresh salmon (fresh fish is shockingly hard to find in Alaska—more on that later) and cook up our own feast back at the Chilkat Eagle B&B which offers the mega-bonus of a separate kitchen for guests to use.



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