The next day we enjoyed a relaxing morning, discussed our daily plans (this became a theme of our trip – we often discussed plans without making concrete decisions about what we would do the next day, or for the next few days), and then set out, paddling to the mainland to a stream to pump water into our dromedaries.
Pack Creek, our destination, is a bear-viewing area that is restricted by permit. Normally the limited permits (only about 26 issued per day) are sold out far ahead of time given the usual summer tourist numbers. (Some operators fly cruise ship tourists out for the day). But nothing is usual about summer 2020 and not only could we get permits shortly before the trip, we were told that we may be let in if we visited on a different day than we had permitted – if there happened to be room that day.
We had permits for the following two days, but we were eager to learn more about how it worked to view the bears, and to see if it was a good day to visit. Thus, we paddled from water to Pack Creek, arriving about mid-day.
We knew a little about what to expect, but very little. We found the correct place to disembark, talked to a ranger from our kayaks, and then decided to come ashore. We didn’t fully understand what our opportunities were that day, but it was clear we were allowed to get out. It was approaching high tide. We knew there was a viewing platform that people watch bears from – particularly during high tide. Our intention had been that we could spend the high tide cycle at the platform today, and return tomorrow for a low tide cycle from the second view point – right down next to the salmon stream with view of a large tidal flat.
We discovered later that a group of 3 was planning to go to the viewing platform, and during Covid, it would have been too close for mixing groups. Thus, our visit was quick, but we did make it to the lower viewing area briefly, saw a couple of bears from a distance, and gathered info for the following day.
Pack Creek has been maintained as a very low-profile operation. There are two employees on shore at any given time – one Forest Service Ranger, and an Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee. They trade off between the central spit where boats and planes drop passengers (and where kayakers like us go ashore) and the lower viewing area, which is about 1/4 mile tidal walk from the spit. There are 4 containers that bears cannot get into for guests to leave food they bring with them. These are dug into the ground to maintain a very low profile. There are logs for sitting and marking off the human area at the lower viewing area, and a trail, about 1 mile, out to the viewing platform back in the woods. This is it for infrastructure. There are large rocks on the spit that designate where guests are allowed to eat. If you need to go to the bathroom, you do so in the tidal zone with no privacy. The employees have raingear, warm layers, and umbrellas they bring to keep them comfortable, but they are out in the elements like the rest of us. They camp on the same island we camped on, but the opposite side, and just a short boat or kayak trip from the bear viewing areas.
This afternoon of our first visit, it had started raining by the time we arrived. It continued, and continued – pouring well into the afternoon. I discovered that I hadn’t packed quite enough warm clothes to be warm enough sitting in the pouring rain for long periods of time, so it worked out well that we had a short visit and I could prepare better for the following day. We also learned when we could and should arrive, and got some other tips about different places to visit in the area.
As we left in the mid-afternoon, the three of us sought more adventure for the day because we hadn’t done much, and yet the weather was poor and it was late enough that we hesitated to set out towards one of the other destinations we wanted to visit, but that would take at least 3 hours – if all went well. We compromised by simply going the long way around our resident island.
As we turned the corner of the island, we hit wind and waves bigger than those that I freaked out two days before. This time though, I had more control in my favor. We were right next to land, we had marine radios and there was someone with a motor boat (a ranger) right nearby, and I knew I could turn around (at least at the beginning) if it became too much. Furthermore, after my experience previously, I had become more comfortable with what the boat would and could do – and what I could do. My companions stayed close by on either side of me, and offered assistance by way of direction. I remained calm the entire time, truly not scared. It turned into a great opportunity to work on skills and gain confidence – for a limited time (just about an hour to get around) and in a safe space – close to camp with more help nearby if needed.
It stopped raining after we returned to camp, and we enjoyed a nice evening and set a plan for the following day, to leave camp by 8:30am to paddle out to the tidal flat near Pack Creek at low tide to see if we could watch bears from our kayaks.