Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Return of tourists tests Chilkoot corridor


September 1, 2022

Max Graham

Tourists photograph a brown bear sow, known by some as Lulu, and her two cubs Tuesday evening on the road to Chilkoot Lake. The state finished renovating the corridor last year but crowding issues persist.

After two slow pandemic seasons, tourists are once again flocking to the Chilkoot River, causing traffic jams and flouting bear safety protocol.

Recent reports of crowding and reckless behavior during peak bear-viewing season at the state recreation area 10 miles north of town have placed under scrutiny the state's $1.5 million corridor improvement project that was completed last year.

That project - which included paving the road, eliminating a shoulder and adding a pedestrian path, signs and designated parking spaces - was intended in large part to alleviate overcrowding and other long-standing issues associated with the renowned bear-viewing along the narrow stretch of river that drains Chilkoot Lake into Lutak Inlet.

But when the bears are out, the dozen or so new designated parking spaces fill up and cars are stopping in the middle of the road, where new striping and signs forbid idling. On Tuesday evening, a man could be seen standing next to a "no standing" sign by the weir, eager for a glimpse of a bear that had just scampered into the woods. Earlier in the season, people climbed onto the weir to take photographs of a bear catching fish.

Last month the Haines Borough Assembly, at the recommendation of the borough's tourism advisory board, lifted a moratorium on new commercial tours at Chilkoot, which was adopted four years ago in an effort to limit traffic.

While the division of parks currently lacks a full-time ranger in Haines, Southeast parks superintendent Kroes has been in town for the last five weeks and has helped to monitor the situation at Chilkoot.

Kroes said he thinks the new road, designated parking spots and signs have helped reduce congestion. But he acknowledged that crowding issues - and the possibility of a negative human-bear interaction - have remained.

The most common problem he has observed this season is people "blocking the road or making the weir zone unsafe." He said he hasn't had to issue any citations but has given verbal warnings to people disregarding signs and safety measures.

State fisheries biologist Nicole Zeiser, who oversees the Chilkoot River weir project, praised the new road and signage, especially the "no standing" signs and stripes near the weir, where bears and tourists have tended to congregate. But she said the weir technician has "definitely had some problems with tourists coming on the weir and blocking the bears' exit path."

She said crowding has always been an issue and that it's "hard to say" at this point if the situation this year is better or worse than before the new road was constructed.

Dan Egolf, co-founder of Chilkoot tour operator Alaska Nature Tours and the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation, said he watched a sow with two cubs of the year try to navigate a crowded scene for a half mile after viewers blocked their path from the weir into the woods.

"The bear then started to go down the road... (where) there were people stopped at the bump... and then there were people in the new concrete bear-viewing area," Egolf said.

The bear and cubs had to skirt around the platform, avoiding swift water before encountering a fisherman who yelled and scared them into the forest. "During that entire scenario, I didn't see her get to eat one fish," Egolf said.

He added, though, "there have been many occasions where the bears have been allowed to forage without interference."

Haines resident and bear enthusiast Ann Puffer said she thinks "things were a lot better" when there were bear monitors at Chilkoot, employees and volunteers tasked with educating visitors and controlling crowds. The program started more than a decade ago, with funding from the borough and local donations and a position through the Alaska Conservation Corps. But it was discontinued a few years ago, when State Parks cited a liability risk, according to a 2018 CVN report.

While major construction in the corridor is complete, the state plans next season to install more signs with information about bear protocol and parking, among other things, Kroes said. In recent weeks, they've added striping on the road and more clearly delineated parking spots. Kroes said the state doesn't want to get to the point where it has to limit visitors to the corridor.

Most of the funding for the Chilkoot road project came from a federal grant administered through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Community members have been working on solutions to Chilkoot's congestion since at least 2000.


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