My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day Four

Rain falling on a tent is the least motivating sound in the world and I heard it off and on through my last night in the Brooks Camp Campground. But by dawn, the rain nearly ceased and since this was my last morning to watch bears, I wasn’t about to let some drizzle get in the way of bear watching.

First, I had to get to the river. The campground is set almost a half-mile from the mouth of Brooks River. The walk between is easy enough, mostly flat and over crushed gravel trails, unless bears get in the way. After exiting the campground’s electric fence (5,000 volts of shock value), I stepped on to the beach to check if it was free of bears.

The trail to and from the campground parallels the beach, a place bears utilize frequently as a travel corridor or a place to rest. When bears are on the beach they are generally too close to the campground trail for it to be used. That morning, in the dim blue-gray light of an overcast dawn, I could see one bear sleeping between the visitor center and me. Giving this bear space was simple enough, all I had to do was swing through the forest and follow the faint trace of the waterline that ran to the campground. The risk in this plan though was the limited visibility in the forest. I moved slowly, watching and listening carefully for bears. The few belly holes along the route were empty and I safely reached the main trail with only a few moments lost.

At the river mouth, plenty of bears were active. 409 and her yearlings fished near the bridge and 410 stood still on the spit when a new family of bears appeared, one that I hadn’t yet seen in person. It was 435 Holly and her two very plump spring cubs.

bears standing on edge of lake with mountains in background

435 Holly and her two spring cubs stand near 410 on the spit at the mouth of Brooks River.

Crossing the river wasn’t as straightforward as the previous morning though as 409 and her two yearlings fished within a few yards of the bridge. As the family slowly made their way downstream, I prepared to speed walk across the bridge when the opportunity arrived. Just as 409 and her cubs waded far enough downstream of the bridge (more than 50 yards) I crossed quickly, and just in the nick of time. As soon as I reached the lower river platform, 854 and her cubs appeared on the Corner where I was standing.

Photo opportunities are limited with my durable but optically limited waterproof camera. Still, over the next 150 minutes, I watch 14 different bears (23 counting dependent offspring) using the lower Brooks River.

879_09062017

 Bear 879

 

bears in water near grassy marsh

854 Divot and her yearling cubs

two bears in water

708 Amelia and one of her 2.5 year-old cubs.

group of 11 black and white magpies in grass

Magpie convention

With my time at Brooks Camp running low, I ventured to the falls for one last look at the largest of the river’s bears. 32 Chunk, 151, 474, 480 Otis, and 747 round out the adult male roster this morning. When 747 sees 474 walk upriver, 747 directly approached 474. Both of the palindromic-numbered bears began to cowboy walk and mark trees, 474 on the shore near the platform and 747 on the island downstream of the falls. When 474 moved behind the platform, likely as a subtle move to avoid 747, the larger 747 marked the same tree and urinated in the same places as 474. Out of the water, 747’s true size is revealed. He’s a giant of a bear, far fatter and larger than any other on the river.

Bears use scent marking and body posturing to communicate their relative level of dominance. This morning, 474’s avoidance of 747 and 747’s subsequent scent marking of the same spots indicate 747 was the dominant bear, which is not surprising based on his gigantic proportions.

Before I left the falls for the final time (this year at least), I watched a young subadult bear fish the lip. She appeared well practiced in this spot. Bears rarely fish the lip of the falls in late summer, a time when nearly all salmon have reached their spawning site and lack the energy reserves or motivation to surmount the falls. The abundance of silver salmon in the river this year, however, allowed her to exploit this fishing spot during a time when it usually wouldn’t be worth visiting.

bear standing on edge of waterfall

This young subadult has fished the lip of Brooks Falls often recently. While bearcam viewers have speculated she might be one of 402’s emancipated cubs, this bear looked too big for a 2.5 year-old.

I encountered no significant delays on my return to the lodge to check in for my flight out. Lots of bears milled around the lower river, but I remained on the beach in front of the lodge to sit and watch 435 Holly and her cubs rest nearby.

bear family resting on beach

435 Holly and spring cubs

Brooks River is a special place, unique among national parks, and I felt fortunate to spend time there once again even if the visit was too short.

My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day Three

When you enjoy watching wildlife as much as me, you don’t want to waste time with biological tasks like sleeping. Still, sleep is a necessity and I can’t watch bears in the dark. After a reasonably restful night, I woke before sunrise and left the campground when there was just enough light for me to see without a headlamp or flashlight. This would be my last full day at Brooks River in 2017 and intended to make the most of it.

Related:
My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day One
My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day Two

Early morning hours at Brooks River are generally quiet. Planes haven’t arrived and most people are either sleeping or focused on breakfast. The dominant sound at this hour tends to be the cry of glaucous-winged gulls.

Bears like early morning meals just as much as people, and I fully expected to find bears too close to the trail or bridge for me to reach the relative safety of the lower river wildlife viewing platform. Luckily, the corridor from the lodge to the bridge and the platform was clear before 7 a.m. In a short while, however, bears filled the void and for much of the rest of the day the bridge would remain closed to people.

When I first reached the platform, only 409 Beadnose and her yearlings were visible. Her cubs behaved quite independently, catching most of their own salmon. Yet they remained prone to begging food from their mother and bawling when they want to nurse. Two subadults entered the river upstream of the platform. 410 made the most of her chance for breakfast, eating at least five salmon carcasses in a half hour. It was still too dark for my point-and-shoot camera to take clear photos, so I sat back, watched, and took notes.

409, her cubs, and two young subadult bears all eventually wandered toward the river mouth and the beach in front of the lodge, allowing more people to cross the bridge. As the platform got noisier, I decided it’s a good time to wander to Brooks Falls.

The walk to the falls is quiet and uneventful, but bears used the trail just moments before. Foam clung to the surface of a large puddle of urine and bright red, relatively undigested lingonberries polka dot the surface of a fresh pile of scat.

red berries in bear scat

Even with the high abundance of salmon, bears were still feeding on berries.

The falls platform was empty when I arrived and no one else arrived for the next hour as bears remained too close to the bridge for people to cross. Within my experience at Brooks Camp, it’s rare to have the falls platform to yourself when bears are around.

view of river bordered by forest

I quickly forgot about being alone though as bears were quite active. 410 had made her way from the lower river to the falls where she fished her normal spot in the far pool. 68 was giving it a shot in the jacuzzi. Both bears ignored each other and remained separated by about 30 yards. When 747 arrived 68 quickly moves out of the jacuzzi to make way for the larger bear.

After 747 decided to push the other bears around, 503 appeared in the far pool. While 747 is absolutely the largest bear at Brooks River, I was shocked at 503’s size. He’s not particularly fat, but’s he’s very big for his age. Bears grow quickly yet I don’t recall ever seeing a 4.5 year-old brown bear as big as 503.

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503’s story is well documented here and here.

Returning to the lower river, I watched more subadult antics. Now after 10 a.m., the bridge had not yet opened because bears were consistently within 50 yards of it. Four to five subadult bears, all of which I saw the previous day, fished and played nearby.

409 Beadnose and her yearlings wandered toward the bridge from the lake to rest.

bear cub resting its head on its mother

Around 11:30 a.m., I contemplated crossing the bridge to eat lunch. At Brooks Camp food can only be eaten inside of buildings or at designated picnic areas. Possession of food, unless actively transporting it from one designated area to another, is also prohibited. With lots of bears in sight, I reasoned I could ignore my hunger pangs and eat later.

Upstream, 854 Divot and her yearlings scavenged for fish. Not yet having the opportunity to observe them much on this trip, I waited for them to fish their way downstream. Fall bears have a pattern though; they fish then sleep. Many human-habituated bears—especially 854 Divot, 409 Beadnose, 410, and 435 Holly—often choose to sleep near the trail between the lodge and the river. When that happens, the trail is usually closed until the bears wake and move on. I knew I risked a long delay getting to and fro if Divot and her cubs chose to sleep near the bridge or trail.

Which they did. At 12:10 p.m., Divot and cubs settled in for a nap on the bank just upstream of the floating bridge. With no alternative route around the bears, the bridge and trail were closed. There was nothing to do but wait. Bridge closures and Brooks Camp’s famous bear jams can be frustrating situations for people unaccustomed to them or too impatient for them, but bears need the habitat near the mouth of the river as much as they need the falls. To make a long story short (one I hope to tell in greater detail in the future) 854 slept in that spot for two hours and with many other bears fishing in the river, the bridge didn’t open for over three hours.

A half hour after crossing the bridge though and refreshed after a quick snack, I was back at the river when word of Otis’s arrival at Brooks Falls spread among the staff. Not knowing if I’d get another chance to see him before leaving the next day, I skipped bear viewing at the lower river to go to the falls, where I found 480 Otis as well as 68, 503, 719, 747, and an unidentified subadult.

bears fishing at waterfall

480 fishes in his office at Brooks Falls shortly after arriving. 747 sits in the water nearby.

Rain moved through later in the evening, but I still had one more morning of bear watching to enjoy before my flight out.

My Trip to Brooks Camp: Day Two

Due to strong winds, I was unable to reach Brooks Camp on time. The next morning, as instructed by Katmai Air, I arrived at their dock before 7 a.m. I was eager to get on the “first load.” Evidently everyone who didn’t reach Brooks Camp the previous day was told they’d be on the “first load,” which caused Katmai Air to deal with some cranky customers. (Not me, I might add, but I understood others’ frustration.)

aerial photo of lakes and mountain

Looking southwest toward Mount Brooks from the air.

Around 8:40 a.m., I arrived at Brooks Camp—or Lake Brooks to be exact. Winds out of the east were still too strong for planes to land on Naknek Lake, but I didn’t mind the view of Dumpling Mountain and the head of Brooks River.

lake and mountain scene

Dumpling Mountain and the outlet of Lake Brooks

After heading straight to the visitor center to get my bear orientation…

Ranger in log cabin talking to people

Yes, even former rangers are required to attend the bear safety talk upon arrival at Brooks Camp.

…I hurriedly pitched my tent in the campground….

tent in grass with tree in background

My tent in the far southwest corner of the campground, as far away from other people as I could get.

…and walked back to the lower river to binge watch bears.

wet tan-colored sand next to log

Fine pumice sand, evidence of the powerful winds from the previous day’s storm, was all over the beach.

In September, the wildlife-viewing platform near the mouth of Brooks River is my favorite place to be. Upstream, just where the river enters my line of sight from the platform, thousands of salmon work to complete their life cycle. As the fish weaken and die, the river’s current sweeps them downstream. Where the river’s current is not longer strong enough to carry them further, it drops the barely live and dead fish, making the river mouth and meanders just upstream the most productive salmon scavenging areas at Brooks.

When I arrive on the platform four subadult bears play and fish, while 409 Beadnose and cubs lounge nearby. After another large salmon run, the bears at Brooks River are well fed, and perhaps as a result the younger bears were especially playful.

brown bear standing with front paws on boulder

One light brown subadult bear out of this bunch very much resembles 273’s yearling in 2016. This bear appears to be a young subadult, but is large for a 2.5 year-old.

Around noon, after Beadnose and cubs settled into a nap below the platform, I decided to visit Brooks Falls, where bears had been fishing in higher than average numbers for this time of year. I had a hypothesis as to why, but I needed at least a few cursory observations to support it.

Over my short stay, the vast majority of fish I saw bears catch at the falls were silver (coho) salmon. This run begins in August and often continues through September. Larger on average than sockeye, a single, fresh silver salmon can provide several thousand calories for bears skilled enough to catch them. Like the beginning of the sockeye run in late June and July, the late run of silver salmon is most accessible to bears at Brooks Falls.

Bears standing at waterfall

Two adult male bears, 68 (left) and 879, fish the far pool of Brooks Falls.

But bears in the lower river make huge energy profits as well. In the early evening, after skipping a true lunch to eat an early dinner (to maximize bear watching time), I return to the lower river until sunset. 410 and 409 Beadnose both patrol the river slowly, snorkeling for any salmon that can swim away. In a half hour, 410 eats four fish. Over an hour, Beadnose leisurely consumes eight. These are relatively low catch rates for this section of river, yet even assuming the salmon carcasses provide less than half the energy they did in July (spawned out fish may contain 2000-2500 calories or less compared to the 4500 calories when the first arrived) 410 and 409 still ate at least 8,000 and 16,000 calories respectively. In past years, when 410 has remained within my line of sight longer at the lower river, I’ve counted her eating 41 fish in 3 hours 25 minutes. Even if she only ate part of each fish, when your profit is measured in calories needed to survive winter hibernation, this isn’t a bad day’s work.

As the sun begins to set behind the western toe of Dumpling Mountain, I relaxed to watch bears come and go from the river—128 Grazer, 409 Beadnose, 284, 410, 708, 610, four unidentified subadults, 879, 474, and many cubs. If the sun didn’t set so soon and I didn’t risk running a gauntlet of bears in the dark to get to the campground, I would’ve remained out for much longer. Responsible bear watching, however, includes not wandering around in the dark, so I retire to the campground eager for sunrise and another day on the river.

panorama of river and mountain near sunset

My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day One

Late last July, after watching bearcam for a month, I got the itch to visit Brooks Camp where I had worked and lived for many summers. During an extended break from work recently, I spent a couple of nights camping there to binge watch bears. I had originally planned to spend three nights at Brooks Camp, but weather conditions conspired to alter my plans.

On September 3, during the final approach on my flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, I felt pangs of excitement and eagerness as I caught glimpses of Naknek Lake, Dumpling Mountain and much of the rest of western Katmai National Park.

Aerial view of land, lake, and clouds.

Naknek Lake and Katmai National Park. (Pro tip: Never sit in row two on PenAir’s Saab 2000 airplanes as there is no window. I usually try to sit in rows 3-4 and 14-16 for the most unobstructed views of the landscape. To see Katmai, weather permitting, on flights from Anchorage to King Salmon sit on the left side of the plane.)

I arrived in King Salmon to mostly cloudy skies and a strong northeasterly wind. Situated at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, King Salmon and Katmai National Park often experience windy conditions, so I didn’t think much of it.

After checking in with Katmai Air, I patiently waited to board one of their small floatplanes, which would take me the final thirty miles to Brooks Camp. The wind increased in strength as I waited for my flight. Travelling via plane, rail, or bus usually stimulates mild anxiety in me, not because I fear a crash but because I don’t want to deal with delays. After the first Katmai Air flight left, I sat patiently for the plane to return so I could head to Brooks Camp. As it turned out, I would have to wait for nearly 24 more hours.

About 45 minutes after it left, the Katmai Air Otter returned with the same passengers. When I saw them exit the plane, I knew the chances of reaching Brooks Camp were slim that day.

Satellite image of storm

A strong low pressure system centered over Kodiak Island brought gale force winds to the northern Alaska Peninsula on September 3, 2017.

Katmai lies at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, a northeast-southwest trending arc of land jutting into the North Pacific. The peninsula’s location and orientation expose it to the vast majority of storms bred from the Aleutian Low, a semi-permanent low-pressure system originating near the outer Aleutian Islands. The peninsula’s mountains represent a major topographical barrier to these northeast-tracking storms. When winds funnel through mountain valleys along the Aleutian Range, they often come with great force. Through Katmai Pass, winds are strong enough to hurl large pieces of pumice through the air, scouring the upper Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. (In Chapter XVII of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Robert Griggs describes weathering a violent wind storm that destroyed his camp near Katmai Pass in 1919.)

scalloped edge of wood and nails on building

Nails on the Baked Mountain Huts in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes are one of the few things on the building that can withstand abrasive, wind-driven pumice.]

barren area with pumice. Large piece of pumice at lower right.

Rocks near Katmai Pass show signs of abrasion from blowing pumice. The strongest winds through the pass blow from south to north (right to left in the photo).

Although Brooks Camp and Brooks River lie at a much lower elevation than Katmai Pass, the area remains exposed to easterly winds driven through the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. On my travel day, while conditions were never too windy to keep planes grounded in King Salmon, Brooks Camp was experiencing a gale.

Screen shot of weather graph. Verticle line indicates time with highest wind gust recorded on September 3 2017.

On September 3, 2017, the highest wind gust recorded at Brooks Camp was 60 miles per hour (97 kph) at 12:27 p.m.

Around noon, two hours after I was supposed to reach Brooks Camp, Katmai Air cancelled all day trips to Brooks River due to unsafe landing conditions and a lack of time. The faces of those on day trips expressed genuine disappointment. They left dejected. Knowing just how amazing Brooks River is, I don’t blame them. I felt my own bit of disappointment through the afternoon and evening. I would not reach Brooks Camp that day.

I had two more nights planned, thankfully, so I could wait out the storm and reach Brooks Camp (I’ll chronicle my experience there in forthcoming post). While flights to and from Brooks Camp are occasionally delayed, it’s rare for them to be canceled due to weather. Every few years though, a strong windstorm prevents safe landings and departures on Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. In 2009, 60 people, who had only planned to spend one day at Brooks Camp, were stranded due to strong winds. No one who knows the area well would ever say the weather there is benign.

There is no average bear

In many ways, we can stereotype bears based on their age, sex, and reproductive status. While watching bears and even interacting with bears, certain stereotypes are useful. They help us begin to understand and explain a wide spectrum of behavior exhibited by a group of intelligent animals.

To stereotype a group of bears, adult males who rank at or near the top of the hierarchy are probably the least likely to act like a kid. They are the least likely to play or show overt curiosity towards new things. For most of bearcam’s history (2012-present) we’ve watched bears like 856, 747, and 814 dominate the falls through their size and assertiveness. These bears showed little interest in other bears except when establishing or reaffirming their dominance, stealing fish (especially 814 Lurch), appropriating preferred fishing spots, or when seeking a mate. Their behavior framed (biased?) our expectations of bears at the top of the hierarchy. They acted like stereotypical dominant males, and in their own ways, average bears.

But this logic can only take us so far, because there are no average bears.

This past July 32 Chunk displaced 856 as the most dominant bear at Brooks River. Chunk is approximately 12-13 years old and is perhaps the largest bear to use the river regularly this summer. Much of his behavior, especially early in Brooks River’s salmon run, is typical of a big dominant male. Not only did he displace other bears, he also wasn’t successfully challenged for food or fishing spots.

Notice how 856 quickly vacates the jacuzzi and doesn’t even attempt to challenge 32 Chunk.

Initially, 32 Chunk fit our expectations of a dominant male, but over the past two weeks or more bearcam has captured Chunk play fighting with another large, and older adult male, 755 Scare D Bear, as well as scavenging fish from him.

Just what is going on? Has Brooks Falls gone topsy-turvy in the wake of this summer’s hierarchy shift? Or this something more akin to the peculiarities of individual bear behavior during a summer when salmon are plentiful?

In July especially, Chunk fit the stereotype of a dominant adult male—challenging and displacing other bears, marking trees and cowboy walking in full view of other large males, and courting females. Since then, he’s behaved in ways that do not fit the dominant male stereotype—waiting patiently downstream of 755 for scraps of fish (a behavior more akin to scavenging than begging) and even initiating prolonged play fights with 755.

Play among adult male bears in their early teens is uncommon, but not unprecedented. I’ve previously wondered if bears outgrow play, and my personal observations suggest the frequency of play decreases as bears age. (I’m more surprised by 755 Scare D Bear’s willingness to play-fight, something I’ve never witnessed from him, than from 32’s).

Chunk’s play behavior separates him from bear 856 who was the most dominant bear seen through the entire history of bearcam until this summer. 856, like 24 BB before him, was hyper-dominant. As far as I know, this term has never been formally described in the scientific literature about bears. Tamara Olson, one of Katmai’s former bear biologists, introduced me to it. As I understand the term, hyper-dominance in bears is a willingness to continuously assert dominance over other competitors, giving them no slack, no chances to gain an edge. 856 became the river’s most dominant animal in 2011, when he was about the same age as Chunk is now. Once 856 became more dominant than 814 Lurch, for example, he repeatedly approached and displaced Lurch, perhaps in an effort to remind his large competitor, “Don’t challenge me or infringe on my space.”

Perhaps a lack of other large males who can challenge Chunk has allowed him to exhibit more playful and less hyper-dominant behavior. The relatively high abundance of salmon at Brooks River this summer also influences how bears interact with each other. To add another stereotype to the mix, bears are generally more playful and more tolerant of each other when they are well fed.

Because of his rank at the top of the hierarchy, we expect Chunk to behave like more like 856 than a youthful subadult. However, no biological edict commands Chunk to fit our expectations. His bimodal behavior is uncommon among adult male bears of his rank. Yet, Chunk can play-fight with other bears and still maintain an exceptionally high rank in the hierarchy.

The average bear is an amalgam of our observations and conclusions, created to help us better understand the lives of bears. No single bear will ever fit this role completely. Chunk can be both playful and dominant. He is no anomaly, because the average bear doesn’t exist.

Viral Bear Encounter with 435 Holly

Every once and a while a video from Brooks Camp goes viral. The latest involves a mother bear, her two spring cubs, and a person on the trail to the Brooks Camp Campground.

I’m a little late to opine on this video, but most of the responses and explanations (even Katmai’s, which explains what to do fairly well) seem to lack information about the bear’s behavior. Why did the mother bear and her cub approach the person?

The mother bear in the video is known as 435 Holly, an adult female who was first identified in 2001. This bear has led a storied life so far, successfully caring for her injured yearling in 2007 and adopting an abandoned yearling in 2014.

brown bear standing in grass near water

435 Holly in September 2015.

She’s also one of the most human habituated bears known at Brooks River. (Habituation, in this context, is a waning response to a neutral stimulus.) As a result, this bear is not as likely to react as defensively towards people compared to many other bears. Holly frequently uses the developed area from the river mouth to the campground, often traversing the area near Brooks Lodge, the NPS visitor center, and employee housing. She’s even treed herself near the bathrooms at Brooks Lodge and approached large groups of people.

The ranger handled this particular situation well, gathering the group of people together to let the bears pass. Corralling people isn’t easy though. Despite the best efforts of rangers, some people are always willing to push the limit with bears.

Bear near group of people. Arrow pointing towards person who is separate from group.

It’s not a wise move to leave the safety of your group when a mother and cubs is only feet away.

On more than one occasion, I watched Holly walk down “Park Avenue” in front of my cabin, sometimes to avoid other bears and sometimes just because that was the easiest way to get where she was going.

Her behavior demonstrates a relative tolerance for people. She’s not shy about using the same trails as us, which brings me back to the viral video. 435 Holly has encountered many, many people at Brooks River and humans have largely been a neutral stimulus in her life. These factors enable situations like these to happen on a regular basis at Brooks River.

In the viral video, neither Holly nor her cubs show signs of stress or defensiveness. She doesn’t lower her head, her ears remain upright, and she makes no vocalizations. Holly’s cubs reflect their mother’s relaxed state, casually walking with and occasionally in front of mom. They know a human is near and as he backs away, she continues in the same direction. Holly, in this situation, wanted to use the trail. She did not threaten the person or act in a defensive manner.

Of course, there was real risk involved during the encounter and my thoughts should not be misconstrued to downplay the risk. Any encounter with a bear, especially a mother and cubs, needs to be taken seriously, for our own safety and also for the welfare of the animals. If this was different mother bear, with different tolerances and reaction distances around people, then the situation could be different.

This doesn’t mean the person on the trail would be mauled, however. At Brooks River, females with cubs who are not habituated to people are likely to be displaced from the river during periods of high human use, and we shouldn’t approach bears just because they’ve shown tolerance towards us in the past. In areas where bears need more individual space it is even more important to prevent close encounters.

This encounter with 435 Holly and her cubs was the result of a very human habituated bear needing to use the trail at the same time as a person. Her motivation, in this particular case, wasn’t a need to protect her cubs, assert dominance over a person, or even curious approach. It was simply to walk on the trail.

For information about what to do in encounters like this at Brooks Camp, please see Katmai National Park’s video response. That response however, is not usually applicable to bear encounters in other areas of North America.

An Old Bear’s Teeth

480 Otis is currently the oldest adult male bear known to use Brooks River. First identified in 2001, a conservative age estimate places him in his early twenties. This bear is a skilled and patient angler who often sits for hours in Brooks River. When he catches salmon though, a common ailment of bears his age is noticeable.

bear in water biting salmon with side of his mouth

480 Otis often bites the tails off of salmon by utilizing his molars, a method that younger bears with all their canine teeth do not use.

In 2013, I first took note of the peculiar manner in which Otis eats his salmon. Unlike young bears with relatively sharp canine teeth and incisors, Otis sometimes seems to struggle with grasping and biting through the tough skin of sockeye salmon. He seemed to use his molars much more than younger bears to bite into salmon. After watching closely through binoculars, I eventually saw why. Otis is missing canine teeth.

Notice how he seems to have difficultly chewing his food.

Otis’ lower left canine appears to be completely missing. A nub of his upper right canine may still exist, but it is so small to be nearly useless. He may also have missing or worn incisors, premolars, and molars. This affects his ability to grasp and bite into salmon.

Even when salmon are so abundant that most bears high-grade their fish—eating the fattiest parts like the skin, brain, and eggs and discarding the rest of the carcass—Otis eats higher proportions of the whole fish, probably because his worn and missing teeth prevent him from handling the fish as dexterously as his younger competitors.

Throughout their lives, brown bears suffer from broken bones, disease, wounds, and many other ailments. As they age, the rigors of their diet and lifestyle wear on their teeth. Without access to a dentist, bears must tolerate broken and worn teeth as well as deep cavities and even abscessed teeth, conditions which may ultimately reduce their fitness and survival.

480 Otis is one of the most experienced bears at Brooks River. Despite his less than healthy teeth, he continues to fish quite successfully (incredibly, he once caught and ate 44 fish in about six hours!) to gain the calories needed to survive the lean months of winter and spring.

fat bear sitting in water in front of rock wall

 

A Close Encounter at Brooks River

 

Early today, bearcam captured a very close encounter of the ursine kind.

When the video begins, two people are walking out of the water in the direction of Brooks Lodge. A relatively small brown bear, probably a subadult, then begins to run towards them. Eventually, the bear gets very close to both individuals. Other than wading into very deep water, the couple had few options in this situation. Their only line of retreat was towards Brooks Lodge (the direction they were walking).

Screen shot of bear and person near each other. Text reads "Person and bear." The person and bear are in the yellow circle.

The bear could’ve approached the people for a few reasons. If the people were fishing and if they had a fish on their line, then this could have attracted the bear. If the bear had taken fish from anglers before, which happens at Brooks River, then it would be more likely to approach people as it searches for an easy meal. The splashing of their feet could’ve caught the bear’s attention. That’s a sound that mimics the sound of splashing fish, and for bears at Brooks River this is the sound of food. The bear could also have been attempting to play or assert its dominance.

The bear doesn’t look like it was charging the people defensively. Its bounds aren’t direct. In contrast to this bear, a charging bear moves very quickly in a straight line. Defensive bears, from what I’ve observed, do not deviate from their target until they decide to stop the charge.

There was one thing the couple could have done to reduce the chances of a scary encounter—stay together. Instead of walking 5-10 meters apart, they could’ve walked shoulder to shoulder. Size means a lot to a bear and bears are much less likely to approach groups of people compared to single people. Beyond anything else traveling in groups, especially groups of four or more people, is the most important step we can take to increase our level of safety in bear country. Most importantly, the couple could have not gone into that area.

People are permitted to be in that location, and often don’t consult rangers before doing so. However, I don’t necessarily place blame on them. Quite often, visitors are not aware how vulnerable they are in many places at Brooks River.

This is a place where people have a lot of freedom, maybe more so than any other well known bear viewing location in Alaska. The only area closed to people is the immediate area near Brooks Falls from June 15 to August 15. Situations like this don’t happen every day, but bears and people are often in very close proximity. I know many of us who watch the bearcam won’t visit Brooks Camp, but a few of us will. If you choose to visit, please consider ways in which you can minimize this type of encounter. I recommend staying on established trails and bear viewing from specific locations where bears expect to find people, like the wildlife viewing platforms. The river mouth often looks like a great place to be with its open sight lines. Yet, the depth of the water greatly limits where one can go to avoid bears. The river mouth from late June through July and again from late August through early October is wonderful habitat for bears. For this reason, everyone who visits Brooks Camp should consider not going into this area. This provides a higher level of safety for us and greater opportunities for bears to access the resources they need to survive without our interference.

Despite my best intentions over the years, I still got much too close to bears when I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings, when I traveled into a spot where sight lines were limited, or when I was in an area where bears were likely to feed or rest. Close encounters will happen, but there are ways we can minimize the risk.

  • Watch bears from trails and the wildlife viewing platforms.
  • Avoid moving into areas where bears are likely to rest, play, or feed.
  • Give yourself two avenues of escape to avoid an approaching bear.

Related Posts:
Giving Bears Space
The Challenges of Managing Bears and People at Brooks Camp

Brooks River Water Temperature

Alaska is often described as a cold place, and justifiably so. Winters are long. Summer temperatures, especially on the Alaska Peninsula, are often damp and cool. It’s easy to imagine Brooks River’s water as bone-chillingly cold. But, just how cold is the water in Brooks River, the scene of bearcam? Brooks River is never very warm, but its temperature varies more than you might think. These temperature shifts can impact spawning salmon, but salmon are adapted to avoid the risk.

Staff from the National Park Service’s Southwest Alaska Network are tasked with monitoring the long term water quality in Katmai. During the summer, they install a data logger at the outlet of Lake Brooks where it drains into Brooks River to record water temperature. When the water temperature data is compiled into a graph, it displays quite a bit of variability.

Graph of water temperatures at the head of Brooks River. Verticle axis is degees in fahrenheit. Horizontal axis is time.

This graph plots water temperatures for the head of Brooks River from mid June to late August 2015. The blue line is a daily average of hourly temperature readings. The horizontal red, yellow, and orange lines represent State of Alaska water temperature threshold standards for fish habitat. Data courtesy of the National Park Service Southwest Alaska Network.

During the height of summer, Brooks River’s temperatures can rise well into the 60˚s F (15-20˚ C). Temperatures also drop rapidly, sometimes as much as ten to fifteen degrees in a few days. The maximum temperature recorded in 2015 was 69 °F (21˚ C) on August 2 at 5 p.m. and the minimum temperature was 44 °F (6.7˚ C) on July 5 at 8 a.m. What explains this variability?

Weather and the underwater topography of Lake Brooks drive the rise and fall of the river’s temperature in summer. Brooks River drains Lake Brooks, a large glacially carved basin. Lake Brooks is filled with crystal clear water, and most of the lake is very cold so we could expect Brooks River to remain cold too if it weren’t for a shallow shelf of sediment extending a few hundred yards offshore from the lake’s northeastern shoreline. Over the shelf, the water is only a few feet deep at most.

Screen shot from Google Earth. Text on page reads "Lake Brooks" and "Beginning of Brooks River." Eye altitude is 4623 feet.

Near the head of Brooks River, a shelf of sediment extends far out into Lake Brooks. In this Google Earth image, the shelf is outlined in blue.

view of lake and mountain

Brooks River begins at the northeast corner of Lake Brooks. The beginning of the river can be seen at center right.

When summer’s long days (Katmai experiences almost 19 hours of daylight at the summer solstice) combine with stretches of clear and sunny weather, the water above this shelf is warmed considerably. When cool, cloudy weather covers the region, the water over the shelf drops in temperature. Wind across Lake Brooks can also help stir the lake, perhaps even breaking the thermocline between warm water on the surface and the cold water underneath. Even a rough comparison of weather and the river’s water temperature shows a clear correlation.

Water temperature graph (top) and weather data graph (bottom).

On the weather graph (bottom), the red line represents the daily maximum temperature, the blue line represents the daily minimum temperature, and the green line represents the dew point. Peaks in the river’s water temperatures roughly correspond with long stretches of warm weather. Weather data graph courtesy of wunderground.com.

While warmer water temperatures may not affect bears, salmon are sensitive to it. If water temperatures exceed certain limits, then dissolved oxygen levels in the water can drop, increasing mortality rates for adults salmon, fry, and eggs, or altering the timing of migration and spawning. Importantly, water temperature drives incubation time for salmon eggs. Incubation rates for salmon eggs are slower in cold water and faster in warmer water. If the sockeye salmon in Brook River spawned in July, for example, then warmer water would decrease the incubation period for the newly spawned eggs, potentially causing them to hatch too early when no food is available for the fry. These temperatures would also increase egg mortality. Sockeye and coho salmon egg survival plummets when water temperatures reach 14˚C (57˚ F). (See pages 9-15 in ADF&G’s Technical Report 91-1).

Vertical axis represents survival % from 0-100. Horizontal axis represents temperture in degrees Celcius from 0-15. Caption on figure reads "Figure 8. Survival of coho and sockeye salmon eggs from Fertilizations to hatching at different temperatures. Data from Murray and McPhail (1988).

This graph displays sockeye and coho egg mortality compared to water temperature. Graph courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish of Game.

The sockeye salmon that spawn in Brooks River avoid this risk by delaying their spawning until late August and September. Notice how water temperature on the graph plateaus then begins to decrease by the end of August.

Graph of water temperatures for Brooks River in August 2015. Verticle axis is degees in fahrenheit. Horizontal axis is time.

By late summer, day length has shortened by many hours. With less sunlight available to warm the water near the outlet of Lake Brooks, temperatures eventually dip well within ideal thresholds for spawning and egg incubation. The river’s salmon take advantage of these conditions by delaying their spawning until late summer and fall when cooler water temperatures, which continue to drop as fall wanes into winter, slow the salmon eggs’ incubation time. They don’t hatch until very late winter, and the fry don’t emerge from the stream gravel until spring when water temperatures begin to rise again and more sunlight supports more plankton, which feed the young salmon.

Brooks River is a dynamic place. No one week, no one year is the same as the last. Salmon, at least genetically, understand this. They “know” spawning in July would be risky business and probably unsuccessful. Their spawning cycle is timed to avoid the warmest and most variable water temperatures. In this way, every year, Brooks River’s salmon demonstrate their adaptation to variable conditions.

school of salmon in water with lake and mountains in background

End of an Era

The bear hierarchy is fluid. Bears jostle constantly within it, gaining and losing rank as they grow into adults and age into older bears. In 2017 at Brooks River, one bear has asserted his dominance over all others in ways he’s never done before. There appears to be a new dominant male on the river and he’s known as 32 Chunk.

bear standing in grass

32 Chunk in early June 2017. Photo courtesy of Katmai National Park.

In 2011, I began recording interactions between bears at Brooks Falls, noting who displaced who, who avoided who, and which bears were courting, stealing fish, and playing together. Out of hundreds of interactions I witnessed, one bear was consistently and clearly dominant over all others, 856.

bear standing in water

856 stands in Brooks River on June 30, 2016.

From 2011 to 2016, 856 wasn’t displaced once. I only noted him yielding on very rare occasions, like when he faced a particularly defensive mother bear. No other bears even seemed to challenge him. 856 ascended to the top of the hierarchy rather quickly in 2011, outcompeting other large males like 814 Lurch and 747, and for many years remained the river’s most dominant bear.

two bears facing each other in water

856 (right) displaces 747, another large adult male bear, from the jacuzzi in 2013.

Life at the top of the hierarchy is difficult, however. Other bears are subordinate, but not subservient, to more dominant animals. If injury, illness, or age weakens a dominant bear then others will not hesitate to usurp their position, gaining greater access to food and potential mates. Other bears, often younger and stronger, are more than willing to take your spot if given the opportunity.

In the video above, 856 is the bear in the jacuzzi (the plunge pool below Brooks Falls) while 402, an adult female, stands on the lip. Notice how 856 turns to face the bear approaching from the far side of the river. This is 32 Chunk.

Screen shot from video. Three bears near a waterfall. Text reads "402," "856," and "32 Chunk."

856 backs out of the jacuzzi to avoid 32 Chunk. He then goes to the lip where 402 stands, but 32 Chunk follows. Above the falls, 856 makes no attempt to challenge Chunk. 856 stands and watches as 32 turns away from his competitor, like dominant bears are apt to do, and walks out of the frame.

Generally, when two bears of approximately the same size and disposition meet for the first time, both bears posture openly as they evaluate each other’s size and the potential to do physical harm. 856 yielded quickly and readily to 32, so they have encountered each other before the video above was recorded. During a previous encounter 32 Chunk may have asserting his dominance even more clearly, hence 856’s willingness to yield. 856 simply saw 32 approach and instantaneously realized he could not challenge the larger 32, so he backed away to avoid picking a fight he probably wouldn’t win. (Many, if not most, interactions between bears are like this. They are defined by avoidance.)

bear standing in water and facing the right side of the photo

32 Chunk in 2014, while he ranked in the middle of the bear hierarchy for adult males.

Nature abhors a vacuum. No niche is left unfilled within the bear hierarchy. 856, perhaps weakened by injury or age, appears to no longer be the most dominant bear at Brooks River. His younger competitor sensed weakness and exploited it. This isn’t a contest of longevity though. During his time as the most dominant bear, 856 had free reign over the best fishing spots and went unchallenged for access to females in estrus. For years, he grew large and strong, probably siring more than one litter of bear cubs along the way. Now 32 Chunk (and possibly other bears like 747) hold those advantages.

856 remains a large bear and his size will continue to allow him great access to fishing spots at Brooks River. Bears grow up quickly, gaining the strength and skills necessary to survive a harsh, competitive world. Eventually though, the competition catches up.