Brooks River Origins: Part II

Origin stories seem to be almost requisite for superhero movies, even for well-known characters. (Like, we all know by now that a radioactive spider bit Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents; so perhaps the next time Hollywood decides to reboot their tales, maybe just skip over those parts?) Landscapes, on the other hand? Their origins are not investigated nearly enough.

 In my last post, I introduced the glacial origins of Brooks River, perhaps the most iconic wildlife viewing site in U.S. national parks. This was far from the full story though. After glaciers sculpted the land, a series of dramatic changes occurred as the river evolved into its current form. In this online chapter of The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, I investigate the river’s most recent origins. Brooks River is a superhero of a landscape, providing a home for bears, salmon, and people for thousands of years.

In the coming weeks, please check my blog and Twitter feed to find details about how to order signed copies of The Bears of Brooks Falls. And, be sure to ask for it at your favorite independent bookstore. The book ships out March 9, 2021.

Qit’rwik

Throughout the years I spent as a ranger at Brooks Camp, I enjoyed exploring the thin ribbon of beach bordering Naknek Lake, especially in spring when the lake was near its annual low point. The beach stretching north from the mouth of Brooks River is one of the most inviting and extensive on Naknek Lake. It’s also temporary—a symbol of the lake and river’s continued evolution.

On a prime May evening in 2015, I make time to explore the changes wrought on the beach by the prior winter’s wind and waves. I exit the line of alder and spruce near the visitor center and walk toward a lake that is dramatically lower than the previous fall. Two wrack lines, built with airy pumice and driftwood flotsam, identify former high water stands from years past. The uppermost borders the very edge of the vegetation line and marked the high water mark in 2012, a year when the lake, or at least its wind-driven waves, rose to the beach’s upper boundary. The other, where the lake reached its maximum volume in 2014, is more than 10 feet closer to the water and a foot lower in elevation. Even with my eyes closed, when walking to the water from the tree line I could find the wrack lines by sound and texture. Pumice and small branches of driftwood roll and crunch underfoot like broken pieces of hard styrofoam. Gravel and sand, in contrast, feel heavy and less hollow.

pumice and driftwood covered beach. Lakeshore is at left. Trees and grass at right. Snow covered mountains on
The beach at Brooks Camp in springtime. Photo looks south toward the outlet of Brooks River.

When my feet reach the water’s edge, I turn right and walk south, approaching the river by paralleling a set of early season bear prints. I stop and face the river where it flows through a narrow channel barely a stone’s throw wide. I’m isolated at the end of a gravel bar, where the river finally meets the lake, and unable to go farther without wet feet. Otter tracks crisscross the sand, while on the opposite shore terns, mergansers, and gulls rest and preen on a bar of pebbles jutting into the shallow lake. They keep a wary eye on me but make no move to fly.

The beach and the gravel bars adjacent to the river mouth are altered by Naknek Lake’s predictable cycle of swelling and shrinking. It is widest in early spring after months of sub-freezing temperatures reduce the lake’s inflow to a trickle, and thinnest in early fall after a summer’s worth of rain, snowmelt, and glacial runoff fill the basin. In late summer, I couldn’t come close to approaching this area without swimming. I stand on dry ground about six feet lower in elevation than last autumn’s wrack line. A multi-year time lapse of this spot would record an annual cycle—the lake swelling with onset of spring thaw and shrinking when widespread freezing temperatures return in autumn. When flooded this spot is patrolled most often by hungry bears who swim in search of carcasses of spawned-out salmon.

Wind-driven waves periodically reorganize the beach and river mouth. Temporary longshore currents, driven by strong easterly winds, purge sediments from the lakeshore south of the river and carry them northward. Storms shoal the unconsolidated sand and gravel into bars and spits, altering the flow of the river where it meets the lake.

Although these changes can be dramatic, the winter of 2014-2015 brought only a subtle reorganization to the river mouth. More sediment was deposited on a gravel bar near the tree line neighboring the lodge. On the south side of the river, a substantial spit grew a few feet northward. This spit arcs upstream into the river to create a calm, protected cove where waves do not reach, a convenient place for Brooks Lodge and National Park Service staff to moor boats away from the lake’s waves. I wondered how far this fan of gravel might one day extend. It’s grown a little wider every year of my observations.

An iteration of the spit and sheltered lagoon behind it has featured prominently at the river for hundreds of years, perhaps longer. In the Alutiiq (Supiaq) language, Brooks River is known as Qit’rwik. Pronounced kettiwick or kittiwick, Qit’rwik is a descriptive word that translates to a “sheltered place on the water.” More generically, a qit’rwik can refer to any lagoon or protected bay that is connected to open water and can provide shelter for a boat.

In September 1940, Mount McKinley National Park Superintendent Frank Been and U.S. Biological Survey biologist Victor Cahalane visited Katmai National Monument. They witnessed Alaska Natives, who traveled from the King Salmon and Naknek area to Brooks River, harvesting salmon. Mary Jane Neilson participated in those harvests and later recalled, “While we were at Qitirwik…Grandma…and our parents would catch fish to split and dry. The men built racks to dry the fish at the mouth of Brooks River on the south shore. Fish racks were still up in the 1950s when the National Park Service became more visible in the area.” Motorboats had replaced traditional mammal skin kayaks by then, but the river mouth, partly sheltered and enclosed by spits of sand and gravel, still provided people a safe harbor from wind-driven waves and a convenient spot to prepare and dry salmon.

black and white photo of Alaska Native families on a beach. Four boats are in the water at right. Children and adults stand on and near the boats.
The Melgenak and Angasan families at Qit’rwik in 1950. National Park Service Photo.

Many a qit’rwik’s story is locked in place by fickle, shifting sediments and the evolving nature of Katmai’s lakes. South of the river mouth a small pond hides in the forest. Before the National Park Service constructed a one-lane road to it in 2014, I occasionally visited the Beaver Pond to escape Brooks Camp’s bustle or simply for a change of scenery. Walking south along the lakeshore from the river mouth, a hedgerow of alder, birch, and poplar trees obscured the pond and any resting bears in the vegetation, but the actual bushwhack to it was short when I chose the route correctly.

At first glance the pond is like many others in the area. It is moderately sized and oblong, measuring about 2000 feet east to west and 1600 feet north to south. Beavers, as its nickname suggests, have used it for decades although the pond is not a product of beaver industry. There is no dam to hold its water back nor does much flowing water enter it. The pond is fed primarily by rain, snow, and slow seepage from adjacent marshes.

Perhaps thousands of similarly-sized ponds dot western Katmai and the adjacent Bristol Bay lowlands, most of which are glacial kettle holes, features that form where stranded blocks of glacial ice were surrounded by till and outwash. As the isolated ice melted, they created enclosed basins that filled with water. Despite its superficial resemblance, Beaver Pond is not a kettle either. Its history began in the shifting sands and pebbles along the Naknek Lake shoreline.

 The Beaver Pond occupies an open embayment that was once cleaved into the glacial outwash bordering Naknek Lake. At first, it may have been exposed to the full force of wind and waves, not unlike the modern-day beach adjacent to the lodge and visitor center. Strong winds funneling across the Aleutian Range and down Iliuk Arm did not permit the bay to remain open indefinitely, however. Wind stirred waves pushed gravel and sand westward from the raw, highly erodible glacial sediments near the Iliuk moraine. These collected into an overlapping series of northward-growing horsetail shaped spits. Eventually, the bay was encircled and permanently separated from Naknek Lake as the spits migrated and thickened toward Brooks River. The Beaver Pond’s divorce from Naknek Lake may have taken decades or centuries, to finalize. All the while, the growing horsetail-shaped spits created a series of long-lasting qit’rwiks.

The Beaver Pond’s formation is just a small part of a more ancient story, one that explains how Brooks River evolved and how it became an important place for people.

Black and white LIDAR image. Brooks River meanders near top of image. Labels say 'lake brooks,' 'outlet of brooks river,' 'naknek lake,'
The Beaver Pond is a former embayment of Naknek Lake. It was separated from the lake by longshore currents that deposited nearly parallel arcs of sediment from east to west as seen in this LIDAR imagery.

Brooks Lodge and the NPS visitor center sit on a lumpy terrace about 12 feet higher than the highest historical stands of Naknek Lake. From the lodge, the terrace’s geometry is apparent. Shaped by waves on one side while the river carved into the opposite shore, it tapers wedge-like toward the river mouth. This is just one of the many old terraces undulating throughout the river corridor from the Beaver Pond to Dumpling Mountain and upstream to Lake Brooks. At first glance, especially when bushwhacking in the forest’s dim confines, the terraces seem haphazardly placed, but a closer look reveals a roughly concentric shape to many. Between the river mouth and Lake Brooks, their concave faces open toward Naknek Lake and climb in a stair step manner—a series of short, steep rises each topped with a relatively flat bench. The terraces continue dozens of feet up nearby hillsides.

When the large Ice Age glaciers vacated Katmai, a series of glacial lakes began to occupy the excavated basins. Such lakes are far from static and often subject to rapid change, filling quickly and sometimes draining even quicker. Those in Katmai rose far above the modern counterparts; their waters held back by temporary ice dams or raw, erodible, and sparsely vegetated terminal moraines.

Lake Brooks was perhaps the first lake in the Brooks River area to undergo a rapid transformation. At the greatest extent of the Newhalen stade glaciers, 23,000 to 20,000 years ago, ice filled two-thirds or more of Naknek Lake’s basin, extending lobes around the north and south sides of Dumpling Mountain. The southernmost lobe pushed completely across the area now covered by Lake Brooks. When this glaciation waned, Lake Brooks began to fill the void. Unlike today, though, when Lake Brooks feeds Brooks River and Naknek Lake, this first iteration of Lake Brooks didn’t find connectivity with an infant Naknek Lake. It was walled in by ice to the east, mountains to the north and south, and a newly deposited terminal moraine to the west. Ancestral Lake Brooks had nowhere to go but up.

Evidence for its rise is preserved in wave cut terraces that lie stranded on hillsides. The highest such terrace sits near the western end of Lake Brooks. At more than 200 feet in elevation, it is 140 feet above the lake’s modern level. At its greatest height, liquid water likely occupied only the far western end of the Lake Brooks basin and only for a short period of time. Filled to capacity and separated from the Naknek Lake basin by ice, Lake Brooks spilled over the moraine on its western shore and drained west through the Bristol Bay lowlands. At the same time, a proto-Naknek Lake began to form in front of the glacial lobe north of Dumpling.

The ice divide between the lakes was short lived and the lakes merged after the Newhalen-aged glacier receded sufficiently to release Lake Brooks’ water into the Naknek basin. With the ice divide gone, Naknek Lake captured and reversed the flow of Lake Brooks.

Naknek Lake now covers 150,000 acres and is the largest lake wholly contained within a U.S. national park. Six large lakes (Brooks, Coville, Grosvenor, Hammersley, Idavain, and Murray), Savonoski River, Ukak River, and countless small ponds and creeks feed it. Yet Naknek Lake is a shell of its former self. It changed just as dramatically as Lake Brooks, if not more so, although these changes are far from finished.

Naknek Lake currently sits at a modest 42 feet in elevation, but in the wake of glacial retreat, the Pike Ridge moraine at the lake’s west end was a formidable barrier to water. Before any outlet could drain the lake, water had to rise high enough to overtop this earthen dam. It did only after reaching heights not seen before or since. Wave cut terraces and stranded beaches adjacent to the lake exist at 190 feet above sea level in the uplands adjacent to the lake. At full pool, Naknek Lake was as much as a third larger than today. It swallowed half of the Savonoski River floodplain; annexed Lake Brooks (el. 72 feet), Lake Coville (el. 108 feet), and Lake Grosvenor (el. 108 feet); made islands out of Dumpling Mountain and Mount La Gorce; and drowned the future site of Brooks Falls underneath dozens of feet of frigid water. For thousands of years after glaciers left, the lake remained so high that no hint of Brooks River existed.

Slowly, Naknek River’s down cutting reduced the Naknek Lake’s storage capacity. Islands merged. Rivers lengthened. Lake basins separated. All the while, waves carved terraces onto mountainsides during prolonged pauses in the draining. But the future site of Brooks River remained an abyss. Terraces higher than 98 feet in elevation are capped with volcanic ash from an eruption twelve to thirteen thousand years ago, indicating the land adjacent to the modern river mouth was still below as much as 56 feet of glacially cold water at the time.

After Naknek Lake captured its water, the Lake Brooks basin mirrored the changes of greater Naknek Lake for thousands of years until they separated for good between 6,500 and 5,500 years ago. Then, lowering lake levels exposed a dike of igneous rock in the path of the water flowing from Lake Brooks to Naknek Lake. At the surface after thousands of years or subaqueous inconsequentiality, and unlike the veneer of unconsolidated glacial till and lake sediments covering much of the Brooks River area, this bedrock was not easily erodible. Meanwhile, Naknek Lake continued to drain away as its outlet, Naknek River, eroded through the terminal moraine serving as the lake’s dam. The gently lapping water of Lake Brooks lacked the erosive energy to remove its newfound bedrock dam, however. Lake Brooks, perhaps for the first time ever, became locked in place.

aerial photo of forests, lake, and river. Lake is at lower left. River begins at center is at lower left.
Brooks River begins its journey to Naknek Lake at the northeast corner of Lake Brooks.
view of lake and shallow river on overcast day. Water flow is toward photographer and to right.
The head of Brooks River. The line of ripples across the center of the photo mark the bedrock shelf that maintains the level of Lake Brooks.

Nearly all the dry land surrounding Brooks River today was exposed when the first semblance of a river formed five thousand years ago, but water levels were still high enough that the early river was very short, merely a wide area of slowly flowing water between the diverging basins. Less of a river than a narrow strait, the area quickly became an important resource for animals and people.

The oldest evidence of people known from the Alaska Peninsula comes from a squeeze of land about 75 miles southwest of Brooks River. Ugashik Narrows separates north and south Ugashik Lakes on the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, and is one of the most popular sport fishing destinations in all of southwest Alaska. Evidently, its popularity extends much further back in time. Artifacts at the narrows reach 9,000 years in age, but the first people there may not have been fishing much. Chipped stone tools suggest the first residents at Ugashik Narrows came for caribou, animals that would’ve moved efficiently across the open, tundra-like habitat, browsing on lichens in winter and green forbs in the summer. Instead of swimming across the lakes at Ugashik, the caribou crossed the stream at the narrows. People let the land funnel their quarry.

A similar dynamic occurred at the Brooks River narrows circa 3000 BC. A caribou herd moving toward the river narrows faced a choice: swim across miles of open lake water or follow the land. Caribou are good swimmers, but like many terrestrial mammals they often stay high and dry when given the option. The first people at Brooks River, like those at Ugashik Narrows, knew this well. They followed the migratory herds to the emergent Brooks River or established camps there and waited. Archeological excavations uncovered large stone lances and knives—weapons used to hunt large mammals—from Brooks River’s earliest human inhabitants. Caribou bones within their campsites prove they were successful.

The currently available archeological evidence suggests, curiously, that salmon were not a major food source for the earliest cultures at Brooks River even though salmon may have colonized Katmai’s lakes soon after they formed. Analysis of sediment cores from Nonvianuk Lake north of Brooks River indicate the presence of anadromous salmon there as much as 10,000 years ago, but no direct evidence of this yet been obtained for Naknek Lake so far back in time. The placement of the earliest camps at Brooks River are away from what would have been the water’s edge at the time, so if salmon were present when the first people arrived, perhaps they weren’t abundant enough to target or the strait between the Lake Brooks and Naknek Lake basins was too challenging to fish successfully.

No matter the reason for the lack of piscivory, free passage for salmon through Brooks River was short lived. As Naknek Lake continued to recede, the strait evolved into a river. Approximately 4,000 years ago the lengthening river uncovered a ridge of sedimentary rock less than a mile downstream of Lake Brooks. At first, Naknek Lake remained high enough that barely a ripple tumbled over the hard conglomerate. Perhaps it was unnoticeable to the salmon migrating in the young river. The ripple grew year by year, growing taller as Naknek Lake withdrew. By 3,500 years ago a distinct plunge formed, one high enough to temporarily impede salmon migrating upstream to spawn. Brooks Falls had emerged.

Bears fishing at waterfall. One bear stands on the lip of the falls at lower left. The others stand or sit below the falls facing upstream.
Although the scene appears timeless, Brooks Falls is a very young geologic feature.

I like to imagine a qit’rwik from long ago, a harbor that perhaps inspired the proper name, Qit’rwik. The former waterfront property hides today within the surrounding forest with artifacts from previous cultures buried in the thickening duff. That qit’rwik foreshadows the fate of Brooks Lodge, the rangers’ cabins, the campground, and the visitor center. Could the newly conceived gravel bars at the river mouth, which seem so ephemeral at first glance, become a future qit’rwik as the river continues to evolve? Some iteration of Brooks River and its adjacent lakes will remain long into the future. It won’t be the same, but it’s far more likely to outlast our cultures than we are to outlast it.

References:

  • Brooks River known as Qit’rwik and meaning of word: Helen Lons email to Katmai National Park Staff. 2007.
  • In September 1940, Mount McKinley National Park Superintendent Frank Been and U.S. Biological Survey biologist Victor Cahalane visited Katmai National Monument: Norris, Frank B. 1996. Isolated Paradise: An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units. National Park Service. Pg. 60.
  • Mary Jane Neilson quote: Neilson, M. J. 2005. The Pelagia Story. Unpublished Masters Thesis. University of Alaska Fairbanks. P. 43.
  • Definition of kettle hole: Hambrey, M. and Jurg, A. 2004. Glaciers, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.
  • These collected into a series of lengthening beaches, which migrated and thickened toward Brooks River into horsetail shaped spits: Hults, C.P. 2016. Draft Geomorphic Map of the Brooks River Area and Part of the Road to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR-2016/. National Park Service, Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage, Alaska. LIDAR imagry of the Brooks River area clearly shows the land’s geomorphology and can be viewed at http://maps.dggs.alaska.gov/elevationdata/#-17339224:8083535:14.
  • Age of Beaver Pond: The ages of the spits encircling Beaver Pond are not precisely known, but are most likely young. Some are perhaps fewer than three hundred years old. The elevation of sediments north of the pond is slightly higher than the modern day lake elevation (13 m). The sediments also lack pre-Russian contact archeological artifacts that would indicate an earlier origin.
  • Lake Brooks spilled over the moraine on its western shore and drained directly on to the Bristol Bay lowlands: Ibid. Hults, C.P. 2016.
  • Timeline of Lake Brooks/Naknek Lake separation and former elevation of lakes: I relied heavily on the elevations and summary in Hults, C.P. 2016. It is also explained in Dumond, D. E. 1981. Archeology on the Alaska Peninsula: The Naknek Region, 1960-1975. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers. No. 21.
  • Naknek Lake was certainly lower in elevation than Lake Brooks, perhaps as low as present day: Ibid, Hults. 2016. After Naknek Lake captured Lake Brooks, one last push of ice formed the Iliuk moraine around 20,000 years ago. Discharge from this brief advance formed the broad spruce-covered outwash plain south of Brooks River. Braided drainage channels on its surface indicate the outwash plain was deposited on land, not under a lake, and terraces as high as 68 meters are conspicuously absent along Lake Brooks’ eastern shoreline.
  • At full pool, Naknek Lake was as much as a third larger than today: This is my rough guess based on the minimum combined surface areas of Naknek, Brooks, Coville, and Grosvenor Lakes.
  • Wave cut terraces at 59 and 57 meters above sea level, respectively, indicate the lake was once much higher and more extensive: Curiously, isostatic rebound is not believed to have significantly altered the elevation of the terraces. Kaufman, D. S., and K. B. Stillwell. 1995. “Preliminary Evaluation of Post Glacial Shorelines” in Geologic Studies in Alaska. Dumoulin and Gray, Editors. U.S. Geological Survey.
  • All terraces higher than 30 meters in elevation are capped with volcanic ash from an eruption twelve to thirteen thousand years ago: Ibid, Kaufman and Stillwell. 1995.
  • Artifacts at Ugashik Narrows are approximately 9,000 years old: Dumond, D. E. 1987. Prehistoric Human Occupation in Southwestern Alaska: A Study of Resource Distribution and Site Location. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers. No. 36.

Brooks River Origins: Part I

I never understood how difficult writing a book can be until I tried it. The brainstorming. The planning. The research. Pitching agents (none were interested). Pitching publishers (I got lucky). The worry. The self-doubt. The first draft. The first, second, and third revisions. The Nth revisions.

Finally, after months and sometimes years, you’re left with a book that you hope will bring some joy and meaning to people and place. Writing The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Brooks River is the culmination of my years of study and observation at one of the most unique and special places in America’s national parks.

Through the drafting process, I wrote, revised, and cut more sentences and paragraphs than I can remember. While revision is often difficult, this is where, for me, the pleasure of writing expresses itself most often. Only through revision can I work through the nonsense and polish the narrative so it reads—I hope—in a logical, intelligent, and engaging manner.

During the drafting and revision process, I cut large sections and even whole chapters from the final manuscript as I discovered new or more concise ways to frame the story of Brooks River. Today, I present a chapter sacrificed for the greater good. Some of it was incorporated into the print and digital versions of The Bears of Brooks Falls, but as I progressed deeper into the manuscript I realized this particular essay needed to be cut so that the narrative could focus more on the brown bears, salmon, and people of Brooks River. I present it here as an online-only chapter for your reading pleasure, illustrated with photos and only lightly edited from its final draft.

Sit back and relax. This is a long read.

In the coming weeks, please check my blog and Twitter feed to find details about how to order signed copies of The Bears of Brooks Falls. And, be sure to ask for it at your favorite independent bookstore. The book ships out March 9, 2021.

Sculptor

I open the gate on the north side of the campground and latch it behind me, careful to avoid the live wires strung horizontally from post to post. The electric fence is an oddity for a national park campground, yet one that is necessary to prevent bears from pressing their noses against the sides of nylon tents.

Outside the campground, following a narrow trail through forest, the world seems to shrink. Thick vegetation limits views of the surrounding landscape. The Dumpling Mountain Trail ascends through a thick understory of head-high grass, shrubby willows, and the corduroyed stalks of cow parsnip. Above the trail hovers a semi-closed canopy of birch and poplar leaves. I’m eager to reach the tree line, which the regional climate keeps at about 1,000 feet above sea level in central Katmai, and explore more open vistas. I march on despite the trail’s steepness.

After forty minutes of brisk travel, I arrive at a small rocky knob where the forest transitions to alder thickets and grassy meadows speckled with the occasional white spruce. Here I stop, not so much because I am winded, but because the perch is one of my favorite spots to loiter.

A complex wilderness panorama stretches to every horizon. A rugged volcanic arc—the ragged crest of the Aleutian Range—marks the eastern and southern skylines. Flanked by reposed Mount La Gorce and the sharp, angular ridges of Mount Katolinat, Naknek Lake emerges from the foot of the mountains and fills much of the nearby low elevations. Directly south, Brooks River meanders through dense spruce forests before its clear water spins in lazy plumes as it mixes with the turquoise water of the glacial lake.

Without catching a plane ride this overlook provides one of the only places to view the river in its entirety. Brooks River and Brooks Falls look insignificant on the scale of the surrounding landscape. Had I first stumbled up Dumpling Mountain with no prior knowledge of the falls, I’d be hard pressed to even notice the line of white foam marking it.

My gaze shifts back to the mountains and lingers on Mount Mageik, a glacially clad volcano about 30 miles to the southeast. Low clouds and precipitation obscure its coalesced summits from this vista on many days, but today’s weather is atypical. Few clouds hover in the sky and the wind is relatively calm. Under bright sun, Mageik’s glaciers seem so pure and fixed, but this is an illusion of time and scale.

I cannot see the glaciers slowly wearing down Mageik, nor will I live long enough to witness anything more than superficial glacial erosion on it, but the view provokes me to ponder the sea of glacial change that shaped this land. The shape of the valleys and lakes below me, the sediments that Brooks River erodes, and even the color of Naknek Lake are all products of glaciers. The full story of Katmai’s glaciers spans a geologic epoch and reaches to land now flooded by the Bering Sea. Until relatively recently, glaciers were this area’s most ubiquitous and prominent agent of geologic change.

panoramic view of mountains and lakes. Snow covered mountains and volcanoes are seen on horizon
The view looking east from an overlook on Dumpling Mountain. Brooks River is located at lower right.

Mageik’s glaciers, like all glaciers, are a product of climate, and the Alaska Peninsula has a well-deserved reputation as a damp and chilly place. Climate data for the region is limited, but enough has been gathered from airport and remote automated weather stations to draw some conclusions about the precipitation patterns affecting the area’s glacier formation and growth.

Katmai National Park lies at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, a northeast-southwest trending arc of land jutting into the North Pacific and Bering Sea. 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, forcing warm oceanic air to rise and cool. Water vapor condenses under these conditions and frequently falls as rain or snow. If the day’s weather is damp at Brooks Camp, it is almost certainly wetter along the crest of the Aleutian Range. While inland valleys north and west of the Aleutian Range are spared the full brunt of Pacific and Bering Sea storms, they still may receive about 40 inches of precipitation per year. At higher elevations, though, precipitation increases dramatically. Computer models indicate the volcanic peaks, like Mount Mageik, where snow can accumulate year-round, receive over 98 inches (250 cm) of annual precipitation, enough to qualify as a rainforest if trees could grow there. When global temperatures were as much as 10˚C colder during the Pleistocene Epoch, about 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago, most precipitation over the Alaska Peninsula fell as snow and little melted compared to today. Conditions were ripe for the formation and growth of glaciers.

Thirty thousand years ago, Dumpling Mountain was an island in a glacial sea. Even the overlook where I sit, over 700 feet above Naknek Lake, was smothered by ice. Naknek Lake, the Brooks River area, and nearly all of Katmai were buried. From an ice cap centered over Cook Inlet and Shelikof Strait, glaciers pushed west and north through gaps in the Aleutian Range near Lake Iliamna and Becharof Lake. Ice overrode almost all of nearby Kodiak Island and all of Cook Inlet to the northeast. Glaciers sourced from the volcanic peaks moved through the entire Naknek Lake watershed and over the future site of Brooks River. Almost no land was exposed in Ice Age Katmai except for rare nunataks, isolated mountains projecting above the ice and snow. Off of Alaska’s southern coast, ice extended to the outer edge of the continental shelf, over what is now only open ocean. Glaciers covered three hundred thousand square kilometers of the Alaska Peninsula, an area about as large as Arizona.

Similar scenes were found across the Northern Hemisphere when ice covered as much as 30 percent of Earth’s surface. In North America, ice sheets reached beyond the present locations of Boston, New York City, and Chicago. Glaciers trapped so much water to lower sea levels by almost 400 feet compared to present day. As a result, Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea, now harboring one of the world’s most valuable fisheries, didn’t exist. In their place, low sea levels exposed Beringia, the subcontinent connecting western Alaska and eastern Siberia. In Katmai, there were no bears or salmon. No forests or lakes. No people. Almost no habitat for the living. Ice was the most extensive and dominant force of change.

Amazingly, all glaciers begin as fragile snowflakes. Snow is ice, but it isn’t very dense. By volume, newly fallen snow is ninety percent air, and individual snowflakes break easily as they settle, compress, or become wet. Freshly fallen snow seems inconsequential to rock. Given enough time and the right conditions, though, snow transforms into a force powerful enough to move mountains.

Snow turns into glacier ice in several stages. First, old snow must survive through summer into winter when it can become buried by new snow. Surviving snow has a granular texture and become harder and denser as it compress under the weight of succeeding layers. Typically within a year, snow granules reach a density about half of liquid water and become firn, an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice. In its transition to glacier ice, firn recrystallizes and changes shape repeatedly under the influences of percolating melt water, freeze-thaw cycles, and the weight of additional snow. Lastly, firn completes its transformation into glacial ice when air is either squeezed out or trapped as bubbles. In temperate areas this process can transform airy snowflakes into dense blue ice in as little as five years.

A block of ice makes not a glacier, however. Take an ice cube out of the freezer, set it on a table, strike it with a hammer and it will fracture. Due to their mass, the ice inside glaciers behaves differently. Glacial ice experiences enormous pressure, so much so that only the upper 100 feet of temperate glaciers are brittle (a fact revealed by the relatively consistent maximum depth of crevasses). Below this depth, pressure from the overlying ice deforms the ice beneath to seal any voids. Cavities at the base of glaciers have been measured to seal as fast as 10 inches per day. A true glacier flows and deforms under its own mass.

The ice is not impervious to liquid water though. Within the glacier, ice remains at or slightly above freezing, and meltwater percolates to the glacier’s base. High pressure at the base of a glacier also causes melting. Meltwater under a glacier acts as a lubricant helping the glacier slide. These factors, combined with gravity’s pull, drive glaciers along the paths of least resistance.

Not that glaciers stop when they encounter resistance. The erosional power of glaciers can substantially transform a landscape. Glacial movement works the earth like a bulldozer and a rock crusher. The ice erodes and entrains rock, sand, and anything else by plucking or abrading it away from the glacier’s base and sides. Stones and debris at a glacier’s bed are especially powerful erosive tools, grinding and crushing rock further. Much of the eroded debris is swept into the glacier’s interior where deformation and sliding eventually carry it into the glacier’s ablation zone, the area on a glacier where ice is lost and all of the previous winter’s snow melts. Advancing glaciers accumulate and eventually deposit thick mantles of till this way.

Over several large stades, or individual advances, glaciers quarried much of the Aleutian Range. Marching toward Beringia, they carried their eroded cargo far from its source and dropped it when climate no longer supported further advance. The largest, oldest, and most extensive glacial deposits in the region are too far away for me to see from the overlook, but when I turn and face southwest I glimpse a fraction of their extent. Beyond the western shore of Lake Brooks, the mountains stop and a broad plain stretches to the horizon. The power and work of glaciers is demonstrated dramatically by the mere fact this area, the Bristol Bay lowlands, even exists.

aerial photo of flatlands covered in tundra and dozens of frozen ponds
The Bristol Bay Lowlands are composed almost entirely of glacial sediments deposited during the last ice age.
close up view of wet sedge tundra. sedge grows in multiple tussocks
Wet sedge tundra is the dominant plant cover across much of the Bristol Bay lowlands.

The nearest communities to Brooks River, King Salmon and Naknek, sit well within the lowlands. It’s a buggy, waterlogged place harboring millions of acres of wetlands and tundra. If the Aleutian Range volcanoes and coastal fjords on Shelikof Strait define Katmai’s ruggedness, then the lowlands represent its smoother alter ego, or so it would appear. Hiking on the wet tundra removes the façade. It is an exhausting slog over sedge tussocks that feel and behave underfoot like piles of water-laden pillows. Wind is about the only thing that crosses the lowlands easily, which provides respite from summer’s vampiric black flies but also brings life-threatening cold in winter.

With exceptions for wind-born volcanic ash, sediments reworked by water, and a mantle of peat and vegetation, the Bristol Bay lowlands were entirely created by the glaciers’ assault on the mountains. These are the oldest glacial deposits in the Katmai region, at least 40,000 years old. The till and outwash is even older near the town of Naknek and the Bering Sea coast, exceeding the age limits of radio carbon dating. Glaciers removed so much material from the mountains and carried it to the coastal plain that half of the Alaska Peninsula is glacially derived. Without these glacial deposits, at twentieth century sea levels the Aleutian Islands would begin fewer than 200 miles from Brooks River and water pouring over Brooks Falls would nearly reach tidewater. Naknek Lake would likely be a marine embayment.

The Ice Age was a time of profound geologic change, when the surface of Katmai and Brooks River was constantly reworked by ice. Glacial movements across the region were inconsistent, however. For tens of thousands of years, in response to a fluctuating climate, the area’s glaciers advanced and receded in fits and starts. Within the last 30,000 years, they plowed ahead many separate times. In between stades, when climatic conditions grew too warm, they stagnated or shrunk. West of the park, near King Salmon and Naknek, only faint hills of low relief trace the maximum extent of the most ancient stades, but younger and less extensive advances have been less affected by post-glacial erosion. Their signatures are scribed over the entire Naknek Lake basin.

The last glacier to entirely fill the area now occupied by Naknek Lake, which I refer to informally as the Naknek glacier, reached its greatest extent no sooner than 23,000 years ago. Part of an advance called the Iliamna Stade, it carried ice 60 miles from its source area on the Aleutian Range to its terminus on the lowlands. Topography funneled this glacier into mountain valleys, but to the west of Dumpling it was unbound and free to deform in multiple directions.

Perhaps the best modern analog for the shape and behavior of the ancient Naknek glacier may be Malaspina Glacier in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. Malaspina originates high in the Saint Elias Mountains where extensive ice fields more closely resemble high Antarctic landscapes than anything else in North America. As the ice flows to lower elevations, topography sufficiently constrains its source glaciers to valleys. But the Malaspina faces no such barrier as it flows beyond the mountains onto a coastal plain at the edge of the Pacific. Free of the restricting mountain topography, Malaspina deforms outward like a fan of thick batter spilled onto a tabletop. During the Iliamna Stade, circa 30,000 years ago, Naknek glacier looked much the same, flowing from roots in the mountains to a bulbous terminus at the edge of the lowlands. No glacial advance since has been as extensive or influential to Katmai’s geography, ecology, and history.

The Naknek glacier’s size, extent, and erosive power allowed it to accumulate huge amounts of till near its terminus. Much of its eroded debris was trapped within the ice and carried forward. Lesser amounts were pushed ahead as the glacier acted like an indiscriminate bulldozer. When the ice stagnated or receded, the reworked earth was dropped in place creating a terminal moraine, the ridge of till at the farthest reach of the glacier’s snout.

The glaciers of the Iliamna stade, especially the Naknek, thoroughly shaped the modern-day lake basins surrounding Brooks River. Its maximum advance is clearly inscribed on the land by the terminal moraine that now dams Naknek Lake. From the air this moraine, known locally as Pike Ridge, looks like a bore tide of earth flowing toward Bristol Bay. The moraine’s surface is uneven, hummocky, and pockmarked by kettle lakes. Vegetation covers most of it, hiding the raw frigidness of its formative time, but debris of all sizes, everything from clay and sand to car-sized boulders dot its surface. The moraine’s breadth—it spoons the western edge of Naknek Lake for 19 miles north to south—reveals how massive the glacier was as it greatest extent.

aerial photo of hummocky landform extending from bottom center to top center of photo. moraine is covered in sparse spruce and ponds.
Pike Ridge is the terminal moraine of an Ice Age glacier. In this view, the moraine is the hummocky area at center covered in sparse spruce woodlands. Ice flowed from left (east) to right (west) when it deposited the moraine. Naknek River flows through the moraine at the center.

Near the end of the Pleistocene a warming climate never allowed the Naknek glacier to flow as far the Pike Ridge moraine. Each subsequent re-advance was eventually met by warmer and warmer conditions. The erosive and depositional influences of glaciers were waning even as the ice continued to leave its mark.

Between 23,000 and 10,000 years ago, several younger advances plowed through the same basins as the Naknek. While they failed to advance as far as the Iliamna stade, these smaller valley-filling glaciers were not inconsequential. They reworked previously deposited till, eroded bedrock further, and formed large moraines that are still visible. The North Arm of Naknek Lake and the west end of Lake Brooks are constrained by moraines from one such re-advance, the Newhalen Stade. Twenty thousand years ago, a last major resurgence pushed ice though Iliuk Arm toward Dumpling Mountain and the future site of Brooks River, halting only two miles from the present day river mouth.

The Iliuk was the last great stade in Katmai, and its moraine is one of the most prominent geologic features within my line of sight. Iliuk Arm, Naknek Lake’s southeastern-most appendage, sits on its far side. Water from Iliuk Arm flows into greater Naknek Lake through a breach in the moraine, a break which creates fingers of land reaching toward each other like the outstretched arms in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

The slopes of Mount La Gorce and Katolinat dip steeply behind Iliuk moraine where the lake plunges to great depths. Unlike Naknek Lake’s western basin where glaciers were free to splay in broad lobes, the mountain topography on either side of Iliuk Arm restricted the outward flow of ice, but not its forward movement or erosive power. The topographical pinch enhanced and accelerated downward erosion in Iliuk Arm, over-deepening it. While the far western basin of Naknek Lake is often a mere 30 feet deep or less, the abyss of Iliuk Arm is at least 580 feet deep. With Naknek Lake’s surface averaging about 30 feet, Iliuk Arm reaches at least 550 feet below sea level.

view of lake and mountain landscape. lake is bisected by two fingers of land stretching into the water. alder thickets and spruce forest can be seen in foreground
The Iliuk Moraine bounds Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. Savonoski and Ukak rivers, two waterways originating from modern-day glacial melt, empty into the lake at center.

All of these events have come and gone. Glaciers no longer spill into Iliuk Arm or threaten to overrun the overlook where I sit. No glacier has even advanced within 16 miles of the Iliuk moraine after it formed. Since then, Katmai’s glaciers have retreated to the crest of the Aleutian Range where volcanoes like Mount Mageik still harbor the right climate for their formation. Katmai’s glaciers are remnants of their former selves, yet I need not search long to see evidence that they still work the mountains. Through binoculars I spy Naknek Lake’s largest tributaries at the far end of Iliuk Arm, Savonoski and Ukak rivers. These rivers collectively drain much of central Katmai and each carry astounding loads of sediment eroded by glaciers on the Aleutian Range volcanoes.

I first canoed Savonoski River after paddling for two tranquil days on Lake Grosvenor, a crystal clear lake fed only by springs, unclouded creeks, rain, and snow. My canoe partner and I paddled casually to Grosvenor’s outlet stream. Conditions were placid and there wasn’t much of a need to rush. We relaxed at Grosvenor’s outlet as the flow pulled us downstream. After an hour of easy paddling, our trance was broken when we saw the outlet merge with Savonoski River. It was the antithesis of Grosvenor’s calm.

Savonoski was murky, swift, braided, and shockingly cold. There was no reliable way to judge any one channel’s depth from a distance. The water was so turbid that my fingertips disappeared from view mere inches below the surface. The river didn’t just look thick. It sounded thick, hissing with fine rock that sang off of the bottom of the aluminum canoe. We watched whole spruce trees tumble in the muddy water and carefully avoided others sweeping perpendicularly into the current. Near Naknek Lake, the river spread wide at its confluence with Ukak. On this delta, Iliuk Arm looked like a fjord on a stormy coastline.

Savonoski’s characteristics—icy water, braided channels, and the heavy sediment load—mark it as a classic glacially fed river. Its water pours out of the Hook and Serpent Tongue glaciers, which incessantly grind down some of the tallest volcanoes in Katmai. Much of the river’s larger sediments never arrive in Iliuk Arm, having been dropped anywhere the river’s energy is too weak to carry them further, but the glaciers mill some rock so finely it becomes microscopic, clay-sized bits called rock flour.

The name is apt. Rock flour has the size and texture of the finest white bread flour, ranging from 1 – 100 microns (a micron or micrometer is one millionth of a meter). The biggest rock flour particles, generally larger than 40 microns, are temporary inhabitants of the water column. They remain suspended if the water is continuously disturbed; such is the case in the fast moving Savonoski River where the water resembles a pale gray milk, but the bigger particles tend to sink quickly after reaching the calmer lake. The smallest rock flour particles, however, have a tendency to repel one another, not flocculate, which would cause them clump to sink faster. They are so small that friction in the water column allows them to remain in suspension for months even though they are insoluble. This makes the lake water in Iliuk Arm and near the mouth of Brooks River colloidal, a mix of microscopic insoluble particles (like rock flour) suspended in a second substance (like water). While many lakes in northern latitudes are exceptionally clear (visibility in nearby Lake Brooks extends dozens of feet into the water column) Iliuk Arm holds so much rock flour that visibility is often less than three feet many miles from the Savonoski.

Rock flour’s physical and chemical characteristics lend a deep vibrancy to Iliuk Arm. Naknek Lake shimmers opaquely, but not the pewter tone of lakes under overcasts skies. Instead it’s a garish turquoise blue. Suspended in the water column, rock flour scatters blue and green wavelengths of light exceptionally well creating the rich hues that meets my eyes. Drifting on Iliuk Arm in a kayak on a calm sunny day, surrounded by blue above and enveloped by turquoise underneath, looks and feels like paddling in sky.

Iliuk Arm and other glacially fed lakes owe their alluring look to the microscopically ground rock, but in many ways this is the least of the changes wrought by glaciers. Katmai and the Brooks River area were profoundly changed by ice. Almost every surface feature I see from the overlook has felt the effects. Glaciers repeatedly scoured the land and enveloped it for thousands of years. They ground much of the mountains to powder and moved a lot of the rest nearly to the Bering Sea. Without glaciers, the history and ecology of Brooks River and the entire region would be profoundly different. Yet this is a landscape that continues to evolve. Glaciers only sculpted the stage.

turquois colored lake water. A yellow kayak paddle with a black handle offers contrast
The turquoise water of Iliuk Arm illustrates that glaciers continue to work Katmai’s landscape.

References and Notes:

Aleutian Low and atmospheric ability to hold moisture: Shulski, M. and G. Wendler. 2007. The Climate of Alaska. University of Alaska Press. Pg. 59, 96-99.

Precipitation models for Alaska: PRISM Climate Group. Oregon State University. http://prism.oregonstate.edu. Created 7 Feb 2017.

Many thousands of years ago precipitation patterns were very similar across southwest Alaska: Hults, C. P. and J. Fierstein. 2016. Katmai National Park and Preserve and Alagnak Wild River: Geologic Resources Inventory report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR—2016/1314. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. Pg. 41.

Global temperatures were as much as 10˚C colder than today: Petit, J. R., et al. 1999. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature 399 (6735): 429–436.

Glaciers trapped so much of Earth’s water to lower sea levels 125 meters: US Geological Survey. “Glaciers and Sea Level.” https://www2.usgs.gov/climate_landuse/glaciers/glaciers_sea_level.asp. Accessed 14 Feb 2017.

Ice movement and glacial coverage on the Alaska Peninsula: Mann, D. H., and D. M. Peteet. 1994. Extent and Timing of the Last Glacial Maximum in Southwest Alaska. Quaternary Research 42: 136-148.

Newly fallen snow is ninety percent air: Collier, M. 2004. Sculpted by Ice: Glaciers and the Alaska Landscape. Alaska Geographic Association. Pg. 66.

Information on the properties of glacier ice, formation, deformation, and movement: Hambrey, M. and Jurg, A. 2004. Glaciers, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.

Cavities at the base of glaciers have been measured to contract and seal as fast as 25 centimeters per day: Lefeuvre, J. and Lappegard, H. 2015. Interannual Variability of Glacial Basal Pressure from a Twenty Year Record. Annals of Glaciology. V. 56. No. 70.

Ages of glacial stades in Katmai: Hults, C. P. and J. Fierstein. 2016. Katmai National Park and Preserve and Alagnak Wild River: Geologic Resources Inventory report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR—2016/1314. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Fifty percent of AK Peninsula is glacially derived, Aleutian Islands would begin a scant 300 kilometers from Brooks River: Detterman, R. L. 1986. Glaciation of the Alaska Peninsula. Pg. 151–170 in T. D. Hamilton, K. M. Reed, and R. M. Thorson, editors. Glaciation in Alaska: The geologic record. Alaska Geological Society, Anchorage, Alaska.

The best modern analogs for the shape and behavior of the ancient Naknek glacier may be Malaspina and Bering glaciers: I was first introduced to this comparison in Reihle, J. 2002. The Geology of Katmai National Park and Preserve. Publication Consultants.

Malaspina Glacier shape and behavior: NASA Earth Observatory. 2015. Malaspina Glacier, Alaska. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=86767. Accessed 7 Feb 2017.

Depth of Naknek Lake basins including Iliuk Arm: The exact depth of Naknek Lake is unknown. The estimates are based on sonar readings on boats in Naknek Lake; personal communications with Troy Hamon, Katmai’s Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources; and an unpublished lake bathymetry map provided by Chad Hults, geologist with the National Park Service, Alaska Regional Office.

Rock Flour:

Friction in the water column allows [rock flour] to remain in suspension for months: As far as I know, this has not been empirically tested. However, Iliuk Arm retains its vibrant, turquoise hue even in winter when Savonoski River runs clear and flow out of Ukak River is at a bare minimum.

Visibility in Lake Brooks and Iliuk Arm: Moore, C. and J. Shearer. 2011. Water quality and Surface Hydrology of Freshwater Flow Systems in Southwest Alaska: 2010 Annual Summary Report. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SWAN/NRTR—2011/428. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Bear Necessities Intensifies: Lessons from a Semi-Viral Video

In September 2017, I took a brief trip to Brooks Camp, the world-famous bear-viewing site in Katmai National Park. This was a rare opportunity for me to visit for fun, as opposed to traveling there to work for the National Park Service or explore.org.

Bear watching is the most popular human activity at the river and the close proximity of Brooks River’s brown bears to the designated wildlife-viewing platforms makes for some exceptional photographic opportunities. However, I toted only a small point and shoot camera with a limited zoom. Taking good photographs, therefore, was challenging so I focused more on recording video of bears. Video can also provide a sense of scale that is sometimes difficult to capture in photos, especially when a titan is in the vicinity.

On the last morning of my trip, I found the colossal 747 walking out the river to challenge a competitor at Brooks Falls. This is what happened.

After I uploaded this video to YouTube, I hadn’t expected it to garner much attention, but a little more than three years later Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls is approaching one million views and has generated more than 3,500 comments.

When a video goes viral or becomes modestly popular, you can either let it develop a life of its own or attempt to heighten the experience. A captivating video is a chance to give people more than a few seconds of entertainment. It presents an opportunity.

People are naturally curious, especially so toward animals, but context and relatable, meaningful information are often needed to match that curiosity. How might those in the fields of heritage interpretation or science communication provide the casual viewer with a more meaningful experience? Here are a few of the strategies that I found successful with a short video about a fat bear.

Anticipate what a person with no context of the place or subject might need to know. The universe is a big place. Put yourself in the mindset of someone who does not have your experience or background. Although people relate to brown bears easily and on many levels (they definitely love a chonky bear), the natural history and ecology of these animals are not universally or even well known. I soon realized my modest video description was inadequate. Viewers were drawing conclusions and asking questions that I had not anticipated. They wanted to know more.

Get to know the demographics of your audience. If you read this blog regularly, you’re familiar with the bearcams in Katmai National Park. While the bearcams are extremely popular, receiving tens of millions of views each year, explore.org’s webcam analytics document that the bearcam audience skews heavily toward the female gender and adults over the age of 45. Analytics on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls, however, are much different. Viewers are typically 18 – 35 years old and overwhelming male.

Screen shot of video analytics. Text says "Age and gender | Views Since uploaded (lifetime) | 13-17 years 0.8% | 18-24 years 22.4 % | 25-35 years 37.4% | 35-44 years 15.9% | 45-54 years 10.2% | 55-64 years 7.9% | 65+ years 5.4%

That audience will likely react to and evaluate information differently than the typical bearcam commenter. And, they are relating to different things in the bear world. Knowing that, I might respond to questions and comments on the video in ways that I wouldn’t during a live chat on the bearcams.

Screen shot of two comments from a youtube video. Text says: 

Swamp Fox1 month ago
"This is a very large adult male (look closely when he stands up and rubs his back on the tree)." I did what you said. I guess that water's even colder than it looks.

Mike Fitz
4 weeks ago
@Swamp Fox The water in Brooks River is often a chilly 50 degrees F in early September. It likely has an effect. However, the bears' mating season peaks in late spring, so by late summer when I recorded this video testosterone levels in male bears aren't as high as they were before. Bears are also equipped with a baculum, which probably helps provide greater endurance when they need to get the job done.

If a video generates a lot of similar questions or leads people to make assumptions, write an FAQ to address those and then put it some place obvious. When the views on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls began to skyrocket, I took mental notes on the questions it generated to see if there was a pattern, while keeping in mind that the internet is a big place where people from all over the world can access the video. In addition to the questions people were asking, the number of comments prompted me to consider how I could provide further context. I identified three questions originally, wrote concise answers for them, and pinned the FAQ to the top of the video comments.

The FAQ didn’t stop people from asking questions (and I didn’t it want it to), but it caused the queries to change. Questions became less repetitive. They branched to other facets of bear biology. Plenty of people appear to be reading the FAQ as well. As of this writing, the FAQ on Giant Fat Bear has 2.8 thousand likes and zero dislikes.

The FAQ proved to be particularly valuable in ways that I did not expect. Much of the internet is little more than websites recycling (to state it mildly) the work of others. When the video first began to trend in 2018, the FAQ was often the only source of info used by websites looking to generate click-bait content based off my video. It was used in the prestigious Daily Mail, for example, to produce one of the tabloid’s most fact-laden articles ever.

When in doubt, assume that a person asks questions in good faith. It’s not always easy to discern the difference between questions asked in good or bad faith, and trolls should not be engaged. However, each person experiences life through the lens of a unique worldview and knowledge base. Furthermore, access to open space and outdoor recreation (both physically and inclusively) is far too limited for many people, especially among those that experience racism and discrimination. Yet biophilia and an instinctual curiosity reverberates through each of us, and by asking a question a person signals that they want to learn.

This is why I included “Are you making fun of the bear’s fatness?” in the FAQ. It’s not dumb to not know much about bears. Most of us don’t have easy access to bear habitat, let alone the opportunity to observe wild bears. People also post a lot of offensive stuff online. Given the unfortunate status quo of social media, I don’t fault anyone for thinking I might’ve been making fun of a fat bear instead of simply describing him. It is not obvious to everyone that bears must get fat in order to survive.

Think carefully about offers to license your content. Video distribution agencies prowl social media sites looking for engaging videos to add to their collections. Their offers to license and distribute your video look appealing at first glance, but I eventually rejected them all. Providing meaningful information and context was more valuable to me than the ten cents I might make through a third party distributor. I was particularly hesitant because some viral media companies distribute wildlife videos and spread them without context or even checking to see that video was recorded ethically. By rejecting these solicitations, I sacrificed reach but remained in control of the flow of information.

Lastly, choose a catchy title for your video but also one that isn’t confusing. Some comments on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls suggest that a handful of people read the title literally and expected to see a giant fat bear fall.

Screen shot of comment on YouTube video. Text reads, "Mementø Møri 3 months ago (edited)
I was waiting all the video to see this bear falling.. But then I realized that I understood the title wrongly."

I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing how this simple video has inspired interest in bears, art, memes, and eventually helped to propel 747 to Fat Bear Week greatness.

As I draft this post, Giant Fat Bear continues to generate questions and comments. Many of the comments are simple jokes, but I still count those as a win. It means that a person was engaged. For those few seconds (and more if they asked a question) they were thinking about bears.

screen shot of youtube comment. text says, "SSSTYLISSSH SSS e months ago (edited) He protect He attack But most important He likes to snack"
Jumpstart 2 months ago he protecc he attacc but most importantly he scratch bacc
Screen shot of youtube comment. Text says, "Gladhe 1 month ago He protecc He attacc He most importantly Eat big mac!]

I have no allusion that leaving a comment on a video is the same as stewardship and advocacy for wild animals. But the first step towards stewardship is awareness and understanding. As Freeman Tilden, the founder of modern heritage interpretation, wrote in Interpreting Our Heritage, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” We get there one step at a time and we get there more easily with guides along the way.

If you poop in the woods, does a ranger clean it up?

A recent article in The Guardian (‘Worst work in the world’: US park rangers grapple with tide of human waste) got me thinking. There’s a dirty side to your national park experience and it doesn’t get talked about enough.

The Guardian article is short and worth reading (h/t to blog reader Rebecca F. for alerting me to it). It focuses on Rocky Mountain National Park’s effort to deal with human waste in alpine areas where the volume and lack of decomposition creates health hazards and pollutes water. Along the route to Longs Peak in Rocky, the National Park Service installed new toilets that separate urine from solids and, purportedly, lessen the workload and hazards for rangers. It’s a big and expensive effort to contain something we all do naturally.

While the ranger life is often romanticized in various ways, that friendly park ranger you meet on the trail could very well have been on their way to checking a seldom maintained privy or have just finished cleaning an unpleasant mess from the trailside. Rarely do we give much thought to what happens after we flush a toilet or use an outhouse in a park.  With visitation in many national parks continuing to increase, more and more seemingly remote reaches of parks experience significant human waste issues.

For most of my adult life, I worked as a park ranger at several different national parks. And, if you’re a ranger you are bound to deal with poop at some point, sometimes often. I’ll spare you the details of my dirtiest national park human waste story (pro tip: avoid the handrails in Carlsbad Cavern). Yet, I want to take the opportunity to discuss what a backcountry ranger might deal with during their day on a trail. Take a short journey with me to North Cascades National Park.

view of mountain scenery with craggy peaks and snowfields.

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to work in North Cascades, one of the more rugged national parks in the contiguous 48 states. Once every two weeks, I was assigned a three to five night backpacking route through the park and adjacent national recreation areas to assess trail and campsite conditions, make minor trail repairs, check to see that people complied with park rules, and generally ensure that people were having a good experience. I enjoyed those trips, especially the evenings when work was finished and I could relax at a secluded campsite looking at trees and watching for wildlife.

North Cascades is cherry-stemmed with a well-maintained, extensive trail network and almost every trail is dotted with a few backcountry camps. The luxuries of each camp vary—some are little more than a dirt tent pad—but one thing you can count on is some sort of toilet.  Except at boat-in sites and some high elevation camps, most are simple privies consisting of a box over a hand-dug hole in the ground.

A toilet box in a forest.
A privy box sits above a too large hole at Fireweed Camp in North Cascades National Park. Once filled to capacity a ranger or, more often, the trail crew digs a new hole nearby and moves the box seat over it or replaces it with a new one.

Checking toilets was a frequent duty on the trail. I would glance into every backcountry privy and assess its condition, which meant I looked into a lot of toilets during a typical multi-day trip. Most didn’t need attention, thankfully. Yet I always approached slowly, mentally prepared to encounter unpleasant conditions in need of remedy.

Along Brush Creek at the isolated Graybeal Camp—on the third day of a five day hike that previously included stirring a composting toilet and bagging up human waste deposited inappropriately on the surface of the ground adjacent to a tiny stream—I arrived to find the privy nearly full to the brim. Faced with such situations, there are various tricks one can use to increase a privy’s capacity. For example, a ranger I knew would use using a long, stout branch to knock over the cone of feces and toilet paper deeper into the privy hole at a heavily used site, perhaps prolonging the need to dig a new hole for a couple of weeks. In this case at Graybeal though, there appeared to be no room at the inn.

Graybeal Camp is lightly used compared to more popular destinations like Ross Lake, Cascade Pass, Sahale Arm, and Copper Ridge. Only a few weeks remained in the hiking season when I arrived in late August and many feet of snow would soon bury the camp for the winter. But this camp needed a new privy hole and I couldn’t in good conscience pawn the problem off on another ranger.

I located the trail crew’s cache of tools at a nearby group site and prepared to dig a new hole and move the toilet to it. That is, until I realized there was a risk of disturbing something I shouldn’t.

The places we call national parks were never unpeopled and areas that we consider good campsites today were also likely to have been used by indigenous peoples. I didn’t know if park archeologists had inventoried the campsite for artifacts or even assessed the potential for them. The last thing I wanted to do was disturb an archeological site for a lowly hand-dug privy hole.

After I confirmed with the backcountry office that archeologists did not clear the site for digging, I needed another plan. The tool cache had a roll of fiberglass tape. I carried a re-sealable plastic freezer bag, some paper, and a pencil. So I wrote a note closing the toilet “due to limited capacity,” placed it in the bag, and taped it over the toilet hole.

Was this a satisfactory solution? Not at all. I had, unfortunately, pawned the work off to other park staff. But, it kept people from pooping on the ground* and the toilet at the group campsite was relatively close, so the risk of human waste proliferating everywhere was minimal.

A toilet box with a note taped over the hole.
*People were, in fact, pooping on the ground. Unbeknownst to me (I had not been to that campsite before), the trail crew later discovered that a flash flood had washed the toilet off its hole and placed it directly on the ground in the forest. What I thought was a mound of human waste extending a few feet into the earth was merely a foot tall mound of human waste sitting on sandy outwash.
late day sun on craggy mountain peak and clouds
Alpenglow on Whatcom Peak as seen from Graybeal Camp.

Privies work well at relatively low elevation, forested sites if use isn’t heavy and moderate levels of decomposition can work its magic. But what to do in places that are too dry, too cold, too rocky, or too well trodden to for a traditional privy to work?

That’s the issue that Rocky Mountain National Park rangers deal with on the route to Longs Peak, and why they chose to utilize a new toilet design. Still, I am aware of no backcountry toilet that doesn’t require some maintenance. When the vaults on the toilets at Longs Peak are full, then the waste must be flown out by helicopter. Many other high-elevation backcountry toilets require more labor.

There are many backcountry sites within North Cascades where a simple privy won’t work, so for many years the park has used a type of above-ground composting toilet.

A vault-like toilet sits in a forest
A compositing toilet at Pelton Basin.

For these to work well, though, the toilet can’t be used too frequently, the contents can’t get too wet with urine or precipitation, the dry-matter to human waste ratio can’t skew too much toward feces, and they should be stirred regularly to promote composting. A full toilet requires someone to shovel the contents into a drum that can be flown out by helicopter.

Dealing with composting toilets was one of the more unpleasant tasks during my time in the backcountry. Excessive moisture often prevented composting, so they were often filled with a festering sludge. After a trial-by-fire experience stirring one for the first time, I found that slow, deliberate movements as well as covering as much of my skin as I could were necessary safety precautions when maintaining this style of toilet. There is a real risk working around a vat of human feces, especially when you are more than a day’s hike away from the trailhead.

N95 mask held by hand in latex glove
Long sleeves? Facemask? Disposable gloves? Some sort of eye protection? Check.
Selfie of ranger wearing NPS hat, black coat, and N95 mask
Ready to stir. Remember the days when N95 masks didn’t need to be rationed? Good times.

I’m not complaining about the toilet work. Because, honestly, looking at a few turds each day isn’t that bad in the scheme of things. I’d do it again without complaint, accepting it as a necessary duty so that less human waste pollutes our parks. People gonna poop and the urge doesn’t always strike us at convenient times or places. However, as visitation continues to increase in many national parks, the burden and hazards of human waste grows too, in both easily accessible places as well as remote backcountry locations.

If you visit a national park (and, really, consider postponing your trip while COVID19 rages), you could personally thank the park staff for the work they do to. However, a more rewarding thank you would be to do your part keep wild areas and parks clean.

North Cascades was long considered a hidden gem of a park; one in which you could go on a summer weekend and find a place to camp fairly easily. Since its establishment in 1968, however, the population of Washington State has more than doubled. Mountaineering, hiking, skiing, and backpacking are more popular than ever. Millions of people live only a two to three hour drive from Washington’s iconic national parks and national forests. These destinations, however, operate with essentially the same number of campsites that they did in the 1970s. The North Cascades park complex (including Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas) is no longer a place where you can expect to easily find a campsite on summer weekends. Finding a campsite is even becoming increasingly difficult on weekdays.

As we approach and exceed the carrying capacity of developed areas of parks,  then increasing numbers of people spill into areas that have been traditionally off the beaten path. We bring our waste and waste issues with us. National parks, forests, and other recreational areas are increasing challenged to meet the demands posed by current levels of visitation. Turds included.

A Victory for Bristol Bay

Much of my hair fell out this year, perhaps due to stress from, you know, everything, or just being a male human of a certain age, but in the midst of all else one thing that definitely did not help was the continued threat of large scale open pit mining in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s last great salmon run.

Read the Backstory: Bristol Bay at Risk

For about 20 years, the prospect of Pebble Mine has loomed over Bristol Bay and the communities who depend on its salmon for their livelihood. The most recent mine proposal, a scaled-back version of previous plans, would have been one of the largest surface mines in the world. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the mine would remove 1.4 billion tons of material, and irreparably alter more than five square miles of currently undeveloped tundra and wetlands. The open pit will gouge almost 2,000 feet into the earth and stretch over a mile and a half wide—a hole so deep the Washington Monument could be stacked on top of the Empire State Building and not reach the original land surface. A 500-foot tall earthen dam would be built to hold waste rock and other tailings. All of this was proposed for a site at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, two of the most productive salmon producing watersheds on the planet.

In late July, the Army Corps released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the mine. While the EIS was not the final word on the mine, by most accounts it seemed favorable. In August, however, as I was trying to prepare myself mentally for the disappointment and anger I would have felt had the mine been approved, the Army Corps issued a press release stating that Pebble Mine “as currently proposed, cannot be permitted under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.” The Corps required Pebble Limited Partnership to provide a new mitigation plan to offset the mine’s impacts on streams and wetlands before it could receive a federal permit. In a letter to Pebble Limited Partnership, the Corps stated “discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources and . . . those adverse impacts would result in significant degradation to those aquatic resources.”

In early November, Pebble Limited Partnership submitted a new mitigation plan. But, it failed to satisfy the Army Corps. On November 25, 2020, the Army Corps issued its record of decision on the proposed mine and denied a permit for it. The Army Corps wrote that the mitigation plan was noncompliant with Clean Water Act guidelines, was insufficient in scope to overcome the damage the mine would do to the landscape, and that the mine was “contrary to the public interest.”

I was elated to read the Corps had reached this conclusion. In my public comments on the Army Corps draft Pebble Mine EIS, I had in fact called for the Army Corps to deny a permit for the mine partly because it was contrary to public interest.

The cheapest, most feasible, and most environmentally ethical decision is to conclude this mine poses unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay—specifically the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds—reject the mine alternatives, and choose the no action alternative for the final EIS. This is well within the Corps’ legal authority: “No Action Alternative could be selected if USACE determines during its Public Interest Review (33 CFR Part 320.4[A]) that it is in the best interest of the public, based on an evaluation of the probable impacts of the proposed activity and its intended use on the public interest.” (Ch. 2-8)

There is no doubt the no action alternative is in the best interest to the public. We have so little to lose by leaving the ore at Pebble Mine in the ground and so much to gain by protecting it for current and future generations. The decision is clear. The only acceptable alternative proposed in the DEIS is the no-action alternative. Do not permit this mine to be developed. 

While campaigning for the US presidency, Joe Biden stated that he opposed the mine. His election along with the Army Corps’ decision during the final weeks of Donald Trump’s anti-conservation administration serves as a death knell for this iteration of Pebble Mine. However, the ore remains on State of Alaska lands open to mining. Mine executives and investors will continue to ogle it. Even as the current Pebble Mine proposal is killed, a new version may rear its ugly head in the future. We came closer than ever before to sacrificing the last great salmon run along with the regional economy and ecology dependent on it.

Now, we must work ensure that this unique landscape is permanently protected from development that is incompatible with salmon. Because mine permit applications can be resubmitted, Bristol Bay’s salmon remain under threat.

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay has called for Congress to establish a Bristol Bay national fisheries area. It would provide federal “protection for the watersheds of Bristol Bay, Alaska. It must permanently ban any toxic mine waste from the proposed Pebble Mine and large scale projects like it that would harm Bristol Bay rivers, lakes and wetlands.” The effort has already gained support from the Seattle Times, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, Alaska Audubon, and the Natural Resources Defense Council among others.

I wholeheartedly support this proposal. Congress and the State of Alaska should work together to permanently protect all of Bristol Bay’s headwaters from development that is incompatible with the protection of salmon. We’ve sacrificed freshwater salmon habitat for mining, irrigation, hydropower, roads, industry, and plain convenience nearly everywhere outside of Alaska and Bristol Bay. Meanwhile, climate change will make it harder for salmon to survive in places where runs already struggle. We and the ecosystems who depend on healthy salmon runs pay the price when they don’t return, and it’s a lot more expensive and difficult to restore salmon runs than to protect healthy runs in the first place.

Salmon are valuable for more than food and aesthetics. As conveyors of energy and nutrients from the sea, salmon enrich freshwater and terrestrial habitats. Ecosystems are more productive and wildlife more abundant in areas with healthy runs of wild salmon. Bristol Bay salmon support tens of thousands of jobs and the well being of the people who call the area home.

In the meantime, what can you do to help? If you have the time, write to your congressional representatives and urge them to permanently protect Bristol Bay. If you eat salmon, be sure to purchase salmon that is sustainably sourced (if you buy wild Alaska sockeye salmon, it’s very likely to be from Bristol Bay). And share the wonders of the Bristol Bay region with your friends and family.  While explore.org’s bearcams in Katmai National Park are offline for the winter, even the cam highlights show an ecosystem working at its full potential. It’s hard to not feel awe and wonder at the sight of bears competing for the opportunity to catch salmon.

On a societal level, 2020 hasn’t produced many celebratory occasions. We remain in the midst of a pandemic, one that is raging more than ever. Climate change hasn’t slowed one bit, and this year is on track to be one the warmest on record. The extinction crisis is worsening. Plus our partisan and political divisions are deeper than at any other point in my lifetime, hampering our collective ability to resolve these issues.

Stopping Pebble Mine now is significant and a cause for celebration. It underscores that we value clean water and sustainable fisheries.

But the fight isn’t over. Given the poor state of North American salmon outside of Alaska, with collapsed runs existing at small fraction of historic highs, Bristol Bay should be our line in the sand. It is the last great salmon run left on Earth and it cannot be compromised.

The Bears of Brooks Falls: The Book

I first traveled to Brooks River within Katmai National Park in early May 2007, and today it’s hard for me to imagine my life without it.

On the morning of my first flight to Brooks Camp (which is only accessible by boat, plane, or a very long, boggy, buggy, and rough cross-country hike), fellow rangers and I hauled our clothing, equipment, and months of food to the floatplane docks along Naknek River in the small town of King Salmon, a sprawling community surrounding an airport and mothballed U.S. Air Force base. We were excited and enthusiastic to begin the adventure, but few of us, I believe, truly understood what we were getting ourselves into. I certainly didn’t. Not quite a greenhorn when it came to wild areas, I had never experienced a landscape like this.

Immediately after takeoff, I gazed out the window of our small plane, my eyes transfixed on what many people would describe as nothing. King Salmon’s few houses, roads, and infrastructure quickly yielded to tundra and scattered spruce trees. This was land devoid of permanent human habitation. Cross hatching animal trails led to unknown destinations. I saw wildly meandering creeks, too many ponds and lakes to count, and a horizon bounded by unnamed mountains.

After twenty-five minutes of flying, the pilot landed smoothly on Naknek Lake’s calm surface, and we taxied to an empty beach in front of the few scattered buildings marking Brooks Camp. With the help of fellow staff, I hurriedly unloaded and stashed my gear inside a nearby tent frame cabin and began to settle in.

Later that evening, Jeanne, my then girlfriend and now wife, and I returned to the beach. I had just finished a winter job at Death Valley National Park, where daily temperatures had already risen above 100˚F, but Brooks Camp looked like winter couldn’t decide to stay or go. Leaves had not broken bud, thick blankets of snow clung to the mountains, and the underground water pipes to our cabin remained frozen. I walked wide-eyed, trying to take in the totality of the scene—the turquoise color of Naknek Lake, the snow-capped mountains, the pumice-strewn beach, a set of bear prints in the sand—when Jeanne waved her arm toward the horizon and remarked, “This is spectacular.”

I don’t recall if I responded or not. Doesn’t matter, because she was right. I had never looked upon land so empty yet so full.

Katmai and Brooks River are unlike any other place. But relatively little has been published about the bears, salmon, and humanity that intertwine at the river. In 2014, I first imagined an idea of writing a book about Brooks River and its inhabitants. In 2016, I began to work on it in earnest and this year I finished the manuscript. I’m pleased to announce my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, is available for pre-order. It ships out in March 2021 via Countryman Press. In eighteen chapters, the book strives to explore the ecology of the river’s famed brown bears and salmon as well as the complex relationship people have with the place.

Part one focuses on the colossal eruption of Novarupta Volcano in 1912 and the discovery of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This event reshaped the area’s history and led to the establishment of Katmai National Monument in 1918, a time when the national park idea was still fledging.

Today, Katmai is most famous for its brown bears. Part two is devoted to their lives and the salmon the bears depend on to survive. I explore the marvel of the hibernating bear from a den on Dumpling Mountain, discover the river from a cub’s perspective, and follow the tribulations and growth of young bears recently separated from their mother. The brown bear mating season provides the chance to learn how bears compete during one of the most important times in their lives. Writing about the bear hierarchy, I consider how this social structure provides advantages to bears who live in an unfair world. Katmai’s brown bears experience hunger in a profoundly different way than people. They must eat a year’s worth of food in fewer than six months to survive hibernation. Their feeding choices and habits reflect highly tuned adaptations to take advantage of summer’s ephemeral bounty. And, the poignancy of a cub’s death, one witnessed by thousands of people on the park’s webcams, provides the chance to reflect on the end of a bear’s life.

Few organisms are as important to an ecosystem as salmon are to Katmai. Leading Odyssean lives, sockeye salmon face tremendous obstacles and challenges. From fresh water to the ocean and back again, they travel thousands of miles, running a gauntlet of predators to fulfill their destiny. Weakened by their freshwater migration and subsisting without food for weeks, the journey of Brooks River’s sockeye ends when they sacrifice their lives to reproduce. They are the ecosystem’s keystone, driving the river’s abundance and significance.

In part three, I examine modern humanity’s influence over Brooks River. Humans may be the river’s biggest ecological wildcard. Climate change looms large over the land and seascapes, and people alter the behavior of the bears that make the scene so special. The infrastructure needed to support thousands of visitors and their recreational activities invite conflict with bears. Managing bears and people in such a small area is especially challenging, provoking a decades-long and often emotional debate about the river’s future.

The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River is an exploration of brown bears and salmon in one of the Earth’s last fully intact ecosystems. It’s an honest and deep dive into issues surrounding the role people play in the riverscape and Katmai National Park. And, I’m so excited for you to read it, and I hope you’ll consider adding it to your bookshelf.

2020 Fat Bear Week Endorsement

In a year of heightened political polarization, there’s one candidate that rises above the rest. He’s a candidate for greatness. A candidate for change. He campaigns on a platform of success, skill, efficiency, and hard work. He is known simply as 747 and he deserves your vote for Fat Bear Week.

Large brown bear seated in shallow water.

Seven-four-seven is a titan, a tank, and a giant among bears. Holly might pledge a “salmon in every paw,” but 747 pledges just to eat salmon.

Seven-four-seven’s size is legend. At the Brooks River, few bears approach his size class, and as a result he has consistently ranked among the river’s most dominant bears. His measured size even surprised me, however. Through a novel use of terrestrial laser scanning technology, he was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds in September 2019. This summer he appears to be at least as large, but I suspect he’s even bigger.

A bear can’t get this big without eating a lot of food, and Brooks River provides 747 with ample opportunity to get fat. Brooks River is part of the Bristol Bay watershed, an area that supports the last great salmon run on Earth. While salmon runs throughout much of North America struggle to cope with the combined impacts of impassible dams, incompatible land-use changes, and climate change, Bristol Bay continues to support tens of millions of salmon each year. Almost 58 million fish collectively returned to Bristol Bay in 2020, and the salmon run in the Naknek River watershed was exceptional. More than four million sockeye swam up the Naknek River between mid June and late July. The Naknek drainage may have supported the largest single salmon run on Earth this year. About twenty percent of those salmon–maybe 800,000 fish–entered Brooks River.

At Brooks Falls, 747 sat or stood waiting for his meals to come to him. He consistently capitalized on the vulnerability of salmon in the shallow, bubble-filled water. For a winter hibernator like 747, an individual who must eat a year’s worth of food in fewer than six months to survive, efficiency is a valuable trait to express.

Some pundits have called my support for 747 unwavering. Yet, I’m always on the lookout for a better candidate. This year, however, I’ve failed to find evidence of another Fat Bear Week contender that is fatter than 747. Whether you look at fatness as a proportional measure of body size or just through overall size, 747 has both bases covered.

A police department in Colorado even mistook 747 for a large boulder the size of a small boulder.

One person [who I am married to but will go unnamed] has maybe jokingly called me the “worst campaign manager ever,” because my candidate never wins. She might be correct. Despite my prior lobbying efforts, 747 has yet to win Fat Bear Week. Over the last several years, 747 has been snubbed by the voting public who viewed competitors like Otis, Lefty, Beadnose, and Holly as proportionally fatter.

But mark my words, dear readers. This is 747’s year. Cast your Fat Bear Week vote for the bear who shares an identification number with a jet airplane.

GIF of Hulk Hogan and other wrestlers signaling "for life" with hand signals.
Fat Bear Week 2020 bracket. It lists six bears on the left and six on the right. The logos at the bottom represent explore.org, Katmai National Park, and the Katmai Conservancy.
Here are my 2020 Fat Bear Week bracket predictions. Download your own 2020 Fat Bear Week bracket on fatbearweek.org and vote in the tournament from September 30 through October 6. Watch the bears on explore.org.

Early September Bearcam Questions and Answers

This blog has been relatively dark over the last year, not because I hadn’t intended to write for it but because I frequently had other writing duties to fulfill. Afterward completing one task, it was often easier to space out at the end of the day than concentrate on writing something that approaches partial intelligence.

I want to share a little of what I have been writing though. Each Tuesday, I cohost a question and answer session in the comments on explore.org’s Brooks Live Chat channel. It’s an AMA about anything related to Katmai National Park’s bears and salmon. Many people submit your questions in advance, which allows me to answer them with greater detail than a question asked on the spot. Below are my answers to those questions during the Q&As for early September.

Be sure to join the Q&A every Tuesday from 5 -7 p.m. Eastern in the Brooks Live Chat channel, and if you prefer to chat in sentences limited to 200 characters, then join the bearcam conversation on explore.org’s Brooks Falls YouTube feed.

September 1, 2020

I’d like to talk about the “Beaver Pond,” which Kathryn asked about via the Ask Your Bearcam Question form. “I’ve often looked at photos of the [Beaver Pond] and wonder if any salmon can make it to the pond and if any of you have seen bears fishing or hunting around the pond?”

The “Beaver Pond” is located about fourth-tenths of a mile south of the outlet of Brooks River. A road provides an avenue to get near there although there is no developed trail to the pond’s edge. Bears use the area but mostly as part of their efforts to get to and from Brooks River because the pond is inaccessible to salmon.

The Beaver Pond in relation to Brooks River
A beaver at the Beaver Pond

Beavers maintain a lodge on the pond’s north side and a grass-covered dike (an old beaver dam) lines much of that area. But, the Beaver Pond isn’t a true beaver pond in the sense that its formation was the direct result of beavers. It was once part of Naknek Lake and has since been cut off by the sediments deposited by wind driven waves.

The beaver pond was once a cove on the edge of Naknek Lake. Strong easterly winds create waves that erode the gravel shoreline to the southeast of Brooks River. The waves carry gravel and sand northwest toward Brooks River. Over time, a horsetail shaped beach began to encircle the cove.  This image below is from an unpublished geologic report about the Brooks River area. Note the concentric ridges along the lakeshore near the beaver pond. These are the beach ridges that cut off the beaver pond from Naknek Lake.

This process is similar to what we see at the river mouth, especially in the “spit” area that partly encloses a lagoon-like area rangers call the boat cove. The boat cove may be destined to become a small pond or marsh like the wetlands between the river mouth and the beaver pond today, although the mouth of Brooks River is more exposed to direct blows from wind-driven waves than the beaver pond area. Strong storms can quickly rework and reshape the gravel at the river mouth.

In the above image, the parallel lines farther inland are old beaches as well, although they weren’t formed by longshore currents. Instead, they mark the former levels of Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Naknek Lake has been slowly lowering in elevation as Naknek River cuts through the glacial sediments that dam the lake.

Although we don’t know exactly what the Brooks River mouth area will look like in the future, we definitely know it will not look the same.

Jen wrote in wondering about the line-up of salmon we sometimes see below the river watch cam and asks, “Has that behavior been noted before?” And, “What criteria initiate egg-laying?”

This is the formation that Jen refers to.

Parallel lines of sockeye salmon in Brooks River. The fish are facing upstream and in this image the current flows from right to left.

Sockeye salmon line up in fairly parallel rows frequently in late summer in the lower Brooks River. Until this year, however, with more salmon using the channel below the river watch cam, we haven’t been able to see this on the cams very well. Although this is not a new phenomenon at the river, I haven’t been able to find an explanation for it. We know the salmon are staging (waiting for the right time to spawn) but I don’t know if lining up in rows gives them any sort of advantage. It may be the most efficient way to sort themselves or there could be some social cue among the fish that prompts the formation. It’s a beautiful feature of the lower river in late summer.

Regarding Jen’s second question, a female salmon lays her eggs in nests she constructs by fanning the gravel with her tail. This action winnows away fine sediments that might hinder water flow (and hence dissolved oxygen) around her eggs. She’s looking for gravel of the right size and in areas of the river with consistent water flow. Males will fan the gravel occasionally too but they play no role in nest construction. Once the female determines her nest is suitable and she’s accompanied by a suitable male, she’ll release her eggs directly into the nest while the male releases his milt. In this way, it is the female who determines when to lay eggs.

LoveTheBears writes, “I understand that there is an area designated for cleaning any caught and kept fish.  What happens with the discarded fish parts?”

There used to be a public fish-cleaning building at Brooks Camp. The first iteration wasn’t much more than screened-in shelter with a bucket on the floor where people disposed fish entrails. It was later replaced by a more substantial log cabin style building where people could clean their fish. Today though, there is no public fish cleaning facilities at Brooks Camp and the public is prohibited from cleaning fish within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls. People can keep one fish per person per day downstream of the bridge, but they must take it immediately to the Fish Freezing Building (the old fish cleaning building) and place it in a freezer. It must remain there until you depart Brooks Camp.

Although no bears at Brooks River are currently conditioned to seek human food, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1960s and 1970s, many bears learned to associate people with food and sought opportunities to get at human foods at Brooks Camp. The fish cleaning buildings were part of the issue along with open dumps, outdoor burn barrels for garbage, and overall lack of awareness and regulations about proper food storage in bear country. As part of the effort to reduce the risk of bears becoming food conditioned, the NPS got rid of the public fish cleaning facility.

Bears easily learn and remember any trick that allows them to find food. Therefore, we must remain constantly vigilant to ensure that bears don’t learn to associate us with fish. The NPS and the State of Alaska implemented somewhat strict fishing regulations in the 1990s, which has greatly reduced the number of incidents when bears have learned to associate people with fish. Eliminating public fish cleaning facilities and prohibiting fish cleaning within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls inconveniences some people but it is a big step toward protecting bears.

September 8

Angela writes, “We were talking about hibernation in the chat thread and wondered if it is necessary for bears to hibernate. We understand that bears at Katmai hibernate, but were wondering if bears in captivity also hibernate or if because there is a regular food source, the need to hibernate isn’t triggered?”

Hibernation exists along a spectrum rather than being an either/or behavior. Some mammals such as arctic ground squirrels are obligate hibernators, meaning they hibernate regardless of ambient temperatures or access to food. Bears experience a type of facultative hibernation. Given the right circumstances, bears needn’t hibernate to survive winter.

Each year, at least some black bears in mild climates (Sierra Nevada foothills, coastal plain of the southeast U.S., and Big Bend National Park to name a few) remain active all year. These are generally adult males. Similarly, a few adult male brown bears are active on Kodiak all year. Mild temperatures and at least some food allow these bears to remain out and about.

In North America, only pregnant female bears must enter a den and it isn’t because they must hibernate. Bear cubs are born so small and physically immature that they need many weeks of additional development before they are mobile enough to travel with mom. This is even true of polar bears who utilize the winter season to hunt seals on sea ice. Instead of heading out on to sea ice in early winter, pregnant female polar bears, just like all other pregnant North American bears, head to dens to give birth.

Although a handful of bears remain active all year, especially in more southerly populations compared to Katmai, hibernation is a bear’s best energy conservation strategy. It makes sense for nearly all bears to hibernate during winter when food is either very limited or non-existent. For those bears who stay active (other than polar bears), their metabolism and activity rates are much lower than summer. Winter activity, therefore, doesn’t mean that bears are as active as they would be in summer. So even captive bears may ignore food and water provided to them, relying more on their hibernative physiology to survive.

Erin asks, “747 is a huge bear. Is he the biggest bear seen at Brooks River? Have there been bigger bears in the past?”

As I’ve said and written many times, 747 is a giant of a bear. He is the most massive bear I’ve ever seen and we should not take his presence for granted. If 747 were to disappear from the river, it may be a long while before we see another as big as he. Last year, 747’s was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds.

747 from Fat Bear Week 2019

Each year, there are comparably sized bears in Katmai and at Brooks River. I’ll start by listing three of the currently seen bears who approach 747’s size class and then highlight two who might have approached it in the past. Only the largest adult males are comparable.

Right now 32 Chunk, 151 Walker, and 856 are close to 747’s size (at least within 300 pounds or so). They certainly rival him when measured by height and length. Each of these bears seem smaller to me than 747, but looks can be deceiving. Size is also an important determinate of dominance in the bear world. It is not absolute though. While 747 is more dominant than Chunk and Walker, 747 consistently yields to 856.

32 Chunk from Fat Bear Week 2019
151 Walker from Fat Bear Week 2019
856 from Fat Bear Week 2018

In the past, Brooks River has hosted some very big bears. While I never had the opportunity to see Diver in person, he was reportedly extremely fat and large in his heyday during the 1980s and 1990s. Look at this photo as an example.

In 2007, the most dominant bear I saw at the river was 24 BB. He was very tall and long–so a massively framed bear. He didn’t use Brooks River in late summer though so we never got to see BB at his peak size for the year. BB behaved much like 856. He asserted his dominance frequently and spent less time fishing than 747 does today, so he might not have been as heavy as 747 but the potential was there.

BB in July 2007

Marlene writes, “856 is getting older. I am wondering if he will know when he no longer can hold the top spot or do you think there will have to be a confrontation?”

856 has been the river’s most consistently dominant bear since 2011. Like all bears, 856 is great at weighing risk versus reward. For him, the overall risk of confronting other bears is low and provides great reward in the form of access to food, fishing spots, and mating opportunities, because other bears recognize his dominance. 856 will use that to his advantage as long as he can.

His high level of dominance is tied to his health and fitness. He’s a large bodied bear so will remain relatively dominant no matter what but he needs to maintain his good health and fitness in case another bear challenges him or is unwilling to yield. 856 might fall from the top of the hierarchy if he is defeated in a fight by another comparably sized bear.

His reign as the river’s most dominant bear could end in another way though. He might not feel up to the challenge.

In July 2017, 856 was an infrequent visitor in July and when he did show up, he yielded easily to 32 Chunk, perhaps because he suffered from a leg injury that hindered his ability to compete with other comparably sized males. At the time, already after many years of dominance, I thought this was the end of 856’s reign at the top. I was wrong. 856 returned to the return to the river in September 2017 looking as healthy as ever and acting as dominant as ever. He hasn’t taken a step back since.

The chances of a repeat of July 2017 could be in 856’s future just as much as his defeat in an intense fight at the paws of another bears. If 856 continues to return to the river as he ages into his early and mid 20s, I think we’ll see at least one of those scenarios play out.

Mount Katmai Caldera

We found ourselves hanging over the brink of an abyss of such immensity that, as the event proved, we were powerless even to guess its size. Down, down, down, we looked until the cliff shelved off and we could follow it no further.

–Robert Griggs in The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes describing the moment he first peered into Mount Katmai’s caldera

Standing on the rim of the Mount Katmai caldera, staring at the gaping hole where a mountain once stood, elicits a profound awe. At the caldera and across the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the Earth’s power and ability to foment change is laid bare.

About a year ago, I disappeared into one of the most unique landscapes on Earth, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park, a trip I partly chronicled in a blog post for explore.org. I hadn’t specifically planned on ascending to the caldera rim on that trip, knowing that the weather along the crest of the Aleutian Range is fickle at best and an inviting window of opportunity may never materialize. When I woke at daybreak on June 10, 2019 to see a cloudless sky though, I left my base camp eager to reach one of Katmai National Park’s most spectacular features.

I slept the previous night at Novarupta, the lava dome that marks the eruptive center of the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption, the largest eruption of the twentieth century and one of the five largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The lava dome represents the eruption’s last gasp, forming anywhere from days to months after the 60 hour eruption waned on June 9, 1912.

view of pumice-covered flats and snow fields dark-colored lava dome at center

Novarupta lava dome

I began walking not long after the first light of dawn cast a pink alpenglow on the surrounding volcanoes. The rivulets of snowmelt where I gathered drinking water the prior evening had run dry as overnight temperatures dropped below freezing. Thankful for the firm footing, however, I traveled quickly across frozen snowfields to the base of the Knife Creek Glaciers, a badlands of pumice-covered ice attached to the north faces on Trident and Katmai volcanoes.

view of snowfields and mountain peaks

Early morning light on Trident Volcano

Not one, but many meltwater streams pour from the snout of these glaciers, and the permanent channels have eroded deeply into the pyroclastic deposits that form the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes proper. Finding places to hop over or ford these streams is straightforward, although tedious work as you climb in and out of their past and present floodplains. They can be crossed most safely within a few hundred yards or less of the base of the ice. Farther downstream, they create impassible gorges, akin to southern Utah’s famed slot canyons only filled with a torrent of glacially cold water.

view of pumice flat and small stream with ash and pumice covered glaciers in background

Lower sections of the Knife Creek Glaciers are a badlands of ice covered with as much as six feet of ash and pumice.

Compared to the scale of geologic time, Katmai’s volcanoes forced their way to the surface relatively recently. Over the last several hundred thousand years, upwelling magma buckled and fractured its way through thousands of feet of Jurassic-aged rocks, although these sedimentary layers have deformed little since they were deposited. The rock of “Whiskey Cleaver” a wedge of 150 million year-old marine sediments buttressing the north flank of Mount Katmai, are nearly as level as when they accumulated on the bottom of the seafloor.

The first time I reached the caldera in 2011, I stuck to the base of the cleaver, following the margin of the glacier to the west while hugging the exposed rock and glacial till until I needed to step onto the glacier leading to the caldera rim. This time while looking to avoid glacial travel as much as possible—dying alone, trapped in a crevasse seems like a horrible way to go—I chose a slightly more direct route up a steep ash and snow-covered slope slightly east of the main glacier. The sun had yet to soften the frozen snow as I ascended. I couldn’t kick sufficient steps into the crust, which forced me to avoid the steepest snowfields where I felt the risk of falling was too great. This turned into the diciest part of the route and was the one place that I wished I carried an ice axe.

View of hummocky landscape created by ash and pumice covered glaciers at the foot of mountains hidden in clouds. Blue line near center represents route.

I explored the termini of the Knife Creek Glaciers the day before my ascent to the caldera, partly to scout a way through the badlands. My approximate route through a corner of the Knife Creek Glaciers is shown in blue. The view looks east toward the caldera.

At the top of this slope, I reached a bench where the gradient lessened in steepness, kept me temporarily off the glacier, and away from areas prone to rock fall. From here, it was a simple task of avoiding the steep sidewalls prone to sodden late spring avalanches and the center of the glacier where crevasses are more likely to open in June. Not a single cloud hung in the sky, the air was dead calm, and the caldera was only two miles away.

view of mountains with vast snowfields with some small pumice-covered areas in fore and middle ground

The final two miles leading to the caldera

When the 1912 eruption began, Mount Katmai was a triple-peaked and glacially clad 7,600-foot tall volcano. Around midnight on June 7, 1912—in the midst of eruption’s most violent outbursts—Mount Katmai began to collapse. Over the next twenty-four hours, the summit fell inward, generating fourteen earthquakes between magnitudes 6 and 7.

No one witnessed the collapse. Thick ash replaced daylight with an inky blackness across the region. Not until the eruption ceased and skies cleared on June 9 could anyone see that the mountain had lost its top. Because Mount Katmai collapsed, for decades people considered it to be the source of the eruption. In a sense it is, but not from the perspective of explosiveness. Careful study of the eruption’s fallout and pyroclastic flow deposits in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes revealed relatively little originated from Mount Katmai. Instead, the vent that opened at Novarupta siphoned away its magma. Perhaps not coincidentally, the elevation of the caldera floor and Novarupta are nearly the same.

Human eyes would not look into the caldera until Robert Griggs and his expedition team slogged their way to the rim from the Pacific coast in 1916. While I enjoyed the advantage of ascending on clear snow with stable footing along with the fore-knowledge of how to get to the rim, Griggs clawed up the volcano’s still muddied and pumice-covered southern slopes, all-the-while pioneering his route, not quite knowing what he’d see or what challenges he’d face until he got there.

When Griggs reached the unstable and knife-edge caldera rim caldera, he found glaciers cleaved flush with the precipitous walls where several thousand feet of mountain once stood. Peering into the gaping earth, Griggs had difficulty comprehending the caldera’s scale, and he stared amazed at a horseshoe-shaped island of lava in a milky, robin-egg-blue lake deep within the bowels of the volcano.

panoramic black and white photo of volcanic caldera.

Jasper Sayer took this remarkable photograph of the Mount Katmai caldera in 1919. It had been seen for the first time only three years prior. I reached the caldera on the opposite side from this photo, near the low point in the rim at left.

From the sight lines along my route, the terrain provides no hint the caldera exists. Although the route’s gradient lessened the closer I got to the rim, the caldera appeared in sudden and spectacular fashion.

panorama view of Mount Katmai caldera on clear sunny day

During a 2011 ascent here, I was forced to retreat within 15 minutes by howling winds, a cloud ceiling which allowed on the scantest of peeks into the bowl, and the threat of snow. On this day though, I sat on the rim for more than two hours, attempting to embed the scene into memory. I couldn’t help but consider how ephemeral it was. The shallow lake first witnessed by Griggs has grown more than 800 feet deep and continues to rise. New glaciers hug the interior walls and calve small icebergs into the water. I watched avalanches of rock and snow tumble more than a thousand feet from the rim to the lake. Water discharged from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the lake creates greenish-brown swirls with the deep blue of the lake’s surface.

Like the dozen-plus other volcanoes in Katmai, the mountain will churn with unrest again. Its next eruption is unlikely to be as large and landscape changing as the 1912 event, but Mount Katmai’s potential to unleash the power of the Earth remains ever-present. As I sat on the rim, looking at the hole where a several thousand feet of rock once stood, I enjoyed the long moments of calm, wonderfully alone with a mountain only temporarily at rest.

view of mount katmai caldera with steep snow covered cliffs at right and center
view of mount katmai caldera with steep snow covered cliffs at left and center

To learn more about the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, read Robert Grigg’s 1922 book about its discovery and exploration. Volcanologists Wes Hildreth and Judy Fierstein authored the authoritative text on the eruption’s geology in The Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912—Largest Eruption Eruption of the 20th Century Centennial Perspectives. Lastly, I devote two chapters in my forthcoming book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Life and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, on the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption’s significance to the region and the creation of Katmai National Park. Look for The Bears of Brooks Falls late this year via Countryman Press.

A Step to Protect Brooks River’s Bears

Each year, the National Park Service in Alaska reviews compendiums for park areas and provides the public with an opportunity to comment on proposed changes or suggest changes. This year, Katmai National Park is proposing a change to its compendium that will give staff greater flexibility when managing the Brooks River area. If you value the river’s wildlife and the bear-watching experience at Brooks River, whether in person or through explore.org’s bearcams, then please support this change.

Visitation at Brooks Camp has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels during the last several years. In 2015, the last full summer I spent as a ranger at Brooks Camp, approximately 9,300 people attended the NPS bear orientation. In 2016, the number of orientations climbed to 10,900. By 2018, the number had grown to 12,500 and in 2019 it reached over 14,000, the highest visitation every recorded at Brooks River. This change may not seem like much (Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Visitor Center often receives over 10,000 people per day in summer). However, the Brooks River corridor is quite small. The river itself is only 1.5 miles long and during the busiest days in July over 500 people and a few dozen brown bears attempt to share its space. The increase in visitation and unrestricted access to the river has created an untenable situation that taxes park staff, facilities, the experience, and the bears’ ability to tolerate and adapt.

graph showing number of people attending bear orientations (y axis) by year (x axis). The number of orientations has doubled since the 2000s.

Attendance to mandatory bear safety orientations can be used as a proxy for overall visitation to Brooks Camp. In the last ten years, the number of people attending the orientations has doubled.

Related: Bears and Humans at Brooks River

Brooks River is a unique place within America’s national parks. In a landscape home to more bears than people, it is Katmai National Park’s most famous bear watching destination. However, it is perhaps the only area in Alaska that is actively managed as a bear-viewing destination yet has no restrictions on access. No permits or guides are required to visit. There is no limit to how many people can visit each day and almost no restrictions on where you can go when you get there. Arriving visitors are required to attend a mandatory bear safety talk that outlines the proper and expected behavior. After that though, you are largely free do go about your business. To help manage the situation, the National Park Service has proposed this change to Katmai’s compendium.

The Superintendent may prohibit activities, impose restrictions or require permits within the Brooks Camp Developed Area. Information on closures and restrictions will be available in the park visitor center. Violating [Brooks Camp Developed Area] closures or restrictions is prohibited.

The NPS lists several reasons for the proposed change.

  • High visitation and improper behavior by people has negatively impacted bears along the river corridor.
  • The park has received more complaints and concerns from the public regarding bear-human interactions.
  • Bears are changing how they use the river, so current closures are becoming increasingly inadequate.
  • Visitation has increased dramatically over the last several years.
  • To better manage the river corridor, the park needs more flexible management tools.

While the proposed change is no panacea for the challenges facing park staff at Brooks River, it can provide an important tool to manage changing situations. For example, it hypothetically allows the NPS to extend the closure around Brooks Falls beyond August 15 or even restrict human access in the lower river area when bear activity is high.

Quite often, proposals for greater restrictions and regulations in national parks attract more opposition than support, especially if the change has the potential to impact public access or business interests. Now though, we have the opportunity to let the NPS know this change is worthwhile and necessary.

Portions of Katmai’s bear population are equally sensitive to human disturbance as the grizzlies in Yellowstone, yet the only area in Katmai where people cannot venture is the immediate area surrounding Brooks Falls, and then only from June 15 to August 15. Since I came to discover Brooks River for myself in 2007, protections for bears have slowly eroded. In the face of skyrocketing visitation, the NPS has proposed a positive step to protect bears and the bear-watching experience. So please send the park a comment expressing your support for the change. Here’s an example to get you started (feel free to customize it as you see fit). You can download a copy of the proposed changes and submit comments on the NPS’s project website. The comment period is open through February 15, 2020.

PS: If you plan to visit Brooks Camp this summer or in the future, please consider subscribing to the Brooks River Pledge. It’s a personal pledge between yourself and Brooks River with the goal to emphasize respect for the bears’ space as well as ways to continue to have a high quality bear viewing experience.