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.

17 thoughts on “The Bears of Brooks Falls: The Book

  1. Very cool – congratulations! You for sure know how to write Mike 🙂 (The pre-order link doesn’t work for Europe though 😦 I’d love to get and read your book, and I’m sure many EU chatters would, as well – was there some other pre-order link that worked for EU?)

    Like

    • I’m not sure. I chose the bookshop.org link for pre-orders because part of the website’s revenue is used to support independent bookstores. In the U.S., it’s also available through major booksellers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.). You might want to check and see if it’s available through Amazon in the EU. I’ll ask my publisher for more info on non U.S. orders.

      Like

      • I’d love to support independent book stores, too… But even Amazon doesn’t work right now 😦 I’ll keep looking.

        Like

      • Thank you! Barnes and Noble doesn’t ship to Poland, either. WTH, I’ve been buying books from Amazon for years, I have an account there… Maybe the pre-orders are not available and I’ll be able to buy it when it comes out in March.

        Like

      • It might be the post office restrictions due to covid. I checked the Polish post office website – there was a ban on shipping to and from the US in April, then it was lifted, and now it’s not very clear. Well, we will see. I have family and friends in the US and in other EU countries, maybe one of them can buy it for me or even bring it over, if travel is permitted. Stay safe you and yours, let’s hope “we shall overcome”!

        Like

  2. Congratulations Mike! I am going to pre-order now and can’t wait to read it! Also, congrats on your marriage to Jeanne! I hadn’t heard that you tied the knot. Very happy for you both 👰🏻🤵🏻

    Like

  3. Well written and a good preview of your upcoming book. Have followed you during your time as a Ranger at Katmai and now in your role with explore.org Looking forward to reading your book when it is released. Keep up the good work

    Like

  4. We preordered and are looking forward to your book. Thank you for being such a voice for bears and for being so open to sharing your knowledge with others

    Like

  5. Hello Mike,
    You may not have seen my book: One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears that is described in my website: http://www.barriegilbert.ca.
    Anyone interested in having a singed copy can contact me. My email is barrie.gilbert36@gmail.com
    Management of bears by the NPS is the least protective of bears and most tolerant of public disturbance of bears as determined by a comparison of six bear viewing sites in Canada and the USA. Cheer, Barrie

    Like

Leave a Reply to Mike Fitz Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s