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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This was a busy year on the bearcams, courtesy of explore.org and Katmai National Park. We hosted more live broadcasts this year than any other year since the bearcams first went live in 2012.
During play-by-play broadcasts Katmai rangers and myself narrated the Brooks River’s wildlife activity, much like broadcasters for sporting event (although the lives of brown bears and salmon is no game). We never knew what might happen during a play-by-play. Watching the prolonged posturing between two of Brooks River’s largest adult males, 856 and 32 Chunk, on July 12 and integrating the ranger’s radio traffic into the September 17th broadcast are two of my favorite play-by-play moments.
The other broadcasts, live chats, typically focused on a specific topic such as bear fishing styles, hibernation, and bear research at Brooks River. Rangers Andrew LaValle and Russ Taylor from Katmai joined me as frequent co-hosts for live chats and I was also fortunate enough to speak with many special guests. Perhaps the most memorable moment from these broadcasts occurred when bear 132 and her spring cub almost stepped on Ranger Andrew and I during our Katmai centennial live chat on September 24.
Rain falling on a tent is the least motivating sound in the world and I heard it off and on through my last night in the Brooks Camp Campground. But by dawn, the rain nearly ceased and since this was my last morning to watch bears, I wasn’t about to let some drizzle get in the way of bear watching.
First, I had to get to the river. The campground is set almost a half-mile from the mouth of Brooks River. The walk between is easy enough, mostly flat and over crushed gravel trails, unless bears get in the way. After exiting the campground’s electric fence (5,000 volts of shock value), I stepped on to the beach to check if it was free of bears.
The trail to and from the campground parallels the beach, a place bears utilize frequently as a travel corridor or a place to rest. When bears are on the beach they are generally too close to the campground trail for it to be used. That morning, in the dim blue-gray light of an overcast dawn, I could see one bear sleeping between the visitor center and me. Giving this bear space was simple enough, all I had to do was swing through the forest and follow the faint trace of the waterline that ran to the campground. The risk in this plan though was the limited visibility in the forest. I moved slowly, watching and listening carefully for bears. The few belly holes along the route were empty and I safely reached the main trail with only a few moments lost.
At the river mouth, plenty of bears were active. 409 and her yearlings fished near the bridge and 410 stood still on the spit when a new family of bears appeared, one that I hadn’t yet seen in person. It was 435 Holly and her two very plump spring cubs.
435 Holly and her two spring cubs stand near 410 on the spit at the mouth of Brooks River.
Crossing the river wasn’t as straightforward as the previous morning though as 409 and her two yearlings fished within a few yards of the bridge. As the family slowly made their way downstream, I prepared to speed walk across the bridge when the opportunity arrived. Just as 409 and her cubs waded far enough downstream of the bridge (more than 50 yards) I crossed quickly, and just in the nick of time. As soon as I reached the lower river platform, 854 and her cubs appeared on the Corner where I was standing.
Photo opportunities are limited with my durable but optically limited waterproof camera. Still, over the next 150 minutes, I watch 14 different bears (23 counting dependent offspring) using the lower Brooks River.
854 Divot and her yearling cubs
708 Amelia and one of her 2.5 year-old cubs.
With my time at Brooks Camp running low, I ventured to the falls for one last look at the largest of the river’s bears. 32 Chunk, 151, 474, 480 Otis, and 747 round out the adult male roster this morning. When 747 sees 474 walk upriver, 747 directly approached 474. Both of the palindromic-numbered bears began to cowboy walk and mark trees, 474 on the shore near the platform and 747 on the island downstream of the falls. When 474 moved behind the platform, likely as a subtle move to avoid 747, the larger 747 marked the same tree and urinated in the same places as 474. Out of the water, 747’s true size is revealed. He’s a giant of a bear, far fatter and larger than any other on the river.
Before I left the falls for the final time (this year at least), I watched a young subadult bear fish the lip. She appeared well practiced in this spot. Bears rarely fish the lip of the falls in late summer, a time when nearly all salmon have reached their spawning site and lack the energy reserves or motivation to surmount the falls. The abundance of silver salmon in the river this year, however, allowed her to exploit this fishing spot during a time when it usually wouldn’t be worth visiting.
This young subadult has fished the lip of Brooks Falls often recently. While bearcam viewers have speculated she might be one of 402’s emancipated cubs, this bear looked too big for a 2.5 year-old.
I encountered no significant delays on my return to the lodge to check in for my flight out. Lots of bears milled around the lower river, but I remained on the beach in front of the lodge to sit and watch 435 Holly and her cubs rest nearby.
435 Holly and spring cubs
Brooks River is a special place, unique among national parks, and I felt fortunate to spend time there once again even if the visit was too short.
When you enjoy watching wildlife as much as me, you don’t want to waste time with biological tasks like sleeping. Still, sleep is a necessity and I can’t watch bears in the dark. After a reasonably restful night, I woke before sunrise and left the campground when there was just enough light for me to see without a headlamp or flashlight. This would be my last full day at Brooks River in 2017 and intended to make the most of it.
Early morning hours at Brooks River are generally quiet. Planes haven’t arrived and most people are either sleeping or focused on breakfast. The dominant sound at this hour tends to be the cry of glaucous-winged gulls.
Bears like early morning meals just as much as people, and I fully expected to find bears too close to the trail or bridge for me to reach the relative safety of the lower river wildlife viewing platform. Luckily, the corridor from the lodge to the bridge and the platform was clear before 7 a.m. In a short while, however, bears filled the void and for much of the rest of the day the bridge would remain closed to people.
When I first reached the platform, only 409 Beadnose and her yearlings were visible. Her cubs behaved quite independently, catching most of their own salmon. Yet they remained prone to begging food from their mother and bawling when they want to nurse. Two subadults entered the river upstream of the platform. 410 made the most of her chance for breakfast, eating at least five salmon carcasses in a half hour. It was still too dark for my point-and-shoot camera to take clear photos, so I sat back, watched, and took notes.
409, her cubs, and two young subadult bears all eventually wandered toward the river mouth and the beach in front of the lodge, allowing more people to cross the bridge. As the platform got noisier, I decided it’s a good time to wander to Brooks Falls.
The walk to the falls is quiet and uneventful, but bears used the trail just moments before. Foam clung to the surface of a large puddle of urine and bright red, relatively undigested lingonberries polka dot the surface of a fresh pile of scat.
Even with the high abundance of salmon, bears were still feeding on berries.
The falls platform was empty when I arrived and no one else arrived for the next hour as bears remained too close to the bridge for people to cross. Within my experience at Brooks Camp, it’s rare to have the falls platform to yourself when bears are around.
I quickly forgot about being alone though as bears were quite active. 410 had made her way from the lower river to the falls where she fished her normal spot in the far pool. 68 was giving it a shot in the jacuzzi. Both bears ignored each other and remained separated by about 30 yards. When 747 arrived 68 quickly moves out of the jacuzzi to make way for the larger bear.
After 747 decided to push the other bears around, 503 appeared in the far pool. While 747 is absolutely the largest bear at Brooks River, I was shocked at 503’s size. He’s not particularly fat, but’s he’s very big for his age. Bears grow quickly yet I don’t recall ever seeing a 4.5 year-old brown bear as big as 503.
Returning to the lower river, I watched more subadult antics. Now after 10 a.m., the bridge had not yet opened because bears were consistently within 50 yards of it. Four to five subadult bears, all of which I saw the previous day, fished and played nearby.
409 Beadnose and her yearlings wandered toward the bridge from the lake to rest.
Around 11:30 a.m., I contemplated crossing the bridge to eat lunch. At Brooks Camp food can only be eaten inside of buildings or at designated picnic areas. Possession of food, unless actively transporting it from one designated area to another, is also prohibited. With lots of bears in sight, I reasoned I could ignore my hunger pangs and eat later.
Upstream, 854 Divot and her yearlings scavenged for fish. Not yet having the opportunity to observe them much on this trip, I waited for them to fish their way downstream. Fall bears have a pattern though; they fish then sleep. Many human-habituated bears—especially 854 Divot, 409 Beadnose, 410, and 435 Holly—often choose to sleep near the trail between the lodge and the river. When that happens, the trail is usually closed until the bears wake and move on. I knew I risked a long delay getting to and fro if Divot and her cubs chose to sleep near the bridge or trail.
Which they did. At 12:10 p.m., Divot and cubs settled in for a nap on the bank just upstream of the floating bridge. With no alternative route around the bears, the bridge and trail were closed. There was nothing to do but wait. Bridge closures and Brooks Camp’s famous bear jams can be frustrating situations for people unaccustomed to them or too impatient for them, but bears need the habitat near the mouth of the river as much as they need the falls. To make a long story short (one I hope to tell in greater detail in the future) 854 slept in that spot for two hours and with many other bears fishing in the river, the bridge didn’t open for over three hours.
A half hour after crossing the bridge though and refreshed after a quick snack, I was back at the river when word of Otis’s arrival at Brooks Falls spread among the staff. Not knowing if I’d get another chance to see him before leaving the next day, I skipped bear viewing at the lower river to go to the falls, where I found 480 Otis as well as 68, 503, 719, 747, and an unidentified subadult.
480 fishes in his office at Brooks Falls shortly after arriving. 747 sits in the water nearby.
Rain moved through later in the evening, but I still had one more morning of bear watching to enjoy before my flight out.
Due to strong winds, I was unable to reach Brooks Camp on time. The next morning, as instructed by Katmai Air, I arrived at their dock before 7 a.m. I was eager to get on the “first load.” Evidently everyone who didn’t reach Brooks Camp the previous day was told they’d be on the “first load,” which caused Katmai Air to deal with some cranky customers. (Not me, I might add, but I understood others’ frustration.)
Looking southwest toward Mount Brooks from the air.
Around 8:40 a.m., I arrived at Brooks Camp—or Lake Brooks to be exact. Winds out of the east were still too strong for planes to land on Naknek Lake, but I didn’t mind the view of Dumpling Mountain and the head of Brooks River.
Dumpling Mountain and the outlet of Lake Brooks
After heading straight to the visitor center to get my bear orientation…
Yes, even former rangers are required to attend the bear safety talk upon arrival at Brooks Camp.
…I hurriedly pitched my tent in the campground….
My tent in the far southwest corner of the campground, as far away from other people as I could get.
…and walked back to the lower river to binge watch bears.
Fine pumice sand, evidence of the powerful winds from the previous day’s storm, was all over the beach.
In September, the wildlife-viewing platform near the mouth of Brooks River is my favorite place to be. Upstream, just where the river enters my line of sight from the platform, thousands of salmon work to complete their life cycle. As the fish weaken and die, the river’s current sweeps them downstream. Where the river’s current is not longer strong enough to carry them further, it drops the barely live and dead fish, making the river mouth and meanders just upstream the most productive salmon scavenging areas at Brooks.
When I arrive on the platform four subadult bears play and fish, while 409 Beadnose and cubs lounge nearby. After another large salmon run, the bears at Brooks River are well fed, and perhaps as a result the younger bears were especially playful.
One light brown subadult bear out of this bunch very much resembles 273’s yearling in 2016. This bear appears to be a young subadult, but is large for a 2.5 year-old.
Around noon, after Beadnose and cubs settled into a nap below the platform, I decided to visit Brooks Falls, where bears had been fishing in higher than average numbers for this time of year. I had a hypothesis as to why, but I needed at least a few cursory observations to support it.
Over my short stay, the vast majority of fish I saw bears catch at the falls were silver (coho) salmon. This run begins in August and often continues through September. Larger on average than sockeye, a single, fresh silver salmon can provide several thousand calories for bears skilled enough to catch them. Like the beginning of the sockeye run in late June and July, the late run of silver salmon is most accessible to bears at Brooks Falls.
Two adult male bears, 68 (left) and 879, fish the far pool of Brooks Falls.
But bears in the lower river make huge energy profits as well. In the early evening, after skipping a true lunch to eat an early dinner (to maximize bear watching time), I return to the lower river until sunset. 410 and 409 Beadnose both patrol the river slowly, snorkeling for any salmon that can swim away. In a half hour, 410 eats four fish. Over an hour, Beadnose leisurely consumes eight. These are relatively low catch rates for this section of river, yet even assuming the salmon carcasses provide less than half the energy they did in July (spawned out fish may contain 2000-2500 calories or less compared to the 4500 calories when the first arrived) 410 and 409 still ate at least 8,000 and 16,000 calories respectively. In past years, when 410 has remained within my line of sight longer at the lower river, I’ve counted her eating 41 fish in 3 hours 25 minutes. Even if she only ate part of each fish, when your profit is measured in calories needed to survive winter hibernation, this isn’t a bad day’s work.
As the sun begins to set behind the western toe of Dumpling Mountain, I relaxed to watch bears come and go from the river—128 Grazer, 409 Beadnose, 284, 410, 708, 610, four unidentified subadults, 879, 474, and many cubs. If the sun didn’t set so soon and I didn’t risk running a gauntlet of bears in the dark to get to the campground, I would’ve remained out for much longer. Responsible bear watching, however, includes not wandering around in the dark, so I retire to the campground eager for sunrise and another day on the river.
Late last July, after watching bearcam for a month, I got the itch to visit Brooks Camp where I had worked and lived for many summers. During an extended break from work recently, I spent a couple of nights camping there to binge watch bears. I had originally planned to spend three nights at Brooks Camp, but weather conditions conspired to alter my plans.
On September 3, during the final approach on my flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, I felt pangs of excitement and eagerness as I caught glimpses of Naknek Lake, Dumpling Mountain and much of the rest of western Katmai National Park.
Naknek Lake and Katmai National Park. (Pro tip: Never sit in row two on PenAir’s Saab 2000 airplanes as there is no window. I usually try to sit in rows 3-4 and 14-16 for the most unobstructed views of the landscape. To see Katmai, weather permitting, on flights from Anchorage to King Salmon sit on the left side of the plane.)
I arrived in King Salmon to mostly cloudy skies and a strong northeasterly wind. Situated at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, King Salmon and Katmai National Park often experience windy conditions, so I didn’t think much of it.
After checking in with Katmai Air, I patiently waited to board one of their small floatplanes, which would take me the final thirty miles to Brooks Camp. The wind increased in strength as I waited for my flight. Travelling via plane, rail, or bus usually stimulates mild anxiety in me, not because I fear a crash but because I don’t want to deal with delays. After the first Katmai Air flight left, I sat patiently for the plane to return so I could head to Brooks Camp. As it turned out, I would have to wait for nearly 24 more hours.
About 45 minutes after it left, the Katmai Air Otter returned with the same passengers. When I saw them exit the plane, I knew the chances of reaching Brooks Camp were slim that day.
A strong low pressure system centered over Kodiak Island brought gale force winds to the northern Alaska Peninsula on September 3, 2017.
Katmai lies at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, a northeast-southwest trending arc of land jutting into the North Pacific. The peninsula’s location and orientation expose it to the vast majority of storms bred from the Aleutian Low, a semi-permanent low-pressure system originating near the outer Aleutian Islands. The peninsula’s mountains represent a major topographical barrier to these northeast-tracking storms. When winds funnel through mountain valleys along the Aleutian Range, they often come with great force. Through Katmai Pass, winds are strong enough to hurl large pieces of pumice through the air, scouring the upper Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. (In Chapter XVII of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Robert Griggs describes weathering a violent wind storm that destroyed his camp near Katmai Pass in 1919.)
Nails on the Baked Mountain Huts in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes are one of the few things on the building that can withstand abrasive, wind-driven pumice.]
Rocks near Katmai Pass show signs of abrasion from blowing pumice. The strongest winds through the pass blow from south to north (right to left in the photo).
Although Brooks Camp and Brooks River lie at a much lower elevation than Katmai Pass, the area remains exposed to easterly winds driven through the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. On my travel day, while conditions were never too windy to keep planes grounded in King Salmon, Brooks Camp was experiencing a gale.
On September 3, 2017, the highest wind gust recorded at Brooks Camp was 60 miles per hour (97 kph) at 12:27 p.m.
Around noon, two hours after I was supposed to reach Brooks Camp, Katmai Air cancelled all day trips to Brooks River due to unsafe landing conditions and a lack of time. The faces of those on day trips expressed genuine disappointment. They left dejected. Knowing just how amazing Brooks River is, I don’t blame them. I felt my own bit of disappointment through the afternoon and evening. I would not reach Brooks Camp that day.
I had two more nights planned, thankfully, so I could wait out the storm and reach Brooks Camp (I’ll chronicle my experience there in forthcoming post). While flights to and from Brooks Camp are occasionally delayed, it’s rare for them to be canceled due to weather. Every few years though, a strong windstorm prevents safe landings and departures on Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. In 2009, 60 people, who had only planned to spend one day at Brooks Camp, were stranded due to strong winds. No one who knows the area well would ever say the weather there is benign.
The mother bear in the video is known as 435 Holly, an adult female who was first identified in 2001. This bear has led a storied life so far, successfully caring for her injured yearling in 2007 and adopting an abandoned yearling in 2014.
435 Holly in September 2015.
She’s also one of the most human habituated bears known at Brooks River. (Habituation, in this context, is a waning response to a neutral stimulus.) As a result, this bear is not as likely to react as defensively towards people compared to many other bears. Holly frequently uses the developed area from the river mouth to the campground, often traversing the area near Brooks Lodge, the NPS visitor center, and employee housing. She’s even treed herself near the bathrooms at Brooks Lodge and approached large groups of people.
The ranger handled this particular situation well, gathering the group of people together to let the bears pass. Corralling people isn’t easy though. Despite the best efforts of rangers, some people are always willing to push the limit with bears.
It’s not a wise move to leave the safety of your group when a mother and cubs is only feet away.
On more than one occasion, I watched Holly walk down “Park Avenue” in front of my cabin, sometimes to avoid other bears and sometimes just because that was the easiest way to get where she was going.
Her behavior demonstrates a relative tolerance for people. She’s not shy about using the same trails as us, which brings me back to the viral video. 435 Holly has encountered many, many people at Brooks River and humans have largely been a neutral stimulus in her life. These factors enable situations like these to happen on a regular basis at Brooks River.
In the viral video, neither Holly nor her cubs show signs of stress or defensiveness. She doesn’t lower her head, her ears remain upright, and she makes no vocalizations. Holly’s cubs reflect their mother’s relaxed state, casually walking with and occasionally in front of mom. They know a human is near and as he backs away, she continues in the same direction. Holly, in this situation, wanted to use the trail. She did not threaten the person or act in a defensive manner.
Of course, there was real risk involved during the encounter and my thoughts should not be misconstrued to downplay the risk. Any encounter with a bear, especially a mother and cubs, needs to be taken seriously, for our own safety and also for the welfare of the animals. If this was different mother bear, with different tolerances and reaction distances around people, then the situation could be different.
This encounter with 435 Holly and her cubs was the result of a very human habituated bear needing to use the trail at the same time as a person. Her motivation, in this particular case, wasn’t a need to protect her cubs, assert dominance over a person, or even curious approach. It was simply to walk on the trail.
For information about what to do in encounters like this at Brooks Camp, please see Katmai National Park’s video response. That response however, is not usually applicable to bear encounters in other areas of North America.
Early today, bearcam captured a very close encounter of the ursine kind.
When the video begins, two people are walking out of the water in the direction of Brooks Lodge. A relatively small brown bear, probably a subadult, then begins to run towards them. Eventually, the bear gets very close to both individuals. Other than wading into very deep water, the couple had few options in this situation. Their only line of retreat was towards Brooks Lodge (the direction they were walking).
The bear could’ve approached the people for a few reasons. If the people were fishing and if they had a fish on their line, then this could have attracted the bear. If the bear had taken fish from anglers before, which happens at Brooks River, then it would be more likely to approach people as it searches for an easy meal. The splashing of their feet could’ve caught the bear’s attention. That’s a sound that mimics the sound of splashing fish, and for bears at Brooks River this is the sound of food. The bear could also have been attempting to play or assert its dominance.
The bear doesn’t look like it was charging the people defensively. Its bounds aren’t direct. In contrast to this bear, a charging bear moves very quickly in a straight line. Defensive bears, from what I’ve observed, do not deviate from their target until they decide to stop the charge.
There was one thing the couple could have done to reduce the chances of a scary encounter—stay together. Instead of walking 5-10 meters apart, they could’ve walked shoulder to shoulder. Size means a lot to a bear and bears are much less likely to approach groups of people compared to single people. Beyond anything else traveling in groups, especially groups of four or more people, is the most important step we can take to increase our level of safety in bear country. Most importantly, the couple could have not gone into that area.
People are permitted to be in that location, and often don’t consult rangers before doing so. However, I don’t necessarily place blame on them. Quite often, visitors are not aware how vulnerable they are in many places at Brooks River.
This is a place where people have a lot of freedom, maybe more so than any other well known bear viewing location in Alaska. The only area closed to people is the immediate area near Brooks Falls from June 15 to August 15. Situations like this don’t happen every day, but bears and people are often in very close proximity. I know many of us who watch the bearcam won’t visit Brooks Camp, but a few of us will. If you choose to visit, please consider ways in which you can minimize this type of encounter. I recommend staying on established trails and bear viewing from specific locations where bears expect to find people, like the wildlife viewing platforms. The river mouth often looks like a great place to be with its open sight lines. Yet, the depth of the water greatly limits where one can go to avoid bears. The river mouth from late June through July and again from late August through early October is wonderful habitat for bears. For this reason, everyone who visits Brooks Camp should consider not going into this area. This provides a higher level of safety for us and greater opportunities for bears to access the resources they need to survive without our interference.
Despite my best intentions over the years, I still got much too close to bears when I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings, when I traveled into a spot where sight lines were limited, or when I was in an area where bears were likely to feed or rest. Close encounters will happen, but there are ways we can minimize the risk.
Watch bears from trails and the wildlife viewing platforms.
Avoid moving into areas where bears are likely to rest, play, or feed.
Give yourself two avenues of escape to avoid an approaching bear.