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.
Last October I wrote, “There are small and fat bears, old and fat bears, young and fat bears, and just plain fat bears. But none, NONE I say, are as fat as 747.” A year later, 747 continues to demonstrate his survival skills and success at Brooks River. He’s big enough and fat enough to once again earn my official endorsement for Fat Bear Week 2018. 747 is titanic, a giant among bears.
Bear 747 is an adult male in the prime of his life. First identified as a subadult bear in 2004, he’s matured into the largest bear I’ve ever seen.
747 on July 5, 2018.
747 on September 10, 2018.
But don’t just take my word for it. Bear 747 is endorsed by several of his competitors at Brooks River.
“Look, we’re all fat right now, but no one is as fat as 747. Seriously, his belly nearly drags on the ground. Even I never achieved that level of pudge. “ Bear 410
“I keep my distance from him because I’m concerned he’ll roll on top of me.” Bear 68
“I’m still in awe of his size. Can he even dig a den big enough to fit within?” Bear 402.
“Even though I’m in the Fat Bear Week bracket, I still might vote for 747. It’s the logical vote. He probably weighs at least three times as much as me.” Bear 719
“747 is a role model of fat bear success. I hope to be as fat as him one day.” Bear 503
“I’m too hungry to comment.” Bear 480 Otis.
Many people who have observed 747 closely also agree with the endorsement.
“He’s all business—fishing and eating. Nobody gets fat like 747.” Jeanne R., former Katmai National Park ranger.
Too much fat is unhealthy for humans, but fat is essential to the survival of brown bears. It is a savings account against famine. Without ample fat, bears do not survive hibernation. In spring, often a season of starvation for bears, females with cubs will metabolize fat into milk to nurse their growing cubs, and adult males will use their fat to fuel their pursuit of mates.
747 won’t be rearing any cubs next spring as male brown bears play no role in raising offspring. During a season when almost no high calorie foods are available to bears, 747 will use his fat to roam the landscape for mates instead.
Other bears might be more charismatic or tug on your heartstrings, but 747 truly is a giant among Brooks River bears. He deserves your vote for Fat Bear Week 2018.
My 2018 Fat Bear Week bracket predictions.
You are encouraged to vote for Brooks River’s fattest bear on Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Facebook page. Starting on Oct. 3, park rangers will post head-to-head matchups between well-known bearcam bears. The bear whose photo receives the most likes will advance to the next round, until one bear is crowned fattest bear on Fat Bear Tuesday, October 9th. Don’t forget to watch Katmai’s fattest bears on bearcam.
In the fall of 2016, a bear with a distinctive light-colored patch of fur on its left shoulder was seen at Brooks River. The identity of this bear, at the time, was a mystery. It behaved like it knew its way around the falls and looked like a bear I should recognize.
Bear 274 Overflow on September 27, 2017. NPS photo.
274 is a maturing adult male and is believed to be the offspring of 438 Flo. Unlike most brown bear cubs, he and a sibling remained with their mother through four summers (most mother bears in Katmai keep their cubs for two to three summers). This is the only example of a brown bear family in Katmai remaining together for four summers.
438 (center right) sits with her two 3.5 year-old offspring in 2010. One of these cubs, perhaps the bear on the far left, is believed to be 274.
I never had the opportunity to watch 274 in person in the fall as he is an infrequent visitor, which is perhaps the reason I was mistaken originally. Bears have distinctive features that allow us to identify them across seasons and years. Yet, they can be notoriously difficult to recognize from early summer to fall. 274’s wide-set blond ears and shoulder patch should remain distinctive identifying features during future autumns. His current shoulder patch, it should be noted, wasn’t present in 2012, the last time he was positively identified in the fall.
Bear 274 in September 2012. NPS photo.
As he continues to grow, we could see 274 attaining a higher rank in the bear hierarchy. During the last few years he’s not been timid when using Brooks Falls, but he’s also not been large enough to occupy the most preferred fishing spots without being displaced regularly. If genes (which control his potential for growth, health, and lifespan) and fortune (which provide the opportunity for him to attain his physical potential) align, then 274 could become one of the more dominant bears at Brooks River.
At Brooks Falls, most bears tend to focus their efforts at one or two fishing spots. More rarely, a bear will learn to fish successfully almost anywhere at the falls. 503 has used several different fishing spots at Brooks Falls this year—the far pool, near the downed log, the jacuzzi, and the lip. Is he learning to become a generalist angler or will he eventually specialize in a particular spot? Bears from Brooks River’s past and present can offer us some insights into 503’s potential future. Read more in my latest post on explore.org.
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.
480 Otis is currently the oldest adult male bear known to use Brooks River. First identified in 2001, a conservative age estimate places him in his early twenties. This bear is a skilled and patient angler who often sits for hours in Brooks River. When he catches salmon though, a common ailment of bears his age is noticeable.
480 Otis often bites the tails off of salmon by utilizing his molars, a method that younger bears with all their canine teeth do not use.
In 2013, I first took note of the peculiar manner in which Otis eats his salmon. Unlike young bears with relatively sharp canine teeth and incisors, Otis sometimes seems to struggle with grasping and biting through the tough skin of sockeye salmon. He seemed to use his molars much more than younger bears to bite into salmon. After watching closely through binoculars, I eventually saw why. Otis is missing canine teeth.
Notice how he seems to have difficultly chewing his food.
Otis’ lower left canine appears to be completely missing. A nub of his upper right canine may still exist, but it is so small to be nearly useless. He may also have missing or worn incisors, premolars, and molars. This affects his ability to grasp and bite into salmon.
Even when salmon are so abundant that most bears high-grade their fish—eating the fattiest parts like the skin, brain, and eggs and discarding the rest of the carcass—Otis eats higher proportions of the whole fish, probably because his worn and missing teeth prevent him from handling the fish as dexterously as his younger competitors.
Throughout their lives, brown bears suffer from broken bones, disease, wounds, and many other ailments. As they age, the rigors of their diet and lifestyle wear on their teeth. Without access to a dentist, bears must tolerate broken and worn teeth as well as deep cavities and even abscessed teeth, conditions which may ultimately reduce their fitness and survival.
480 Otis is one of the most experienced bears at Brooks River. Despite his less than healthy teeth, he continues to fish quite successfully (incredibly, he once caught and ate 44 fish in about six hours!) to gain the calories needed to survive the lean months of winter and spring.
The bear hierarchy is fluid. Bears jostle constantly within it, gaining and losing rank as they grow into adults and age into older bears. In 2017 at Brooks River, one bear has asserted his dominance over all others in ways he’s never done before. There appears to be a new dominant male on the river and he’s known as 32 Chunk.
32 Chunk in early June 2017. Photo courtesy of Katmai National Park.
In 2011, I began recording interactions between bears at Brooks Falls, noting who displaced who, who avoided who, and which bears were courting, stealing fish, and playing together. Out of hundreds of interactions I witnessed, one bear was consistently and clearly dominant over all others, 856.
856 stands in Brooks River on June 30, 2016.
From 2011 to 2016, 856 wasn’t displaced once. I only noted him yielding on very rare occasions, like when he faced a particularly defensive mother bear. No other bears even seemed to challenge him. 856 ascended to the top of the hierarchy rather quickly in 2011, outcompeting other large males like 814 Lurch and 747, and for many years remained the river’s most dominant bear.
856 (right) displaces 747, another large adult male bear, from the jacuzzi in 2013.
Life at the top of the hierarchy is difficult, however. Other bears are subordinate, but not subservient, to more dominant animals. If injury, illness, or age weakens a dominant bear then others will not hesitate to usurp their position, gaining greater access to food and potential mates. Other bears, often younger and stronger, are more than willing to take your spot if given the opportunity.
In the video above, 856 is the bear in the jacuzzi (the plunge pool below Brooks Falls) while 402, an adult female, stands on the lip. Notice how 856 turns to face the bear approaching from the far side of the river. This is 32 Chunk.
856 backs out of the jacuzzi to avoid 32 Chunk. He then goes to the lip where 402 stands, but 32 Chunk follows. Above the falls, 856 makes no attempt to challenge Chunk. 856 stands and watches as 32 turns away from his competitor, like dominant bears are apt to do, and walks out of the frame.
32 Chunk in 2014, while he ranked in the middle of the bear hierarchy for adult males.
Nature abhors a vacuum. No niche is left unfilled within the bear hierarchy. 856, perhaps weakened by injury or age, appears to no longer be the most dominant bear at Brooks River. His younger competitor sensed weakness and exploited it. This isn’t a contest of longevity though. During his time as the most dominant bear, 856 had free reign over the best fishing spots and went unchallenged for access to females in estrus. For years, he grew large and strong, probably siring more than one litter of bear cubs along the way. Now 32 Chunk (and possibly other bears like 747) hold those advantages.
856 remains a large bear and his size will continue to allow him great access to fishing spots at Brooks River. Bears grow up quickly, gaining the strength and skills necessary to survive a harsh, competitive world. Eventually though, the competition catches up.
A few days ago, bearcam viewers alerted me to an interesting interaction at Brooks Falls where 32 Chunk appeared to displace 856.
I’ve taken some time to review bearcam footage of the subordinate bear in the video above, and I don’t think he is 856. The bear looks like an adult male, based on his size and the presence of scars around his face. I don’t recognize him, but I am willing to say it is not 856. Here’s why…
856 is a large adult male with blond ears and a long neck. This year he returned with a noticeable limp and sports a shed patch on his rump.
856 will fish at several different places in the falls—the jacuzzi, in the far pool, and near the rocks in between. When he sits at the rocks, he does so in a fairly distinctive manner.
When 856 fishes the jacuzzi, he’ll often leave that spot to eat near the island, almost sitting and facing away from the cam.
In contrast to these behaviors, the bear displaced by 32 Chunk doesn’t appear to be limping (and I’ll admit that bears can heal quickly, so the limp may not be very pronounced now). Both 856 and the unidentified bear may have similar wounds or scars on their face, the ears of the bear displaced by 32 Chunk are darker. The contrast between the unidentified male bear’s front quarters and hind quarters is also more apparent than 856. His muzzle appears blockier than 856, and 856 is very unlikely to play with 89 Backpack.
This is a screen shot of the unidentified adult male who displaced by 32 Chunk.
856 walking on the island near Brooks Falls in July 2015.
So was this a changing of the guard at Brooks Falls? Probably not. In my opinion, 32 Chunk displaced a full grown adult male, but the subordinate bear was not 856. However, in the absence of other large males like 856 and 747, 32 Chunk may be the most dominant bear on the river. Chunk clearly asserted his dominance over the unidentified male.
Almost every year, a new and fully mature adult bear shows up at Brooks River. Bears are creatures of habit, but they also remain flexible, changing their behaviors when necessary. The unidentified male may have never visited Brooks Falls before and never encountered 32 Chunk. His life up until now is a mystery, but these events are one reason why the story of Brooks River’s bears is so fascinating. This is a constantly evolving story. It will never become static.