Late Season Bears on Dumpling Mountain

Dumpling Mountain, in west-central Katmai National Park, rises gently between Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Overridden repeatedly by glaciers during the last ice age, its slopes contour less abruptly than taller mountains to the east. About half the mountain’s topographical prominence lies above timberline. The upper mountain is a chilly, wind-swept place (especially in mid October) where only hardy, ground-hugging shrubs and forbs grow.

tundra and view of low mountain

Tundra on upper Dumpling Mountain on August 22, 2015

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Tundra on upper Dumpling Mountain on September 30, 2015.

The Dumpling Mountain Cam recently captured footage of a mother bear and three yearling cubs there.

The Dumpling Mountain Cam is located about 2,150 feet above sea level on the mountain’s dry alpine tundra, just under 300 feet below and .75 miles distant from the mountain’s 2,440-foot high summit. I hiked up Dumpling Mountain dozens of times, mostly to escape the relative hustle and noise of Brooks Camp, but I rarely saw bears on the mountain. Tracks, sure. Scat, definitely. But bears? Almost never. They don’t use the mountaintop as frequently as other areas. So why would bears venture nearly to the summit of Dumpling now? Are they migrating to a denning site?

Last fall, in a blog post for explore.org, I discussed what is known about the denning habits of Brooks River’s bears. From limited radio tracking studies done in the 1970s, we know these bears probably den on steep, well-vegetated slopes that collect a lot of snow. The same study determined Katmai’s bears denned, on average, at 1,300 feet in elevation.

Dumpling Mountain offers much suitable denning habitat. Although none of the bears radio-collared at Brooks River in the 1970s were tracked to it, I found at least three areas with bear dens in my explorations of the mountain. None are visible within the Dumpling Cam’s viewshed, but they aren’t very far away either.

Screen shot from Google Earth. Purple polygon is viewshed of Dumpling Mountain Cam. Text reads: "Dumpling Mountain Cam" "Bear Dens" "Bear Dens" "Bear Den in Video"

All the dens I found on Dumpling Mountain were around the 2,000 foot elevation line or lower. The purple area represents the Dumpling Mountain Cam viewshed.

Person squatting in entrance to bear den.

Yours truly sits at the entrance of a bear den on Dumpling Mountain.

Bear dens are cozy places. An entrance tunnel leads to a sleeping chamber, which is usually just large enough for the bear crawl into and turn around. Brown bears have the strength and endurance to dig their dens quickly, but den excavation typically takes place over several days. They may also make several excavations near their denning site, perhaps aborting these first attempts due to poor soil conditions.

Bear abundance at Brooks River peaks in late September and early October then decreases coincident with fewer spawning salmon. The bears’ migration away from the river doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll immediately head to their denning site. Bears can still find opportunities to feed elsewhere, even on Dumpling.

These bears on Dumpling may not have been moving to a denning site. Instead, they could’ve been there to eat. Their time on camera showed them traveling, playing, and grazing. Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), alpine or bog blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitus-vitae) all grown on the mountain’s tundra and can be important, and easily accessible foods for bear. Wild berries in Katmai are a fickle crop though. Some years, berry plants produce bumper crops, while in others I was hard pressed to find many berries at all. When one or all are abundant, however, berry-filled scat reveals the bears’ motivation on the mountain. In October, all three species can linger on the bush, but lingonberries are most likely to remain abundant into fall.

 

Dumpling Mountain offers several things bears need—food in the form of seasonally abundant berries, open space relatively free of human disturbance, and pockets of prime denning habitat. Bears using the mountain, especially in the fall, could be there to locate a denning site, to graze frozen berries, or simply on their way from one place to another.

Addendum:

Some bearcam viewers have speculated the bear family recently seen on Dumpling Mountain was 854 Divot and her three yearlings. While the video evidence is inconclusive I saw Divot on Dumpling Mountain in the spring of 2015, so the mountain is part of her home range.

747 should be your choice for Fat Bear Week

There are small and fat bears, old and fat bears, young and fat bears, just plain fat bears. But none, NONE I say, are as fat as 747 in 2017. He has earned my official endorsement in the 2017 Fat Bear Week tournament.

fat bear walking in shallow water near grass

747 displays his massive silhouette near Brooks Falls on September 6, 2017.

747 is a mature adult male in the prime of his life. He has gained at least as much and probably more weight than all others. In my opinion, 747 is the biggest and fattest at Brook River.

Compare 747’s overall size in late spring…

Large brown bear

747 in mid June 2017. Photo courtesy of David Kopshever.

…with his fatness in early September.

Fat bear walking in grass

747 is so fat, his belly almost touches the ground.

Still not convinced? Then watch this video of 747 from September 6, 2017.

Since then, 747 has gained even more weight.

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.

747 faces some tough competitors in this year’s tournament, but don’t fall for any other fat bear propaganda from the fake news mainstream leftwing socialist progressive liberal media. 747 is larger and fatter than any other bear at Brooks River. He’s huge, tremendous, and will win “bigly.”

2017 Fat Bear Week bracket with 747 as champ

This is my 2017 #FatBearWeek bracket. I look forward to seeing your bracket and campaign posters in the bearcam chat on explore.org.

 

 

Short Ride Up Stehekin Valley

October has been a wet month here in Stehekin. So far, seven inches of rain have been recorded. Today brought a break in the weather though. When I saw clear skies this morning, I ate a quick breakfast and hopped on my bike for a ride up the Stehekin Valley Road through Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. I wanted to casually revisit different habitats along the way while enjoying bold fall colors.

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Snow-capped mountains over Lake Chelan

For the first mile the road hugs Lake Chelan’s rocky shoreline. The shallow areas near the head of the lake are popular with waterfowl right now. With the birds and the view of the mountains, I could’ve spent the whole morning near the dock at the Purple Point Campground. But, I probably would’ve chosen a different spot to linger, since I don’t necessarily enjoy the smell of rotting kokanee (land-locked sockeye salmon).

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Many dead and dying kokanee salmon are flushed from Stehekin River into Lake Chelan. This one, and many others, accumulated at the dock for Purple Point Campground.

 

The road quickly leaves the lake and roughly parallels Stehekin River for the next 12 miles.

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Stehekin River rises and falls considerably from peak runoff in late spring to its low point in late summer. It’s come up at least a foot since rain returned to the area, but is still several feet below its seasonal high.

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Stehekin River

The river is fed by several tributaries. Rainbow Creek is probably the most well known. From a hanging valley, it pours over 300 foot high Rainbow Falls onto an alluvial fan.

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Many small tributaries of Stehekin River form alluvial fans where they encounter the valley bottom. Rainbow Falls is tucked back behind the trees at upper center.

Alluvial fans on the side of the valley are typically dry, fire prone habitats. Around Rainbow Falls, fire is managed through controlled burns, which keeps the understory clear and trees well spaced. Usually, only plants with very high tolerances for hot, dry soils live here. The soils on the alluvial fans aren’t particularly rich either, which is one reason my garden, located on the toe of one these fans, sucked this year.

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Several species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), also called kinnikinnik or bearberry, inhabit the area, especially in dry sites. Black bears feed on the berries, but I find them mealy and almost flavorless.

 

Shortly after Rainbow Falls, the pavement ends next to a talus slope….

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…and the road weaves its way on top of more alluvial fans and down to the floodplain.

Areas that are prone to flooding or have wet soils have a far higher proportion of deciduous trees, like black cottonwood and red alder, than the adjacent uplands.

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Along the whole route, I stopped frequently just to enjoy the scenery.

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At the boundary between Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and North Cascade National Park, the river flows through a narrow valley where wet and dry microhabitats can exist within feet of one another. Plant life here is fairly diverse. Most of North Cascades tree species are found growing in the upper Stehekin watershed, and it’s a good place for animals too. Often I find fresh bear scat and tracks on the roads and trails.

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Tracks from a black bear that had walked on the road not long before I passed through.

Near the end of the road, I was forced to cross the river on this rickety down tree.

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Just kidding. I crossed on a sturdy bridge.

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But, within a few more minutes was met with an ominous sign.

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Impassible Beyond Here

Habitats along Stehekin River are subject to change, especially when the river floods. Just beyond the sign, the road is washed away.

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Road’s End: A 500 year flood washed away large sections of the Stehekin Road in 2003.

Here, I turned back to enjoy the mostly downhill ride home. Of course, fall colors and scenery kept distracting me, so I didn’t ride too fast, just enough to remain comfortably warm.