We’re in the thick of the bear-watching season at Brooks River in Katmai National Park, Alaska, and I returned only recently from a two week trip to the river to host live bearcam events. I didn’t get enough sleep during that time, yet the fatigue was a minor inconvenience so I could experience the bears in person, and more importantly, share that experience with people around the world. Please tune into the bearcams every day for perhaps the best, live wildlife-watching experience on the internet.
On July 22 at 9 p.m. Eastern (6 p.m. Pacific), I’m joined by bearcam fan, national park volunteer, and fearless book club leader Stacey Schmeidel for a Q&A with Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA. Register for this event.
On July 29 at 6 p.m. Eastern (3 p.m. Pacific) I’ll talk with Heidi Carter, owner of Bogan Books in Fort Kent, Maine—the most northeastern bookstore in the United States. Join this event on the Bogan Books Facebook Page.
Bearcam is back for 2021, and while it’s still very early in the season several bears—including Grazer, Holly, and their yearlings—have made an appearance. As Rangers Naomi Boak and Lian Law discussed with me during our Welcome to Bearcam live chat, there are many fascinating storylines to follow this year. At the risk of offering a shameless plug, my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls, explores many of those stories too.
A dedicated book club has sprung up to discuss the book. At the end of each meeting, participants answer one question: If you could ask the author anything, what would be? Below, I’m happy to answer those questions. If you are interested in joining the book club for their next discussion on June 19 via Zoom, please sign up.
Questions from the club’s discussion of Part One: Creation and Discovery (May 29, 2021)
Can you clarify WHY there used to be fewer bears at the falls? In the past, were they hazed away? Did they stay away from the falls because anglers were given priority there?
In Part One of my book, I discuss the events that led to the proclamation of Katmai National Monument in 1918 and the monument’s evolution into one of the largest national parks in the United States. Bears were not a major tourist attraction at Brooks River until long after Brooks Lodge was established. It wasn’t because anglers were given priority. It was because the bear population was much smaller than today. The national monument was expanded in 1931 to include areas such as Brooks River to protect habitat for wildlife like bears, but:
By all accounts, few bears used the river when Brooks Lodge first opened for business in 1950. Bears and any type of bear-management activities were absent from the reports of the first rangers stationed at Brooks Camp. Ranger Russell Todd, for example, never saw a bear on foot in the summer of 1954. The presence of people alone was apparently enough of a deterrent to displace bears from the river except at night. In 1957, biologists conducting salmon research at Brooks River for the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported bears “loudly evident” every night during September at the salmon- counting weir strung across the head of the river.
How many bears lived within the monument at that time remains an open question, but it was likely not many. The population may even have been at a nadir, the result of decades of heavy hunting pressure near the monument and, I suspect, the lingering effects of the 1912 eruption. After a two- summer biological investigation of the monument in 1953 and 1954, Victor Cahalane reported: “It is impossible to make even a rough estimate of the population of bears in Katmai National Monument.” Yet he tried. According to his and other anecdotal sightings, including one from a pilot who claimed to have seen 60 bears along Savonoski River in early September 1954, Cahalane ventured that about 200 bears lived in the monument.
Steady levels of salmon and a reduction in hunting pressure outside the monument were probably the main factors that allowed the area’s bear population to slowly increase, but at Brooks Camp people inadvertently helped accelerate the bears’ use of the river. By the end of the 1960s, a small and growing contingent of bears had become accustomed to the easy access to unsecured food at nearby garbage dumps, the lodge’s burn barrels, and unsecured supplies. By the mid- 1970s, Brooks Camp had become well known as a place to find at least a few bears, and several had begun to fish in the river during the day when people were active. (Pg. 172-173, The Bears of Brooks Falls)
I will add that over the last 40 years, salmon runs in the Naknek River watershed have been quite strong and that, perhaps more than anything else, has allowed the bear population to increase in the park. Additionally, during much of that time, park staff management have emphasized minimizing bear-human conflicts. The experience of cubs that accompanied their mothers to Brooks River may now consist largely of relatively benign contacts with people. This probably allowed the number and proportion of adult bears tolerant of people to increase.
It sounds, from Mike’s description [in Chapter 3 — Ramble], that the outlet of Brooks Lake into Brooks River is pretty shallow. Could global warming threaten the snowfall on the mountains, dropping the level of the lake and halting the flow of the river? If so, could that be a risk in the near future?
Although I can only provide a speculative answer, and while Lake Brooks will be affected by a warmer atmosphere, its water flow may not change appreciably. Lake Brooks occupies a deep basin that is almost completely below the water table of the surrounding land. There are no glaciers in its headwaters, unlike nearby Naknek Lake, so it’s already adapted in a sense to a hydrology that is highly influenced by annual precipitation. Snowmelt is only one influence. After most of the snow melts from the watershed in late spring, then summertime rain seems to have the biggest influence on water levels in the lake. Wetter summers can raise lake levels more than a foot compared to dry summers. Importantly, much of its water is sourced from spring-fed streams and springs under the lake surface. So, even during drought years, the lake basin experiences some recharge.
Climate change is certainly altering Katmai’s landscape, both the land and water. In 2019, we saw the impacts of a very hot, dry summer on Brooks River. Water levels were quite low and water temperatures were quite hot during an early July heat wave that year. However, water continued to flow through the river, albeit at a reduced level.. That’s just one year, though. By the end of the century—especially if we don’t get our act together and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible—the summer of 2019 will be one of the coolest of this century. Droughts and heat waves may become the norm in Katmai. For more information on the present and future of Katmai’s climate, please see chapter 17 of The Bears of Brooks Falls.
Can you clarify the distance from Brooks River to Margot Creek? Is it common — or uncommon — to see “our” cam bears at Margot Creek?
The shoreline of Naknek Lake between Brooks River and Margot Creek is about 13 miles, well within a day’s walk for a brown bear. If a bear takes a few shortcuts through the forest, then the walk is closer to 10-12 miles.
Several identifiable Brooks River bears use Margot Creek in August including 402, 435 Holly, 480 Otis, and 856. I would not be surprised if there are others well. But, salmon are dispersed widely in central Katmai in August when bears fish at Margot Creek. Unlike early summer and early fall when Brooks River is the only place to fish, bears have many other alternatives to Margot Creek in mid summer so not all Brooks River bears need to go there.
Can you talk about your research process? The book draws on your personal experience — but it clearly draws on extensive research, too.
When I began drafting the manuscript, I thought most of my research was finished since I had to study a lot to prepare programs and talk about bears when I was a park ranger at Katmai and through my current job at explore.org. That head start was helpful but not thorough enough. It was merely the foundation to build upon.
As I wrote, I wanted to be sure that my facts and conclusions were backed up by personal observations, experience, and the best available science. While working on the manuscript, I probably spent half my time reading research and half my time writing.
I began writing each chapter by outlining it. Then after I established what I wanted to write about and the stories that would add depth to the facts, I read or skimmed through the relevant books and scientific papers that I saved previously to establish the basic facts that I wanted to include and confirm what I thought I knew. This led me down many rabbit holes. I probably read dozens of papers for some chapters, especially Chapter 4 on hibernation. Tracking down specific facts and, hopefully, ensuring that I represented them accurately in the book was a tedious yet necessary task. Readers deserve no less.
Not a bear question, but a question for you as an author: What did it hurt to leave out of the book? What did you have to omit that you wish you’d been able to keep?
Quite a lot, actually. For example, I drafted chapters on glaciation and the evolution of Brooks River, but after consulting with an editor I decided to cut those. They weren’t a great fit for the narrative I tried to build. I also wanted to include the story of Holly adopting a yearling 503 in 2014 but couldn’t find the right place for it when I outlined the book. I considered using that story as the framework for Chapter 5: Family, but since adoption in bears is so uncommon I thought it best to focus on a bear whose maternal experiences were engaging yet more typical. That’s how I settled on 273 and her cub for Chapter 5. I’m happy with the final result of that chapter, yet I still wish I had found a way for Holly to be a part of it.
Questions from the club’s discussion of Chapter 6: Mating Season (June 6, 2021)
What if a female [bear] doesn’t want to mate? How much “say” does she have in the decision?
The female bear can’t control estrus or the signals that indicate to males that she is in estrus. However, female bears seem to have a lot of say in the timing of copulation. Although male bears are much larger than females, I’ve never seen a male bear force himself on a female bear. Instead, he doggedly follows her until she is ready to accept his advances. I also wonder if prolonged courtship can provide female bears with the chance to shed a suitor that they do not prefer. As I write in the book, a bear’s sense of smell is so powerful that a female can’t hide from a male. But, since mating opportunities are so limited for males, it’s not uncommon for more than one male to catch the scent of an estrous female. A prolonged estrus cycle coupled with a lengthy courtship could increase competition between males—an unconscious way for her to attract the most “fit” mate.
What is the ratio of males/females at Brooks River?
It hovers near 50:50, but last year there were more females than males. Because large adult male bears occupy the most productive fishing spots at Brooks Falls, it can sometimes seem like there are more males on the river than females. In July 2020 park bear monitoring staff identified slightly more female bears than males (29 adult females, 22 adult males, 14 subadult females, 11 subadult males).
Can you talk a bit about inbreeding? It seems like a lot of the bears we see mating are likely related to each other…
There’s only one confirmed case (through DNA analysis) of consanguineous couplings (inbreeding) between related bears at Brooks River.
24 BB was a very dominant male bear at Brooks River from the late 1990s through 2007. He was the equivalent of 856 during that time, and because of his dominance few bears would ever challenge him for fishing spots or for access to estrus females. BB sired a litter with the female 209. Bear 402, who still uses Brooks River, was one of the cubs from that litter born in 1998. 24 BB then sired a litter with 402. The offspring from the 402/24 relationship were weaned by 402 and identified as independent bears, but have not been seen in many years. I should note that this is common among subadult bears and their absence may not be reflective of interbreeding between a father bear and a daughter bear.
The limited DNA analysis of bears in 2005-2007 did not document any litters from a mother/son relationship. I think it’s unlikely that a bear could mate with its mother for a couple of reasons. 1. Male bears compete for the opportunity to mate with females and a larger, more dominant male would certainly outcompete a younger male bear for access. So while a young male bear is mature enough to mate around age 6, he’s still quite small compared to older males. 2. Young male bears often disperse away from their mother’s home range, and consequently their ranges as adults might not overlap. Mother bears remember who their offspring are too, and mom is often intolerant of the approach of her former cubs (we sometimes see a mother charge her former cubs, even years after family breakup, almost as if she is saying, “I told you to leave. Now stay away”).
Katmai’s brown bear population is quite large and robust. About 2,200 bears were estimated to live wholly or partly within Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2007. Although, we don’t know its true frequency, inbreeding between bears is probably uncommon here since the population is so large.
Why do mating males want to keep females in sight? It seems like all this following females around would distract males from eating and getting fat.
Courtship between bears isn’t always a prolonged process. In fact, sometimes bears couple soon after meeting. Potential male suitors, therefore, need to guard access to their prospective mates, lest they lose a rare mating opportunity.
The pursuit of mating opportunities certainly distracts male bears from other life tasks like fishing for salmon. I remember one July when 856 seemed like he didn’t stop courting females for the entire month. While the other males at the river got their fill of fish, 856 fished only occasionally because he was more interesting in reproduction. Near the end of July, he looked well muscled from the exercise of the pursuit but looked as though he had little body fat.
856 often spends a lot of time courting females in early summer and less time fishing compared to many other adult bears. He can afford to do so because his high level of dominance provides access to fishing spots wherever he goes.
“Survival of the fittest” is often thought to refer to athletic fitness or survival instincts, when it is more accurately framed in terms of reproductive fitness. Perhaps the male bears who have the energy reserves and stamina to court female bears for long periods of time with little food are the most reproductively fit. It’s also important to consider that the bears’ mating season ends in early summer, just when food becomes plentiful in Katmai, so a male who doesn’t eat much in June has ample opportunities to make up for it during the next few months.
Questions from the book club’s discussion of Chapter 14: Boundaries (June 12, 2021)
Is there any research showing how reduced attendance during the 2020 pandemic affected the salmon and/or the bears?
As far as I know, there’s nothing publicly available yet. However, biologists at Katmai National Park expanded the bear-monitoring program last year to collect data that might help answer that question. It was an unexpected research opportunity to observe bears at Brooks River at a time of year when typically it is loaded with people.
Certainly the lack of people at the river in 2020, especially when the camp remained closed to the public, allowed bears more space to fish. The greatest influence on the distribution of bears last year, though, was salmon. The record run of sockeye salmon was overwhelming and it provided bears with ample feeding opportunities throughout the river. In a year with fewer fish, I don’t think we wouldn’t have seen bears using the lower river in early summer as much as they did in 2020, no matter how few people visited.
The bears at Brooks are perhaps more human-habituated than other bears. And yet, as 854 Divot’s story proves, they do wander outside the boundaries of the park, where they will encounter humans who don’t operate according to park rules. Can you offer some reassurance — or some insight — about how their human habituation might affect their fate outside park boundaries?
Habituation at Brooks River provides a bear with advantages. It allows access to parts of the river that may otherwise be off limits if the bear isn’t tolerant of people. At Brooks River, people are especially tolerant of bears too through both attitude and regulations designed to protect bears.
Outside the park, they may not encounter the same tolerance. Having a bear prowling outside your cabin at Brooks Camp is one thing. Having it do so near your children and pets is another.
If a habituated bear wanders into King Salmon, for example, its tolerance for humans may lead it to temptation in the form of unsecured food and trash. A habituated bear could more easily become conditioned to seek human foods in that situation. Bears encounter much greater risks around people in those places than they do at Brook Camp.
Some biologists I’ve spoken to speculate that habituation could be context specific. That is, a bear might be able to learn that people in one location are tolerant while people in another location are dangerous. I think this is plausible but I’m not yet convinced it works that way for most bears. Further research is needed.
August 6, 2015. I stand at the crest of Katmai Pass, remarkably alone in an exceptionally quiet place, not having seen or spoken to a person in five days. Surrounded by wildness, I couldn’t help but think of the transformational moments that occurred here about 100 years before.
While wildlife such as brown bears take center stage in Katmai National Park today, volcanoes originally placed Katmai on the world map. Each national park is unique, but Katmai stands apart from all others for a landscape that did not exist before June 6, 1912.
An extinct fumarole in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
On June 6, 1912, around 1 p.m. in the afternoon, Novarupta volcano exploded at the head of the isolated Ukak River valley. The eruption continued for 60 hours, plunging the region into darkness. It was the largest eruption of the 20th century and the fifth largest in recorded human history. Novarupta unleashed roughly 4 cubic miles of ash and 2.6 cubic miles of pyroclastic flows. In total, this represents 3 cubic miles of underground magma, an output greater than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and 30 times more than the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. The eruption drained a magma chamber underneath the 7,600-foot Mount Katmai, creating a 2,000 foot deep caldera, and flooded the area near Novarupta in hundreds of feet ash and pumice.
In the aftermath, the Katmai area, particularly the mainland Pacific coastline and interior regions near Mount Katmai became uninhabited. What seemed to be a wasteland, however, would soon inspire the movement to establish Katmai National Park.
Robert Griggs was a professor of botany at Ohio State University when, in 1915, he led a National Geographic Society expedition to explore vegetative recovery on Kodiak Island. About of foot of ash fell on Kodiak in 1912 and Griggs found the town “bleak and desolate” with only tall shrubs, trees, and hardy perennials surviving above the ash when he visited in 1913.
Upon his return to Kodiak in 1915, however, Griggs found a wholly different place. The island was verdant. As he recalled, “[I] could not . . . believe my eyes. It was not the same Kodiak I had left two years before. . . . I had come to study the revegetation, but I found my problem vanished in an accomplished fact.” Griggs concluded the foot-deep ash, rather than killing the hardy perennials underneath, served as a mulch that retained soil moisture and suppressed competition for space and nutrients.
Instead of remaining on Kodiak watching the grass grow, Griggs decided to explore the area closer to the eruption center with his remaining time. Landing in Katmai Bay with two expedition companions, Griggs discovered a strikingly different scene than the greenery of Kodiak, one that he described as an “entrance to another world.” It seemed the entire world was covered in ash. Traveling conditions were so difficult—they routinely encountered thigh-deep quicksand and dangerous river crossings—that the team could not ascend far up the valley. The little he saw, though, convinced Griggs that the area was worthy of further exploration.
The next year, 1916, Griggs returned determined to reach Mount Katmai, then thought to be the sole source of the 1912 eruption. His larger and better-equipped expedition slogged up valley that July and eventually climbed Mount Katmai, becoming the first people to gaze into its 2,000-foot deep caldera.
While on the caldera rim, Griggs thought he saw wisps steam wafting from the far side of the volcano. He would soon discover what lay on the other side but was wholly unprepared for what he saw. I’ll let this excerpt from my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls, describe what happened next.
July 31, 1916 was a tiresome day for Griggs and his two partners, Donovan Church and Lucius Folsom. Their legs remained fatigued from their second Mount Katmai climb and the ash beds offered little firm ground to stand on.
Not far from the highest point in Katmai Pass, Church gave out, “incapacitated by too many flapjacks at breakfast” and waited while Griggs and Folsom continued onward. Griggs’ first glimpse through the pass didn’t hint of much worth investigating except more ash and pumice, but just as he considered turning back a tiny puff of steam caught his attention. This fumarole, or volcanic gas vent, wasn’t particularly large, but the day was damp and chilly so Griggs used it practically, warming his hands in the condensing steam. Shortly afterward he spotted another plume rising from a larger fumarole in the distance. Curiosity hastened Griggs forward and he climbed a small hillock for a better vantage.
“The sight that flashed into view . . . was one of the most amazing visions ever beheld by mortal eye. The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor.
“After a careful estimate, we judged there must be a thousand whose columns exceeded 500 feet. I tried to ‘keep my head’ and observe carefully, yet I exposed two films from my one precious roll in trying for pictures that I should’ve known were impossible. For a few moments we stood gaping at the awe inspiring vision before us…It was as though all the steam engines in the world, assembled together, had popped their safety valves at once and were letting off steam in concert.”
With the day waning and Church still waiting on the other side of Katmai Pass, Griggs and Folsom had little time to explore further, but this was truly virgin territory. No one had set foot in this valley since the eruption irreparably altered it. No one had felt the hot earth under their shoe leather or warmed their hands next to the fumaroles. No one had seen the eruption’s epicenter, the steaming dark gray lava dome Griggs would later name Novarupta. After roughly estimating the number and extent of visible fumaroles, he christened the landscape the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Griggs didn’t return to his base camp until very late in the day. Despite his fatigue he found sleep impossible, his mind whirling with thoughts about the valley he had just found. The landscape was “unseen and unsuspected…until this hour…I had yet only a very inadequate conception of the place we had discovered, but I had seen enough to know that we had accidentally discovered one of the great wonders of the world. I recognized at once that the Katmai district must be made a great national park, accessible to all the people, like Yellowstone.”
Griggs returned home later that summer and began immediately to lobby for a national park in the Katmai region. With the support of the National Geographic Society and their contacts in the federal government, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Katmai National Monument in 1918.
Standing in Katmai Pass about 100 years later, I thought of the moments that Griggs and Folsom experienced as they wandered into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes for the first time. With the heat trapped in the ash and pumice having almost completely dissipated, there are no fumaroles in the pass today. Large lava flows from the southwest flank of Mount Trident, even fresher than the 1912 deposits, constrict the valley leading to the pass from the south. A wrinkled cryptogamic soil covers much of the pumice, anchoring the airy gravel in place. The veneer of glaciers on the nearby volcanoes has thinned as the climate continues to warm.
Still, the scene remains remarkably similar to that in which Griggs experienced. No roads or maintained trails snake their way into the Valley or the pass. The views are unimpaired. No light pollution reaches its night skies. In calm weather, your footsteps and heartbeat are often the only sounds—a quiet so immense that the rip of a jacket’s zipper feels like an intrusion. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is contradictory, both wholly different and very much the same as it was when it inspired Griggs to pursue permanent protection for a unique landscape on the face of the Earth.
In 1912, the Alaska Peninsula was forever changed. Rarely has a single event—one that humans witnessed—catalyzed the creation of a national park. If you’ve been fortunate enough to experience the sublimity of wild landscape then perhaps you’ve also experienced something akin to what Griggs felt at Katmai Pass in 1916. The legacy of the discovery of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes continues to shape the history of Katmai.
Looking north in Katmai Pass near the spot where Griggs and Folsom found their first fumarole. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is found just beyond Mount Cerberus at center.
It’s been two months since my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls, was released for your reading pleasure. Whether you’re fortunate enough to visit Brooks River in person or if you are a fan of the Brooks River bearcams on explore.org, I hope the book will become a valuable companion to your bear-watching experience. I’ve been pleased to find many people have enjoyed it and found its storylines to be enlightening.
I also hope it’s provoked your curiosity about bears, salmon, Katmai National Park, the history of national parks, and the evolving role that people play in parks and other wild landscapes. With bearcam season right around the corner (expect the cams to go live in mid to late June), I’m also coordinating with bookstores to host online talks about the book.
There’s been no designated place for readers to ask questions about the book though, so let this post serve that purpose. If you have a question or a comment about something you read in The Bears of Brooks Falls, then please drop it in the comments. I’ll do my best to reply. And, of course, I’ll be online almost everyday during bearcam season to answer your questions about bears and salmon as the resident naturalist with explore.org.
I never understood how difficult writing a book can be until I tried it. The brainstorming. The planning. The research. Pitching agents (none were interested). Pitching publishers (I got lucky). The worry. The self-doubt. The first draft. The first, second, and third revisions. The Nth revisions.
Finally, after months and sometimes years, you’re left with a book that you hope will bring some joy and meaning to people and place. Writing The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Brooks River is the culmination of my years of study and observation at one of the most unique and special places in America’s national parks.
Through the drafting process, I wrote, revised, and cut more sentences and paragraphs than I can remember. While revision is often difficult, this is where, for me, the pleasure of writing expresses itself most often. Only through revision can I work through the nonsense and polish the narrative so it reads—I hope—in a logical, intelligent, and engaging manner.
During the drafting and revision process, I cut large sections and even whole chapters from the final manuscript as I discovered new or more concise ways to frame the story of Brooks River. Today, I present a chapter sacrificed for the greater good. Some of it was incorporated into the print and digital versions of The Bears of Brooks Falls, but as I progressed deeper into the manuscript I realized this particular essay needed to be cut so that the narrative could focus more on the brown bears, salmon, and people of Brooks River. I present it here as an online-only chapter for your reading pleasure, illustrated with photos and only lightly edited from its final draft.
Sit back and relax. This is a long read.
In the coming weeks, please check my blog and Twitter feed to find details about how to order signed copies of The Bears of Brooks Falls. And, be sure to ask for it at your favorite independent bookstore. The book ships out March 9, 2021.
I open the gate on the north side of the campground and latch it behind me, careful to avoid the live wires strung horizontally from post to post. The electric fence is an oddity for a national park campground, yet one that is necessary to prevent bears from pressing their noses against the sides of nylon tents.
Outside the campground, following a narrow trail through forest, the world seems to shrink. Thick vegetation limits views of the surrounding landscape. The Dumpling Mountain Trail ascends through a thick understory of head-high grass, shrubby willows, and the corduroyed stalks of cow parsnip. Above the trail hovers a semi-closed canopy of birch and poplar leaves. I’m eager to reach the tree line, which the regional climate keeps at about 1,000 feet above sea level in central Katmai, and explore more open vistas. I march on despite the trail’s steepness.
After forty minutes of brisk travel, I arrive at a small rocky knob where the forest transitions to alder thickets and grassy meadows speckled with the occasional white spruce. Here I stop, not so much because I am winded, but because the perch is one of my favorite spots to loiter.
A complex wilderness panorama stretches to every horizon. A rugged volcanic arc—the ragged crest of the Aleutian Range—marks the eastern and southern skylines. Flanked by reposed Mount La Gorce and the sharp, angular ridges of Mount Katolinat, Naknek Lake emerges from the foot of the mountains and fills much of the nearby low elevations. Directly south, Brooks River meanders through dense spruce forests before its clear water spins in lazy plumes as it mixes with the turquoise water of the glacial lake.
Without catching a plane ride this overlook provides one of the only places to view the river in its entirety. Brooks River and Brooks Falls look insignificant on the scale of the surrounding landscape. Had I first stumbled up Dumpling Mountain with no prior knowledge of the falls, I’d be hard pressed to even notice the line of white foam marking it.
My gaze shifts back to the mountains and lingers on Mount Mageik, a glacially clad volcano about 30 miles to the southeast. Low clouds and precipitation obscure its coalesced summits from this vista on many days, but today’s weather is atypical. Few clouds hover in the sky and the wind is relatively calm. Under bright sun, Mageik’s glaciers seem so pure and fixed, but this is an illusion of time and scale.
I cannot see the glaciers slowly wearing down Mageik, nor will I live long enough to witness anything more than superficial glacial erosion on it, but the view provokes me to ponder the sea of glacial change that shaped this land. The shape of the valleys and lakes below me, the sediments that Brooks River erodes, and even the color of Naknek Lake are all products of glaciers. The full story of Katmai’s glaciers spans a geologic epoch and reaches to land now flooded by the Bering Sea. Until relatively recently, glaciers were this area’s most ubiquitous and prominent agent of geologic change.
Mageik’s glaciers, like all glaciers, are a product of climate, and the Alaska Peninsula has a well-deserved reputation as a damp and chilly place. Climate data for the region is limited, but enough has been gathered from airport and remote automated weather stations to draw some conclusions about the precipitation patterns affecting the area’s glacier formation and growth.
Katmai National Park lies at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, a northeast-southwest trending arc of land jutting into the North Pacific and Bering Sea. The peninsula’s location and orientation expose it to the vast majority of storms bred from the Aleutian Low, a semi-permanent low-pressure system originating near the outer Aleutian Islands. The peninsula’s mountains represent a major topographical barrier to these northeast-tracking storms, forcing warm oceanic air to rise and cool. Water vapor condenses under these conditions and frequently falls as rain or snow. If the day’s weather is damp at Brooks Camp, it is almost certainly wetter along the crest of the Aleutian Range. While inland valleys north and west of the Aleutian Range are spared the full brunt of Pacific and Bering Sea storms, they still may receive about 40 inches of precipitation per year. At higher elevations, though, precipitation increases dramatically. Computer models indicate the volcanic peaks, like Mount Mageik, where snow can accumulate year-round, receive over 98 inches (250 cm) of annual precipitation, enough to qualify as a rainforest if trees could grow there. When global temperatures were as much as 10˚C colder during the Pleistocene Epoch, about 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago, most precipitation over the Alaska Peninsula fell as snow and little melted compared to today. Conditions were ripe for the formation and growth of glaciers.
Thirty thousand years ago, Dumpling Mountain was an island in a glacial sea. Even the overlook where I sit, over 700 feet above Naknek Lake, was smothered by ice. Naknek Lake, the Brooks River area, and nearly all of Katmai were buried. From an ice cap centered over Cook Inlet and Shelikof Strait, glaciers pushed west and north through gaps in the Aleutian Range near Lake Iliamna and Becharof Lake. Ice overrode almost all of nearby Kodiak Island and all of Cook Inlet to the northeast. Glaciers sourced from the volcanic peaks moved through the entire Naknek Lake watershed and over the future site of Brooks River. Almost no land was exposed in Ice Age Katmai except for rare nunataks, isolated mountains projecting above the ice and snow. Off of Alaska’s southern coast, ice extended to the outer edge of the continental shelf, over what is now only open ocean. Glaciers covered three hundred thousand square kilometers of the Alaska Peninsula, an area about as large as Arizona.
Similar scenes were found across the Northern Hemisphere when ice covered as much as 30 percent of Earth’s surface. In North America, ice sheets reached beyond the present locations of Boston, New York City, and Chicago. Glaciers trapped so much water to lower sea levels by almost 400 feet compared to present day. As a result, Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea, now harboring one of the world’s most valuable fisheries, didn’t exist. In their place, low sea levels exposed Beringia, the subcontinent connecting western Alaska and eastern Siberia. In Katmai, there were no bears or salmon. No forests or lakes. No people. Almost no habitat for the living. Ice was the most extensive and dominant force of change.
Amazingly, all glaciers begin as fragile snowflakes. Snow is ice, but it isn’t very dense. By volume, newly fallen snow is ninety percent air, and individual snowflakes break easily as they settle, compress, or become wet. Freshly fallen snow seems inconsequential to rock. Given enough time and the right conditions, though, snow transforms into a force powerful enough to move mountains.
Snow turns into glacier ice in several stages. First, old snow must survive through summer into winter when it can become buried by new snow. Surviving snow has a granular texture and become harder and denser as it compress under the weight of succeeding layers. Typically within a year, snow granules reach a density about half of liquid water and become firn, an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice. In its transition to glacier ice, firn recrystallizes and changes shape repeatedly under the influences of percolating melt water, freeze-thaw cycles, and the weight of additional snow. Lastly, firn completes its transformation into glacial ice when air is either squeezed out or trapped as bubbles. In temperate areas this process can transform airy snowflakes into dense blue ice in as little as five years.
A block of ice makes not a glacier, however. Take an ice cube out of the freezer, set it on a table, strike it with a hammer and it will fracture. Due to their mass, the ice inside glaciers behaves differently. Glacial ice experiences enormous pressure, so much so that only the upper 100 feet of temperate glaciers are brittle (a fact revealed by the relatively consistent maximum depth of crevasses). Below this depth, pressure from the overlying ice deforms the ice beneath to seal any voids. Cavities at the base of glaciers have been measured to seal as fast as 10 inches per day. A true glacier flows and deforms under its own mass.
The ice is not impervious to liquid water though. Within the glacier, ice remains at or slightly above freezing, and meltwater percolates to the glacier’s base. High pressure at the base of a glacier also causes melting. Meltwater under a glacier acts as a lubricant helping the glacier slide. These factors, combined with gravity’s pull, drive glaciers along the paths of least resistance.
Not that glaciers stop when they encounter resistance. The erosional power of glaciers can substantially transform a landscape. Glacial movement works the earth like a bulldozer and a rock crusher. The ice erodes and entrains rock, sand, and anything else by plucking or abrading it away from the glacier’s base and sides. Stones and debris at a glacier’s bed are especially powerful erosive tools, grinding and crushing rock further. Much of the eroded debris is swept into the glacier’s interior where deformation and sliding eventually carry it into the glacier’s ablation zone, the area on a glacier where ice is lost and all of the previous winter’s snow melts. Advancing glaciers accumulate and eventually deposit thick mantles of till this way.
Over several large stades, or individual advances, glaciers quarried much of the Aleutian Range. Marching toward Beringia, they carried their eroded cargo far from its source and dropped it when climate no longer supported further advance. The largest, oldest, and most extensive glacial deposits in the region are too far away for me to see from the overlook, but when I turn and face southwest I glimpse a fraction of their extent. Beyond the western shore of Lake Brooks, the mountains stop and a broad plain stretches to the horizon. The power and work of glaciers is demonstrated dramatically by the mere fact this area, the Bristol Bay lowlands, even exists.
The nearest communities to Brooks River, King Salmon and Naknek, sit well within the lowlands. It’s a buggy, waterlogged place harboring millions of acres of wetlands and tundra. If the Aleutian Range volcanoes and coastal fjords on Shelikof Strait define Katmai’s ruggedness, then the lowlands represent its smoother alter ego, or so it would appear. Hiking on the wet tundra removes the façade. It is an exhausting slog over sedge tussocks that feel and behave underfoot like piles of water-laden pillows. Wind is about the only thing that crosses the lowlands easily, which provides respite from summer’s vampiric black flies but also brings life-threatening cold in winter.
With exceptions for wind-born volcanic ash, sediments reworked by water, and a mantle of peat and vegetation, the Bristol Bay lowlands were entirely created by the glaciers’ assault on the mountains. These are the oldest glacial deposits in the Katmai region, at least 40,000 years old. The till and outwash is even older near the town of Naknek and the Bering Sea coast, exceeding the age limits of radio carbon dating. Glaciers removed so much material from the mountains and carried it to the coastal plain that half of the Alaska Peninsula is glacially derived. Without these glacial deposits, at twentieth century sea levels the Aleutian Islands would begin fewer than 200 miles from Brooks River and water pouring over Brooks Falls would nearly reach tidewater. Naknek Lake would likely be a marine embayment.
The Ice Age was a time of profound geologic change, when the surface of Katmai and Brooks River was constantly reworked by ice. Glacial movements across the region were inconsistent, however. For tens of thousands of years, in response to a fluctuating climate, the area’s glaciers advanced and receded in fits and starts. Within the last 30,000 years, they plowed ahead many separate times. In between stades, when climatic conditions grew too warm, they stagnated or shrunk. West of the park, near King Salmon and Naknek, only faint hills of low relief trace the maximum extent of the most ancient stades, but younger and less extensive advances have been less affected by post-glacial erosion. Their signatures are scribed over the entire Naknek Lake basin.
The last glacier to entirely fill the area now occupied by Naknek Lake, which I refer to informally as the Naknek glacier, reached its greatest extent no sooner than 23,000 years ago. Part of an advance called the Iliamna Stade, it carried ice 60 miles from its source area on the Aleutian Range to its terminus on the lowlands. Topography funneled this glacier into mountain valleys, but to the west of Dumpling it was unbound and free to deform in multiple directions.
Perhaps the best modern analog for the shape and behavior of the ancient Naknek glacier may be Malaspina Glacier in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. Malaspina originates high in the Saint Elias Mountains where extensive ice fields more closely resemble high Antarctic landscapes than anything else in North America. As the ice flows to lower elevations, topography sufficiently constrains its source glaciers to valleys. But the Malaspina faces no such barrier as it flows beyond the mountains onto a coastal plain at the edge of the Pacific. Free of the restricting mountain topography, Malaspina deforms outward like a fan of thick batter spilled onto a tabletop. During the Iliamna Stade, circa 30,000 years ago, Naknek glacier looked much the same, flowing from roots in the mountains to a bulbous terminus at the edge of the lowlands. No glacial advance since has been as extensive or influential to Katmai’s geography, ecology, and history.
The Naknek glacier’s size, extent, and erosive power allowed it to accumulate huge amounts of till near its terminus. Much of its eroded debris was trapped within the ice and carried forward. Lesser amounts were pushed ahead as the glacier acted like an indiscriminate bulldozer. When the ice stagnated or receded, the reworked earth was dropped in place creating a terminal moraine, the ridge of till at the farthest reach of the glacier’s snout.
The glaciers of the Iliamna stade, especially the Naknek, thoroughly shaped the modern-day lake basins surrounding Brooks River. Its maximum advance is clearly inscribed on the land by the terminal moraine that now dams Naknek Lake. From the air this moraine, known locally as Pike Ridge, looks like a bore tide of earth flowing toward Bristol Bay. The moraine’s surface is uneven, hummocky, and pockmarked by kettle lakes. Vegetation covers most of it, hiding the raw frigidness of its formative time, but debris of all sizes, everything from clay and sand to car-sized boulders dot its surface. The moraine’s breadth—it spoons the western edge of Naknek Lake for 19 miles north to south—reveals how massive the glacier was as it greatest extent.
Near the end of the Pleistocene a warming climate never allowed the Naknek glacier to flow as far the Pike Ridge moraine. Each subsequent re-advance was eventually met by warmer and warmer conditions. The erosive and depositional influences of glaciers were waning even as the ice continued to leave its mark.
Between 23,000 and 10,000 years ago, several younger advances plowed through the same basins as the Naknek. While they failed to advance as far as the Iliamna stade, these smaller valley-filling glaciers were not inconsequential. They reworked previously deposited till, eroded bedrock further, and formed large moraines that are still visible. The North Arm of Naknek Lake and the west end of Lake Brooks are constrained by moraines from one such re-advance, the Newhalen Stade. Twenty thousand years ago, a last major resurgence pushed ice though Iliuk Arm toward Dumpling Mountain and the future site of Brooks River, halting only two miles from the present day river mouth.
The Iliuk was the last great stade in Katmai, and its moraine is one of the most prominent geologic features within my line of sight. Iliuk Arm, Naknek Lake’s southeastern-most appendage, sits on its far side. Water from Iliuk Arm flows into greater Naknek Lake through a breach in the moraine, a break which creates fingers of land reaching toward each other like the outstretched arms in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
The slopes of Mount La Gorce and Katolinat dip steeply behind Iliuk moraine where the lake plunges to great depths. Unlike Naknek Lake’s western basin where glaciers were free to splay in broad lobes, the mountain topography on either side of Iliuk Arm restricted the outward flow of ice, but not its forward movement or erosive power. The topographical pinch enhanced and accelerated downward erosion in Iliuk Arm, over-deepening it. While the far western basin of Naknek Lake is often a mere 30 feet deep or less, the abyss of Iliuk Arm is at least 580 feet deep. With Naknek Lake’s surface averaging about 30 feet, Iliuk Arm reaches at least 550 feet below sea level.
All of these events have come and gone. Glaciers no longer spill into Iliuk Arm or threaten to overrun the overlook where I sit. No glacier has even advanced within 16 miles of the Iliuk moraine after it formed. Since then, Katmai’s glaciers have retreated to the crest of the Aleutian Range where volcanoes like Mount Mageik still harbor the right climate for their formation. Katmai’s glaciers are remnants of their former selves, yet I need not search long to see evidence that they still work the mountains. Through binoculars I spy Naknek Lake’s largest tributaries at the far end of Iliuk Arm, Savonoski and Ukak rivers. These rivers collectively drain much of central Katmai and each carry astounding loads of sediment eroded by glaciers on the Aleutian Range volcanoes.
I first canoed Savonoski River after paddling for two tranquil days on Lake Grosvenor, a crystal clear lake fed only by springs, unclouded creeks, rain, and snow. My canoe partner and I paddled casually to Grosvenor’s outlet stream. Conditions were placid and there wasn’t much of a need to rush. We relaxed at Grosvenor’s outlet as the flow pulled us downstream. After an hour of easy paddling, our trance was broken when we saw the outlet merge with Savonoski River. It was the antithesis of Grosvenor’s calm.
Savonoski was murky, swift, braided, and shockingly cold. There was no reliable way to judge any one channel’s depth from a distance. The water was so turbid that my fingertips disappeared from view mere inches below the surface. The river didn’t just look thick. It sounded thick, hissing with fine rock that sang off of the bottom of the aluminum canoe. We watched whole spruce trees tumble in the muddy water and carefully avoided others sweeping perpendicularly into the current. Near Naknek Lake, the river spread wide at its confluence with Ukak. On this delta, Iliuk Arm looked like a fjord on a stormy coastline.
Savonoski’s characteristics—icy water, braided channels, and the heavy sediment load—mark it as a classic glacially fed river. Its water pours out of the Hook and Serpent Tongue glaciers, which incessantly grind down some of the tallest volcanoes in Katmai. Much of the river’s larger sediments never arrive in Iliuk Arm, having been dropped anywhere the river’s energy is too weak to carry them further, but the glaciers mill some rock so finely it becomes microscopic, clay-sized bits called rock flour.
The name is apt. Rock flour has the size and texture of the finest white bread flour, ranging from 1 – 100 microns (a micron or micrometer is one millionth of a meter). The biggest rock flour particles, generally larger than 40 microns, are temporary inhabitants of the water column. They remain suspended if the water is continuously disturbed; such is the case in the fast moving Savonoski River where the water resembles a pale gray milk, but the bigger particles tend to sink quickly after reaching the calmer lake. The smallest rock flour particles, however, have a tendency to repel one another, not flocculate, which would cause them clump to sink faster. They are so small that friction in the water column allows them to remain in suspension for months even though they are insoluble. This makes the lake water in Iliuk Arm and near the mouth of Brooks River colloidal, a mix of microscopic insoluble particles (like rock flour) suspended in a second substance (like water). While many lakes in northern latitudes are exceptionally clear (visibility in nearby Lake Brooks extends dozens of feet into the water column) Iliuk Arm holds so much rock flour that visibility is often less than three feet many miles from the Savonoski.
Rock flour’s physical and chemical characteristics lend a deep vibrancy to Iliuk Arm. Naknek Lake shimmers opaquely, but not the pewter tone of lakes under overcasts skies. Instead it’s a garish turquoise blue. Suspended in the water column, rock flour scatters blue and green wavelengths of light exceptionally well creating the rich hues that meets my eyes. Drifting on Iliuk Arm in a kayak on a calm sunny day, surrounded by blue above and enveloped by turquoise underneath, looks and feels like paddling in sky.
Iliuk Arm and other glacially fed lakes owe their alluring look to the microscopically ground rock, but in many ways this is the least of the changes wrought by glaciers. Katmai and the Brooks River area were profoundly changed by ice. Almost every surface feature I see from the overlook has felt the effects. Glaciers repeatedly scoured the land and enveloped it for thousands of years. They ground much of the mountains to powder and moved a lot of the rest nearly to the Bering Sea. Without glaciers, the history and ecology of Brooks River and the entire region would be profoundly different. Yet this is a landscape that continues to evolve. Glaciers only sculpted the stage.
References and Notes:
Aleutian Low and atmospheric ability to hold moisture: Shulski, M. and G. Wendler. 2007. The Climate of Alaska. University of Alaska Press. Pg. 59, 96-99.
Many thousands of years ago precipitation patterns were very similar across southwest Alaska: Hults, C. P. and J. Fierstein. 2016. Katmai National Park and Preserve and Alagnak Wild River: Geologic Resources Inventory report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR—2016/1314. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. Pg. 41.
Global temperatures were as much as 10˚C colder than today: Petit, J. R., et al. 1999. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature 399 (6735): 429–436.
Ice movement and glacial coverage on the Alaska Peninsula: Mann, D. H., and D. M. Peteet. 1994. Extent and Timing of the Last Glacial Maximum in Southwest Alaska. Quaternary Research 42: 136-148.
Newly fallen snow is ninety percent air: Collier, M. 2004. Sculpted by Ice: Glaciers and the Alaska Landscape. Alaska Geographic Association. Pg. 66.
Information on the properties of glacier ice, formation, deformation, and movement: Hambrey, M. and Jurg, A. 2004. Glaciers, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.
Cavities at the base of glaciers have been measured to contract and seal as fast as 25 centimeters per day: Lefeuvre, J. and Lappegard, H. 2015. Interannual Variability of Glacial Basal Pressure from a Twenty Year Record. Annals of Glaciology. V. 56. No. 70.
Ages of glacial stades in Katmai: Hults, C. P. and J. Fierstein. 2016. Katmai National Park and Preserve and Alagnak Wild River: Geologic Resources Inventory report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR—2016/1314. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Fifty percent of AK Peninsula is glacially derived, Aleutian Islands would begin a scant 300 kilometers from Brooks River: Detterman, R. L. 1986. Glaciation of the Alaska Peninsula. Pg. 151–170 in T. D. Hamilton, K. M. Reed, and R. M. Thorson, editors. Glaciation in Alaska: The geologic record. Alaska Geological Society, Anchorage, Alaska.
The best modern analogs for the shape and behavior of the ancient Naknek glacier may be Malaspina and Bering glaciers: I was first introduced to this comparison in Reihle, J. 2002. The Geology of Katmai National Park and Preserve. Publication Consultants.
Depth of Naknek Lake basins including Iliuk Arm: The exact depth of Naknek Lake is unknown. The estimates are based on sonar readings on boats in Naknek Lake; personal communications with Troy Hamon, Katmai’s Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources; and an unpublished lake bathymetry map provided by Chad Hults, geologist with the National Park Service, Alaska Regional Office.
Ben, D. I. 2009. Glacial Sediments, Pg. 382 inV. Gornitz, editor. Encyclopedia of Paleoclimatology and Ancient Environments. Springer.
Nichols, G. 2009. Sedimentology and Stratigraphy, 2nd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell. Pg. 107.
Friction in the water column allows [rock flour] to remain in suspension for months: As far as I know, this has not been empirically tested. However, Iliuk Arm retains its vibrant, turquoise hue even in winter when Savonoski River runs clear and flow out of Ukak River is at a bare minimum.
Visibility in Lake Brooks and Iliuk Arm: Moore, C. and J. Shearer. 2011. Water quality and Surface Hydrology of Freshwater Flow Systems in Southwest Alaska: 2010 Annual Summary Report. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SWAN/NRTR—2011/428. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
In September 2017, I took a brief trip to Brooks Camp, the world-famous bear-viewing site in Katmai National Park. This was a rare opportunity for me to visit for fun, as opposed to traveling there to work for the National Park Service or explore.org.
Bear watching is the most popular human activity at the river and the close proximity of Brooks River’s brown bears to the designated wildlife-viewing platforms makes for some exceptional photographic opportunities. However, I toted only a small point and shoot camera with a limited zoom. Taking good photographs, therefore, was challenging so I focused more on recording video of bears. Video can also provide a sense of scale that is sometimes difficult to capture in photos, especially when a titan is in the vicinity.
On the last morning of my trip, I found the colossal 747 walking out the river to challenge a competitor at Brooks Falls. This is what happened.
After I uploaded this video to YouTube, I hadn’t expected it to garner much attention, but a little more than three years later Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls is approaching one million views and has generated more than 3,500 comments.
When a video goes viral or becomes modestly popular, you can either let it develop a life of its own or attempt to heighten the experience. A captivating video is a chance to give people more than a few seconds of entertainment. It presents an opportunity.
People are naturally curious, especially so toward animals, but context and relatable, meaningful information are often needed to match that curiosity. How might those in the fields of heritage interpretation or science communication provide the casual viewer with a more meaningful experience? Here are a few of the strategies that I found successful with a short video about a fat bear.
Anticipate what a person with no context of the place or subject might need to know. The universe is a big place. Put yourself in the mindset of someone who does not have your experience or background. Although people relate to brown bears easily and on many levels (they definitely love a chonky bear), the natural history and ecology of these animals are not universally or even well known. I soon realized my modest video description was inadequate. Viewers were drawing conclusions and asking questions that I had not anticipated. They wanted to know more.
Get to know the demographics of your audience. If you read this blog regularly, you’re familiar with the bearcams in Katmai National Park. While the bearcams are extremely popular, receiving tens of millions of views each year, explore.org’s webcam analytics document that the bearcam audience skews heavily toward the female gender and adults over the age of 45. Analytics on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls, however, are much different. Viewers are typically 18 – 35 years old and overwhelming male.
That audience will likely react to and evaluate information differently than the typical bearcam commenter. And, they are relating to different things in the bear world. Knowing that, I might respond to questions and comments on the video in ways that I wouldn’t during a live chat on the bearcams.
If a video generates a lot of similar questions or leads people to make assumptions, write an FAQ to address those and then put it some place obvious. When the views on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls began to skyrocket, I took mental notes on the questions it generated to see if there was a pattern, while keeping in mind that the internet is a big place where people from all over the world can access the video. In addition to the questions people were asking, the number of comments prompted me to consider how I could provide further context. I identified three questions originally, wrote concise answers for them, and pinned the FAQ to the top of the video comments.
The FAQ didn’t stop people from asking questions (and I didn’t it want it to), but it caused the queries to change. Questions became less repetitive. They branched to other facets of bear biology. Plenty of people appear to be reading the FAQ as well. As of this writing, the FAQ on Giant Fat Bear has 2.8 thousand likes and zero dislikes.
The FAQ proved to be particularly valuable in ways that I did not expect. Much of the internet is little more than websites recycling (to state it mildly) the work of others. When the video first began to trend in 2018, the FAQ was often the only source of info used by websites looking to generate click-bait content based off my video. It was used in the prestigious Daily Mail, for example, to produce one of the tabloid’s most fact-laden articles ever.
When in doubt, assume that a person asks questions in good faith. It’s not always easy to discern the difference between questions asked in good or bad faith, and trolls should not be engaged. However, each person experiences life through the lens of a unique worldview and knowledge base. Furthermore, access to open space and outdoor recreation (both physically and inclusively) is far too limited for many people, especially among those that experience racism and discrimination. Yet biophilia and an instinctual curiosity reverberates through each of us, and by asking a question a person signals that they want to learn.
This is why I included “Are you making fun of the bear’s fatness?” in the FAQ. It’s not dumb to not know much about bears. Most of us don’t have easy access to bear habitat, let alone the opportunity to observe wild bears. People also post a lot of offensive stuff online. Given the unfortunate status quo of social media, I don’t fault anyone for thinking I might’ve been making fun of a fat bear instead of simply describing him. It is not obvious to everyone that bears must get fat in order to survive.
Think carefully about offers to license your content. Video distribution agencies prowl social media sites looking for engaging videos to add to their collections. Their offers to license and distribute your video look appealing at first glance, but I eventually rejected them all. Providing meaningful information and context was more valuable to me than the ten cents I might make through a third party distributor. I was particularly hesitant because some viral media companies distribute wildlife videos and spread them without context or even checking to see that video was recorded ethically. By rejecting these solicitations, I sacrificed reach but remained in control of the flow of information.
Lastly, choose a catchy title for your video but also one that isn’t confusing. Some comments on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls suggest that a handful of people read the title literally and expected to see a giant fat bear fall.
I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing how this simple video has inspired interest in bears, art, memes, and eventually helped to propel 747 to Fat Bear Week greatness.
As I draft this post, Giant Fat Bear continues to generate questions and comments. Many of the comments are simple jokes, but I still count those as a win. It means that a person was engaged. For those few seconds (and more if they asked a question) they were thinking about bears.
I have no allusion that leaving a comment on a video is the same as stewardship and advocacy for wild animals. But the first step towards stewardship is awareness and understanding. As Freeman Tilden, the founder of modern heritage interpretation, wrote in Interpreting Our Heritage, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” We get there one step at a time and we get there more easily with guides along the way.
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.
In a year of heightened political polarization, there’s one candidate that rises above the rest. He’s a candidate for greatness. A candidate for change. He campaigns on a platform of success, skill, efficiency, and hard work. He is known simply as 747 and he deserves your vote for Fat Bear Week.
Seven-four-seven is a titan, a tank, and a giant among bears. Holly might pledge a “salmon in every paw,” but 747 pledges just to eat salmon.
Seven-four-seven’s size is legend. At the Brooks River, few bears approach his size class, and as a result he has consistently ranked among the river’s most dominant bears. His measured size even surprised me, however. Through a novel use of terrestrial laser scanning technology, he was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds in September 2019. This summer he appears to be at least as large, but I suspect he’s even bigger.
A bear can’t get this big without eating a lot of food, and Brooks River provides 747 with ample opportunity to get fat. Brooks River is part of the Bristol Bay watershed, an area that supports the last great salmon run on Earth. While salmon runs throughout much of North America struggle to cope with the combined impacts of impassible dams, incompatible land-use changes, and climate change, Bristol Bay continues to support tens of millions of salmon each year. Almost 58 million fish collectively returned to Bristol Bay in 2020, and the salmon run in the Naknek River watershed was exceptional. More than four million sockeye swam up the Naknek River between mid June and late July. The Naknek drainage may have supported the largest single salmon run on Earth this year. About twenty percent of those salmon–maybe 800,000 fish–entered Brooks River.
At Brooks Falls, 747 sat or stood waiting for his meals to come to him. He consistently capitalized on the vulnerability of salmon in the shallow, bubble-filled water. For a winter hibernator like 747, an individual who must eat a year’s worth of food in fewer than six months to survive, efficiency is a valuable trait to express.
Some pundits have called my support for 747 unwavering. Yet, I’m always on the lookout for a better candidate. This year, however, I’ve failed to find evidence of another Fat Bear Week contender that is fatter than 747. Whether you look at fatness as a proportional measure of body size or just through overall size, 747 has both bases covered.
A police department in Colorado even mistook 747 for a large boulder the size of a small boulder.
One person [who I am married to but will go unnamed] has maybe jokingly called me the “worst campaign manager ever,” because my candidate never wins. She might be correct. Despite my prior lobbying efforts, 747 has yet to win Fat Bear Week. Over the last several years, 747 has been snubbed by the voting public who viewed competitors like Otis, Lefty, Beadnose, and Holly as proportionally fatter.
But mark my words, dear readers. This is 747’s year. Cast your Fat Bear Week vote for the bear who shares an identification number with a jet airplane.
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.