Walking back to camp is always an adventure in-and-of-itself at Brooks Camp.
Here, deep in the remote Alaskan Peninsula at Katmai National Park, you find yourself surrounded by gigantic brown bears.
At this point in September the bears here can weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds, and this place ain’t no zoo.
The clock ticked on, and the night grew darker on our group’s first evening at Katmai this past September. But, the fire inside the circular stone fireplace inside Brooks Lodge roared, providing the most pleasant dry heat on this soaked evening. The conversation was lively, and the comfy couches and libations proved too good to keep track of the setting sun.
It was around 10 p.m. or so when some folks in our group began to realize it had gotten late, and with it pretty dang dark outside. What would be referred to as a “good time” to walk back to camp had passed us by. The walk between Brooks Lodge and camp is about a quarter-mile. The path leads through the woods, in the heart of bear country, where roughly 50 bears live in-and-around the relatively small Brooks area during the salmon spawn.
Folks packed up and were ready to brave the walk back to camp. As we left the comfort of the lodge we encountered a bit of a ‘hitch.’ Apparently a large bear had decided to bed down for the night right on the trail that leads back to our camp, which means that trail is now closed until he/she decides to move.
‘How do we get back to camp now?’ ‘This is already scary, man.’
The answer was a small social trail through a much thicker wooded area, considerably more nerve-wracking than the normal trail. A little bit darker, a lot less-traveled, and the potential for a bear encounter higher. We all made the more adventurous hike back to camp without incident, and earlier departure times on subsequent evenings seemed to happen organically going forward.
Thus is September at Katmai National Park, where Backcountry Journeys hosted for our Brown Bears of Katmai in the Fall tour three separate groups of brave wildlife photographers this September 7th through the 17th. Here, we set up camp along the shores of Naknek Lake, spending our days immersed with photographing Brown Bears as they fattened up on spawning salmon in preparation for winter hibernation.
What draws us to Katmai?
It is no secret that wildlife photographers are drawn to Katmai for the bears, and folks in our three groups were no exception. At pre-trip meetings, we discussed individual goals for the trip, and what we heard were very common and reciprocated answers. Those common goals were to see the bears and to get their own version of that incredibly famous Thomas Mangelsen image made at Brooks Falls. You know the one where the bear fishing on the lip of the falls catches a fish right in its mouth while turned ever-so-slightly towards the camera.
Brooks Falls is the best place in the world to see Brown Bears because it draws so many salmon, which in turn draws out the bears. The falls itself was created roughly 3,500 years ago when the waters of Naknek Lake carved through a glacial moraine where it sunk, separating what is now Brooks Lake from Naknek Lake.
After roughly two years at sea, salmon return to freshwater rivers and lakes in which they were born, looking to spawn. It is an uncontrollable urge, and their life’s quest and purpose. Early in the spawning season, most of the fish are in deeper lakes and rivers where they are more difficult to catch. Here, at the mouth of the Brooks River, the six-foot wall that creates Brooks Falls creates a temporary barrier to migrating salmon as they must navigate up the ledge. This delay creates excellent fishing for the bears at not only the falls but along the river and the mouth where the fish line up for a chance to jump the falls.
Where is Katmai National Park and how do we get there?
It may come as a surprise that Katmai National Park was originally established as a National Park for reasons that had nothing to do with the bears, or salmon, that now make it famous. The area was set aside in 1918 to protect a volcanically devastated region. In 1912 the eruption of Novarupta, which was the world’s largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, created the unique ‘Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes,’ which is an ash-filled valley covering a 40-square-mile area. It was only later that Katmai began to become much more famous for its population of Brown Bears and the salmon who bring them here.
There are only two ways to reach Brooks Camp, by seaplane or by boat. Our groups first travel from home to the village of King Salmon, Alaska, which is about an hour flight from Anchorage. After an evening in King Salmon, we take a seaplane as a group, landing right next to our camp on the shore of Naknek Lake.
The 18-minute flight is a fun one! The planes fly close enough to the ground that one can spot a random moose scavenging the shores of the lake, and the tops of the pine trees seem closer than you’d want them to be as first Brooks Lake comes into view, then Dumpling Mountain, Brooks Falls and then the lodge and camp as the aircraft drops down until a silky smooth landing on the waters of Naknek Lake.
Brooks Lodge sits on the shore of Naknek Lake, just yards from the mouth of the Brooks River. This place was originally conceived as a fishing camp and has been here since 1950. Fishermen still utilize the lodge, camp, and cabins, but they do so while sharing with photographers like us, sightseers and general tourists, as well. The gorgeous main lodge contains a large circular fireplace in the main room, a dining room where food is served three times a day buffet style, and cocktails are available for purchase at the bar each afternoon and evening. We’d spend a lot of time here, when not photographing bears, as it is a really nice spot to warm up and dry off after spending hours in the rain and cold. We eat our meals here, and those inclined would spend ‘happy hour’ and other ‘break’ time here, in those welcoming orange chairs that sat around the warm crackling fire. The chairs had a way of sucking you in, holding you in a sort of friendly embrace. A pretty nice spot to take a look at your images of the day, and to discuss the events of the day.
The New Bridge
A new bridge and elevated boardwalk spanning the Brooks River was erected during the winter of 2018/2019 which replaced the old floating bridge. Those who have been to Katmai in years past will recall that the old floating bridge, which sat directly, often would be closed from frequent and lengthy delays as the bridge would be impassable if/when a bear(s) would be nearer than 50 yards. The new permanent bridge and boardwalk provide for more consistent public access and safety and most importantly improved wildlife movements and access in the lower Brooks River. This was an exciting improvement, increased our enjoyment, access to the area. The lower river here, while not as popular as Brooks Falls, provides more opportunities to see a greater variety of behavior, and for images that capture a larger, more complete scene. In fact, some of our best images came from this area.
We wanted ‘the shot,’ though. As such, we set out more than once-per-day during all three of our tours in an effort to get ‘it,’ that classic image of the bears fishing at Brooks Falls. Often that meant seeing the same bears, in the same spots, doing pretty much the same things along the falls. This is because the bears here establish a hierarchy that allows them to interact in these spots with typically little to no fighting.
This hierarchy is based on a system of social interactions communicated through body posturing, scent, and vocalizations, and we had chances to see and photograph interactions between bears whenever one may have either challenged or simply been in someone else’s spot too long.
Subordinate (smaller, less tough, unproven) bears yield space and/or resources to the more dominant bears (larger, older, proven). The hierarchy is fluid and can change from year to year or even from season to season.
The largest of these bears are weighing in around 1,000 lbs by this time in September, which is quite a bit fatter than they were when Backcountry Journeys guests were here in July. This is because they are frantically eating as they need to consume a year’s worth of food during these few months of great fishing prior to hibernation.
But, we also wanted more. We were groups of good photographers, and we were looking to capture a variety of interesting behavior. We wanted our images to tell the story of this area, and exactly what is going on here in September on the Brooks River.
This was our challenge, and we worked each day to find it. Whether by venturing off the boardwalks and viewing platforms to find eye-level opportunities or wading down the river, complete in chest-waders and water boots.
Yes, wading down the river right in the thick of things” was on our agenda.
Taking to the Water
Our plans for one day on each tour took us down off the walkways, boardwalks and viewing platforms and right into the river where all of these bears move freely from fishing spot to fishing spot. We were right in the middle of it all. Katmai National Park rangers allow for this kind of activity as long as you are exceptionally careful and respectful of the bears and move about in a non-threatening way. We take the utmost care while off the platforms and received complimentary feedback more than once from rangers who were on the lookout during these times.
Moving about in the river is exhilarating, to say the least, and might not be for everyone. But we feel this is an amazing way to get additional vantage points on the bears, namely ‘eye-level’ which adds quite a bit of intrigue. Again, Katmai is not a zoo, and while in the river, there is nothing between you and the bears in the area. These bears are nearly always busy with other things and are not much interested in the people walking by.
In fact, bears and fishermen have been sharing this river for 9,000 years, as they still do today. Our trips into the river were marked by rainy conditions, which limited our bear sightings a bit, but we still came away with images and experiences we’ll not soon forget. Unlike our trip in July, we did not have any close encounters in September. Just several chances at bears in their natural habitat, as well as a few great opportunities for Bald Eagles and nice compositions of the colorful autumn foliage.
While not on the new bridge/elevated boardwalk, folks at Katmai are always exposed to the potential of a bear encounter. These encounters can range from seeing a bear in the river from a distance to having one walk right next to you while on the path you are walking down.
Backcountry Journeys guests are briefed, as are all guests to Brooks Camp, on the proper etiquette and behavioral techniques that have worked well here over the years. One of the first things we do (as do all visitors) when arriving with a new group is to attend ‘Bear School.’ Here we learn about keeping our distance, making noise so as to not surprise a bear, traveling in groups, and most importantly, to NEVER RUN!
Anyone who has been to Brooks Camp will tell you that sooner or later you’ll have a bear encounter. Whether that encounter is simply having to wait while a trail is closed due to bear activity, or, more of a “too close for comfort” encounter on a trail, or in the river. If you spend time at Brooks, you’ll have one.
During our time here in September, our groups had encounters that were more on the tame side. More than once a bear making its way down the road required backing up, and allowing space for it to pass by without incident. Most of the time this is how a bear encounter if handled properly, occurs.
A few of our guests had themselves what we’d label a “too close for comfort” encounter while simply walking down the trail between camp and the lodge, but because they handled things perfectly, “too close” was a non-issue other than perhaps momentarily increased heart rates.
We like to talk about being immersed in bear photography from the beginning until the end while on this tour, and that lived up to its billing at the very end of our final day of the final tour.
Deteriorating weather conditions (wind) created a situation where the waters of Naknek Lake were not going to be calm enough for our seaplane to land safely. This is not an unusual occurrence, as Naknek is a large lake that is left exposed to gusty winds coming down from the mountains that surround it. When the lake is unsafe to land upon, our seaplanes will land instead at the much smaller, and more protected, Brooks Lake, which is a roughly two-mile hike from Brooks Lodge.
Upon receiving word that our plane would indeed be landing at Brooks Lake, we gathered our things and started across the bridge walkway towards a van that we’d arranged to drive us the two miles to Brooks Lake.
The new, elevated bridge, has decreased the amount of ‘bear jams’ at the mouth of the river. In fact, we hadn’t had a single bear jam on the bridge the entire time we were at Katmai. Until now. As we approached the end of the bridge, where it comes down from its elevated vantage points, meeting the rocky trail/road that continues on towards Brooks Falls and Brooks Lake, there was a sub-adult bear wandering around curiously inspecting the bridge. It didn’t seem to be in a hurry to move on, at all, and our seaplane was waiting in what continued to be deteriorating weather conditions. At first, the bear appeared like it may settle in for a nap directly under the bridge, which would leave us completely helpless to get to our plane until he moved on.
Our saving grace came from the bear’s obsession with chewing on the wood of the bridge, behavior the bear managers at the Park won’t let them get away with. With each chew of the bridge, a bear manager would clap his hands and bark in order to discourage the behavior and hope to get the bear to move on. It took some time, and a few glares and defiant chews of the bridge before the bear decided it’d had enough of this interaction.
This allowed us, after 10 minutes or so, to catch our van to the lake and our plane. We flew away from Brooks Camp and Katmai National Park that day, thus bringing to a successful end to Backcountry Journeys Brown Bears of Katmai in the Fall tours for 2019. We’ll be back in 2020 and are excited to be able to offer, for the first time, a lodge-based version of this tour. This means that instead of camping, you’ll have a room in a cabin.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and newspaper writer and photographer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.