Photographing the brown bears of Katmai National Park is on the bucket list of most wildlife photographers. Unfortunately for our 2020 guests, Brooks Lodge closed due to COVID. But, we rescheduled the trip for 2021 and the bears did not disappoint! Every year in late June and July, the salmon run out of Bristol Bay and up the Naknek River to spawn in Lake Brooks. This always leads to a prodigious number of brown bears congregating at Brooks Falls. At this time of year, it’s common to see daily averages of bears on the falls around 20 to 25 bears at any one time hanging out and catching salmon. On our first day, we saw 42 bears insight of Brooks Falls! The Bears must have taken the COVID year off and wanted to give us their top performance now that Backcountry was here again!
Russ and I arrived in the small town of King Salmon, AK, on Saturday, where we were to meet our Backcountry crew. After checking in to Antlers Inn, we reacquainted with returning participants and met many new guests. King Salmon is a storied little community built up around a U.S. Air Force base in the 1930s and 40s. Later, the Air Force Base was closed in the early 1990s but left a runway large enough to land a commercial jet. In the summer months, that’s precisely what Alaska Airlines does. They run a 737 into King Salmon between June and July to enjoy everything from hiking, fishing, and of course, wildlife photography. Our walk around King Salmon took us to some local establishments such as Eddies Fireplace Inn and the Sockeye Saloon. King Salmon sits along the Naknek River on the west side of the Aleutian Range of the Alaska Peninsula. The Naknek River flows from Naknek Lake out to Bristol Bay and carries an unprecedented number of salmon to their spawning grounds each summer.
The following day our bear crew assembled in time for coffee, and with a short wait, we were off! Branch River Air picked us up from Antlers Inn and headed down to the Naknek River to weigh our gear and load us into the planes. After shuffling, our crew loaded into five small floatplanes and took off on our adventure. Upon landing on Naknek Lake at Brooks Lodge, we disembarked the planes and immediately sat through bear school, where a park ranger taught us about the dos and don’ts at Katmai National Park.
The Bears in June and July are uniquely focused on the salmon attempting to make it to their spawning grounds in Lake Brooks and beyond. So the lower 48 park rules for distancing and behavior in National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are slightly different in Katmai. For instance, in Katmai National Park, bears are given the right-of-way, guests to the park are asked to maintain a minimum distance of 50 yards at all times, and if you cannot slowly back away from a bear while speaking in a calm voice without closing the minimum distance to another bear, you are asked to group up with as many other guests as possible for safety. Bear school is interesting; we didn’t have a bear class where I went to school in Texas; we just learned about math and stuff.
After getting settled into our cabins, the crew headed out to The Treehouse to get our name on the list for the Brooks Falls Platform. On the way to the Treehouse, we stopped on the viewing areas at the new bridge over Brooks River. We were able to photograph some playful bears on the beach, snorkeling bears fishing under the bridge, and some were sitting around in the grass, taking it easy. After some time photographing from the bridge overlook, we continued to the Treehouse. Once we got our names on the list, we took a quick look at Brooks Falls from the Riffles Platform and were astonished by the number of bears on the river. We barely got our cameras out before our group name was called. The platform was packed! And I don’t mean with people (although it was shoulder-to-shoulder); I mean with bears!
When our group asked the ranger who counted the bears on the river that day, she said her count was 42! I’m not sure if this is a nod to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but for the moment, 42 was the answer to one heck of a question that one of the guests asked back in King Salmon, “Are we going to see any bears?” and the universe responded with the number 42! And with 42 bears near Brooks Falls and one another, there were plenty of opportunities for great bear photographs.
We got bears catching fish, bears fighting over fish, bears staring fish in the eyes as if to say “Hi, what’s your name?” before eating it. It was an unforgettable day photographing from the platform.
On the way back to Brooks Lodge, we stopped and got our waders for the next morning. One of the unique things that BCJ does is go out on the Brooks River with the bears to see them at eye level. And day three’s wading didn’t disappoint.
The following day we walked the same trail that we took to the Treehouse, and just before the fenced-in area, we diverted to a fisherman’s path to the river. This overgrown track used by bears and fishermen alike took us out to the river. When we step into the water, we notice that we are already close, about 60 yards, to a momma bear and her two cubs sleeping on the bank of the river.
We get into the water and begin walking downstream, where more bears trundled out of the forest and started walking up towards the falls. Bears were close on several occasions. The group had to stop shooting and huddle up into a group, either moving towards the shoreline or out into the middle of the river to maintain our 50 yards of distance to the bears.
This exciting walk in the river was capped off by not one but two sightings of nursing mothers and some exhilarating dash-and-grab fishing bear action. That evening we capped off our day with another trip to the Brooks Falls Platform, and again we got some close-up action photographs. The beauty of the evening lent to some truly fantastic shots of the falls and the bears with excellent light, low in the sky with few clouds.
Day four was much like the previous day. The crew decided that the action in the river was so great that we wanted to give it a second shot. So the group headed down and waded on into Brooks River. Over the two days wading, we got to know several bears who spent time with us, giving them names like Splasher, Dipper, The Gang (three bears that walked together bobbing their heads in unison and harassed Splasher and Dipper). But, perhaps our favorite bear was Mary’s Bear, who had a lion’s mane hairstyle because she didn’t want to get her head wet. Mary’s Bear loved the dash and grab fishing technique and was surprisingly successful at it. After another wonderful day on the river, the group headed back up to the Brooks Falls Platform for an evening bear show, and to our surprise, there weren’t that many bears on the falls. But what was happening was extraordinary. The salmon were jumping in astonishing numbers. They were jumping on top of one another, jumping and climbing and swimming as hard as they could to get over the falls.
The bears had gorged themselves so much over the past week that they didn’t care. They looked at the salmon with indifference, and if one happened to get close enough to catch as it jumped right into a bear’s mouth, then maybe the bear would eat it. But only maybe. This was an unexpected and enjoyable wonder of the day.
The final morning of our trip to Katmai National park started at 7 am, right when the Brooks Falls Platform opened. Because it was so early, our last moments on the platform were almost private, giving each crew time to experiment with some final ideas.
Some tried out slow shutter in the soft morning light, others shot video, and still, others explored the decisive moment. The past few days of bear exposure had given all of us plenty of time to experiment.
But most of all, I think we just wanted to pull as much as we could from the trip before we journeyed back to King Salmon. I have long felt that the moment of reflection is important to fix the mood of an expedition in your mind. While it was exhilarating at times, I remember the morning on the platform for its sublime serenity with these wonders of nature.
Tom Turner is an artist and educator based in Eagle River, Alaska. Turner has taught at the Art Institute of San Antonio, Northwest Vista College, Saint Mary’s University, Texas Tech University, and The Creative Light Workshops in San Antonio, Texas.
Turner’s artistic practice, which is principally in the medium of photography, focuses chiefly on the landscape, how we perceive time, and how our memory alters that perception of the natural world. His fascination with image-making began during his undergraduate studies at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. He continued this pursuit at The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. After completing his education, he spent the next seven years working as a photojournalist. He worked for newspapers and magazines in Michigan, Southern California, Central, and East Texas. In 2010 Turner began his graduate studies at Texas Tech University, where he completed an MFA in Photography.
Turner, known for landscape imagery, which uses color and time to abstract the scene, his subjects range from national parks to appropriations of scientific imagery. He has exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally. Turner feels honored to have his work seen in Wired Photo, 4th International Photography Annual (INPHA 4), Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, and most recently in Fraction Magazine. Check out Tom Turner’s website at https://tomturnerphotography.com.