September is annually dubbed “Bear Mania” at Backcountry Journeys. We love September, and we love to take adventurous photographers along for the ‘ride’ that is the quirky, and awesome, Brooks Camp, at Katmai National Park.
“Quirky” might sound at first like an odd way to describe a place with the highest concentration of Brown bears in the world, but those who’ve been to Brooks will know exactly what I’m talking about. It is just a different world. There are different rules, like the one that says “when leaving the bathroom near the lodge, peak out the window first and if there is a bear ‘too close,’ don’t come out until it moves on.” Things like that!
There are other things, too. Like visiting once a year, but seeing people you sorta know from the past who are also there on an annual pilgrimage. Having discussions while sitting around the fire about whether it was 409’s cub who was catching fish for the first time today, or if anyone had seen that cub fishing the day prior. It is a friendly place. Its safe here to leave your camera gear on the floor in the middle of the public building, because, well, no one is going to steal anything here (obviously, things can be stolen anywhere, but that is the feeling you get, and it’s proven to be true).
In 2020, we weren’t able to go in the same fashion we normally do for reasons everyone knows already (cough, COVID!), and is probably more than tired hearing about it, so I will not rehash it here. I feel as if in 2021 we made up for the lost time in a big way! If you are a reader of this blog, you’ve already read Trip Reports from our other September trips. Russell Graves wrote about our lodge-based trip, and Matt Meisenheimer wrapped up his camping-based trip; the first of three in a row. I showed up on the heels of their trips for two of my own, both camping-based trips, and the final go-arounds for Katmai, 2021!
Getting to Katmai National Park, and Brooks Camp is certainly part of the “fun.” Not only do you have to get to Alaska, a far-off place to most, but then once in Anchorage, you’ll take a regional flight a shade under 300 miles to the tiny village of King Salmon, which is the launching point for most trips to Brooks Camp.
While the village is certainly tiny, access isn’t as difficult as one might think. In fact, during the popular summer season, Alaska Airlines flies in here with 737’s! They are able to do so because there is a full-sized runway here, remnants of a World War II-era airforce base that was operational until 1993.
We love King Salmon, even more specifically, Antler’s Inn, and the owner/operator, Flora, who always welcomes BCJ guests with open arms and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make our short stay a good one. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without Flora’s assistance (if you are reading this, Flora, THANK-YOU)!
Following a group orientation and dinner at the Sockeye, we get our things organized and divided up for our floatplane ride in the morning. These flights are always a highlight and a memorable ride as we cruise roughly 2,000 feet above the tundra and Naknek Lake en route. It is not uncommon to spot a moose (or a moose chasing a bear) from above during this flight!
This September, my first and second trips had quite different first days beginning with this flight.
Day one for the first group included some ‘light’ anxiety as we were hearing reports of incoming weather issues in the form of gale-force winds. The weather had been absolutely perfect in the days leading up to the trip, so it stood to reason that things in the weather department were due to change (Alaska in September). So, the forecast required that we depart earlier in order to make it ahead of the wind, which nobody was complaining about. The anxiety to get there was palpable! In a good way. We shoved off from Naknek River and were quickly in the sky pointed towards Lake Brooks, our secondary landing location where we have to land when winds are high. On a calm weather day, we are able to land on larger Naknek lake and taxi to within just a few yards of our camp. Lake Brooks, meanwhile, is about 2 miles from camp. Upon touchdown, we handed our plane to Matt Meisenheimer and his group as they were leaving following a successful trip of their own. They all assured us that we’d be seeing bears, and lots of ‘em, too!
The rain had started spitting earlier, and that continued. A theme, no doubt for the first group, which included me, Bruce, Melanie, AJ, and Lauren. I’ll never forget their hardiness and willingness to have a blast even if the weather wasn’t “great.”
First-things-first at Katmai, we attend Bear School. For us, Bear School took place right on the beach in the form of a kind ranger waiting as we deplaned. It’s a difficult spot and moment to focus and pay attention to new information, but our group maintained laser-like focus so as to “graduate” and move on to camp. It doesn’t hurt that the information provided helps to literally keep you alive and well. Tends to get folks’ attention.
As predicted, the winds picked up, yet really wasn’t a huge problem with the exception of some areas. The rain was falling, though, and increasing at times. Excluding a few dry moments here-and-there, this trend would continue for the entirety of this first trip. Maybe I’ve hinted at that once prior?
Rain or not we saw bears! We photographed for hours on end, day-after-day, only stopping for the occasional restroom break and to eat. This is not uncommon on Backcountry Journeys’ trips to Katmai. The bears are so incredibly interesting and so incredibly plentiful that photographing them can erase hours off the day pretty quickly. The quest to get the ‘dream shot,’ whichever that shot may be, is consuming, and frankly, fun as hell!
Bruce had a shot in mind that he wanted. It was the Bear on the lip of falls with fish in (or near) mouth. You know the one! It’s coveted, and it takes time, skill, and a whole lot of luck. Melanie had a shot in mind, too. She wanted one of a bear rushing straight at the camera. This shot sounds super scary to get, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. At least once during each BCJ trip to Katmai, we rent ourselves fishing waders and boots and go get right into the same river all these bears are trolling around fishing, playing, and doing whatever else bear things they do. Yup, right smack down there at ground level, in the water, with the bears. Did I mention some of them weigh in at 1,000 pounds by this time in the year? Yep. And they are hungry! Luckily for us, they are hungry for salmon, and if there is one thing there is plenty of in the Brooks River, it is salmon! So, they are typically busy fishing and eating, which allows us to safely navigate around to safe spots where we can take their picture as they do those things. Do some bears see us and walk towards us and sorta “push” us around a bit? Sure. But, here at Brooks things are just a bit different. I wouldn’t suggest such behavior in Grizzly country basically anywhere else in the world. These bears (still very wild animals) sorta just don’t care all that much about us, they are used to us, and as the rangers here will tell you if you are predictably boring, you will be ok. See “Quirky” in the dictionary.
It continues to rain on group one, but we continue to shoot. We get our dream shots! In fact, we get shots so good they might have become our dream shots and we didn’t even know it at the time. Like the one Bruce got of Otis (I believe) shaking his wet head wildly, yet perfectly congruent so that the water coming off was in a perfect circle. That one was awesome! The list goes on and on. Evenings were spent sitting around Brooks Lodge’s amazing fireplace, which sits in the middle of the room surrounded by orange mid-century modern lounge chairs. Here stories from the day unfold with shared images and smiles. A great place to dry off a bit when it’s raining consistently for four days before heading off down the trail (which may or may not have bears sitting on it) towards camp.
Group two had better weather. No reason to sugarcoat it, sorry group one, but you knew they would! For the second or my two trips, the weather got so nice that it was almost too nice. Hey, group one, can you believe we actually might have complained (just a bit) about it being ‘too sunny?’
On the evening prior to the end of the first trip, it seemed to everyone on the main Brooks Falls platform that the second Silver Salmon run might have started, or at least picked up some steam. The reason we noticed is that all of a sudden more fish were jumping which means more bears were fishing from ‘The Lip.’ The Silver salmon tend to jump the lip at greater numbers than say the Sockeye. This is where you’d get a shot at getting the famous ‘bear on lip catching fish in (or near) mouth’ image that Thomas Mangelsen made so famous so long ago. Anyway, on that night far more bears were fishing the lip than had been the previous few days. In September, generally, the bears are fishing more downriver as the salmon are weakening or dying off post-spawn. It’s not that there aren’t bears on the lip, there just are fewer than in July during the first run.
The second trip saw an adventure into the river as well, during our first full day at Brooks, but we scored the majority of our favorite images, honestly, from the bridge that spans the Brooks River down near the mouth. It was ‘going off’ throughout the trip. So much action, so many cubs, so much playing and behavior shots that pleased the group of five guys, and myself. Doug, Fike, Walt, Tim, and Zach joined me for this one that closed out the season.
While the second group scored great weather, I have to say that was perfect for their particular trip. These dates stretched beyond the time in which the Lodge would be open, by a day-and-a-half. What that meant was that we’d be cooking our own food in camp, and building our own fire to sit around and warm up beside. This was awesome, too! We spent time in camp, doing camp things. And here camp is pretty amazing. Its located mere yards from the massive and aesthetically pleasing Naknek Lake, and bears like to walk up and down the sandy beach, too, so it’s not uncommon for one to walk right by. If you’re quick, and are at a safe distance, sizing a bear up with the towering mountains and glassy lake behind is quite a shot. We even had a full moon rise above the tip of the mountains across the lake casting a glow across the glass that made the hairs on my arms stand at attention as if they were trying to get a look, too.
In the end, the two trips were different than each other, yet both incredible experiences for myself and my incredible groups of BCJ photographers! We had close encounters (not too close) with a few bears that supplied stories to take home, and we got outstanding photographs to go with some laughs. The weather was a bit quirky, but what isn’t here at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, where giant wild grizzly bears and humans coexist?
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, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. 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 spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and 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.