Katmai National Park is home to a wildlife spectacle unlike anywhere else in the world. It is a place where giant Alaskan brown bears congregate in dense groups to share the bounty of a yearly salmon run, so thick at times that one could walk across Brooks River by stepping only upon the backs of the surging sockeye salmon. Bald eagles, gulls, and wolves also flock to the river in search of fat and protein in the form of salmon flesh.
Katmai is a place of remarkable beauty, with pristine lakes, waterfalls, and snowcapped mountains, creating a picturesque backdrop for this intense congregation of wildlife. It is easy here to lose yourself in the beauty and the action of the wildlife, but it is in those moments of deep reflection, to step back and take it all in, that one can see the greater beauty of our natural world, a world of delicate balance and symbiosis. And, this past July, the precariousness of this balance was illustrated to a group of lucky Backcountry Journeys photographers in crystal clarity.
Just days prior to my departure to Alaska to lead BCJ’s only summer camping trip into Katmai, we received an email from the Katmai National Park Service informing us that the annual return of the sockeye salmon was delayed. Weeks had passed since the anticipated return of the sockeye to Brooks Falls, and yet no fish had appeared. The resident population of brown bears had noticed too. After waking from hibernation a couple months prior and feeding primarily on sedges and grasses, the bears were surely ready for some fish fat. But, when the bears arrived at Brooks River they found only crystal clear waters empty of salmon. For a time they waited, but after long their appetites pushed them to forage elsewhere. This had left the bears hungry, grumpy and intolerant of each other, spurring them to fight and chase each other off of prime foraging sites. The email from Katmai NPS had been sent to let us know of this change in bear behavior and to be sure and follow safe practices while in the park (which we do anyways, of course).
Why the salmon run was so delayed is unknown, but the prevailing theory is that it was caused by changes in weather patterns and water temperatures due to climate change. But, fortunately for our group of photographers, things were about to change dramatically.
Two days before our float plane was scheduled to take off from the town of King Salmon and drop us on the beach of Naknek Lake in Katmai National Park, I received news from a friend who works in the park that the salmon had arrived, and they had arrived en masse. After several weeks delay, the sockeye had come to run the river seemingly all at once. And with the salmon, so too had the bears returned to gorge upon fish flesh, resulting in a density of bears in the river that few had seen before.
Our group of five clients and I arrived in Katmai midmorning of our first day via the gruff but effective service of Branch River Air and their floatplanes. After setting up camp, attending bear school, and equipping ourselves with our photographic instruments, we made our first walk to Brooks Falls to see for ourselves what wonderful wildlife spectacles we might be able to witness.
That first morning the salmon were indeed surging upstream, and around twenty bears were fishing the river at or near Brooks Falls. Some stood at the lip of the falls, snagging flying salmon from the air as the fish attempted to jump the falls. Other bears worked the shallow riffles, standing on their hind legs to find groups of fish before charging and diving into the shallows, then emerging with a flapping, bleeding sockeye clutched between their teeth.
Older, larger males occupied the areas just below the falls. These older bears had learned from years of experience that they could feel for salmon below the surface with their paws and then pin the fish to the bottom, making it an easy grab while expending as little energy as possible.
We spent the entire day working between the viewing platforms, observing dozens of bears, as well as at least two sets of cubs.
By dinner time, most everyone was pretty knackered, and the guests elected to call it an early night to rest up for the following days’ activities. After escorting everyone to camp and making sure all were equipped for the first night tab camp, I could not resist the temptation to go back and check on the action at the falls. It was nearing golden hour when I arrived, but low hanging clouds made it feel much later and darker. I could see as I walked towards the platform that it was nearly empty of other people, which made me expect that the bears had eaten their fill and moved on. I could not have been more wrong. As I rounded the bend and got my first glimpse of the falls, I was gobsmacked at what I saw. There must have been over thirty bears working the falls. Huge brown, hairy bodies sauntered around the river, scanning for easy pickings. Meanwhile, the salmon run had escalated even more, as fish exploded out of the water attempting to jump the falls, at well over 200 fish per minute I estimated. Probably much, much more. It appeared that nearly every bear in the area had descended upon the river, tolerating each other’s presence for the bounty of an easy, rich food source. I knew that tomorrow was going to be interesting, as I woulda be taking the group wading in the river to photograph these bears at eye level, on their turf.
The following morning, I told everyone what my little scouting mission had uncovered, and that they should be prepared for some intense action in the river. After breakfast, we donned our waders and began the muddy slog through the flooded wetlands to the river’s edge. We broke through the willows at the bank and immediately found several subadult bears patrolling the river. Moving along the south bank of the river, we navigated to a small island in the middle of the river, my go-to spot for photographing bears charging after salmon up and down the river. And there we began our bear-dance, a choreography of setting up, photographing an approaching bear, then moving back to allow it room to fish.
It quickly became clear to me that there were still far more bears on the river than I had ever seen before. As soon as we would move back to give one bear space, another would appear, forcing us to move in the opposite direction. These bears were happily fishing, and posed no threat to us. Our delicate dance was more-so to allow the bears plenty of space to be bears, and not affect their behavior in any way. The bears of Katmai are incredibly tolerant of people, so long as we stay out of their way. And doing so that day required constant movement and my head on a swivel.
After a few hours of shooting, moving, shooting, and moving some more, the lunch hour was fast approaching. So, we turned to exit the river the way we had entered, through the marsh that backs up to the Brooks Lodge cabins.
But, a mother bear with a brand new cub had decided to post up on our trail, preventing us from being able to get out the same way. We waited for a few moments, hoping she would move off. But, it was clear she was happy where she was. So, we turned and headed upstream to make our escape at the trails just below the viewing platforms. It ended up taking us at least another hour to get out of the river, as we waited for the bears to give us a window to make our escape without encroaching upon their space. But, escape we did, and with some incredible eye-level shots of these magnificent animals.
That afternoon, we headed back down to the river. But, there were so many bears, so close, that we never even entered the water. We found a perfect perch at the river’s edge where we were able to spend the afternoon watching a pair of mothers and their young cubs fishing and gorging on salmon.
As we entered day three, the salmon run continued to increase in intensity. There were so many fish, that the salmon were packed gill to gill all the way across the river. You could have literally crossed the river walking upon their backs.
The fishing became so easy for the bears, that the intense congregations of bears dissipated. A lone bear could come out and eat its fill within a matter of minutes. It would then saunter back into the woods to digest and nap. This meant that the woods were full of sleeping bears, but that the river was far more sparsely populated, despite the amount of fish in the river… in fact, because of the abundance of salmon.
Not again did we see the numbers of bears on the river that we did in those first two days, but there were always bears to be seen and photographed, and we filled our memory cards to the brim. I took over 6,000 images over the span of three and a half days.
Katmai will always remain in my heart as one of the most incredible places on Earth, for its abundance of wildlife, the relationships between these animals, and the peace that exists there between human and bear. There are few places on earth where one can calmly exist in such close proximity to these enormous predators. It is a place I hope to return to year after year, to spend time with the amazing bears of Katmai National Park.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Image Review: Wildlife
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, October 12th, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time