Katmai National Park and its surrounding coasts and mountains are home to over 2,000 brown bears – the highest density in the world! Thus, it’s no surprise that Katmai is one of the premier bear viewing and photography spots anywhere.
Each summer and fall Backcountry Journeys leads workshops to one of the most iconic locations in all of Katmai – Brooks Camp, home to Brooks Falls. If you’ve ever seen the iconic photo of a salmon jumping and a bear with wide jaws – it was most likely taken at Brooks Falls.
Thomas Mangelsen was the first to capture the iconic moment back in 1988, on film nonetheless. These days we’re armed with 20-30 fps cameras, but capturing that perfect moment is still difficult. And of course, there is much more to Katmai and Brooks Camp than the falls. It’s a beautiful location along the Brooks River where thousands upon thousands of sockeye and silver salmon spawn throughout summer and fall.
One of our latest September trips (September 8-12, 2021), was a camping-based trip. But before we highlight the camping and photograph experience, we must travel to King Salmon, AK, where it all begins.
King Salmon is a small village near Bristol Bay that has a single road, which dead-ends on both sides. It offers close proximity to Brooks Camp, however, being only 30 air miles away. Many headed to Brooks Camp begin their journey in King Salmon, as it’s the best place to fly and evade the weather that sometimes clouds the Cook Inlet.
We started our trip in King Salmon with a weigh-in to ensure we’ve being within the limitations of our Beaver floatplane on the next day. After an orientation and dinner, we anxiously checked the weather, hoping for a smooth flight to Brooks Camp the next day.
In Alaska, the weather is in charge, especially when bush flights are involved. Line of sight is required for safe passage and weather can easily shift around schedules and flights. Thankfully, we awoke to an overcast sky with some drizzling, but visibility was good.
We charted over to the flight operator and boarded our Beaver floatplane. We took off from Naknek River and began our travels to see the famous bears of Brooks. It was a smooth, half-hour flight and we landed at the base of Brooks Lake, where we then shuttled to the Brooks Lodge area. We do a lodge-based trip to Katmai, but on the camping trips, we still dine and enjoy the comforts of a roof and electricity at the Brooks Lodge.
Once luggage and gear were shuttled, we attended ‘Bear School’, where a Katmai NP ranger instructs the entire group on proper bear behavior and practices. A camp setup proceeded our school and then we were off to explore and photograph. The campground at Brooks is excellent. The entire area has a robust bear fence and there are building for gear and food storage. It’s a great experience to camp out in the open air – one of the highlights of this trip, aside from the bears.
It’s funny, some who are not accustomed to bear viewing in Alaska might be happy seeing 2-4 bears a day. Alaska is a different world though, and on our first walk over to the Lower Platform, I think we saw maybe 10 bears right away. Distances vary, but it’s not uncommon to have bears walk, swim, or feed within feet of the platform. Brooks Camp does a great job with safety, as the platforms are gated and safe. We spent the rest of the afternoon on our first day photographing bears eating salmon, playing, and even sleeping.
After dinner, we headed out to Brooks Falls for our first glimpse of the legendary place. Evenings are best at the falls, as the light can be great with the right conditions.
We were wowed when we did make it to the falls. It’s an amazing place. We did encounter a little bit of rain our first night, but it was nothing a few rain covers and microfiber cloths couldn’t solve. We did see salmon jumping, silver salmon in particular, as they were just starting their run, but we were not able to capture the iconic shot.
The next three days can be referred to as bear-mania. We would wake up and grab breakfast before heading out for sunrise light at the lower platform. During the day, we either ventured to Brooks Falls or the nearby Riffles Platform and then we returned to the falls every night.
Two things stuck out during our adventures. One was our wading day. Every trip we spend one day wading in the Brooks River, off the platforms, and in the bears’ arena. It’s a great chance to get low, level shots and to actually experience being in the bears’ environment.
Safety is our top priority and guides are always diligent in maintaining 50 yards or more from bears. Sometimes bear jams occur in the river, and our group is required to play Tetris in the river to avoid the bear traffic. We had to do that a few times during this trip and it’s always exciting. We were able to get some really great shots while in the river. We did a morning and evening session, and we witnessed bears actively fishing, as well as multiple sets of mama and cubs passing through.
The other highlight of the trip was the weather. Sure, we endured a little wind and some rain, but that’s Alaska. We also had almost two full days of beautiful weather. The sun was shining, the temps were crips, everything screamed beautiful fall day. And of course, the light that came with the sun was excellent for photography. We were able to capture some rim-lit bears, as well as some gorgeous sunrise light over the mountains that surround Brooks Camp.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip with a fantastic group. A weather front did push through on our final morning. High winds and rain approached, which made us nervous that our return flight to King Salmon may be delayed. Fortunately, our great bush pilots were able to land at Brooks Camp before the approaching storm hit and we were safely shuttled back to King Salmon.
It was a great trip. If you enjoy wildlife photography, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better experience than Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. There are bears everywhere, salmon are running, and it’s a majestic, beautiful place.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com