Visiting the Brooks Camp Bears

Most people who have any interest in bears, wildlife or Alaska have seen the classic pictures of bears, with mouths wide open, standing atop walls, waiting patiently for salmon to fly into their mouths. Although you may not have known exactly where the pictures were taken, they were from the Brooks River’s Brooks Falls on the remote and rugged Katmai Peninsula, which has the largest population of protected brown bears in coastal Alaska. The area is accessed from Brooks Camp, which has cabins, a lodge than serves buffet meals and a National Park ranger station.

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The camp and lodge were established in 1950 as a fishing camp, to host sports fisherman in search of the best wilderness experience and the biggest salmon. These anglers have always shared the region’s bounty, and sometimes the camp’s facilities, with bears. During summer and early autumn months, they also share them with bear watchers. During peak months, the camp draws about 150 people per day, some for only a day and others for multi-day trips, where they can fish, see bears and tour the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the barren remnant of the 1912 eruption, one of the most powerful in recorded history and ten times greater than that of Mount Saint Helens.

Since we have seen a number of post-volcanic landscapes and have, after Homer, satisfied our occasional fishing urges, we reluctantly settled on a one-day trip. This began with a 7:15 AM flight from Anchorage to King Salmon on the Katmai, and then boarding a seaplane for a short puddle jump (literally) to the camp. After a 15 minute orientation and safety briefing we were off to bear country.

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Of Bears and Salmon

Our quest began with a “bear jam,” one of the frequent episodes in which visitors have to wait for bears to leave the area before being allowed to cross Brooks Bridge on the short walk to the first and the 1.6-mile walk to the two primary bear viewing platforms. After a 15-minute wait, we walked the trail which, as evidenced by all the bear scat, was shared with bears. When we arrived at the primary platforms, we were in luck. We were the last of the 40 people that were allowed on the Brooks Falls platform at a time.

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The Brooks Falls Platform Experience

Since salmon run “rush hour” came later than expected this year (see our Kenai Peninsula blog) we missed the primary spectacle of a dozen bears standing atop the falls, waiting for salmon to fly into their mouths. Even so, we did see a couple bears occasionally prowling the top of the falls, up to seven hunting at the base of the falls and two others trying their luck about 100 yards upstream.

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After our allotted hour on the Falls Platform, we tried to return to the lodge for a buffet lunch. We were stopped by another bear jam—this time by a bear resting on the river bank—and waited atop the Lower River Platform. Once we did cross, we ate a buffet (the only type of meal served at the lodge) lunch and returned to the platforms. This time, we had to wait at the Riffles Platform (which itself had great views of downstream bears and a distant (about 50 yards) view of the falls.

This, however, is not to suggest that all our time was spent waiting for bears to catch fish. There was also a good deal of catching (although this was by snagging fish underwater, rather than the more dramatic sight of having salmon jump into the bears’ mouths), the eating process was at least as interesting as the fishing process. Once a bear captured its prey, it retreats with a salmon thrashing back and forth in its mouth. Sometime it goes to a more shallow part of the river, sometime to the riverbank. They typically begin their eating process by holding the fish’s head down with their paws, stripping the skin from the tail and tearing pieces off, until they reach the head, which they often leave.

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Even more interesting than watching the fishing and eating is in understanding the different places that different spots that different bears look to occupy and the very different hunting techniques they employ. Some explore the options for fishing at the top of the falls, others position themselves right at the base of the falls and a few position themselves further downstream. Some choose to stand on rocks and pounce down on the salmon, some stand in the water and others crouch, eyes and mouth at surface level. Others choose to “snorkel” with mouth and eyes underwater. One bear, Otis, was known among the rangers for his almost zen-like focus on his prey and his high percentage of successful dives. Others came up empty far more often than they came up with their prey in their mouths.

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The Bear Hierarchy

Most interesting of all is observing the relationships among inherently anti-social bears that have no choice but to fish together. Some bears are clearly dominant; getting exactly the spots they wish (with others voluntarily moving away when the dominant bear arrives) and having uncontested rights to any fish they catch. Others are clearly subservient. They are relegated to less desirable spots that more dominant bears allow them to occupy and, when they do catch fish, are challenged by others who try to steal the fish they catch (sometimes allowing them to get away). Some are relegated to fishing well downstream. Others are forced to wait patiently for more dominant bears to eat the most desirable parts of the salmon and then fight with seagulls for the scraps.

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Although relationships are often understood and accepted, this is not always the case. There are frequent grunts and growls to warn potential competitors and in a few instances, symbolic tussles, although we haven’t seen any that resulted in out and out fights.

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Although bears (in addition to salmon fishing) are certainly Brooks Camp’s primary draws, there is other wildlife to see, some of which also fishes for salmon.

While the bears occupied the low ground, beneath the falls, an eagle sat patiently by, surveying the scene from a nearby tall tree. When it was ready, it swooped down, captured a fish and disappeared, to enjoy its feast in private.

After a couple one-hour stints on the Falls Platform and shorter times on the other two, it was time to leave. But not without one final bear jam, when a couple of bears decided to take a stroll on the beach, blocking access to the seaplanes. While we eventually managed to board, the bears generally maintained their ground, patrolling the shoreline and, as we were pulling away from the shore, standing up, as if to wish us a speedy departure from their world, and a return to ours.

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2 comments to Visiting the Brooks Camp Bears

  • Bears are fascinating creatures. I’ve yet to see one in the wild yet, i’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing! You have captured some great shots, thanks for sharing. Love the blog.

    kind regards, Si

  • Anne

    Thanks for sharing the information and pictures. I had a very similar experience there and loved it. It is a special spot that everyone who is interested in seeing bears in the natural habitat should see. I noticed that you didn’t warn anyone about the whitesocks….those nasty little insects that thrive on crawling up your pants legs and biting any piece of flesh they can find. Anyone going needs to have lots of deet and a netted hat to keep them from your face too. But don’t let the bugs deter you. Just go!

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