I had two nature encounters I didn’t want Andrea and I to miss out on whilst in the northern hemisphere, watching brown bears feasting on salmon as they migrate back into fresh water to spawn, and experiencing polar bears in their natural habitat. The first became reality after we headed to Katmai National Park in Alaska recently.
After much research and discovering that this is a highly sought after trip I reserved us three nights at the Brooks Fall campground. This was done within seconds of the campsite reservation system opening, some six months prior to the dates we had chosen to visit – there are also cabins run by Katmailand coming in at around $600 per night! Sure made our camping dirt cheap at $26 per night, just as long as we could survive the inclement weather. Next up were the flights, with Penair providing the first leg to King Salmon, followed by a very short Katmailand float plane dropping us on the shores of Naknek lake. This was by far the costliest part of the four day trip at $1336 total. We found out whilst there that a few people flew direct from Homer, probably at a significant saving.
Turns out that Katmailand also run a pretty decent restaurant and bar, mainly for the people staying in the lodge, but provided us with some great liquid refreshment and a blazing fireplace to catch up with new friends on the days action.
The entire experience was absolutely amazing with more brown bears than we could possibly have imagined. From the moment we stepped from the plane in the pouring rain to the time we departed we saw bears fighting, courting, mating, big bears trying to eat baby bears, and of course bears eating salmon by the boat load. Before getting our backpacks and pitching the tent in the electrified campground we had to go through the National Parks bear awareness introduction, with one noticeable difference than the wildlife talks we had heard before – this time we had no bear spray as it wasn’t allowed on the flights, so there was no mention of it in the thirty minute briefing. We had gotten used to carrying the stuff everywhere with us and now we felt vulnerable!
The prime viewing area was a secure platform with a perfect location next to the Brooks River waterfall, an obstacle which the returning salmon must leap up to get to their spawning grounds – this was located 1.5 miles from the camp following an easy trail, but one that is also heavily used by bears. Now these bears aren’t like their cousin, the grizzly, which may reach around 600lbs – with a salmon rich diet some of these adult male brown bears reach up to 900lbs and are huge. When these males casually meandered to the waterfall to fish all the other bears moved away, especially the younger male subadults who would always be at the site fishing early in the day.
The bears that stayed were almost guaranteed confrontation, sometimes being just a standoff with neither wanting to give up the alpha male position, and sometimes ending in a full on fight with claws and teeth in action. All of the big males had some very bad scarring and cuts from battle wounds. With ever present rangers manning the platforms we learnt a lot about the bears, including names, reputation, previous visits, and sex – bear 856 was the gnarliest boy around, although 747 took the title as the biggest, 810 was the oldest sow and 480, Otis, was an old-boy contender in the not-to-be-messed-with category, and then there was 634, also known as Popeye, and 814, named Lurch, two more vying for prime fishing rights. It was fascinating to watch the dynamics and competition when upwards of fifty different bears all decide to call Brooks River Falls home for the fishing season.
The bears presence was all about salmon and getting as fat as possible for hibernation and cub raising. The salmon were heading home after spending the last 3-5 years in the Bering Sea getting themselves prepared for the mammoth swim back to where they were born – it’s fascinating how they know exactly where they originated and let nothing stand in their way in the quest to get back there. The run this year started early and around the end of June, beginning of July the waters were thick with salmon, giving them a head start in the bears arrival – to get even this far they have to escape the commercial fishermen’s Bristol Bay nets. although they do get assistance from the Alaska Wildlife and Fisheries Department who dictate times when the salmon are left alone. Towards the end of July the bears disappear to eat berries for a while before timing their return in September to feast on more salmon, only this time carcasses that have accumulated below the falls. Once the salmon have laid and fertilized eggs they die within days to a few weeks – the animal kingdom works in wonderful ways.
We never did get to see the river run thick with salmon but there didn’t seem to be a shortage battling the current and avoiding the sport fisherman who positioned themselves in the shallows flowing through the Brooks River area. I had a go at what seemed like taking candy from a baby and landed a couple of smaller salmon, something that’s not quite so easy as the salmon are not interested in feeding, only getting home to spawn. This bought on one of our few hairy moments – myself and another guy were fishing in thigh deep water, just off the side of a small island, when the rangers monitoring the platform trail access bridge stated that there was a bear heading in our direction, at which point we asked if we should head across the water closer to the far shore. To this he stated, no, as there was another bigger bear in the vicinity of the other bank. We now had a predicament as one of the bears was swimming out into the river in our general direction and the other was milling around on the other shoreline – the two of us were now standing close together on our tiny island waiting to see how this played out. Fortunately the bigger bear chased the other away and meandered off along the shore totally oblivious to our presence!
Another of our encounters was on one of many return trips from the viewing platforms, where not long into the walk we were warned by folk coming from the other direction that they had seen a bear just off the trail. Within seconds this same bear was spotted on the trail heading right for us – by this time we were a group of eight, and after some indecision as to where to go we stepped off the trail and five yards into the trees. The bear was one of the big boys and upon getting in line with us, instead of walking by or turning off at some other place he decided to take our exact same path, fortunately walking straight passed us. It felt like doing one mile interval run training but without moving! Every day we heard of many other encounters with bears running along the trail, mating on the trail, and utilizing this man made route as their main access along the river.
Although it would have been pretty gruesome we almost witnessed a subadult bear kill a young cub, either for food or to get its mum back into mating mode – an uneventful evening spent at the lodge turned into a fun night after the bear, foaming at the mouth, was seen from the lodge window frantically searching for the young cub he had managed to separate from its mother. Luckily for the cub it had bolted up a tree out of reach of the far bigger bears grasp. We never did see the mum but by the next morning the cub was gone and hopefully got to see another day.
What a way to spend a long weekend, although I know Andrea couldn’t resist mocking me for wanting to watch bears eat salmon but this even impressed her. We now have to experience this without the fancy lodging and an electric fenced campground – next time we go for a real rustic experience at either Lake Clark National Park or McNeil River, both apparently with more bears and salmon action than Katmai.
July 10th – July 13th 2014