I was one of those kids who couldn’t get enough of Mutual of Omaha’s ‘Wild Kingdom’ and the voyages of Jacques Cousteau. Nature’s splendid diversity and mystery was captivating, though sometimes the violence of it made me hide behind the sofa (“Nooooo, not the baby elephant…..!!!”)
I found myself feeling the same combination of wonder, fascination and horror more than four decades later standing on a viewing platform on a mid-July afternoon watching a congregation of 20 Ursus arctos, Katmai brown bears, ripping the flesh from still wriggling sockeye salmon snatched from the brink of a successful return to their spawning grounds in Lake Brooks. This was truly Tennyson’s ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. Bald eagles perched on the snags above, and a profusion of screeching gulls in the water below the falls, ready to snatch up any partially consumed carcasses discarded by the bears on the ‘front line’.
This incredible real-life drama of elegant, flashing fish vs. huge, looming bear was playing out in one of the world’s most spectacular spots to view bears up close and personal – Brooks Falls, located between Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks in the center of Katmai National Park in southwest Alaska.
Beginning in late June, sockeye salmon in the millions move from Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea into the lakes and rivers of the Katmai after spending 2-3 years in the ocean. While most of the salmon pass through large rivers and lakes where bears can’t readily catch them, in July thousands of fish can enter the relatively shallow Brooks River within a period of hours, and ten-foot-high Brooks Falls creates a temporary barrier to the salmon – making it a very lucrative fishing spot where a surprising concentration of bears will congregate – we counted as many as 25 bears in a short stretch of river at one point. At the peak of the migration, a large dominant bear in the best fishing spot will sometimes catch and eat more than 30 fish per day (smaller, less dominant or less skilled bears may catch considerably fewer). Given that a single full-grown sockeye at spawning time can contain as many as 4500 calories, this is an incredibly rich feast and one the bears sorely need to prepare for their upcoming winter’s nap. And the window for this spectacle is short: once salmon stop migrating in large numbers, other than during a short period a few months later when the dead fish are floating downstream after spawning, bears quickly abandon the area for other food sources.
While it’s in full swing, though, this is a mesmerizing display worthy of any person’s life list. It’s popular, yes – in the peak of the season, up to 40 people and at least $100,000 worth of fancy camera equipment can be gathered on the viewing platform 8 feet above and back from the edge of the river, with another group waiting behind the gate to be let in. At certain times the salmon are jumping at a rate of 2 or 3 a second from the froth below the falls, some darting in a straight line from the froth below up into the relative calm at the top of the falls, some flinging themselves straight up or sideways. The dominant bears sitting in the ‘jacuzzi’ – the whirlpool just below the center of the falls – have the best spot in the house, where fish dazed from their leap are tumbled about and a skilled bear can catch them by pinning them to the bottom. Some bears perch precariously on outcrops of rock at the top of the falls and snap at fish as they soar by. Still others ‘snorkel’ along in the river with their eyes underwater, and others leap and pounce in the shallows. The suspense grows among the camera-toting crowd as the bears at the top of the falls strike and miss, strike and miss – to some extent rooting for the bear, but also rooting for the salmon who have worked so hard and long to complete their spawning journey. Then a collective exclamation and dozens of shutters clicking – a 7 pound flashing glory of pure silver skin and muscle has had the immense bad fortune to leap right into the mouth of a bear waiting at the top.
We learned that bears almost always start with the skin and flesh at the tail end, holding the fish between their massive paws or between a paw and a rock and tearing off giant chunks to reveal the vivid red flesh below (made red by the crustacean diet of the salmon during their passage through the sea). Usually the bear would make quick work of the entire body of the fish down through the eggs and head (with the skin, these are most calorie-rich sections), but occasionally after a few bites the more satieted bears would let most of a fish go to drift downstream – for the waiting rows of less dominant bears and the scrappy seagulls to finish off.
The brown bears of the Katmai are close relatives to the grizzly, mostly different on the basis of the habitat they frequent. The Katmai bears are huge, some 20 percent larger than the average grizzly bear – not surprising given their rich food source compared with the typical grizzly’s typical inland and upland habitat and diet. This gathering of sometimes twenty or more 600 to 900 pound bears in one short and narrow stretch of the Brooks River is an extraordinarily unique and unusual phenomenon. Normally, after brown bears leave their mothers at two to three years of age, they are solitary and highly territorial creatures and never choose to associate with other bears except for mating. It’s only the incredible concentration of rich food here at Brooks Falls during the sockeye migration that leads them to overcome their aversion to togetherness – and even here, the togetherness is flavored with significant tension, and governed by a strict hierarchy that makes the close quarters work with a minimum of violence. The communication of dominance among the bears around the falls is an often almost invisible dance of growling, body posture and scent signals. The most dominant bears claim the choicest fishing spots (usually the largest and the oldest bears, though some seem to be there purely on the basis of their orneriness), middle sized mature bears pace around the periphery and grab the somewhat less desirable spots, and the young bears and mamas with cubs stand on the bank or fish well downstream. Over three days watching the falls we didn’t see a single fight, but sometimes just a small growl or dirty look from one of the ‘big boys’ was enough to send a subordinate bear skittering in another direction. And fights clearly occurred on occasion, judged by the nasty looking scars and bare patches on the hides of some of the players down on the river.
Big adult bears passed freely under the platform and consumed their fish and nestled into the deep grass for a nap; groups of yearling and two-year-old cubs tumbled and chased each other along the bank right under us, never showing the least interest in the crowd of rapt admirers just above them. We finally had to tear ourselves away from the viewing platform for the last time, to head back along the shore of Naknek Lake to catch our float plane back to King Salmon and Anchorage, and craned our necks to catch one last look. I was left with the distinct sense of timelessness, of a process and ritual and interdependency that had been going on for centuries before our arrival and probably would go on for centuries more, absolutely oblivious to humankind. This is an experience not to be missed.
Going to Brooks Falls:
The prime time for bear viewing at Brooks Falls is during the peak of the salmon run around the middle of July (we were there July 18-20 and it was right around the peak or maybe slightly after.) See the Katmai National Park website for the best bear viewing seasons at various locations around the area: http://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/bear-watching.htm.
Lodging options are an all-inclusive lodge called Brooks Lodge and the Brooks campground. Information on booking the lodge can be found at http://www.katmailand.com/packages/brooks-lodge-air-lodging-tours. Your flights from Anchorage are included in various package options with lodge stays and/or day tours. Contact them to find out when bookings open for the 2016 season, and start a long time in advance – I was told that bookings open and fill up essentially on the same day for the lodge.
For a much more economical option, carry your camping gear and stay at the Brooks Camp, on the same property as Brooks Lodge. The campground is inside an electric fence with nice eating shelters and sheds to store food. Campers can buy meals at the lodge and hang out in their common room if it’s ugly outside. Camp spots also must be reserved in advance – reservations for the Brooks Camp can be made online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. Sites at Brooks Camp cost $12 per person per night. Reservations for the upcoming calendar year can be made starting January 5 at 8 AM Alaska Time (12 PM ET) and they sell out within a few hours of the opening, so get right on it that day if you want a spot. If you camp, you will need to book your flight to and from Anchorage separately – Katmai air can make all the flight arrangements for you to and from Anchorage (and they are by far the cheapest though still pricey, about $750 per person Anchorage-Brooks Falls-Anchorage round trip in July 2015.
 Humans and bears have successfully co-inhabited this small area of real estate successfully without incident for decades, thanks to knowledgeable rangers who monitor bear movements constantly and keep people strictly back 50 yards or more from any bear. As a result, bears seem hardly to notice that people are there and only one aggressive bear incident has occurred in more than a decade.