Native Americans regard bears as a symbol of strength and wisdom, and as we stood by the Brooks Falls on that sunny summer afternoon, I could understand why.
Large, powerful, confident, patient, cunning – the brown bear has it all.
For the thrill of admiring the Katmai Brown Bears in their natural environment, we boarded a small floatplane from Homer, Kenai Peninsula, one early morning and headed to the Katmai National Park. The flight alone was worth the trip as we flew above mind-blowing scenery that could solely be accessed by foot or plane. Flying by tall peaks, over high plains and deep lakes, Bruno and I commented how we would love to come back and trek the wild region. The thought that presumably no one ever walked these grounds inspired us, a few remaining places on earth still untouched.
We landed on Naknek Lake, one of the small lakes surrounding the park entrance. The landing went fine, our first float arrival. I was expecting bumpiness but was surprised how smooth it went. The surprise even got better – as soon as we disembarked, a grizzly bear exited the nearby forest to walk on the shore. Our excitement picked up a notch as we saw him marching calmly towards us. Calm we weren’t…
The visitor center is located right by the shore and is a required stop for all visitors. With such a concentration of brown bears, all must go through a safety presentation: how to stay safe in bear country, how to react if encountering a bear, how not to run. We learned about the distinction with the grizzly bears. Both are of the same species (Ursus arctos), and the grizzly a subspecies of the brown bear. Grizzly usually refers to the inland animals like in Yellowstone, whereas the brown bear is living on the coast and feeds off marine resources like salmon.
The park allows the visitors to walk by themselves. The assumption is that the bears are well fed from the salmons they catch in the Brooks Falls and will not look at completing their diets with humans. With that in mind, the rangers told us the bears would most likely avoid us and go back to fishing. Easier and tastier according to bear’s palate. However, no food or drink except water were allowed within the park, and we took a quick lunch, eager to reach the viewing platforms.
Known for a high density of brown bears, Katmai has the particular advantage of offering a single spot where bears gather, a unique opportunity to see up to roughly 25 bears at the same time. Three viewing platforms – Lower River by the bridge, Riffles with views over the river, and Brooks Falls – had been built to offer the maximum visibility over the areas where the bears usually fish. Safe for the visitors and a limited interaction with the bears makes it a win-win. As we walked our way past the bridge and the Lower River platform through the narrow path toward the Riffles platform, we kept an eye out for potential bears. The rangers had regaled us with stories of bears unexpectedly coming out of the bushes, startling the hikers. To make enough noise and alert any bear of our presence, our group kept on a lively conversation, for once foregoing the silence we normally appreciate in the woods.
We stopped briefly at the second platform, where we enjoyed the first views of the Brooks River and a half-a-dozen bears wading in the water. A couple of them fished, standing on rocks to watch the salmon swim upstream. Others would simply stand still in the water, turn their heads time to time in a lazy attempt of catching a nearby fish. One little fellow appeared utterly out of place. Lack of fishing skills, cold or sick, the young of maybe 2-3 years appeared to fear the water. Hanging hard with his four feet on the tiny rock he was on, he looked scared, clearly wishing to be somewhere else. Apparently starving, the young bear attempted to catch a salmon and jumped awkwardly into the water. Failing miserably, he came out the water fishless. We felt bad for that poor bear.
As we reached the third and main platform, Brooks Falls, a ranger kept track of new parties. Due to the popularity of that platform, the visit is limited to one hour per party when the park is in high season. We briefly waited until another group left. Making our way to the front of the viewpoint, we understood the popularity of the spot. The Brooks River was running right in front of the platform, wide and fast, and to our excitement, filled with about 20 bears spread across the river. We were beaming like little children at Christmas!
The next hour was magical. We witnessed the behaviors and group dynamic of the brown bears in such a close quarter it felt unreal.
Upon our arrival, a huge male stood at the edge of the upper falls, towering the other bears within the lower section. Alone, and unquestionably in charge. His position gave him prime opportunities to grab the salmons jumping over the waterfalls, which allowed him to catch several fishes over the time he stood there. His dominance was demonstrated when a couple of bears from the lower falls tried to move onto his area. The dominant male came in full force, its menacing snout wide open in a ferocious display of power. The bears slowly retreated, defeated by the ruling male. In turn, the two bears started to fight for the second-best position, right below the falls. The larger of the two won this battle, and settled deep in the water, waiting for salmons to pass by.
Many fishes later, the big male left its prime position for what we supposed was to rest. In any case, the spot did not remain empty long as a sow with three cubs made slowly their way to replace him. Her behavior remained cautious, checking behind her and expecting the aggressive male to return. Her three cubs stood close to her, unsure and uneasy.
Positioning herself in the same spot where the dominant male had been a few minutes ago, the sow attempted to catch the salmons. She lacked the expertise from the male and missed several, also interrupted and dislodged by her consistently moving cubs bumping and pushing her. The three cubs displayed different characters. One, smaller and less energetic, was the shy kid and kept by his mom’s rear end. A stronger and more daring sibling lunged to catch the fish. He almost fell into the lower falls in the attempt, as the third cub kept close and limited the space to move around.
The common efforts did pay off, and the saw caught a sizeable fish. She ate a good portion herself and fed the rest to the three cubs, who were delighted by the red salmon. What an impressive image to contemplate, the little ones ravishing on their meals. The smaller and shy one had a hard time reaching out, constantly pushed away by his two bigger brothers. It is worth mentioning that it is unusual for sows to have three cubs. Alaska’s average is two cubs thanks to the abundance of fish, and one cub in the Lower 48 States due to the less nourishing and more limited food supply.
When the big male returned to his spot, the sow quickly left the main fishing area, followed by her cubs. We were thrilled as she started to walk toward the viewing platform, closer to us. As backpackers, we are told over and over to avoid the bears, especially the sows with their cubs. And here they stood, barely feet away from us, in their complete ignorance of us and for our entire admiration!
The male went back to a fishing spree while other bears in the Lower Falls were watching him patiently. I guess they were not ready to fight the dominant male for the time being. Adult brown bears can catch up to 30 fish a day, which is quite needed to feed their weight of 600-900 pounds (272-408 kg) in mid-summer to 1,000 pounds (454 kg) by the end of Fall.
Sadly it was time to leave. A ranger came to remind us our hour was up and that we had to make way for new visitors. With a last glance back to the Brooks Falls, we exited the platform, sorry to go but contented all the same. We had witnessed marvelous moments with the brown bears, their habitats, habits, the power struggle, and group dynamics.
As we returned towards the visitor center, we met a crowd by the bridge. It turned out another sow and two cubs had strolled by the other side of the bridge. The rangers closed the lane while waiting for the bears to move away. These were however not ready for a speedy migration and they hanged for a while as we waited as well. I have never seen a park with so many rangers on hand as every corner had a pair of them directing the visitors and ready to close trails to prevent a close encounter with the bears. It makes sense, as we were walking in the most bear country we would ever be in, and the fact we could simply hike by ourselves among bears was astonishing. But we did understand why the rangers would be so present and cautious as to prevent any problem. It is as much to protect the bears than the humans. If bears start to be aggressive, they would be the one facing the potentially deadly consequences – not the humans.
This temporary halt allowed us to witness another intense moment as we noticed fishermen further away along the river. A sow and cubs came running towards the fishermen, these unaware of the bears. The ranger close to us quickly called in and reached out to these fishermen. He informed them to stop fishing, gather as a group and be prepared to move slowly from their area. Obeying the instructions, the men quickly pulled their gear, created a tight group and headed towards the bridge to get away from the bears. We all tensed by the situation. Luckily, the group managed to add enough distance between them and the animals and avoided any confrontations. Everyone, two-legged and four-legged continued their journey unharmed…
Finally allowed to cross the bridge, we reached the visitor center, the lake shore, and our floatplane. As we boarded to head back to Homer, I regretted we could not stay overnight – that would have been another fantastic moment. But as we flew again above untouched grounds, we could not stop reliving these moments with the brown bears, and admired how majestic these were.
Other Nearby Activities
- Backcountry Hiking: Katmai is primarily a wilderness park, with less than five miles of designated trails. Given the remoteness and the presence of brown bears, backcountry users must ensure they have the skills and training to be safe in that wild environment. exploration and solitude.
- Fishing on the Brooks River is a big attraction given the salmon presence though you might find yourself face-to-face with a bear looking for the same lunch! Booking through an outfitter is recommended.
- Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: Just 46 mile (74 km) away from the park, this day trip explores Katmai’s volcanic landscape where the largest eruption of the 20th century occurred in 1912. Mount Katmai’s summit collapsed, villages went abandoned, and the spectacular ash-covered landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was born. The valley floor can be discovered through a moderate hike of 3.4 miles (5.4 km) round trip with 1,000 feet (305 m) of elevation change. Reservations are required through Katmailand, Inc.
When to Go
The best time to observe the bears fishing is late June to late July when the red sockeye salmons swim up the Brooks River and jump over the Brooks Falls to pursue their migrating route. The bears are however present from spring to fall.
Where to Stay & Eat
The remoteness of the park means services are limited within the park. During the summer, usually from June 1 to September 18, a visitor center, a ranger station, and a campground are operated by the National Park Service, with ranger-led programs provided daily. Additional services are provided by the park concessioner, Katmailand, Inc., including meals and lodging at Brooks Lodge.
The campground is located on the shore of Naknek Lake, about .3 miles (.5 km) from the visitor center and is protected by an electric fence. It offers basic amenities, with drinking water only available in the summer. The capacity is limited to 60 campers and sells quickly in the high season. It is recommended to book early to secure a spot in the high season.
Brooks Camp: Katmai’s most popular destination offers some of the best bear watching and sportfishing, and is a good hub for backcountry adventures.
How to Get There
Most visitors will fly in from either Anchorage, Homer or even Kodiak and smaller villages. From Homer, flights last around 1:30 hour, compared to two to three hours from Anchorage.