A little background: Brooks Camp, in the Katmai National Park, boasts the largest concentration of brown bears in the world. Kodiak Island is just offshore. Grizzlies and brown bears belong to the same species, but Alaska’s coastal brown bears are bigger than their inland kin because of their protein-rich diet of salmon. Brown bears can weight up to 1,500 pounds.
Everything that comes into Brooks Camp, including food, supplies, and tourists, comes by water or by float plane. Our plane from King Salmon was of early ‘60s vintage; it had been owned by the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, and the French Canadian Air Force at one time or another, and it had an adventure-worn aura about it, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
The camp consists of a gift shop, a small lodge with a bar and a dining room, and 16 cabins. I went to the shop right after we registered and bought an extra sweatshirt and a mosquito net that fit over my hat. I had already gone through my bags and found a thin pair of pants that I could wear as an extra layer under my sweats. Much better.
You could tell from the accommodations that the place was originally built for fishermen; each cabin had four bunks with a sink, toilet, and shower across the back of the room. A curtain was rigged to provide a dressing area with a bit of privacy, but other than that, it looked like a typical fishing camp. News clippings from the 1950s on the walls of the lodge showed lots of pictures of fishermen showing off their catch with nary a bear in sight. Captain Mike, from the Kahsteen, who was a park ranger at Katmai in its early days, told us that the bears were just a nuisance back then, before they became the main attraction.
The National Park Service has actively encouraged the proliferation of brown bears here and has allowed tourists in close proximity to them. The viewing platforms were built in 2000 as part of a noble experiment (or a Jurassic Park, depending on your point of view) that seems to be successful, at least so far. The ranger who gave our orientation talk said they have only had one problem since the experiment began. He pointed to a bearskin hanging from the rafters and said that it belonged to a critter who decided that it was easier to catch a fisherman with a fish than to catch his own. (If you planned to fish, you needed someone to stand watch, and if a bear showed an interest in you, you were to cut your line and leave. Any fish that were caught had to be put in a special bag and taken to the freezer immediately. No fish could be cleaned anywhere in the park.)
The bear population in the Katmai Preserve is estimated to be 2,000; 80 adults were documented as living at Books Camp, in addition to probably that many cubs and juveniles. The camp is situated beside a river and a lake where the salmon run in July and again in September. If you have ever seen pictures of bears catching salmon at a waterfall, chances are you have seen Brooks Falls. Raised platforms near the falls and overlooking the lake allow people to get a close-up view; the bears seem to take little notice of them, in spite of the fact that the platforms are only elevated a few feet overhead.
The bears could walk right under the viewing platforms. This shows how close they were.
Where does a 1,000-pound bear walk? Anywhere it wants to. We were warned to stay 100 feet away from a sow with cubs, 50 feet from a male. But if a bear is resting in the 5-foot tall grass that borders the pathways, it could suddenly rear up right next to you. “Don’t look the bear in the eye; make lots of noise; walk backwards into the forest but don’t run,” the instructor said. “Wait until the bear moves on before proceeding.”
As I was waiting in front of the lodge before dinner, a bear came up the path and almost onto the porch. One of the rangers ran toward it, shouting, stomping her feet, and spraying pepper spray into the air. The bear slightly altered his path and ambled on, but didn’t come up on the porch.
We got up the next morning to find a bear resting just outside the front door of our cabin. We had to wait until he left before going out. Later, my husband ventured out alone and got stuck on a bridge for 20 minutes with bears at both ends. Another time we were on our way to hear a talk when a large bear stuck his head up out of the grass by the trail, so we had to back away and find a different route to the auditorium. If a bear wants the path, he gets it. Brooks Camp runs on bear time.
The biggest males claim the best fishing spots while the females with cubs stay a safe distance downstream. The males will kill and eat even their own cubs, so the females are ever watchful and wary. We counted 13 bears at once from the viewing platform at the falls, and we witnessed an altercation between a mother bear and a boar who got a bit too close. While we watched, two cubs scampered up a tree right beside us, much to the delight of the photographers in the group.
Up a Tree
Mama Comes Back
Sometimes the fish wins. This one got away. Bears are not really very good at fishing. The ranger showed a film of a wolf walking out of the forest, snatching up a big fish, and walking away while the bears sat wistfully peering into the water.
I could sometimes hear the theme from Jaws in my head while we were at Brook’s Camp. There was a level of stress that was evident even in the staff, but there was also the kind of exhilaration that comes from facing danger. I remember Sam Neil’s line from Jurassic Park: “They’re animals, they do what they do.” And there seems to be something in our nature that makes us want to run with the bulls, swim with the sharks, and watch the animals doing what they do.
The food at the lodge was good and plentiful. Meals were buffet style with two options for the main dish, several choices for sides and vegetables, a salad bar, two soups, and bread. There were FOUR kinds of desserts, and that’s where I get into trouble. It should have been easy to stick to a low-carb diet here, but I suffer from what I call the all-you-can-eat syndrome. When everything is included in the price, my will power is in conflict with my natural tendency to want to get my money’s worth. Frugality won out over will power when confronted with a molten-chocolate cake the first night and pecan pie the next. (Let me say in my defense that I just ate the nuts off the pie and left most of the goo. Besides, my former self would have eaten all four.)
Next: Volcanoes, More Glaciers, Lake Louise