For my 40th birthday, we decided to celebrate in style by visiting one of the many obscure and remote National Parks in Alaska: Katmai National Park.
If you’ve ever seen those iconic pictures of bears catching salmon, the source is most likely Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park. Let me just say, pictures don’t even do the live action any bit of justice. Watching these bears in the wild was one of the best outdoor experiences in our life. The most suitable way to describe Katmai is to say it is a sort of “reverse zoo” (I’ll explain that later).
Meet Grazer. Her trick is she catches fish mid-air in her mouth!
I don’t even know where to begin in telling you about the trip, but I guess I’ll just start from the beginning.
There are 8 national parks in Alaska, but really only 3 (maybe 4) are accessible via roads. Katmai National Park has been high on our list for a long time. But the trip is a major splurge for us. The park is accessible via float plane and the flights were more than we spend on groceries for 6-7 months! Still, you need to spend lavishly once in awhile, especially for 40th birthdays. Being that we were already in Alaska, this was half the battle won!
We opted for 3 nights/4 days to make the expensive flight worth it. Our cheap adventuring tradeoff was we would camp at Brooks Camp (there are indoor accomodations), but eat at the lodge for dinners (which per day equaled our monthly grocery bill!). Even as a camper, you are allowed to hang out inside the lodge. The building had a beautiful fire pit sitting area, bar and dining room, and it was nice to dry off and relax around it.
In our minds, the trip was worth every penny and then some. We are still on cloud 9 about it.
So about those famous grizzlies eating salmon …
Katmai has more than 2,000 grizzly bears, better known as coastal brown bears, living in the park. It’s one of the largest concentration of brown bears and they reside there because it is easy to fish for salmon. Before they go into winter hibernation, the bears are eating machines to gain enough weight to survive for the next 5 months and salmon are a rich source of protein. One salmon can equal up to 9 cheeseburgers and some bear eat up to 30 salmon a day!
I’m no fish expert, but what you need to know about salmon is that they are born in the river systems, spend a few years in the ocean growing up, then return to the exact river system to spawn (lay eggs). Brooks River is one of the first streams these sockeye salmon reach in their migration. And since they swim upstream, Brooks Falls creates a barrier as they have to try to jump the falls to get to their spawning spot! This means prime, easy fishing for the bears!
The salmon come in huge numbers typically earlier than August and we were meant to be at Katmai during the “off season.” But we lucked out because the “salmon run” was late this year. So there were plenty of bears feeding on a schmorgasporg of salmon!!!
During our time at Katmai, we observed 31 bears. Now, the truth is, many of these were “repeat” bears and we could identify at least 5 of them by the end of our trip, meaning we probably only saw 10 unique bears. While at the falls, there were generally 4-6 bears around (at the peak, you can see dozens!). No matter the number, it was fantastic.
Although bears like to be alone, they mostly agree to share the feeding frenzy. With that being said, you can definitely tell who the dominate bears were and their selfishly claimed specific fishing spots. Some subadult bears (between 2-5 years old) would come up to the falls, but back away the bullies gave them the side eye. We did witness a few bear fights!
As for the fish catching, there were some interesting methods employed–snorkeling underwater, diving and grabbing, lunging, bobbing up and down in the water. Grazer (first picture in post) seemed the most skilled. She would stand above the falls and as the salmon tried to jump the falls, she would catch the fish mid air.
But Otis was our favorite. This big, blond bear with a floppy right ear hid in the back corner barely visible and was so zen like in his fish catching. He basically sat and waited patiently for the fish to fall back into his arms when they couldn’t jump the falls. He was either really lazy, or really smart. And he would also share his fish! Other younger bears would wait behind him to scavenge the scraps.
The entertainment doesn’t stop there. The salmon jumping attempts were comical and you couldn’t help but route for the salmon to make it past the bears. We also saw eagles. The mergansers were also cute to watch. Justin was so distracted by all the action around him. One couple near us was laughing because Justin kept commenting about not knowing what to watch and seemed to always miss the biggest action at the moment.
The bears truly run the show in Katmai and the National Park Service creates an environment that balances not disturbing the bears’ nature habitat, but allowing us to enjoy one-of-a-kind bear watching.
The main way they do this is following all bear safety protocol: not getting between a mom & cub, not exposing the bears to human food, knowing how to act if you encounter a bear. I won’t get on a soapbox of why black bears on the East Coast are becoming a problem, but basically, human food is the biggest issue. These grizzly bears in Katmai can co-mingle with humans because humans mean nothing to them. We are not associated with food. The park has very STRICT rules about food; you can’t even carry a granola bar in your backpack around the park because it creates the risk for the bear. The campground is surrounded in electric fencing and there are designated eating areas/food storage. Around the lodge, food can never be taken outside of the building.
The elevated bear viewing platforms are also closely monitored by the rangers. On Katmai, they recommend keeping a 50-yard distance from the bears, but the platforms really allow you to feel so close to them, yet safe and protected from them. Kind of like we are the caged animals (hence the reverse zoo concept).
These prints are right below our platform. Often times, the bears were walking right under us!
Downstream, there are people fishing! They have to be way on guard and if a bear gets too close, the anglers need to relocate. Grazer, for example, is so smart in associating fishing lines with free fish and will go after the lines.
Although the bears are the main event in Katmai National Park, the park was actually created because of the 1912 eruption of Novarupta on the island. It’s actually the biggest volcano eruption that no one heard of because it only impacted one tiny village. You can take a 2-hour bus ride out to the viewpoint of “Valley of 10,000 Smokes,” where the volcanoes are and see there is still a THICK layer of ash built up (still even 70 feet!). The rivers carry the ash flow carving out the land and you can hike down to the confluence and other views. It was amazing.
We also rented a canoe to take a peaceful meander around the lake at Brooks Camp (spotted a bald eagle!). There is all this floating pumice in the lakes (from the volcano) and I’ve just never seen anything like that.
Another activity was hiking up Dumpling Mountain, which gives you a perfect layout of Brooks Camp, Brooks River, Brooks Falls and the surrounding lakes.
Like I said, we spent 3 nights/4 days and felt like it was the perfect amount of time, although we could have easily added another day. We tried to take advantage of everything (nightly ranger programs, hiking, canoeing, reading by the fire, playing games, relaxing), but the main attraction of watching the bears just never gets old.
For us, it was a bucket item list checked and truly a dream trip!
The good news is, we can all watch from home!! It is at the end of the season, but tune into explore.org for a peak of real-time action. There are several cameras around the camp and next June/July, I hope to keep my obsession with the bears in check.