Bear viewing is a big business in Homer. A dozen or more companies offer trips to various locations to seek out these magnificent creatures. This was definitely something I wanted to look into. We could have taken a shorter flight to nearby beaches to see bears, but I had it in my head that I wanted to go all the way to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park to see the bears in action.
I wanted to see for myself that iconic view of a grizzly bear perched atop Brooks Falls, catching a salmon in his mouth. Watching salmon leap over the falls in their heroic attempt to reach their spanning grounds would be an added bonus. Yes, it was a longer flight to Brooks Camp, and much more expensive, but I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted to do, and Tim was happy to indulge me.
Our flight to Brooks Camp was scheduled for Saturday, but the fickle weather forced a cancellation. I really didn’t want to miss this trip, so we decided to stay a few extra days in Homer and reschedule the flight for Monday. As it turned out the company had to rebook us on an afternoon flight with another outfit, which turned out to be Adventure Airways. Once again, Trent was to be our pilot. We were thrilled because we had had such a great time with him on the flight the previous day to Lake Clark National Park.
It was a much clearer day when we took off from Homer at 2:00 pm for our eight-hour adventure. Dramatic clouds created an interesting backdrop as we flew over Cook Inlet. As we were flying high over a cloud bank, I looked out the window and noticed the reflection of the plane below. The reflection was encircled by a rainbow. That was such a cool sight! Trent says that happens sometimes, and I was so happy to have seen it.
|The Reflection of Our Plane Encircled by a Rainbow|
Although I had expected beautiful views on the flight to Brooks Camp, my focus had been on the bears. I hadn’t thought too much about what we might see on the way. That was just as well since we flew high over the mountains and the clouds obscured most of our view. We encountered a heavy rainstorm, and for a brief while we were flying through clouds with no visibility whatsoever. I wasn’t exactly afraid, but it was certainly an eerie feeling. It was still raining when we arrived at Brooks Camp, but we had expected that – it seems to be raining there more often than not. In Alaska, one should never leave home without raingear.
|Would the Clouds Obstruct our Views?|
Once we landed at Brooks Camp, I found out how lucky we were to have arrived on an afternoon flight. We discovered that most of the other day trippers were just getting ready to fly out. What luck! What could have been us and dozens or even hundreds of other visitors turned out to be just us and a handful of people, most of whom were staying at Brooks Lodge. I could not believe our good fortune.
Just a brief planning tip before I proceed to describe our day. For anyone contemplating a day trip to Brooks Camp, I would highly recommend an afternoon flight so you can see the bears without jostling for space on the viewing platforms. We were told that people typically have to wait an hour or more just to reach the platform since only a limited number of people are permitted at one time. Then, you can only stay for less than an hour to make room for others. By arriving later in the day, we did not have to wait to reach the platform, which we shared with only a handful of people, plus we could stay as long as we wanted. It was heavenly.
Now, back to the story. We arrived at Brooks Camp and were ushered to the visitor center for a “bear etiquette” talk, which outlined park regulations, safety rules, etc. We had to leave all food behind in the food locker, since no food is permitted outside a fenced-in area near the visitor center. After that, we were free to go.
There are three elevated viewing platforms along the Brooks River where people can view bears. The platforms were designed not only for visitor safety, but also to protect the bears. Tim and I followed the 1.2 mile path to the main viewing platform at the falls and were immediately awestruck at the sight of 15 brown bears. The scene before us was just like the one I’d seen in photos and wildlife documentaries, only a hundred times better. We were right there, so close.
|This Is the Scene that Greeted Us at Brooks Falls|
|It Was a Thrill to See the Bears Up Close|
I cannot describe how exciting it was to view the bears in action. We were not watching bears in a zoo or a rehabilitation center. They were in their natural habitat doing what bears do. And we had the privilege of being there with them.
With so many bears to look at, it was hard to know where to focus my attention. I decided to concentrate on the large males standing at the top of the falls. These were the bears who tried to catch the salmon in their mouths as the fish hurled themselves over the falls. I quickly learned that some bears were better fishermen than others. They all seemed to get their fill, however.
|I'm Going to Catch You|
|Oh No, Which One Should I Go For?|
|I Won't Miss This Time|
|This One's Mine!|
While the larger males claimed their spots at the top of the falls, others stood at the base and would dive into the water to catch their fish. Each bear had his own technique.
|Diving Is a Popular Technique|
|How About Saving a Morsel for Me?|
|How Do You Like My Technique?|
Mostly it was the males who dominated the area around the falls. We watched as a sow and her three cubs tried to get close, but were usually pushed back. We especially enjoyed watching the mother teach her cubs how to fish. Several times she would catch a salmon and make the cubs fight for it. It was also fun to watch the young bears play-fighting with one another.
|Follow Me, Children|
|I Wonder If the Big Boys Will Let Us Get a Little Closer|
|Now Children, This Is How to Fight for a Fish|
|But Mom, Why Does Junior Always Get the Fish?|
|Just Stick By Me and I'll Teach You Everything I Know|
For the most part the bears got along with each other and respected each other’s territories. There were occasional scuffles, but that was not common.
|This Is My Spot, Find Your Own|
|Maybe There's Room for All of Us|
One thing we learned was that Alaska’s brown bears and grizzly bears are now considered to be one species. Brown bears are larger than grizzlies because of their rich diet of salmon. In the short time we were there, several bears had caught and eaten at least ten salmon. No wonder they get so large.
I stood by the platform railing and stared at the bears for several hours. I was mesmerized. Even when it started to rain, I didn’t move. Thanks to a good rain jacket and rain pants, I barely noticed the weather, which is highly unusual for me. I tried my best to capture the action with my little camera, and I was impressed with how well it did. Patience was the key, however, to capturing the moment when a bear actually caught a fish.
|I Think I've Got Him|
|I Wonder if I Can I Catch Both of Them?|
I know I could have stood on the platform much longer, but after a few hours it seemed to be time to go. I was satisfied with my short time there. Yes, it might have been nice to spend the night and go back several times, but for that you must make reservations more than a year in advance. Tim and I experienced more in just a few hours than some people experience in several days. Our timing could not have been better. We arrived during the peak salmon run, which attracts the largest number of bears to the falls, and we arrived late in the day, which attracts the smallest number of people to the platforms. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I had witnessed what I had come to see.
|Tim and I Were Grinning from Ear to Ear|
Without a doubt this was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. It was a totally different adventure than the trip to Lake Clark National Park, and even more magical. Here, we were closer to the largest land predators on the continent than I had ever imagined, witnessing nature in all its glory. This was also one of the most expensive day trips I’ve ever taken, but it was well worth it. Once again, I can’t believe how lucky we are to be able to take advantage of such opportunities.
Even if you can’t watch the bears at Katmai in person, it is still possible for anyone to see them in action. The National Park Service had five live-streaming bearcams that bring the bears directly to your computer screen. During the peak months of the salmon run, as many as 18,000 viewers from all over the world tune in and get to known the personalities of the individual bears. It’s definitely worth watching.
I realize that I have included way more photographs that usual, since I just couldn’t seem to choose which ones to include. Therefore, I’ll save the photographs from our return flight to Homer for the next post.