Over the years I’ve had the privilege of spending time around many bears throughout Alaska, including the giant Kodiak bears of Kodiak Island, the grizzly bears of the interior, and the big coastal brown bears of the mainland of Alaska, such as the ones that inhabit Katmai. One place that I’ve always wanted to visit, but haven’t until recently, is the world-famous Brooks Camp of Katmai National Park. The Brooks River, and more specifically, Brooks Falls, are quite possibly the most popular bear viewing destinations in the world, as this area provides fantastic, abundant bear viewing opportunities in a very safe and accessible manner.
While there are indeed many big brown bears that frequent the area, if you want to see them in high concentrations in places such as Brooks Falls, you’ll have to time your trip just right, and that means to visit when the salmon run is at its peak in July, as well as in September when the salmon have finished spawning and begin to die, which makes them easy pickings for the bears.
The behavior and physical appearance of the bears between July and September can be quite different. In July, the bears can be a little skinny and they typically have their thinner summer coat still. They can also be very aggressive and competitive, as they’re extremely hungry by this time of year and they feed voraciously on the incoming salmon, which is essential for their survival. By September, most bears have a thicker, new coat of fur, and they’ve fattened up substantially on hundreds of salmon. In fact, they get so incredibly fat, that Katmai National Park has a “Fat Bear Week Contest” every year to see who’s eaten the most. As a result of having gained so much weight, the bears are not as aggressive or desperate for food. However, bears that haven’t attained the needed bodyweight and calories for their upcoming winter hibernation can still be very dangerous and temperamental.
The coastal brown bears of Alaska are true eating machines, as they must consume a full year’s worth of food in 6 to 8 months in order to prepare for hibernation. As a result, bears seek out abundant food sources in places and in situations that require the least amount of energy to attain that food. This makes places like Brooks Falls, as well as man-made salmon weirs in other parts of the state, ideal places for bears to gather in large numbers, as the waterfalls and fish weirs act as a temporary barrier that slows down the fish, thus enabling the bears to easily catch and consume them in great numbers in a relatively short amount of time.
Along with watching the incredible sight of so many bears feasting on the massive numbers of migrating salmon, a great deal of bear drama also plays out. There is a very structured, highly respected hierarchy in the world of the bears, and the largest, most dominant bears are the ones who claim the best and most coveted fishing spots at the falls. Smaller bears will move in briefly while the big ones are away resting in the bushes and digesting a big belly full of fish, but when they come back for another round, the little bears quickly move on. And if they don’t, a fight will usually ensue. The smaller, younger, less dominant bears will typically do most of their fishing in the area of the river below the falls. It’s very interesting to watch the dynamics of this hierarchy play out among the different bears, which is something I’ll be sharing with you in the next few blogs and videos in this series, so stay tuned.
On a final note, Brooks Camp is unlike any bear viewing destination I’ve ever experienced. Almost every place I’ve watched and photographed bears in the past has been in places of wilderness where few if any humans are present at any given time. Brooks Camp, however, is a large, rather commercialized setting with many trails, buildings, elevated walkways, viewing platforms, restrooms, and at times large crowds of people. It’s designed and regulated in a way that doesn’t intrude on the bears habitat and does not disrupt their feeding or bedding behavior, which is constantly studied and monitored by Park officials and wildlife biologists. So if you’re looking for a safe, relatively accessible place to watch and photograph bears, with modern amenities such as restrooms, cabins, and a lodge, then Brooks Camp may be the place you’re looking for. Click here to find out more. You can also watch all the action from your computer or phone through the Brooks Falls Bear Cam. Click here to check it out.
Watch the video below to see more!