6/29/19 Dining Area, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park
7/5/19 Wilder B&B, Port Alsworth, Lake Clark National Park.
A sow led her two yearlings down the beach. The two brown bundles of fur followed their mom obediently. Then one of them turned and ran towards the water. Like a kid at the beach the cub frolicked wildly in the surf, jumping up out of the water. Later, further down the river stream, the same Mom spotted a salmon and dove head first into the water smashing desperately to spear the fish with her claws. Immediately the second cub dashed in the water too and then, appearing out of the froth he looked at his Mom and, at least I think I heard, he asked ‘Is that how you do it?’ ‘Mom, did I do it right?’ I detected a determined smile on her face as she seemed to reply ‘You’re getting it. But you have to get the fish!’
After a terrific supper of roast beef in a mushroom Demi-glacé with roasted tri-colored carrots and garlic mashed potatoes, Joan and I sat outside on the porch with a glass of wine. Joan decided to walk through the dense line of trees and shrubs down to the lake beach to see if there were any bears. She was gone just about five minutes before returning with a big grin on her face. She said, “They’re coming!” I asked what. ‘Bears of course. A Mom with three cubs.’ We waited patiently just a while, and then, through the path down towards the beach, a big old grizzly proudly walked past. Nonchalantly, she cast a look our way, but appeared unfazed. Then one, two, three, identical cubs followed, obediently, her path.
Joan finally, has her bears! Joan has wanted, for at least three years now, to see a bear. We’ve seen bison at Yellowstone, and Roosevelt, and several other parks. We’ve seen moose at Grand Teton, eagles in Minnesota and so many places in Alaska. We caught our first glimpse of a brown grizzly here in Alaska watching the drama unfold as our Glacier Bay boat crew rushed feverishly to rescue two kayakers even as the bear was marching up the beach back towards them.
But nothing has prepared us for the experience here at Brooks Lodge. We knew we were going to see bears here, or at least we hoped we would, but we didn’t understand just how immersive the experience would be. They are, literally, everywhere. This is a spot where huge quantities of salmon come to spawn, migrating up the river towards their instinctual breeding grounds. The bears know it, and come here from miles around to feast. They will lose as much as a third of their body weight during hibernation and therefore spend most of the summer getting fat. To partake of the bounty, they temporarily suspend their territorial instincts which allows so many of them to appear at the same time.
The surreal moment starts when you take off from King Salmon in what must be a World War II vintage floatplane – really the only way to get to Brooks Camp. Our grizzled pilot looked and played the role of bush pilot and, in a stroke of good fortune, Joan got to sit in the co-pilot seat. (Me, they had to place in a precise location in order to carefully balance the plane’s weight. Thankfully, that also involved a seat with some extra legroom!). After getting all the weight arranged, they start the engine and the whirring propellor soon disappears into a blur of loud noise. Then you slide over the top of the water until we soar up into the air. Looking down at shades of blue-green, you can tell that we have left the rain forests of the southeast behind now. This is wet tundra.
After about forty minutes or so, the plane banks and, out my window, I can make out a camp with a series of buildings all nestled in the woods next to the beach. I assume this is Brooks camp and, sure enough, the plane circles backs and heads down into the cove. The landing, smoother than most concrete landings, creates a splash and then settles into a wake. The engine noise is strong all the way into the beach where young men grab the ropes and turn the plane around. I struggle out of the plane, trying to reverse the steps I used to cram my oversized body into the thing.
From the moment we arrived here, I sort of expected someone to yell ‘De Plane, De Plane’. Although not exactly an island, the float plane access gives it an island feeling. Brooks Camp is the main visitor site for people coming to Katmai National Park. It is possible to come here for just a day trip. If people choose to do that, then the best option is probably to stay in King Salmon for a night. However some people, apparently fly all the way to Anchorage to King Salmon and then fly the floatplane to Brooks and return all in the same day. That doesn’t give much time at Brooks.
We chose to stay at the lodge which has just 11 cabins and, hence, the lottery system to allocate the bear-viewing opportunities. Clearly, that is the best option, although it isn’t exactly cheap. But there is something exhilarating in waking up, getting dressed, and opening the door to your cabin to make sure there are no bears on the front porch before you head over to breakfast. Meals are really very good, but, as you can imagine, there is expense in logistics and food preparation, so while the food is generally good, it is also an expensive buffet.
The food, though, is the sideshow while the bears are in the center ring. The camp is all located off the beach and on the west side of the mouth of the Brooks River as it flows into NakNek Lake, one of the larger lakes on the peninsula. The lodge building houses the bar, restaurant, and the main fireplace where you can usually find campers sipping drinks, watching the fire, and talking about the days excitements.
Outside the lodge and a few steps eastward is the bridge, a brand new elevated structure that channels humans, but not bears, up into the air about twelve feet and over the river, coming down on the eastern bank of the river. The bridge offers a half-dozen or so viewing platforms where you can stop and look for grizzlies. Almost every time we were on the bridge we saw at least one bear and usually several. They roam along the shore of the river and frequently enter the stream, sometimes for fish, often just to play. They come in all sizes from spring cubs, black with their new-born fur, to yearlings which seem to march with a bit more playfulness, to two-year olds who, spending their last year with their Mom will be kicked out of the ‘nest’ and forced out on their own.
Watching the cubs watch their moms is probably the most interesting activity because it is obvious how much learning is going on. But despite the seriousness of life’s lessons, they are still capable of play and what appears to be loving affection for their Mom and each other.
The big males, on the other hand, seem to be all ‘mission-oriented’. And that mission involves consuming huge amounts of Salmon. Occasionally, you’ll see a big male headed up stream from the bridge, but the best place to watch the big guys fish is at the falls. After crossing the bridge, and exiting the safety of the locked gates, you have to hike about a mile along roads and trails that show fresh bear scat every few feet. Many is the tale of encountering bears as people take this hike.
Once to the falls, you enter another gated walkway that ends in one of two viewing platforms. The one at ‘the ripples’ is where you might find a Mom and her cubs trying desperately to gather some of the leftovers that the big males let go downstream. They fiercely guard their spots on the falls and simply don’t allow younger males or any females to fish their favorite locations. We saw one big boar teach a ‘sub-adult’ where he was allowed, and not allowed, to fish – it was a bruising lesson.
Watching the big guys fish is just like you see in the videos, most of them filmed right here. They patiently wait for salmon to attempt to jump up the fall. When the fish are out of the water, they either make a broad swipe with their huge paws, or lunge into the churning water with their open jaws. The older ones have been doing this a very long time and, as their immense size testifies, they are very successful. We watched one of them capture three salmon and eat them all in rapid succession.
You can watch these bears for hours and have story after story to tell. Katmai isn’t all about the bears at Brooks Camp, but that is a huge part of this national park and its main attraction.