Bears Are Good Hosts When Humans Use Good Sense

They share their trails, their beach and even share the river with anglers in waders. Men and bears in the same river with a common goal: catch salmon! How can bears and people each have a great experience in the same congested  space? Since these bears were cubs the river has brought them a feast of salmon. They are focused on fishing. Secondly, the park service at Katmai National Park has an effective peace plan in place: Don’t allow bears to associate  people with food. That means do not allow bears to obtain food from people in any way. So food is eaten only in designated eating places, and stored in provided lockers. When visitors deboard their floatplane or boat at Brooks Camp they are directed to the ranger station visitor center for a bear safety orientation. By following a few sensible guidelines bears roam freely, and visitors enjoy the experience of a lifetime.

Sow & cubs on beach, Brooks Camp

The safety orientation mentioned juvenile bears can be a handful because they like to wrestle and chase each other at full speed. On one of my daily return hikes from Brooks Falls I noticed a bear running full speed straight at me so I hustled to get off the gravel road as instructed in the orientation. Lucky for me I chose the left side of the road to get out of the way because the two bears, one chasing the other, zoomed into a side trail opposite me. No sooner had they disappeared into the woods they reappeared walking single file by me on the gravel road. The side trail was a u-turn only a bear would know about! I was holding my breath they didn’t turn their attention to me. I was only about 10 feet away from them, but I guess they were so focused on playing they never looked my way. I couldn’t go any further off the road due to a mass of tightly packed small evergreen saplings.

Juvenile Brown Bears sparring

I listened for about a minute of silence, and slowly edged back onto the road. About 50 yards ahead of me a young couple with about a ten year old child had aroused the curiosity of one of the juvenile bears. It was only about six feet from them sniffing the air. The bear walked into the woods. I wondered why they hadn’t gotten off the trail as the rangers had instructed, but they were visibly shaken so it wasn’t the right time to put them on the spot with questions, and I didn’t ask. They said the bear kept sniffing, and seemed to focus on the child. I told them bears use their powerful sense of smell to identify things. The small size of the child may have added to the bears curiosity.

Bear jams occur frequently at Brooks Camp. The third of a mile trail to the campground is only a few yards in the woods from Naknek Lake beach. One evening after photographing bears all day a family of bears was snoozing on the beach so the trail was closed. A park volunteer guided us on an obscure water pipe path to the campground.

Brown Bear sow playing with cubs

On a hike to Brooks Falls a sow and two cubs were playing in front of a patch of fireweed. We started to retreat, but three juveniles were approaching from behind us so we waited. A ranger showed up and had us retreat a few feet into the woods. After a wait the juveniles disappeared into the woods allowing us to continue toward  Brooks Camp.

I stayed five awesome days at Brooks Campground. I hiked to Brooks Falls each day to photograph bears catching salmon as they leaped the falls. The bear numbers this year at the falls were reduced due to unusual river conditions.  A record breaking heatwave in Alaska raised water temperatures in Brooks River to the point where the sockeye salmon run was delayed. The fish retreated to cooler waters until the heat abated, but the heat and drought also lowered the water level enabling bears to access fish the entire length of the river. Once the salmon run began there wasn’t a need to fish at the falls. There were many locations in the river where bears could fish. Luckily a few bears sporadically kept things interesting at the falls. 

Photographing and viewing was excellent from the new Brooks River bridge. It opened just two weeks prior to my arrival, and from my observations over five days the bears had already adapted to it. Boars, juveniles and sows with cubs passed freely under the bridge and paid no attention to people above. I photographed juveniles wrestling, bears fishing and sows nursing spring cubs from the bridge viewing platforms. Occasionally the action was directly below, but usually it was sufficient distance from the bridge to get excellent photographs. 

This was my third trip to Brooks Camp and by far the most memorable. Time after time bears were carrying out their behavior in front of one of the bridge viewing platforms. The bears seem to know the bridge separates them from people, and the 1200 foot span allows people to be securely in the middle of bear action. 

©Terry Chick 2019