Brooks Falls - Robert Haasmann

Bears at Brooks Falls

September 4th, 2018

I’ve spent 2 weeks during 2 trips this summer at Katmai National Park in Alaska to photograph the giant Coastal Brown Bears. This blog is about the first trip that led me to the famous Brooks Falls in the center of the Park. The falls are well known among wildlife photographers as the bears gather here to fish for salmon.

After we have taken a floatplane to Brooks Camp at the edge of Naknek Lake we set up our tent on a small campground. Secured with an electric bear fence, this should be our basecamp for the following days.

The Brooks River connects Naknek Lake with Lake Brooks. Thousands of thousands Salmons pass here each year on their way from the Pacific Ocean to their spawning grounds. And on their way they need to overcome the Brooks Falls. The bears know this spot well and come here to fish for salmon and gain enough weight for hibernation. It’s a feast and at some times it looks like they have a salmon overkill… When they catch one fish after the other, they only eat the most nutritious parts of the salmon. They pull off the skin from the salmon’s body, eat the eggs from the females and eat the brain. The rest is left behind but it’s not wasted. Bears at a lower hierarchy level eat the left overs.

The dominant bears have the best fishing spots and the best spots are not necessarily on the top of the falls. It looks like every bear has its own fishing technique, some dive till they catch one, some run into a group of salmon and chase them, some stand on top and wait till a fish jumps right into its mouth and others wait on the ground of the falls till a salmon is washed right into its paws.

We’ve been lucky and on our first evening we saw 27 bears at and around the falls at the same time. With this huge amount of bears at the same spot, a lot of interaction between the bears was going on and it became quiet stressful for us to not miss a cool situation. ;)

Of course it’s the iconic Alaska shot, of a salmon jumping right into a bears mouth, that everyone is looking for but the location offers more than that! Especially during the morning and evening hours the lower part of the river as well as the shore of Naknek Lake are rewarding and one has great chances to get shots of bears in great light.

With waders we were able to get right into the river between the falls and the lake. But first we needed to find the way through the marsh land by taking one of the many bear trails, always looking to not accidently running into a bear and surprise it. Down at the river totally new photo opportunities opened up. We were able to photograph the bears on eyelevel while they were fishing for salmon. It was a much more intensive experience to be in the same river with the bears as it was on one of the viewing platforms, with only a handful of fisherman at the same place. But one should be aware of the situation and know how to deal with it.

On our way out of the river, a sow with her two 1 year old cubs was sleeping right at the river on our way. We were not able to pass them so we tried to circle them through the dense forest. Though we were making noise to avoid to surprise another sleeping bear, we ended up with a bear standing on its backfeets about 4 meters (yes 4) in front of us with only some bushes and a dead tree in between. So we slowly walked backwards while I kept gently talking to the curious bear (I can’t remember what I told him ;-) ). It wasn’t a dangerous situation at all, the bear was probably sleeping and heard us talking, so he stood up to get a better overview of the situation – typical bear behavior. As he wasn’t aggressive towards us we walked slowly back to our starting point. Our next try to pass the other sleeping bears at the river was through the river on the other side of them. Unfortunately the water was too deep even for our waders so we needed to walk back to our starting point again. We had no other choice then waiting till they woke up again and walked away about an hour later. :-)

If you plan to do the same, you should be aware that close up situations with bears can occur and you should know how to behave in these situations or even better how to avoid them! For the bear’s sake…

All in all we had an amazing time at this wonderful place! We both were overwhelmed by the many encounters with the bears and more than happy with the pictures taken during the trip. By the way, by camping one can easily avoid the “crowded times” when the floatplanes with the day guest are here. In one evening we even had the whole platform at the falls for us alone.

I will post another blog about the trip to the more remote and wilder Katmai coast in the next couple of days.

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