Category

Brown Bear

Photo of a Grizzly Bear in Snow

Brown Bear, National Parks, Wildlife, Wyoming, Yellowstone

A few days into my Yellowstone National Park trip I found the ursine suspect in a double murder case. I was not looking for bears, rather just cruising around and admiring all parts of the park, and I was lucky to stumble upon him and get off a few good photos . I continued to explore the park on my own for another week but saw no more bears. My dad and daughter then arrived and I shifted the emphasis to wolves and bears after having spent the better part of a week watching the elk rut. We made several trips together through the Lamar hoping to see bears and wolves but were not having much luck, although we had seen most of the other charismatic animals including coyote, moose, elk, geese and swan. Finally, on our last full day in the park, before sunrise as we drove to the Lamar from Mammoth, at exactly the same place that I had seen it previously, we found the fratricidal grizzly. Snow had been falling the previous two days so he was quite easy to spot from far away even in the dim light, otherwise I might have missed him entirely (my co-pilot and navigator were both half asleep and of no help in spotting wildlife that early in the morning). He was strolling up from the river again, across a broad open field of white snow-frosted sage. We got a very good look at him, the best view my dad and daughter had ever had of a grizzly. This photo was taken only a few hundred yards from the other one. The entire time we were watching this fellow, the Agate wolf pack was above us on the ridge howling. A few minutes after this bear had sauntered off into the woods, we drove a short way up the road and saw the Slough Creek pack, howling back at the Agates. All this in the space of perhaps 2 hours. It was quite a morning.

Grizzly bear in snow, Ursus arctos horribilis, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Grizzly bear in snow.
Image ID: 19616
Species: Grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis
Location: Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

Yellowstone Grizzly Kills Two Other Bears

Brown Bear, National Parks, Wildlife, Wyoming, Yellowstone

Shortly before my visit to Yellowstone National Park this fall to photograph elk, I learned that not one but two female grizzly bears had been killed, presumably by other bears. Fratricide among adult grizzlies is not particularly unusual, but two killings within days of one another is strange. Since both females were killed in the same part of the park, it is natural to presume they met their demise from the same cause: a male grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). When I arrived in the Lamar Valley, I spoke with a few photographers and animal watchers who told me that indeed the conventional wisdom, based as it was on circumstancial evidence in the absence of any witnesses to the killings, was that a single large male grizzly was probably responsible for the killings. I was fortunate to spot the bear as I was passing through Little America near the distinctive stand of aspens on the north side of the road, not far from the river. By the time the bear had made his way up from the river to cross the road near me quite a crowd had formed. I was told that a “bear researcher” was among those watching, and that this researcher had confirmed the bear as being the one suspected of the killings in the preceding weeks. The bear was bending his nose, perhaps to get a better scent of the people watching him.

Grizzly bear, autumn, fall, brown grasses, Ursus arctos horribilis, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Grizzly bear, autumn, fall, brown grasses.
Image ID: 19614
Species: Grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis
Location: Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

“Grizzly bears” and brown bears are one and the same species. Perhaps they are best thought of as distinct races of the same species, differing in size primarily due to diet. Some refer to grizzlies as Ursus horribilis or Ursus arctos horribilis but that is a distinction without a difference and I suspect would be discounted by modern taxonomists. The scientific name is Ursus arctos and I only include the horribilis on my web site to help distinguish between the two races. “Coastal” brown bears, which inhabit coastal regions in Alaska and Canada and include the famous Kodiak Island, Katmai and Kenai populations of brown bear, have access to vast amounts of fat rich salmon and thus grow considerably larger than interior grizzlies. Indeed, coastal brown bears are the largest bears found in the world. Grizzlies are found further inland in Alaska through Canada and into the northern United States and are often seen in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks.

Photo of a Brown Bear Digging For Clams

Alaska, Brown Bear, Lake Clark, National Parks, Photo of the Day, Wildlife

One of the interesting behaviors of coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos) is their interest in eating razor clams. Negative low tides expose broad tide flats along the Cook Inlet coast. Brown bears are quite tuned to the timing of these low tides and will arrive at the beach shortly before the tide flats are exposed. Working alone, each bear will sniff around and look for clam vents in the sand before digging up a razor clam and eating it, repeating the process for hours.

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams on mud flats at extreme low tide, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams on mud flats at extreme low tide.
Image ID: 19224
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Standing Tall

Alaska, Brown Bear, Lake Clark, National Parks, Photo of the Day, Wildlife

This coastal brown bear sow caught the scent of an approaching adult male. Nervous for her cubs, who could be attacked by the male, she stands in the deep sedge grass to get a better look around.

A brown bear mother (sow) stands in tall sedge grass to look for other approaching bears that may be a threat to her cubs, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

A brown bear mother (sow) stands in tall sedge grass to look for other approaching bears that may be a threat to her cubs.
Image ID: 19139
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Alaska, Brown Bear, How To, Lake Clark, National Parks, Wildlife

In 2005 I received a recommendation to visit Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to see bears. I already had a trip planned to Brooks Camp so I didn’t look into SSCL for a while. A week at Brooks in July 2006, with superb weather, company and bears, helped me to realize that I enjoyed the “Alaska thing” much more than I had anticipated. I was eager to do it again. About the same time we were put on notice that we might be making a family trip in Alaska in 2008, complete with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. If indeed we were making the effort of taking the kids to Alaska, it was inconceivable to me that we would not include a good close look at coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos) in the wild. Brooks Camp was a known quantity at this point, and while it would be ok for my family it was not ideal; the younger kids would get bored waiting on the viewing platforms and the crowds that Brooks Camp attracts (lodge, campers and day visitors alike) conflicted with the quieter experience I wanted Tracy and the kids to have their first time in Alaska. I needed to find an alternative place to take them. I got in touch with David Coray, longtime owner of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, and arranged to spend a week there in July 2007. I had a great time.

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, spruce trees and Chigmit Range, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, spruce trees and Chigmit Range.
Image ID: 19064
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, part of a private parcel of 160 acres in Lake Clark National Park, lies at the edge of a spruce forest and is fronted by broad flat sedge grass meadows. The view from the lodge is wonderful: the meadows stretch left and right several miles and out about a half mile, beyond which are the sandy beaches and tide flats of Cook Inlet. Tidal sloughs slice across the meadows in many places. About a mile to the south lies Silver Salmon Creek, while three miles to the north is Johnson River. Both of the rivers open directly to Cook Inlet and are host to runs of spawning salmon in late summer. Bears constantly stroll about the meadows while bald eagles can be seen often flying or perched on trees. A short distance behind the lodge, through the trees, is a large pond covered with lilies and surrounded by green peaks with patches of snow. Access to Silver Salmon Creek Lodge is by plane or boat only, and the vast majority of visitors come by air. Those arriving on float planes will land on the pond while those coming on wheeled planes land on the beach.

Brown bears graze among sedge grass meadows at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Brown bears graze among sedge grass meadows at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge.
Image ID: 19067
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

On a clear Sunday morning I met our pilot Mark Madura at Lake Hood, along with five fellow guests also spending the week at the lodge: John, Kent and Jenny, father, son and daughter who were set to fish Silver Salmon Creek and Copper River, and Dennis and Denny, father and son who were planning to shoot photos like myself. After an hour in the air Mark announced we would be waylaid by thick clouds over the lodge and could not land, so he landed on a pond at Homer, told us to cross our fingers for a change in the weather and set us free onshore to kill some time at the local brewery while he topped off the fuel and waited for word from David that all was clear to land. This turned out to be a fortunate diversion as we got a chance to get to know another a bit and buy a bunch of growlers of Homer Brewing Company’s finest to take with us. After a lunch of bratwurst and onion rings, we squeezed the beer in the few remaining bits of room on the plane and took off again, spotted a few whales crossing Cook Inlet, had a magnificent view of Mt. Redoubt rising above the clouds, and finally landed on the lily-covered pond behind the lodge.

Float plane, water lilies and pond lie beneath the Chigmit Range near Silver Salmon Creek, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Float plane, water lilies and pond lie beneath the Chigmit Range near Silver Salmon Creek.
Image ID: 19092
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Naturally, before bothering to see if my cameras, clothes and money had arrived on the other plane, I had to check out the kitchen and dining room. I’ve learned from many liveaboard boat trips that the cook and his menu are crucial to the success of the trip! As luck would have it chef Steve had saved some lunch for us latecomers. I will state without reservation that mealtime at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge is superb. The view from the dining room is beautiful. David’s daughter Dorian makes her baked treats fresh daily, the veggies come from the lodge’s own garden and the fish that is served is from the river and ocean one sees right out the window. The clams are the same ones the bears are after! It is all delicious and served in generous quantities. I ate really well and put on a few well-earned pounds. OK, enough said.

Kitchen and chef Steve, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Kitchen and chef Steve, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge.
Image ID: 19070
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

While bear viewing has in recent years been the major draw at SSCL, historically fishing is the pursuit of choice. Guests at the lodge can spend time fishing the rivers for salmon, sea kayaking, canoeing on the pond, or halibut fishing on the ocean. Or chilling at the lodge, napping or just enjoying the fresh air and fantastic views. One of the days at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge involved a boat trip up the coast a ways to a small island loaded with seabirds. Murres, puffins, gulls, and I think some terns and a hawk were all spotted there. I am not a bird photographer — I don’t have the patience or skill for it — so I just napped and watched the flocks of birds wheeling about above us. For the most part I chose to spend my time in the sedge grass meadows and on the beach and tide flats watching the bears and photographing them. My guide, Dawn, not only has guided in the area for years but has a formal biology education so she was able to keep me appraised of the natural history around us and answer my many questions. Dawn was willing to get out early and stay out late to give us ample opportunities to photograph the bears in the best light. Her husband John has worked even longer at SSCL and has some outstanding photographs to show for it, ones that would make the pros visiting the lodge envious. The staff at SSCL are both professional and personable (i.e., fun!), and are an important part of the success of SSCL.

Johnson River, side waters and tidal sloughs, flowing among sedge grass meadows before emptying into Cook Inlet, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Johnson River, side waters and tidal sloughs, flowing among sedge grass meadows before emptying into Cook Inlet.
Image ID: 19063
Location: Johnson River, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Summer days are quite long in Alaska, and there was plenty of time to shoot. Granted, I was blessed with nearly perfect weather: lots of sun with high overcast to soften it punctuated by two days of darker skies and a tad of light rain. We (my fellow photographers, Dawn and I) would make several outings each day to see bears. Sometimes we would head north, with three miles of beaches and meadows to explore before reaching Johnson River. Other times we would head out to the beach at low tide, hoping to see bears digging for clams on the broad tide flats. A mile to the south is Silver Salmon Creek, with a tidal slough and grass meadows along the way. Bears were found throughout these areas, at nearly all times, while I was there. Getting around was done almost entirely by ATV, with a rugged and simple trailer on the back. When I first learned we would get around by ATV I was confused (why not just walk?) but given the distances involved using an ATV really allows one to make the most of one’s time. We found large male boars, juveniles alone and in pairs, solitary sows as well as mothers with one, two and even three cubs. Some cubs were “spring cubs”, quite small and born just months earlier, who are totally dependent on their mother for survival. Others were born the previous winter and are now a year and a half old, much more gregarious and able to venture further from their mother and act more independently.

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams on mud flats at extreme low tide, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams on mud flats at extreme low tide.
Image ID: 19221
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

The lodge itself and its operations are just the right size: large enough to be comfortable while small enough to feel private and uncrowded. About 12 to 16 guests were present while I was there, a handful coming or going every few days. We had three different parties from Switzerland (two fishing, one bear viewing) during just the week I was there — the Swiss love Alaska it seems. Professional photographer David Cardinal was conducting one of his two annual tours at SSCL, leading a group of five serious photographers. David has been photographing the bears and leading tours to SSCL for eight years, and has some fine images on his web site to show for it. Occasionally we would see David and his group while out in the field, but the area is so large that everyone has plenty of space. Other tour groups led by Charles Glatzer and Jess Lee were coming soon after or had left before I arrived. Another lodge, Alaska Homestead Lodge, lies a short distance from SSCL and hosts primarily day fly-in visitors whom we would see on the trails once in a while.

Photographers and brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Photographers and brown bear.
Image ID: 19075
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

At low tide we went out to the tide flats to watch the bears digging for clams. We saw up to about 9 or 10 bears at once, spread widely over the flats. Each bear worked alone and had its own technique for shelling the clams once they were pulled from the sand. Some bears were clearly less skilled than others as their clams would be essentially destroyed as the bear tried to shell them. These bears would also end up covered with more sand and mud than their more skiller counterparts. A couple old pros we saw were able to lay the razor clam on the back of one paw and slide the claws of its other paw between the shells, opening the clam with little damage. Their dexterity is surprising.

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams in sand flats at extreme low tide.  Grizzly bear, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams in sand flats at extreme low tide. Grizzly bear.
Image ID: 19140
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

My goal visiting Silver Salmon Creek Lodge was to shoot simple portraits of large brown bears. Coastal brown bears are considerably larger than brown bears living in the interior of North America because they have access to salmon coming in from the ocean to spawn in the rivers and lakes. I am told by bear experts that interior brown bears are often referred to as grizzly bears or grizzlies, while it is generally agreed that coastal brown bears are not grizzlies. This distinction seems silly to me, however. Coastal brown bears are the largest bears in the world, surpassing polar bears and peaking in size with the Kodiak Island race. The best opportunities for portraits were in the meadows, with bears eating sedge grass. Being essentially pure fiber, sedge grass is not very nutritious for the bears but they are hungry as they wait for the salmon to arrive and so will eat lots of it. I even tried a little of it, and didn’t get sick, ok. The bears can eat up to 30 lbs of sedge grass each day and will spend hours in the meadows resting and grazing. Below are a couple of portraits of the bear that I thought was most impressive of those I saw during my stay. His eyes appear beady small because his head has grown so large and thick over the years, his shoulders were monstrously broad and thick and he walked with a swagger that suggested there was nothing that concerned him. He bears a recent scar over his right eye presumably from a fight with another male for territory or mating rights. I hope my kids get a chance to see him next year.

Full grown, mature male coastal brown bear boar (grizzly bear) in sedge grass meadows, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Full grown, mature male coastal brown bear boar (grizzly bear) in sedge grass meadows.
Image ID: 19134
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Mature male coastal brown bear boar waits on the tide flats at the mouth of Silver Salmon Creek for salmon to arrive.  Grizzly bear, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Mature male coastal brown bear boar waits on the tide flats at the mouth of Silver Salmon Creek for salmon to arrive. Grizzly bear.
Image ID: 19149
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Brown Bear Portrait

Alaska, Brown Bear, Lake Clark, National Parks, Photo of the Day, Wildlife

My goal in July was to shoot portraits of bears. I scheduled my visit before the arrival of salmon so that the bears would be in the meadows eating sedge grass and staging in the area, waiting for salmon to arrive. Next trip will be a bit later to coincide with salmon and look more for interesting behaviour oriented around salmon predation and territoriality between adult bears.

This young coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos) was resting and eating sedge grass.

Portrait of a young brown bear, pausing while grazing in tall sedge grass.  Brown bears can consume 30 lbs of sedge grass daily, waiting weeks until spawning salmon fill the rivers, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Portrait of a young brown bear, pausing while grazing in tall sedge grass. Brown bears can consume 30 lbs of sedge grass daily, waiting weeks until spawning salmon fill the rivers.
Image ID: 19157
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Pretty Young Thing

Alaska, Brown Bear, Lake Clark, National Parks, Photo of the Day, Wildlife

This young female coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos) was often around when I was visiting Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. We saw her clamming on the tide flats and grazing on sedge grass in the meadows. She is a really good looking bear, with a thick blond coat and none of the scars around her muzzle that the older bears typically have.

Juvenile female coastal brown bear (grizzly bear) grazes on sedge grass, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Juvenile female coastal brown bear (grizzly bear) grazes on sedge grass.
Image ID: 19137
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Lazy Bear

Alaska, Brown Bear, Lake Clark, National Parks, Photo of the Day, Wildlife

On my recent trip to photograph coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos) in Lake Clark National Park, I experienced nearly perfect weather for a full week, with just one day of light drizzle and only a few overcast days. About half the time we had full sun, with hardly a cloud in the sky, and warm. Great for us, but it can be tiring for the bears to hang in the sun with their thick fur coats. This guy found a comfy log in the center of a sedge grass meadow on which to nap, and gave us hardly a glance as we walked by him.

Lazy brown bear naps on a log, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Lazy brown bear naps on a log.
Image ID: 19251
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Brooks Lodge Bear Viewing, Katmai, Alaska

Alaska, Brown Bear, How To, Katmai

Some Thoughts on Visiting Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska to See Coastal Brown Bears (Ursus arctos)



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), near the bridge, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Camp is located in the heart of Katmai National Park, Alaska. Long famous for its world-class fishing, spectacular volcanic and geologic features and beautiful countryside, Brooks Camp is now widely known for its remarkable bear viewing. Each July, during the height of the salmon run upriver, and again in September when the “spawned-out” salmon return downriver, dozens of brown bears (grizzly bears, Ursus arctos) congregate in the Brooks River, its surrounding forests and meadows, and along the shores of Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake to feast on the salmon. Brooks Camp is one of the finest places in the world to view wild brown bears. I spent a week at Brooks Camp in July 2006 with Keith Grundy and his wife and two sons. We had a great time watching and photographing the bears, walking around the woods and wondering if we would stumble across one of Timothy Treadwell‘s favorites, and just enjoying this wonderful Alaska setting. We even awoke one morning to a bat buzzing around inside our cabin room, that was cool, four men hiding under their covers from a 4-oz. flying vampiric squirrel.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), catching a spawning salmon atom Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Arrangements. We made arrangements to stay at Brooks Lodge, which included flights from Anchorage to King Salmon (by turboprop) and King Salmon on to Brooks Camp (by float plane) through Katmailand, the concessionaire operating Brooks Lodge. In particular, the float plane rides are really fun. The Katmailand folks were pleasant to deal with. Since stays at Brooks Lodge during the prime bear viewing weeks are limited to three nights, and I wanted additional time there, I made further arrangements to stay in the campground at Brooks Camp through the National Park Service. Brooks Lodge may seem expensive but it isn’t by Alaskan lodge standards, and the campground is dirt cheap. There are many tour companies and individual tour group organizers that will get you to Brooks Lodge for a multi-night stay, or just to Brooks Camp for the day. Many of these tours will offer some sort of photography instruction. You will pay a bit of a premium for this, but many visitors feel its worth it as the tour groups I encountered there were full and quite satisfied. I remember Natural Habitat had a group there, and I spoke with their tour guide a few times, and it seemed like a top-notch operation. I rarely join tour groups, preferring to have more control over my itinerary and spend less money by making my own arrangements. If you do too then Brooks Camp will be straightforward for you to arrange on your own. If you are pursuing photography, I definitely recommend that you stay at Brooks Camp, either in the lodge or campground, rather than visiting for the day by float plane, since you will forego precious morning and evening photography opportunites if you choose to visit only for the day.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), spring cub, stands to see above the tall grass near the bridge, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Camp. Visitors to the Brooks Camp area, after arriving by float plane, walk to Brooks Lodge and the ranger station to check in (if staying overnight) and to receive a brief, manditory lesson on how to behave around brown bears, especially when hiking or camping in the area and particularly when handling food or scented gear. Brooks Lodge itself is relatively small and simple, offering a fireplace and comfortable sitting chairs for relaxing and a dining room with simple yet satisfying buffet-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. I particularly took advantage of the bar at the end of the day, toasting my good fortune to be in such a great place before retiring for the evening. Cabins at the Lodge are spread over several acres, are spartan but comfortable, and offer bunk-style sleeping arrangements for a maximum of four per cabin. I am told the lodge manager tries to organize guests in such a way as to leave at least one bunk empty in each cabin but it may not be possible in July, especially for single travellers or odd-sized groups. The campground, an inexpensive alternative to the lodge, is a half-mile walk from the lodge on the shore of Naknek Lake. An electric “fence”, which looks like two lines of bungy cord with an electric conductor woven in each, is stretched around the perimeter of the campground. I camped in the center of the campground to ensure that any hungry bears that were not put off by a little shock would encounter someone else’s tent before mine. Some campers brought cooking gear with them and made fires and all that stuff each night. I choose instead to go light, relying on the lodge for meals and the lodge’s bar for entertainment, bringing only a tent, sleeping bag and some beef jerky.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), lifts its head from the water after snorkeling for salmon, near the Riffles section of Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska

The Experience. Brooks Camp is about bear viewing, salmon fishing and visiting the nearby and spectacular Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Brooks Camp is a simple, no frills place. During my brief week-long stay I experienced weather ranging from warm, blue sky days with pleasant breezes to overcast days so windy the day-visitor float planes could not land on Naknek Lake, to cold and rainy weather. I did not experience much of a problem with mosquitoes, gnats or other bugs, although you are well advised to prepare for that anywhere in Alaska. You will NOT be alone at Brooks Camp in July, unless you choose to go hiking. Most visitors to the lodge and campground during that time are there to see bears and/or go fishing, so if you are too then you will see one another at meals in the lodge and out on the trails to and from the places where the bears gather or the fishing takes place. However, in mid-summer the days are long and, if you rise and leave the lodge/campground areas early in the morning, you can find solitude easily enough. There are no distractions from television, radio or any of that crap offered at the Brooks Lodge, which is great and helps one to reset the mindset and really absorb the smells and sights that the lakes, river, meadows and forest have to offer. Your cell phone won’t work but your satellite phone will. It should be noted that it is stupid to hike there with an iPod jammed in your earholes, for obvious reasons. Also, leave your computer at home. Don’t bring the damn thing to Brooks Camp, its just plain wrong not to mention tasteless, we must maintain some limits on technology in the outdoors.



Two coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos), fight after one attempted to steal the other’s salmon, in the pools below Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Falls. Once visitors have been briefed on the bears and checked in to the lodge or campground, it’s off to the falls … Brooks Falls that is. Brooks Falls, roughly midway on the Brooks River between Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake, is the most popular spot in the Brooks Camp area for viewing bears, and with good reason. It is at Brooks Falls that salmon swimming upriver must navigate their only significant vertical challenge on their way to spawn in Brooks Lake. And it is at Brooks Falls that brown bears wait, both below and above the falls, to catch and eat the salmon. I spent six full days and two partial days at Brooks Camp, and allocated 3-7 hours each day to being at the falls, just to enjoy the show and try to shoot some photographs of the bears catching the salmon in midair and ripping them apart sashimi-style. The National Park Service has built an enormous, sturdy 10-foot elevated boardwalk, originating in the woods about 150 yards from the falls, and ending in two large viewing platforms where visitors can hang out and watch the bears in safety and without distracting them from their feeding, resting needs and socialization. The first platform overlooks the Riffles, a stretch of the very mild rapids about 100 yard below the falls. If a group of bears is occupying the falls, some of the smaller or less aggressive bears may move down into the Riffles stretch to fish. We found the Riffles was the best place to observe mothers and cubs and yearling bears, since it was dangerous for these younger bears to spend time around the large males (who might kill them). The Riffles platform tended to be the less crowded of the two platforms, by far, and on occasion actually offered the better opportunities for viewing — it all depends on the vagueries of the bears and the numbers of salmon passing through on any given day.



This large, mature male coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), moved slowly around the Brooks Falls area. It was apparently atop the hierarchy of bears at the falls, to the extent that it did not even need to expend energy on posturing or threatening the other bears at the falls. It would simply walk out to the prime spot in the middle of the river above the falls when it was ready to catch salmon, and any other bears in its way would move aside at its approach. Katmai National Park, Alaska

Falls Platform. The primary viewing platform is the Falls Platform, naturally situated alongside Brooks Falls itself. This is the best place in the world to capture the classic bear catching salmon photograph, such as the one made famous by the superb photographer Thomas Mangelsen. All you need is a bear or two atop the falls, a school of salmon moving through with individuals periodically attempting to leap up the falls, and a quick trigger finger on the camera. I managed to get a few shots of this myself, and look forward to trying it again sometime. It should be noted that the Falls Platform can get crowded, to the point where the park service will institute a waiting list and limit stays on the platform to an hour per person. I had heard horror stories about visitors being very frustrated by crowds at the Falls Platform and not feeling that they were able to spend enough time there, so I deliberately scheduled twice as many days at Brooks Camp as I thought I would need to account for this possibility. In my experience the crowds were not a great problem, and I only observed a waiting list in the afternoons, when day visitors (those who fly in by float plane to view bears and fly out again the same day) were present. By about 6pm all day visitors have left, and the crowds are no longer an issue. I found that there was plenty of light for viewing bears at the falls and shooting photos until at least 8pm in the evening unless it was really overcast or raining, and as a consequence I returned home with many more frames that I expected. I found that, on a full frame camera (Canon 1DsII) that a 500mm f/4 was my most used lens, followed by 100-400mm and 70-200mm lenses. I think a 600mm lens would have been too limiting, although I did see a few guys using them, perhaps framing up tight portrait shots. I think I broke out a 24-70mm lens just once on the platform.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), waits motionless for salmon to leap up the falls, long shutter speed blurs the water movement, Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Etiquette. It should be mentioned that there is some etiquette required for the platforms, particularly the Falls Platform, for photographers. The platform is well suited for 40-50 visitors but is standing room only. Once photographers, with their bulky tripods and ginormous telephoto lenses, start occupying spots on the platform it starts feeling crowded in a hurry. It is important for photographers to remember that, regardless of how awesome their gear is or how much money their tour group cost, they are no more entitled to a spot on the platform than Aunt Bessie from Wisconsin with her point-and-shoot instamatic. Indeed, for Aunt Bessie, time spent on the platform is likely even more of a thrill than it is for the travel-hardened, experienced photographer. Photographers, go ahead and spend time on the front row of the platform — for you will naturally weasel your way up there, you’ll see — and then voluntarily back off and allow others (especially kids) to have your spot, even if they care nothing for photos. You will find that shooting from the rear of the platform will give you somewhat different angles on the bears on the falls. I know, its hard to do, and I was as tempted as any other photographer to hog the front of the platform with my megacamera setup, but I realized moving around and shooting from the back of the platform actually allowed me to shot compositions I would have missed up front. I found during my stay that, in spite of afternoon waiting lists at the Falls Platform, everyone on the platforms was quite polite and pleasant — indeed very happy just to be in such a wonderful place. Even the most serious photographers eventually smiled and gave up their prime shooting spots for others who had been waiting a while. Only one notable incident involving platform crowding took place while I was there, on the Riffles platform. One of the National Park Service rangers, who pursues photography (apparently professionally) as well, was off-duty and shooting from the rear of the empty Riffles platform as a group of others, myself included, arrived. He asked us to stay out of his line of sight, stating that since he was shooting with a prime (fixed focal length) lens he did not have freedom to move from his position at the rear of the platform for his chosen composition. This request effectively made the entire platform inaccessible to the rest of us, until he was finished with his shot. Now, while his request would have been reasonable in a situation where everyone had reasonable freedom of movement, on the platform such a request was ridiculous, especially so coming from a ranger who we assume spends weeks, if not seasons, at Brooks Camp. We allowed him to have a few more minutes to his shot, but since his request kept the rest of the visitors from even using the platform we eventually had to tell him so and step on to the platform so that we could have a look at the bears ourselves. The moral of the story, which this experienced ranger certainly must have known, is: bring a zoom when shooting from the platforms. This is stating the obvious: you are on a platform with limited ability to move about. While primes are sharper and faster, on a platform you may (will) find yourself constrained in ways that only a zoom can solve.



A float plane, having just landed on Naknek Lake, taxies to the shoreline in front of Brooks Camp, while a young coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), walks near the mouth of Brooks River near the bridge, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Bridge. The platforms are on the opposite side of the Brooks River from the lodge and campground. A floating bridge exists, near the mouth of the Brooks River at Naknek Lake. A raised platform has been built on one side of the bridge which is a great spot for viewing bears in the surrounding meadow and along the banks of the Brooks River. The bridge is a natural pinch point, since anyone staying at the lodge or campground really must cross the bridge during the course of a typical day of bear viewing. Therein lies the rub. If a bear is hanging around either end of the bridge, or has chosen to lay down for a nap near the bridge, the rangers may close the bridge until the bear has left, a closure that could last for hours resulting in the famous Brooks Camp “bear jam”. Bears have right of way through the park, and visitors are limited in how close to a bear they may be. Bear jams can occur anywhere in the park that a narrowing exists (road, trail, bridge, etc.). Since the brush underneath the bridge platform happens to be a natural place for bears to bed down (especially sows with cubs), bear jams at the bridge occur fairly often. I was lucky and not subjected to any that lasted more than a few minutes. Anyone with a flight out of Brooks Camp is advised to factor the possibility of a bear jam into their schedule and return early to the camp so as not to miss their flight. On our final day at Brooks, we were in a sense beneficiaries of a long bear jam. We hit the trail immediately after breakfast and spent the entire morning on the Falls Platform. For several hours the platform was nearly empty and very quiet with just a small group of us there, and we felt as if we had the falls to ourselves, a rarity in July. We all had lots of space to move about the platform. Just as we were leaving, many more people began to arrive — people who had been held up at the bridge for nearly the entire morning due to a napping bear, one we had missed by just a few minutes on our way out after breakfast.



“Spa bear”, a mature male coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), has an intriguing technique for catching salmon. He waits motionless in the bubble-filled pools below Brooks Falls until a salmon happens to bump against him. More quickly than the fish can flee, spa bear snags the fish between his forepaws and his body. Only then does he bother to get his head wet, leaning down to grasp the doomed salmon in his mouth, and slowly exits the water to eat it. Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska

See: grizzly bear photos.

Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Alaska, Brown Bear, Katmai, National Parks, Photo of the Day, Wildlife

Some Thoughts on Visiting Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska to See Coastal Brown Bears (Ursus arctos)



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), near the bridge, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Camp is located in the heart of Katmai National Park, Alaska. Long famous for its world-class fishing, spectacular volcanic and geologic features and beautiful countryside, Brooks Camp is now widely known for its remarkable bear viewing. Each July, during the height of the salmon run upriver, and again in September when the “spawned-out” salmon return downriver, dozens of brown bears (grizzly bears, Ursus arctos) congregate in the Brooks River, its surrounding forests and meadows, and along the shores of Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake to feast on the salmon. Brooks Camp is one of the finest places in the world to view wild brown bears. I spent a week at Brooks Camp in July 2006 with Keith Grundy and his wife and two sons. We had a great time watching and photographing the bears, walking around the woods and wondering if we would stumble across one of Timothy Treadwell‘s favorites, and just enjoying this wonderful Alaska setting. We even awoke one morning to a bat buzzing around inside our cabin room, that was cool, four men hiding under their covers from a 4-oz. flying vampiric squirrel.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), catching a spawning salmon atom Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Arrangements. We made arrangements to stay at Brooks Lodge, which included flights from Anchorage to King Salmon (by turboprop) and King Salmon on to Brooks Camp (by float plane) through Katmailand, the concessionaire operating Brooks Lodge. In particular, the float plane rides are really fun. The Katmailand folks were pleasant to deal with. Since stays at Brooks Lodge during the prime bear viewing weeks are limited to three nights, and I wanted additional time there, I made further arrangements to stay in the campground at Brooks Camp through the National Park Service. Brooks Lodge may seem expensive but it isn’t by Alaskan lodge standards, and the campground is dirt cheap. There are many tour companies and individual tour group organizers that will get you to Brooks Lodge for a multi-night stay, or just to Brooks Camp for the day. Many of these tours will offer some sort of photography instruction. You will pay a bit of a premium for this, but many visitors feel its worth it as the tour groups I encountered there were full and quite satisfied. I remember Natural Habitat had a group there, and I spoke with their tour guide a few times, and it seemed like a top-notch operation. I rarely join tour groups, preferring to have more control over my itinerary and spend less money by making my own arrangements. If you do too then Brooks Camp will be straightforward for you to arrange on your own. If you are pursuing photography, I definitely recommend that you stay at Brooks Camp, either in the lodge or campground, rather than visiting for the day by float plane, since you will forego precious morning and evening photography opportunites if you choose to visit only for the day.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), spring cub, stands to see above the tall grass near the bridge, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Camp. Visitors to the Brooks Camp area, after arriving by float plane, walk to Brooks Lodge and the ranger station to check in (if staying overnight) and to receive a brief, manditory lesson on how to behave around brown bears, especially when hiking or camping in the area and particularly when handling food or scented gear. Brooks Lodge itself is relatively small and simple, offering a fireplace and comfortable sitting chairs for relaxing and a dining room with simple yet satisfying buffet-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. I particularly took advantage of the bar at the end of the day, toasting my good fortune to be in such a great place before retiring for the evening. Cabins at the Lodge are spread over several acres, are spartan but comfortable, and offer bunk-style sleeping arrangements for a maximum of four per cabin. I am told the lodge manager tries to organize guests in such a way as to leave at least one bunk empty in each cabin but it may not be possible in July, especially for single travellers or odd-sized groups. The campground, an inexpensive alternative to the lodge, is a half-mile walk from the lodge on the shore of Naknek Lake. An electric “fence”, which looks like two lines of bungy cord with an electric conductor woven in each, is stretched around the perimeter of the campground. I camped in the center of the campground to ensure that any hungry bears that were not put off by a little shock would encounter someone else’s tent before mine. Some campers brought cooking gear with them and made fires and all that stuff each night. I choose instead to go light, relying on the lodge for meals and the lodge’s bar for entertainment, bringing only a tent, sleeping bag and some beef jerky.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), lifts its head from the water after snorkeling for salmon, near the Riffles section of Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska

The Experience. Brooks Camp is about bear viewing, salmon fishing and visiting the nearby and spectacular Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Brooks Camp is a simple, no frills place. During my brief week-long stay I experienced weather ranging from warm, blue sky days with pleasant breezes to overcast days so windy the day-visitor float planes could not land on Naknek Lake, to cold and rainy weather. I did not experience much of a problem with mosquitoes, gnats or other bugs, although you are well advised to prepare for that anywhere in Alaska. You will NOT be alone at Brooks Camp in July, unless you choose to go hiking. Most visitors to the lodge and campground during that time are there to see bears and/or go fishing, so if you are too then you will see one another at meals in the lodge and out on the trails to and from the places where the bears gather or the fishing takes place. However, in mid-summer the days are long and, if you rise and leave the lodge/campground areas early in the morning, you can find solitude easily enough. There are no distractions from television, radio or any of that crap offered at the Brooks Lodge, which is great and helps one to reset the mindset and really absorb the smells and sights that the lakes, river, meadows and forest have to offer. Your cell phone won’t work but your satellite phone will. It should be noted that it is stupid to hike there with an iPod jammed in your earholes, for obvious reasons. Also, leave your computer at home. Don’t bring the damn thing to Brooks Camp, its just plain wrong not to mention tasteless, we must maintain some limits on technology in the outdoors.



Two coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos), fight after one attempted to steal the other’s salmon, in the pools below Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Falls. Once visitors have been briefed on the bears and checked in to the lodge or campground, it’s off to the falls … Brooks Falls that is. Brooks Falls, roughly midway on the Brooks River between Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake, is the most popular spot in the Brooks Camp area for viewing bears, and with good reason. It is at Brooks Falls that salmon swimming upriver must navigate their only significant vertical challenge on their way to spawn in Brooks Lake. And it is at Brooks Falls that brown bears wait, both below and above the falls, to catch and eat the salmon. I spent six full days and two partial days at Brooks Camp, and allocated 3-7 hours each day to being at the falls, just to enjoy the show and try to shoot some photographs of the bears catching the salmon in midair and ripping them apart sashimi-style. The National Park Service has built an enormous, sturdy 10-foot elevated boardwalk, originating in the woods about 150 yards from the falls, and ending in two large viewing platforms where visitors can hang out and watch the bears in safety and without distracting them from their feeding, resting needs and socialization. The first platform overlooks the Riffles, a stretch of the very mild rapids about 100 yard below the falls. If a group of bears is occupying the falls, some of the smaller or less aggressive bears may move down into the Riffles stretch to fish. We found the Riffles was the best place to observe mothers and cubs and yearling bears, since it was dangerous for these younger bears to spend time around the large males (who might kill them). The Riffles platform tended to be the less crowded of the two platforms, by far, and on occasion actually offered the better opportunities for viewing — it all depends on the vagueries of the bears and the numbers of salmon passing through on any given day.



This large, mature male coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), moved slowly around the Brooks Falls area. It was apparently atop the hierarchy of bears at the falls, to the extent that it did not even need to expend energy on posturing or threatening the other bears at the falls. It would simply walk out to the prime spot in the middle of the river above the falls when it was ready to catch salmon, and any other bears in its way would move aside at its approach. Katmai National Park, Alaska

Falls Platform. The primary viewing platform is the Falls Platform, naturally situated alongside Brooks Falls itself. This is the best place in the world to capture the classic bear catching salmon photograph, such as the one made famous by the superb photographer Thomas Mangelsen. All you need is a bear or two atop the falls, a school of salmon moving through with individuals periodically attempting to leap up the falls, and a quick trigger finger on the camera. I managed to get a few shots of this myself, and look forward to trying it again sometime. It should be noted that the Falls Platform can get crowded, to the point where the park service will institute a waiting list and limit stays on the platform to an hour per person. I had heard horror stories about visitors being very frustrated by crowds at the Falls Platform and not feeling that they were able to spend enough time there, so I deliberately scheduled twice as many days at Brooks Camp as I thought I would need to account for this possibility. In my experience the crowds were not a great problem, and I only observed a waiting list in the afternoons, when day visitors (those who fly in by float plane to view bears and fly out again the same day) were present. By about 6pm all day visitors have left, and the crowds are no longer an issue. I found that there was plenty of light for viewing bears at the falls and shooting photos until at least 8pm in the evening unless it was really overcast or raining, and as a consequence I returned home with many more frames that I expected. I found that, on a full frame camera (Canon 1DsII) that a 500mm f/4 was my most used lens, followed by 100-400mm and 70-200mm lenses. I think a 600mm lens would have been too limiting, although I did see a few guys using them, perhaps framing up tight portrait shots. I think I broke out a 24-70mm lens just once on the platform.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), waits motionless for salmon to leap up the falls, long shutter speed blurs the water movement, Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Etiquette. It should be mentioned that there is some etiquette required for the platforms, particularly the Falls Platform, for photographers. The platform is well suited for 40-50 visitors but is standing room only. Once photographers, with their bulky tripods and ginormous telephoto lenses, start occupying spots on the platform it starts feeling crowded in a hurry. It is important for photographers to remember that, regardless of how awesome their gear is or how much money their tour group cost, they are no more entitled to a spot on the platform than Aunt Bessie from Wisconsin with her point-and-shoot instamatic. Indeed, for Aunt Bessie, time spent on the platform is likely even more of a thrill than it is for the travel-hardened, experienced photographer. Photographers, go ahead and spend time on the front row of the platform — for you will naturally weasel your way up there, you’ll see — and then voluntarily back off and allow others (especially kids) to have your spot, even if they care nothing for photos. You will find that shooting from the rear of the platform will give you somewhat different angles on the bears on the falls. I know, its hard to do, and I was as tempted as any other photographer to hog the front of the platform with my megacamera setup, but I realized moving around and shooting from the back of the platform actually allowed me to shot compositions I would have missed up front. I found during my stay that, in spite of afternoon waiting lists at the Falls Platform, everyone on the platforms was quite polite and pleasant — indeed very happy just to be in such a wonderful place. Even the most serious photographers eventually smiled and gave up their prime shooting spots for others who had been waiting a while. Only one notable incident involving platform crowding took place while I was there, on the Riffles platform. One of the National Park Service rangers, who pursues photography (apparently professionally) as well, was off-duty and shooting from the rear of the empty Riffles platform as a group of others, myself included, arrived. He asked us to stay out of his line of sight, stating that since he was shooting with a prime (fixed focal length) lens he did not have freedom to move from his position at the rear of the platform for his chosen composition. This request effectively made the entire platform inaccessible to the rest of us, until he was finished with his shot. Now, while his request would have been reasonable in a situation where everyone had reasonable freedom of movement, on the platform such a request was ridiculous, especially so coming from a ranger who we assume spends weeks, if not seasons, at Brooks Camp. We allowed him to have a few more minutes to his shot, but since his request kept the rest of the visitors from even using the platform we eventually had to tell him so and step on to the platform so that we could have a look at the bears ourselves. The moral of the story, which this experienced ranger certainly must have known, is: bring a zoom when shooting from the platforms. This is stating the obvious: you are on a platform with limited ability to move about. While primes are sharper and faster, on a platform you may (will) find yourself constrained in ways that only a zoom can solve.



A float plane, having just landed on Naknek Lake, taxies to the shoreline in front of Brooks Camp, while a young coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), walks near the mouth of Brooks River near the bridge, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Bridge. The platforms are on the opposite side of the Brooks River from the lodge and campground. A floating bridge exists, near the mouth of the Brooks River at Naknek Lake. A raised platform has been built on one side of the bridge which is a great spot for viewing bears in the surrounding meadow and along the banks of the Brooks River. The bridge is a natural pinch point, since anyone staying at the lodge or campground really must cross the bridge during the course of a typical day of bear viewing. Therein lies the rub. If a bear is hanging around either end of the bridge, or has chosen to lay down for a nap near the bridge, the rangers may close the bridge until the bear has left, a closure that could last for hours resulting in the famous Brooks Camp “bear jam”. Bears have right of way through the park, and visitors are limited in how close to a bear they may be. Bear jams can occur anywhere in the park that a narrowing exists (road, trail, bridge, etc.). Since the brush underneath the bridge platform happens to be a natural place for bears to bed down (especially sows with cubs), bear jams at the bridge occur fairly often. I was lucky and not subjected to any that lasted more than a few minutes. Anyone with a flight out of Brooks Camp is advised to factor the possibility of a bear jam into their schedule and return early to the camp so as not to miss their flight. On our final day at Brooks, we were in a sense beneficiaries of a long bear jam. We hit the trail immediately after breakfast and spent the entire morning on the Falls Platform. For several hours the platform was nearly empty and very quiet with just a small group of us there, and we felt as if we had the falls to ourselves, a rarity in July. We all had lots of space to move about the platform. Just as we were leaving, many more people began to arrive — people who had been held up at the bridge for nearly the entire morning due to a napping bear, one we had missed by just a few minutes on our way out after breakfast.



“Spa bear”, a mature male coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), has an intriguing technique for catching salmon. He waits motionless in the bubble-filled pools below Brooks Falls until a salmon happens to bump against him. More quickly than the fish can flee, spa bear snags the fish between his forepaws and his body. Only then does he bother to get his head wet, leaning down to grasp the doomed salmon in his mouth, and slowly exits the water to eat it. Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska

See: grizzly bear photos.