In my last blogpost, I offered some tips for visiting what has now become one of my all-time favorite national parks...Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. We had completed Bear School and were on our hike out to Brooks Falls when I had this feeling we were going the wrong way. We turned to go back and check the sign, and not even 20 feet away from us, two subadult bears were coming out of the woods. They were WAY closer than the 50-yard minimum. But we were Katmai Bear School alumni! We knew to stay calm, look big, sound authoritative and to never ever ever ever run.
We both screamed, turned and ran. It was embarrassing, and potentially life-threatening. Think of subadult bears as teenagers. Inexperienced, but independent. Learning to deal with their "emancipation" (the term biologists use when mom kicks them out of the figurative house and yells "get a job!"). They're testing boundaries, and even though there are loads of fish, and eating is easy for some bears, there is still a limited amount of time to gorge and put on weight for the long Alaskan winter ahead. Younger bears still have to learn how to fish efficiently, all while learning their place in the hierarchy of older bears. In a word, subadults can be pretty dangerous.
Fortunately for us, these two did not break stride, and continued walking across the trail behind us. We had failed miserably at our first true test after bear school. It was sobering...but thrilling at the same time.
We continued our walk, garnering further evidence that the answer to that age-old question about bears (yes....THAT question!) was a decisive "no." They don't do it in the woods...they do it directly in the middle of the trail!
We arrived a gated, elevated boardwalk that would take us out to the two "safe" viewing platforms by the Brooks River. The gates and electric wires keep the bears from climbing up to check you out. We started to spot bears in the woods. It was almost zoo-like, except it was US in the cage! We got to "The Treehouse" ( an interpretive waiting area) around 8 am. Mind you, it had been light since about 2 in the morning, so the bears were already quite active on the falls. What a thrill to see this sight I'd waited for much of my life to see!
There are two platforms for bear viewing. One is called The Riffles, and does not (at least while we were there) have time restrictions. It is multi-level and affords great views of younger bears and mothers with cubs and yearlings. The bears are in the water, on logs, in the woods...everywhere. There was even one completely passed out in a food-coma...just like me after Thanksgiving!
Further down is the place everybody wants to be...the platform right next to Brooks Falls. This is a pretty good obstacle for the salmon trying to get to their spawning grounds, so the fish gather their strength and their resolve (at least that's how I rationalize it!) at the bottom of the falls before attempting the giant leap up. And this is why the bears are here. Some stand in the shallow water and occasionally stick their face under to grab at fish. Some snorkel....swim with their mouth and nose under , but their ears out. Some take off in chase, bounding and splashing after the one fish they've set their eyes on. These are sometimes fish that are injured in some way...maybe by a near miss with another bear, or maybe by a failed jump that knocked them loopy on a rock. Some eat their fish right there in the water, some immediately leave the river to eat in some more secluded spot where they won't have their prize stolen from them. We particularly enjoyed watching Holly, a very blonde bear who apparently has quite a talent for successfully raising cubs...even those not her own. She had two girls, one a brunette, and one a blonde like her. The yearlings waited patiently while Mom snorkeled, rarely taking their eyes off her. One tried occasionally to grab her own fish, and we watched her successfully do that once. Was it her first ever? We cheered for her, and felt saddened when she would not share with her sister. Perhaps more than any other wildlife experience, this place lent itself to me anthropomorphizing the bears...giving them human values when the real behavior was merely survival.
The Falls Platform has time restrictions during the peak part of the day. Get there early (before 9) and you can jostle for space with other early-risers. It really isn't that bad until the day-trippers from Anchorage and King Salmon arrive. At about 8:45, a ranger comes out to the platform and starts taking names and writing down descriptions of people. Once you are on the list, you have one hour to stay on the platform. This really is a great amount of time, because you can always go back to the Treehouse and immediately add your name to the waiting list again, then go down to The Riffles and watch some more.
As more and more people arrive, the maitre d'/ranger's list gets longer and longer. They even have those restaurant buzzers to call people back! There are those people who only want five minutes on the platform. But the coolest, most unexpected thing that I liked about staying for my full hour and then immediately going back to The Riffles was this feeling of getting to know the bears. This one always stands here, that one always swims in that direction, this one always takes that spot when the more dominant bear leaves to eat her fish. Big old Otis sits in the same place...always...up against the bank, reminding me of "Big Al" at Disney World's Country Bear Jamboree (except not singing "Blood on the Saddle!"). He just stuck his head under water every few minutes and grabbed another fish...the undisputed fattest bear at Brooks!
How a bear eats her fish is also pretty interesting. If you are exceptionally good at catching fish, then you only eat the good parts, like the skin, eyes and brain. Strip the skin from the tail to the head on one side, flip it over and do the same on the other side, then eat the head...the rest gets dropped downstream for other bears, gulls, bald eagles and who knows what else. Less-experienced bears eat everything because they are not as efficient at catching them, and every calorie counts.
As the time approached for our float plane to take us back to King Salmon, I started to feel down. I had wanted this experience for so long, and now it was coming to an end. The expense of getting here meant that I would probably never be back, and I still had 174 National Parks that I had never been to yet. But where there is a will, there's a way. Retirement is coming. Maybe I could be like the volunteer who was a professor at a women's college back east and come back to get to know these amazing fellow beings even better.
'Til next time...
About The Traveling Ranger
Gary Bremen decided to become a ranger when he was just 7 years old, after his parents took him on a 6-week road trip to places like Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. Thirty years into that career, he still finds enormous satisfaction in discovering new places, people, and things in the world around him...especially in national parks....with his husband and best friend, Roger.
His blog posts represent his views, and not those of any other person, agency or organization.
You can follow his adventures on IG: @thetravelingranger or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.