Alaska Bears

Brooks Falls – Katmai National Park and Preserve 1995

View from the elevated viewing platform at Brooks Falls. Here, you have a safe place to photograph the bears as they catch salmon swimming upstream past the falls to spawn. Photos from this location are published in media worldwide.

In 1995, I had the great fortune to visit the world-famous Brooks Falls to watch and photograph dozens of brown bears feeding on salmon as they fatten themselves up for winter hibernation. Access to the falls is very limited, and the only way here is to fly in on a floatplane or take a charter boat from the nearby village of King Salmon.

As luck would have it, the Air Force band I was in was performing at the nearby King Salmon Air Base for troop morale on Friday and Saturday nights. Since there are only 1 or 2 flights per week there, we had 2 days off to do what we wanted. The MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) office at King Salmon had a charter boat that went to the falls every day – leaving early morning and returning late afternoon. Cost was only about $20. Compared to others who literally spent thousands of dollars to get there, it was a bargain!

This is a view of the lower river, just below the falls. The lake (where the plane and boat docks are located) is visible to the far right.
Ready to go photograph some bears!

There are very strict rules regarding interaction with the bears. First and foremost, feeding the bears or bringing any kind of food past the dock area is forbidden. They do not want the bears to relate humans with food. There are clearly marked paths, and bears have the right of way. You must go directly to the elevated viewing platform which has a gate and protective fence around it. Bear attacks here are very rare.

As I was making my way to the viewing platform, I noticed a bear on the nearby river bank. It was stopped on the trail, with several people waiting patiently to pass. (They are visible through the brush.) Eventually, the bear moved on and the people could proceed.
When I got to the viewing platform, there were several bears already at the falls catching salmon. Some bears would try to grab the salmon as they bunched up preparing to jump up over the falls. Others would go above the falls and try to catch the fish mid-jump.

These 2 fish were lucky enough to be just out of reach.

This salmon wasn’t so lucky. Lunch time!
This bear was going to enjoy the fish on the shoreline.
This bear thought he would get lucky in that same spot, too.
This bear is trying his luck on the far side of the falls.
Maybe standing up will give me a better view.
It worked!! Lunch is served.

These two bears are trying their luck in the river just below the falls.
Another salmon’s journey is complete.
Perhaps the largest salmon I saw that day. These bears will eat dozens of these giant fish
as they put on hundreds of pounds in preparation for hibernating.
Soon, it was time to leave. However, a bear in the path near the viewing platform had the right of way.
Before long, it moved on and we headed back to the dock.
This mama bear was trying to catch some salmon in the lower river for her cubs.
Bears with small cubs avoid the aggressive male bears at the falls.
Nearby, the two cubs were waiting for mom to bring supper.
I think the two cubs were hungry and getting restless.
This young bear was practicing its fishing skills in the lower river, away from the aggressive males.
Along the trail to the dock were several scenic views.
We also discovered the answer to the long-asked question…… (Yes, they do!)
Nice view of a bear in the late-afternoon light.
Another bear resting along the river bank.
Surprise!! This bear came out of the river with a salmon in its mouth, ready to chow down.
We stopped in our tracks and it walked right past us, coming to within 15-20 feet.
As we reached the dock, we spotted this bear watching the humans come and go. Glad we enjoy each other’s company.

I had a wonderful time both days watching the bears in their natural habitat, at a distance that allowed them to carry on without human interference. The National Park Service has very strict rules to ensure the safety of the bears and humans.

If you are interested in visiting Brooks Falls, good luck. There is now an annual lottery for lodging and only those who are selected can go. No “drop ins.” If you do get a winning ticket for lodging, you must first fly to Anchorage, then fly to the village of King Salmon (about 300 miles each way) on a regional airline and then take a charter boat or floatplane the last 30-40 miles to the park. Plan on spending $1,000 from Anchorage round-trip and $250/night for lodging.

If you are lucky enough to go, take a 1-day tour (bus ride) out to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The eruption of nearby Mt. Novarupta in 1912 was the largest volcanic eruption in the entire 20th century – over 30 times the power of the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980. It was so named because when it was first visited 4 years later, there were still thousands of steaming fumaroles in the barren valley.