The Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve is a thing of beauty and wonder. Watching the brown bears fish for salmon on the falls is a bucket list, NatGeo-kind-of-cool, once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan experience. So, a few weeks ago, I was overjoyed and immensely grateful for the opportunity to visit this majestic place for the second time in two years.
The entire Katmai area covers approximately 4 million acres, but in early summer, a mere 1.5 miles of the pristine preserve becomes home to the largest seasonal concentration of brown bears on the planet. Year after year, the bears converge on Brooks River for one primal reason: to pack on major poundage for the upcoming winter hibernation. The end game: fatten up and consume a year’s worth of food in six months or less. Dozens of bears, from wee cubs to colossal adults, belly up to the river to feast on the migrating salmon. It’s an annual bear-a-palooza-extravaganza for wildlife enthusiasts worldwide.
This phenomenon of nature on the Northern Alaska peninsula is accessible only by float plane – and the journey from Anchorage is incredibly picturesque: stunningly blue water and vivid green forests are juxtaposed with blankets of ice and snow on the mountain tops. Nature’s dress code for this event: Alaska fabulous.
A certain flyboy and I headed southwest for the 250-mile trek during peak viewing season in July. However, in the weeks leading up to our journey, the National Park Service’s official live “bearcam”, frequently streamed from the laptop in the kitchen. The non-stop feeding frenzy, playtime shenanigans, and tom-foolery often diverted me from matters more pressing than brown bear surveillance, but I couldn’t resist. Transfixed and captivated with the whole scene, I could barely wait to get there and see nature’s drama unfold from the observation deck. “Giddy, school girl” sums it up, nicely.
After landing at Naknek Lake and completing the mandatory safety briefing, we set out on the 1.2-mile walk to the viewing stations at the Brooks River Falls. A pair of playful cubs romping in the path ahead of us seemed blissfully unconcerned with the 10-pack of humans watching their antics in awestruck silence. Eventually, we made our way to the trio of viewing platforms and spent several incredible hours taking in the whole fantastic scene.
Although the observation areas were filled with onlookers and interlopers, the humans were relatively quiet – save the constant clicking of the ubiquitous cameras and the amusing cheers of victory when a bears caught a salmon mid-air. But nature was loud–the seagulls cackled and cawed overhead, the falls rumbled, gushed, and loudly poured their contents downstream, and the bears jumped and splashed in the water and growled in warning, protest, and play.
From the safety of wooden platforms, we observed the mammals — males and females, cubs and adolescents — in all shapes, sizes, and shades of brown and blonde. No two alike, but all single-minded, laser-focused, fishing machines pursuing carnage at the sockeye smorgasbord.
At Brooks River, the bears congregate in several places based on their hierarchy and dominance. The most desirable locations for prime feeding are the lip above the falls where bears can catch leaping salmon with their strong jaws and mighty paws, the jacuzzi at the base of the falls, and the far side of the bank where fish often get caught on the rocks and make for easy-picking. The bears not privileged enough to secure these locations wander downstream or along the banks — and sometimes dare to trespass into the coveted real estate, only to be rebuffed and intimidated.
Curiously, brown bears employ a variety of fishing methods to secure their feasts: stand and wait, sit and wait, dash and grab, snorkeling, diving, pirating, scavenging, and begging. On that beautiful summer day, we observed many of these techniques with fascination and amusement:
Two large bears presided over the river for the entirety of our visit. From the lip of the falls, one peered down into the churning water below and waited with steely eyed determination for unsuspecting salmon to leap toward freedom. Some survived, but others found themselves in the grip of a clinched jaw from which there was no escape. Next to him, an equally impressive male perched precariously on the rocks, dangling one paw out over the water – poised and ready to swat and impale the airborne sockeye. His go-to move was successful: bear 5, fish:0. We watched others wallow in the sweet spot of the “jacuzzi” and employ the sit and wait strategy – which seemed to require the least amount of energy for the greatest reward. Those bears looked super-chill sitting in the churning water dining al fresco on a fine, fish dinner.
We watched bears snorkel, dive, dash and grab, and scavenge on leftovers from discarded carcasses. Two sets of cubs paced timidly on the shore – taking in all the action and learning Salmon 101. There were a few scuffles, angry-sounding growls, skirmishes, stand-offs, and harmless messing about. This Katmai brown bear water park was pure, joy-inducing entertainment.
At one point, we counted 18 bears playing and fishing in and around Brooks River. The sun was shining, the fish were jumping, and a bald eagle presided over the festivities from her nest high above the falls. It was a glorious day for this grand adventure!
The bears at Katmai are meticulously studied and monitored. Year after year, biologists chart how the animals spend their time and how they interact with the environment, humans, and other bears. They are classified by body size and shape, disposition, demeanor, fishing technique, and their unique scars and wounds.
The bears are given identification numbers and, invariably, monikers that reflect their unique characteristics: Divot, Backpack, Enigma, Indy, Beadnose, Chunk, Grazer, Nostril ,and Walker, to name a few.
Decades of observation and research have revealed some facts about these omnivorous mammals:
- Although driven primarily by instinct, bears’ lives are filled with unique experiences that affect how they behave and interact in their environment.
- Bears have the power to inflict injury and severe harm on others.
- When they hurt, bears modify their behavior in order to cope, carry on, and avoid the appearance of weakness.
- Bears are adaptable and resilient with an uncanny capacity to heal and survive in a harsh, often cruel, world.
- And bears possess a remarkable ability to power through pain, impairment, and infirmity, – and often emerge stronger, healed and whole.
- Each bear is unique. They can be vocal, stoic, playful, grumpy, domineering, passive, frightened, nurturing, or intimidating.
- But they all want the same thing: to be satisfied and fulfilled. To survive.
We’re a little like these bears, you and I.
We’re altogether unique, with our own scars, wounds, and identifying characteristics. Year after year, we stomp around seeking all kinds of ways to be fulfilled. We battle for position…for our place in this world… to assert our power…to get what’s coming to us…to get our fair share. We fiercely protect what is ours and strive to cope with those around us.
Sometimes we growl at each other, exude entitlement, intimidation and dominance, and push away those who get too close.
And all the while, people are watching us. They’re studying and observing our behavior, countenance, demeanor, and attitudes; they’re sizing up our actions, how we spend our time, and how we interact with others.
And much like the bears:
- Our lives are filled with unique experiences that affect how we behave and interact in our environment.
- We have the power to inflict injury and severe harm on others.
- When we’re hurt, we often modify our behavior to avoid the appearance of weakness.
- We are adaptable and resilient, with an uncanny capacity to heal and survive in a harsh and, often, cruel world.
- And we possess a remarkable ability to power through pain, impairment, and infirmity – often emerging stronger, healed and whole.
- We can be vocal, stoic, playful, grumpy, domineering, passive, frightened, nurturing, or intimidating.
- But we all want the same thing: to be satisfied and fulfilled. To survive.
Yes, we are similar to these glorious bears, but not entirely.
Humans are more than habit, instinct, experience, and intellect. We are, as the Good Book says, fearfully and wonderfully made and created in the image of God. And unlike these bears, we are designed for love, fellowship and relationships. We aren’t meant to face challenges alone, nor bury ourselves in harsh isolation when the storms come and the bitter wind blows.
We have a soul, a spirit, a calling, and a destiny – compelling us to not merely to survive this world, but to make an impact while we’re here.
But impact isn’t achieved in solitude. It requires investment in others, finding our purpose, and sharing our gifts. We must be fishers of men who point people to God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance – and we must demonstrate those qualities in our own lives. We should strive to bear much fruit…bear one another’s burdens…season our words with hope,…and fill our days with purpose—so that when people choose monikers to characterize our lives, they think of: Grace, Joyful, Giver, Uplifter, Compassionate, Peacemaker, Tenderhearted, Faithful, Kind, Honorable, Selfless. Humble. Grateful.
The wondrous bears at Katmai aren’t concerned with such things. They’re just doing what bears do. They are independent, powerful, dangerous and selfish. They are driven by carnal desires, and a relentless need for sustenance, sleep, preservation, and survival.
Those are bear necessities, but not ours.
We need more; we’re created for more. We need a life enriched by connection, love, friendship, passion, purpose, hope, and faith.
Anything less is
It’s been several weeks since we returned from this spectacular trip to Katmai – and the bearcam still streams in the kitchen. As I write, there are two bears snorkeling in the jacuzzi, and a sow is fishing on the lip of the falls while her four wee cubs wait on the nearby rocks. Our trips to Brooks Falls have been some of the most joyous of all our adventures. As we prepare to leave the beautiful 49th state, a little piece of my heart will remain in Katmai.