Brown Bears of Katmai National Park - Alaska - July 2012

08th January 2013
The journey to get to Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park was via King Salmon where we boarded our small float planes for the short flight to Brooks Falls. Disembarkation at Brooks Falls was via a plank and a steadying hand from a local (This took me back to my childhood adventures in Papua New Guinea in the 1960's!).

Brooks Falls lies within Katmai National Park at the base of the Alaska Peninsula. The River flows for only a mile and a half draining Brooks Lake into Naknek Lake. Brown Bears (the coastal form of the Grizzly Bear) congregate at Brooks River when the migrating sockeye salmon arrive from late June until the end of July. Midway up Brooks River the salmon meet a six-foot high waterfall, Brooks Falls. As they mass in the pools beneath it and jump the falls, the salmon are vulnerable to bears. The white water scarcely conceals the fins and backs of the densely packed salmon when large schools crowd beneath the falls.

Bear fishing techniques are as many and varied as the bears themselves. The best fishing spots are at Brooks Falls but are few in number and are usually taken by the dominant, large males leaving the rest to adapt as best they can! The plunge pool beneath the lip of the falls is one of the most desirable spots. The large males fish the frothing plunge pool by standing patiently. The occasional twitch of a shoulder indicates that the male is waiting for a fish to brush against his leg before he pins it against the bottom and then lunges his head into the water and comes up with the hapless salmon.

Bears also compete for places on the lip of the falls where the wrong trajectory can land a jumping salmon into waiting jaws. This is the iconic image we have of bears fishing for salmon, however, only a few bears at a time can fish from the lip and it takes a lot of experience and patience to be successful! The record snow fall resulted in a record melt in 2012 making the waterfall stronger than average with few bears taking the risk!

Bears must consume many salmon beyond the maintenance requirements if they are to put enough fat to survive winter, grow and reproduce. At Brooks Falls we were privaleged to see the salmon run and jumping the falls as well as the life and death struggle of the bears of all ages to eat sufficient salmon to survive through the next winter. This was an amazing experience and one that I have looked forward to for the past 30 years - absolutely memorable!