Brooks Camp, Alaska – Katmai National Park

Once again I ventured up to Alaska to photograph the large Brown Bears in Katmai National Park. Each year the bears go to the Brooks Camp area to gorge themselves on the migrating salmon in Brooks River, a mile long river that connects Naknek Lake and Brooks Lake. This was my third time at Brooks Camp photographing the bears. My first time there, back in 2000 I was shooting film in a Nikon N70, my second time was back in 2003 with the Nikon D100 and now I had the Nikon D2X and the D300. I was especially excited about this trip because I had cameras capable of shooting 8 frames per second.

Brooks Camp offers photographers, fly-fishermen, and tourists a unique opportunity to view Brown Bears and other wildlife up close. Within walking distance of the camp there are three viewing platforms; the upper falls platform where you can watch bears stand in the middle of the river, atop of Brooks Falls and catch salmon mid flight as they attempt to jump the falls to continue their migration. The platform has two levels and safely holds about 40 people. It is here that you try to capture the “shot” as the flying fish is about to enter the bear’s mouth. This is where I knew having 8 frames per second would be extremely beneficial.

Brown Bear

Another viewing platform is located just below the upper falls platform and in fact they are connected via an elevated sky bridge. This acts as both a safety barrier for the people and it serves to keep people out of the bear’s environment. From this vantage point you can see more of the river in both directions.

The third viewing area is the lower platform across the river from Brooks Camp. It’s situated so that you can see bears as they roam around the mouth of Brooks River, in the pools of water below the platform and out in the open grassland area. This platform offers you the greatest viewing range to see the bears. Brooks Camp, Alaska

Ninety nine percent of all the people who visit Brooks Camp use the platforms to view the bears. The other one percent put on a pair of fly-fishing chest waders and walk up and down the banks of Brooks River looking for bears. Wearing chest waders enables you to walk through trails covered in mud and water, tall wet grass without getting wet and it allows you to enter and cross the Brooks River when needed. Getting off the viewing platforms and venturing out into bear country opens up a much bigger landscape to view and photograph the bears. You’re view is not limited from what you can see from the platforms. If you don’t like the background you can simply walk to another location. Another bonus from walking around is that you’re shooting at bear level; you’re not shooting down on the bears. Of course, now that you’re out in the wild walking around in bear country you must constantly be watching over your shoulder looking for bears approaching.

The general rule of thumb around the area is to keep your distance from the bears to at least 100 yards. The bears have one thing on their mind and that is salmon. They need to catch and eat as many protein rich salmon as possible between July and September. If left alone and not bothered, the bears mind their own business and just walk by their human intruders. This same philosophy runs true out on the river. In fact, in the 50 odd years the camp has been operating not a single person has ever been attacked or injured by a bear.

Brown Brown dripping water

This trip proved a little different from my previous two visits. The salmon runs typically starts sometime in late June early July, but this year the salmon were late. There were salmon in the river and a few big schools of salmon had gone through the system, but the thousands and thousands of salmon typical at this time of year were missing. Consequently, there were fewer bears along the river banks than normal and the bears looked lost at the falls. In the four days I was there, I didn’t see a single salmon jump. The bears would stand on top of the falls and stare at the pool of water below them waiting for flying salmon. They stood patiently for 20 minutes or longer waiting, but eventually gave up and moved on.

Brown bear shaking water off

The lack of salmon and bear proved disappointing. Shooting at 8 frames per second from the upper viewing platform while salmon met up with hungry bears mid air would have to wait for another year. The bears we did see were mostly down by the lower falls, walking along the shores of Naknek Lake and a few could be found walking along the banks of Brooks River. In years past, the big male bears tend to dominate the upper part of the river with the biggest of the males intimidating the younger ones for the best spot atop of Brooks Falls. Along the lower river you’d find the sows and their cubs. The sows are very protective of their young cubs. They get nervous if any male, big or small, gets near.

Although the salmon weren’t jumping too much, I was happy with the images I did capture. I think any time you can get close to Brown Bears, become part of their environment and record a moment of their time is special.

Brown bear sow and cubs sitting on riverbank

If you plan to visit the Brooks Camp area, here are my recommendations:

To get there:

Seattle – Anchorage – King Salmon (commercial flights)
King Salmon – Brooks Camp (operated by Katmailand)

Where to stay:
Cabins: operated by Katmailand ( usually book out a year in advance or more)
Campground – Operated by the
National Park Service (you can book a reservation only up to six month before your visit)

Electrical Needs for Digital Cameras and Laptops:
The mess hall at Brooks Camp runs on a generator and has electrical outlets. You’ll find many of the outlets recharging batteries. I took a power strip so I could recharge my digital camera batteries and laptop at the same time. This way I only needed one outlet to satisfy all my electrical needs.

This entry was posted in Brown Bears, Nikon, Photography, Travel, Wildlife.

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