It’s Fat Bear Week at Katmai National Park. The brown bears are matched against each other in a “march madness” style competition and online visitors can vote who is ultimately crowned the Fat Bear Week 2021 Champion. In honor of Fat Bear Week, we are reposting our July 2011 blog of when we spent hours watching the bears catch salmon.
Hunting Bears Hunting Salmon
Most people who have any interest in bears, wildlife, or Alaska have seen the classic pictures of bears. They stand atop of walls in a waterfall, with mouths wide open, waiting patiently for salmon to fly into their mouths. Although you may not have known exactly where the pictures were taken, the location was probably at the Brooks River’s Brooks Falls on the remote and rugged Katmai Peninsula. Here one finds the largest population of protected brown bears in coastal Alaska. You can access the area from Brooks Camp, which has cabins, a lodge that serves buffet meals, and a National Park ranger station.
The camp and lodge were established in 1950 as a fishing camp, to host sports fishermen in search of the best wilderness experience and the biggest salmon. These anglers have always shared the region’s bounty, and sometimes the camp’s facilities, with bears. During the summer and early autumn months, they also share them with bear watchers. During peak months, the camp draws about 150 people per day. Some people come only a day. Others come for multi-day trips. Here one can fish and see bears. One can also tour the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the barren remnant of a 1912 eruption. The eruption was one of the most powerful in recorded history and was ten times greater than that of Mount Saint Helens.
Since we have seen a number of post-volcanic landscapes and have, after visiting Homer, satisfied our occasional fishing urges, we reluctantly settled on a one-day trip. We began with a 7:15 AM flight from Anchorage to King Salmon on the Katmai Peninsula. We then boarded a seaplane for a short puddle jump (literally) to the camp. After a 15 minute orientation and safety briefing, we were off to bear country.
Our quest began with a “bear jam,” one of the frequent episodes in which visitors have to wait for bears to leave the area before being allowed to cross Brooks Bridge to get to the two primary bear viewing platforms: one a short walk away and the other is a 1.6-mile walk. After a 15-minute wait for the bears to leave, we walked the trail which, as evidenced by all the bear scat, we shared with bears. When we arrived at the primary platforms, we were in luck. We were the last of the 40 people that were allowed on the Brooks Falls platform at a time to marvel at the bears.
Viewing Bears at the Brooks Falls Platform
Since salmon run “rush hour” came later than expected this year (see our Kenai Peninsula blog) we missed the primary spectacle of seeing dozens of bears standing atop the falls, waiting for salmon to fly into their mouths. Even so, we did see a couple of bears occasionally prowling the top of the falls, up to seven bears hunting at the base of the falls, and two others trying their luck about 100 yards upstream.
After our allotted hour on the Falls Platform, we tried to return to the lodge for a buffet lunch. We were delayed by another bear jam. A bear resting on the river bank forced us to wait atop the Lower River Platform until it decided to move on. Once we were able to cross, we ate a buffet lunch (the only type of meal served at the lodge) and returned to the platforms. This time, we had to wait out a bear jam at the Riffles Platform. Fortunately, the platform has great views of downstream bears and a distant (about 50 yards) view of the falls.
How Bears Snag and Eat their Prey
But we didn’t spend all our time waiting for bears to catch fish. We viewed many bears snagging fish underwater, rather than the more dramatic sight of having salmon jump into the bears’ mouths. And watching the bear eat was as interesting as their fishing process. Once a bear captured its prey, it retreats with a salmon thrashing back and forth in its mouth. Sometimes it goes to a more shallow part of the river, sometimes to the riverbank. The bear typically begins its eating process by holding the fish’s head down with its paws, stripping the skin from the tail, and tearing pieces off, until they reach the head, which they often leave.
Even more interesting than watching the fishing and eating is in understanding the different spots that different bears occupy and the very different hunting techniques they employ. Some fish at the top of the falls, others position themselves at the base of the falls, and a few take positions further downstream. Some choose to stand on rocks and pounce down on the salmon, some stand in the water, and others crouch with their eyes and mouth at surface level. Others choose to “snorkel” with mouth and eyes underwater. One bear, Otis, was known among the rangers for his almost zen-like focus on his prey and his high percentage of successful dives. Others came up empty far more often than they came up with their prey in their mouths.
Most interesting of all is observing the relationships among inherently anti-social bears that have no choice but to fish together. Some bears are clearly dominant. They get exactly the spots they wish (with others voluntarily moving away when the dominant bear arrives) and have uncontested rights to any fish they catch. Others are clearly subservient. They are relegated to less desirable spots that more dominant bears allow them to occupy. When the less dominant bears do catch fish, they are challenged by others who try to steal the fish they catch (sometimes allowing them to get away). Some are relegated to fishing well downstream. Others are forced to wait patiently for more dominant bears to eat the most desirable parts of the salmon and then fight with seagulls for the scraps.
Although the bears often understand and accept their relationships with other bears, sometimes they challenge these relationships. There are frequent grunts and growls to warn potential competitors away. In a few instances, we saw symbolic tussles, although we didn’t see any that resulted in out-and-out fights.
More than Bears and Fishing
Although Brooks Camp primarily draws people to watch bears and salmon fish, one can also see other wildlife, some of which also fish for salmon.
For example, while the bears occupied the low ground beneath the falls, eagles sit patiently by, surveying the scene from a nearby tall tree. When they spot a fish, they swoop down, captured it, and disappear to enjoy its feast in private.
Saying Goodbye to an Amazing Day
After a couple of allocated one-hour stints on the Falls Platform and shorter times on the other two, it was time to leave. But not without one final bear jam, when a couple of bears decided to take a leisurely stroll on the beach and blocked our access to our seaplane. Eventually, we were able to board our plane. But the bears maintained their ground patrolling the shoreline. As we were pulling away from the shore, we saw some standing up, as if to wish us a speedy departure from their world, and a return to ours.