In July, Joy and I crossed off a “bucket list” trip: visiting Alaska’s Katmai National Park to see bears fishing for salmon. If you’ve seen one of those famous photos of a bear standing at the top of a waterfall with a salmon jumping into its mouth, this is the place.
Katmai is hard to reach. From Anchorage it’s a 90 minute puddle jumper flight to King Salmon. Then you break into groups of 8 for a 30 minute float plane flight. I had expected the float plane landing to be bumpy, but it was anything but. I’m tempted to say the landing was, “smooth as a baby’s bottom,” but since we never had kids, it seems kind of creepy to use that phrase, so I’ll just say it was “smooth as a soapy boob.” (I stole that joke.)
Most visitors are day-trippers, flying in from Anchorage and usually only spend a few hours bear watching. Two years ago we entered the annual lottery for the right to book a cabin at the lodge. We came in #4 across all entries, so we were able to book a three-night stay.By the way, according to CNN, everyone is visiting Alaska this year. We know three other couples who have visited Alaska this year — but our reservations at Brooks Lodge prove that we thought of it first!
As soon as we landed, a National Park ranger herded us into a secured area and lectured us about bear safety. Good thing ’cause Katmai has the world’s highest density of brown bears and they are everywhere! And as big as they are, they are frighteningly quiet. One of the key rules is to stay at least 50 yards away. Another rule is to walk in groups and to talk to each other (this lets bears know you’re around and gives them time to move away — if they want). If you have a bear encounter, DO NOT run as it triggers their predator instincts.
It’s a 1.5 mile walk from the lodge compound to the official bear viewing platforms. As soon as you leave the lodge, you reach an elevated walkway (about 8 feet above ground) that has two gates at either end. The first gate is a heavy-duty metal gate with a slightly tricky latching mechanism. The second gate is a heavy metal door with a latching mechanism that requires two hands. The walkway and bridge stretch about a third of a mile and it was common for us to see 5-10 bears, usually at a distance, as we crossed this area.
The bridge is new. Until two years ago, the boardwalk was only a few inches above water level. Rangers were stationed on either end and if they spotted a bear anywhere near the boardwalk, they’d close it until the bears moved away. Because there are a lot of bears, rangers often closed the boardwalk for an hour or more, stranding as many as a hundred people on either side. Getting stranded while you wait for bears to move away is referred to as a “bear jam.”
Once you’ve navigated the second set of gates at the far end of the walkway, a half-mile walk along a dirt road gets you to an intersection with two pit toilets and a narrow trail that winds 0.6 miles through a heavily wooded forest to the viewing areas. At the entrance to this path there’s of big sign informing visitors that bears frequently use this trail to reach the river, and a set of reminders about avoiding bear encounters and what to do if you do have an encounter (talk to them, don’t run).
At the end of the trail, you meet a now-familiar set of double gates that lead you to an elevated “waiting” area. A ranger, clipboard in hand, asks you how many folks are in your party, writes down your name and tells you how long the wait is for the viewing platform at the falls. This platform is where the “big guys” fish, and the site of the famous photos. Rangers keep strict track of folks at the falls platform (normally limited to 40 people at any one time, but because of Covid, reduced to just 20). Plus, you are only allowed to be there 30 minutes before the rangers make you leave. The first time we got there, the wait was 90 minutes.
The secondary platform, just downstream of the falls, is by the “riffles” (a rocky, shallow area of the river) where subadult bears fish and mother bears teach their cubs to fish. There is no person or time limit at the riffles viewing station. Although you’re usually further away from the bears, the viewing is nicer in some ways because the subadult bears and mama-and-cubs take a more active approach to fishing, so there’s a lot more interesting action going on.
While we waited for our first visit to the falls platform, we spent time at the riffles, then wandered back to the waiting area to read the informational posters about the Alaska brown bear. Here are a few of those facts:
- Alaska has between 32,000 and 43,000 brown bears & grizzly bears
- Technically, grizzly bears are a subspecies of brown bears. Inland bears (like at Denali) are referred to “grizzlies” while coastal bears are called brown bears.
- The largest and most successful bears eat more than 30 salmon (120+ pounds) per day
- Because brown bears have access to all that fish, they’re bigger than grizzlies (and just a bit smaller than polar bears). On the other hand, grizzlies are more aggressive than brown bears (maybe because they’re hungrier).
- According to a report by Alaskan health officials, between 2000 and 2017, there were 66 bear attacks, injuring 68 people, ten of whom died. (This fact wasn’t on the National Park posters.)
Those of you who know me well will not be surprised that after visiting the riffles platform, I needed to pee. We had about 20 more minutes until our falls platform time slot, another 30 minutes at the viewing station, and then the 0.6 mile walk back to the pit toilets. I did not want to wait until we’d finished viewing the bears. Normally, I’d just walk a bit along the trail, step off into the woods, and I’d be good to go. Not a good idea to leave the path here! The ranger told me that if I hurried, I’d be able to get to the bathroom and back before our time slot.
I thought about jogging back along the trail but remembered that running triggered predator behavior so I was reduced to a brisk walk. Naturally, the need to pee increased in urgency. It’s that same biological phenomenon that causes you to suddenly desperately need to use the bathroom five minutes before you pull your car into your driveway. Because it was now early evening, most of the day-trip visitors had left so I was walking long stretches of the trail with no one in sight. Remembering my bear safety rules, I talked to myself. Mostly, I just said, in a loud voice, “God, I need to pee. I really need to pee.” But every now and then, I’d cross paths with a group of people headed out to the viewing station. I didn’t want them to overhear me saying that, so I decided I’d sing a song. The problem is that I don’t know many songs. I ruled out “Happy Birthday” ‘cause that would be stupid, and instead settled on the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. I’d prefer strangers think I’m weird rather than on the verge of peeing my pants.
July is usually the height of the salmon run. This year, they were running about ten days late, so we didn’t see a lot of fish jumping, nor salmon jumping right into a bear’s mouth. But we did see a lot of bears catching a lot of salmon, some bear fights, cub antics, and amusing domino effects when a more dominant bear would take another bear’s place, who would take another bear’s place, and so on. There are many different fishing techniques. The big, older bears take the “wait for them to come to me” approach. Some bears “snorkel” by putting their heads under water and swimming after fish, young bears use a “chase and jump” model – highly inefficient. Check out this video of a subadult fishing — at least, we think he’s fishing.
Click on the arrow to watch a subadult Katmail brown bear “fishing”.
At one point, between the bears at the falls and the ones at the riffles, we were seeing 14 bears all at once. Two days after we departed, the salmon really started doing their thing and the number of bears at the falls and riffles increased dramatically. View the live bearcam to see what’s happening now.
Over the course of our three days there, I took nearly 1,000 photos of the bears. Many fellow visitors had bazooka-sized camera lenses. I suspect those people took that many photos every day.
We didn’t have to go to the platforms to see bears. Joy and I were “bear jammed” on our way back to our cabin from the lodge dining room — a distance of thirty feet. We had just finished dinner when a ranger shouted at everyone to stay inside. A subadult had stopped to eat grass by our cabin. The ranger whacked her wooden batons together to scare the bear off. Nothing. She stomped her feet and scuffed the ground. Nothing. She threw fistfuls of gravel at its head and rump. Nothing. She pulled out a plastic shopping bag and snapped it around to make popping noises and that eventually got the bear to mosey along. (The rangers all carry bear spray but that is an absolute last resort.)
The morning after getting bear jammed from our cabin, we were awakened by a ranger banging her baton against our front porch and calling out, “Stay inside, bear out here,” followed by, “C’mon, mama, keep moving.” Oh, great! A bear with its cubs! After that, I always made sure we locked our cabin door when we went to bed.
Our most unnerving encounter with bears involved no (seen) bears at all. Joy and I hiked to Dumpling Mountain, a 3 mile round trip to a vista not too far from the camp. As you can see from the photo, the bushes and grasses were dense and chest-high. Joy and I talked loudly to each other about absolutely anything that came to mind. At one point, I realized that we didn’t need to keep up constant chatter. I cranked my iPhone to its highest volume and played an audio book I’d been “reading.” I’d like to think that, thanks to me, a few Katmai bears now have an abbreviated understanding of the history of Israel’s political environment during the late 1950’s.
While at Katmai, we also visited the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, created when the volcano Novarupta (Latin for “newly erupted”) formed in 1912 causing the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. Novarupta released magma 30 times the volume of Mt St Helens. Side note: we were dismayed that the National Park visitor center referred to Mt St Helens as being in Oregon instead of Washington. But, I guess you can give Alaskans some leeway for not knowing how the lower 48 are laid out.
More Alaskan Fun
We spent two days at Denali National Park. Cars are restricted to the front area, so you take a narrated bus ride along Denali Park Road which runs about 90 miles into the park. Our bus driver was great at explaining the geology, flora, and fauna. She cautioned us that we might not see much wildlife because it had been unusually hot (unusual weather was constant trend on this trip) and animals were fleeing to higher elevations, where, unfortunately, there’s less for them to eat. Park experts estimate that the park’s Dall sheep population has dropped by 50% in the past ten years. We were incredibly lucky, however, and saw several moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and even some grizzlies (though they were far away and hard to photograph). The mountain itself is usually shrouded in clouds of its own making, or completely un-viewable because it’s cloudy or raining. We were lucky enough to get a clear picture of the entirety of Denali. Our bus driver said she’s only seen all of Denali a handful of times in her 19 years of leading this tour. One positive point for climate change!
We also took a 6-hour cruise on Prince William Sound to get close-up views of dozens of glaciers. We saw lots of otters, sea lions, kittiwakes (gulls), but no whales. I did not sing the Gilligan’s Island song while on board.
Alaska – Not Like Home
Life in Alaska is definitely not like the lower 48.
Alaska’s population, spread over 663,000 square miles, is 734,000 (and dropping now that the pipeline is done). That’s less than San Francisco’s population (881,000 people over 47 square miles). Even though we kept asking, it took us over a week to meet someone who was a native Alaskan (as in, was born there).
Joy and I learned that we’re very light-intolerant when it comes to sleeping. This is a problem in July when you get more than 20 hours of sunlight and the sun rises at 3am. Here, you literally have to decide to “call it a night” even though it’s still bright out. Twice Joy asked if I still wanted to stay up reading as it was nearly midnight, even though it looked like dusk outside. Sunlight peaking through curtains would wake us around 4am. By the time we got home, we were both exhausted from lack of sleep.
In Alaska, signs of climate change are despairingly undeniable. Huge swaths of spruce forest are dead. Not just some of the trees. All the trees. Killed by beetles spreading north because of successive years of unusually dry, warmer weather patterns. Everywhere we went locals fretted about how dry and hot Alaska has become, and high fire danger is now a summer constant. The glaciers are receding at alarming speed, and some have nearly disappeared. Near Denali, the Permafrost is melting faster and faster each year. Denali’s main road, like many of the roads in Alaska, is built on top of permafrost. The park road used to slump 1-2 inches each year because of Permafrost melt. Lately, it’s been 1-2 feet/year. This year, some sections of the road dropped more than 20 feet!