Katmai: Lions, tigers, bears, oh my!

Okay, so maybe we exaggerated a little bit with the title of this blog.  But it’s amazing what animals can do to your psyche. We flew from King Salmon to Brooks Camp in a floatplane. As we landed, a massive bear was walking on the beach and a group of four to five people were walking in the other direction to avoid him. Several hours prior, I was worried about being eaten by bears or not even having food. A huge beast walks on the beach and all woes are forgotten.

Sorry for the poor quality, this was taken out the window of the plane.

Sorry for the poor quality, this was taken out the window of the plane.

You have to go through bear training as soon as you get to Brooks Camp. You literally walk off of the plane and into the Visitors Center, where they have you watch a video about how to safely interact with the bears. They encourage you to not get any closer than 50 yards, a distance that a bear can cover in three to four seconds. They have strict rules about food in camp. You have to eat in designated areas that are surrounded by electric fences and any other times it needs to be stored in food lockers. Everything is very organized and orderly. 

There are two very popular times to visit Katmai—July and September. In July, the salmon are running. The bears hang out around Brooks Falls. This is the place depicted in the picture you have almost definitely seen in which a bear is standing at the top of a waterfall with a salmon jumping into its mouth. As the salmon run up stream, the bears try and eat 10 fish, or 100lbs of meat, every day.  These are like the prime rib of the bears’ diet. The salmon running in July are fresh out of the ocean and are exactly what the bear needs. In September, we see the end of the salmon run as they ‘spawn out’. Basically this means that the fish die and sink to the bottom of the river. The bears scavenge the leftovers. This meat is much less valuable but still important, as the bears will be hibernating for five to six months and need to have all of their calories stored up.

We arrived in August, which is obviously neither July nor September. This meant several things. We didn’t have to battle droves of tourists with $10,000 cameras hoarding space on the platforms. It also meant that the density of bears was much lower than usual. Lucky for us, though, there was a sow and cub that had decided to hang around while the other bears left. It is very dangerous for young cubs to be around males (boars). Males will kill and eat young cubs, so sows must be very protective and careful to make sure that they don’t get in any trouble. While they were the only bears that were around, we always knew where they were and got some incredible opportunities to see them.

On one of the slower days, we decided to watch the park film as we do in every park. First of all, this film was incredibly well done. It is the most memorable, because in the middle of the film, one of the rangers called us all over to the window to see the sow and cub. We were in the Visitor Center and she was less than 10 yards away, outside.

Many people have heard the story of Timothy Treadwell (aka Grizzly Man,) who was killed and eaten by a bear in Katmai National Park after some questionable decisions. In the little time that I spent in Brooks Camp, it was obvious that the bears are not there to get you. They want salmon and they are so focused on eating as much fish as possible that they don't really care about us. There are certainly close encounters and those are the things that hit the news, but for the most part, the bears are on a mission to eat as much as possible before they hibernate and we generally aren't part of that equation.