Roadtrippin’: Camping with brown bears

Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 2:46 PM AKDT
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BROOKS CAMP, Alaska (KTUU) - In Katmai National Park and Preserve, more than 250 miles from Anchorage on a peninsula in southern Alaska, most people stop whatever they’re doing to watch brown bears.

The bears run past windows during dinner and amble through the dirt trails. They wrestle and swim in the water and carve out sand tunnels to lay fat bellies inside that enable them to sleep on their stomachs.

If one is lucky, the bears will stick around long enough for a photo.

“Whoa. I don’t know. You said ‘hello Mr. Chocolate bear, Mr. Chocolate,’ because it was huge and dark,” Sarah Luthey a newlywed traveling across Alaska from California said to her husband Justin. “I was just shocked that they were running through camp.”

Brown bears are commonplace in Katmai. They’re a little like moose in Anchorage. The park is known for the many brown bears that are drawn to the abundant salmon in Brooks Falls. For almost everyone, seeing bears up close is a rare and exotic sight, and tourists fly thousands of miles, paying thousands of dollars, for bear-viewing trips at Brooks Camp.

The last few years, Internet cameras set up along Brooks Falls have given people insight into the lives of the bears. From office computers, people watch bears fish and cheer along their favorite bear during Fat Bear Week, which is an online competition that highlights how much the bears eat, stuffing themselves with sockeye salmon at the Brooks River to gain weight for winter hibernation.

This past year Bear 747, nicknamed the Earl of Avoirdupois, was voted the heftiest out of 12 contestants.

The bears here have reached almost celebrity-like status and have their images on hats and mugs. Holly, who won the competition in 2019 is on a gray trucker hat. The big body of Otis, another contestant from 2020, graces a white coffee mug.

During dinner at the park last week, a large adult male with wide-set, peg-like ears and a blocky muzzle walked by with two smaller bears. Tourists jumped to the windows, abandoning their own salmon dinners, and whispered in agreement that they suspected it was bear 747.

“It’s definitely a bucket list item,” said Rebecca Nourot, a park ranger with the park and preserve. “Yeah, some folks who arrive say they’ve heard about Brooks Camp, they’ve seen it before, and it’s been their goal to get out here for years. And I think it’s becoming more and more popular as a destination as well. So yeah, the word is spreading.”

Nourot said about 80 bears frequent the area. Within the entire park, there are about 2,000 bears.

Nourot said the best months to visit, when one’s most likely to see the most bears, are July and September. But, she included a warning that it is difficult to get either a campsite or a log cabin with some people booking their trip a year in advance.

“July is when the bears are catching salmon that are migrating up river toward their spawning grounds, so that’s when you would see something like a bear standing on top of Brooks Falls catching a salmon in its mouth,” Nourot said. “When it comes to September, all those salmon are spawned out so their dead and dying bodies are washing back downriver, so bears will gather once again to take advantage of that.”

Park rangers say the bears of Katmai are different than other bears. They say they’re used to the antics of people, although they should still be treated with respect and given space.

“You definitely have to be cautious when you’re sharing this area with bears in their natural habitat,” Nourot said. “Bears are very food motivated, so we want to be sure they don’t end up associating humans with any kind of food.”

Bears, which are usually solitary animals, tolerate each other because of the abundance of fish in the area.

“This is the nursery for all the sockeye salmon of the Bristol Bay fishery, and these clear waters are ones that are ideal for salmon rearing, so salmon will return to the same place that they spawned, so as long as that water stays clear and good we’ll continue to see the salmon returning,” Nourot said.

The park is accessible to almost everyone. The 1.2 mile trail to the Brooks Falls is packed down heavily and flat, making it an easy walk and wheelchair accessible.

Rainbow trout fishermen claim the fishing here is some of the finest in the country, although no one would go on record, fearing the ire of other fishermen.

The bears are so full of rich, fatty salmon that they don’t seemed concerned with people fishing nearby.

“I would say very few other places could you encounter something like this,” Nourot said about the bears.

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