Lisa and I headed out west a couple of weekends ago. We went to Brooks Falls which is a lodge set in Katmai National Park. The lodge was built there as a fishing haven 50 years ago and began attracting bears. Instead of allowing the bears to be a nuisance, they decided to build some viewing platforms and taylor to the bear seekers as well. I heard about this place last fall and we began planning the trip early this year. It is the most "affordable" place to view bears but certainly didn't come cheap. Our original plan was to go in late June before the big crowds show up in July for the first red salmon run of the year....well a very cold spring and early summer meant the fish didn't want to spawn when they usually do so we put off the trip for a while. We finally pulled the trigger in mid August which is normally a down time for the bear viewing.
This needs an explanation.....the Brooks River, which is only about 2 miles long, connects two lakes - an upper (Brooks Lake) and a lower (Naknek Lake). The salmon run up the river in July so that they can spawn in the upper lake. Their one obstacle are the falls and of course the bears and the fishermen. In July, there are so many salmon running up the river that dozens of bears will stand near the falls (about half way between the two lakes) and catch the fish as they try to jump up the falls. In August, the majority of the fish are in the upper lake with only a few still trying to jump up the falls so the bears go other places to find food. In September there is another peak when the fish that have spawned in the upper lake die and begin floating back dow the river to the lower lake. The bears will hang out near the mouth of the river at the lower lake and eat the dead fish as the try to fatten up for the winter. We went in August because we got the most time for our money and figured we would see a couple of the straggler bears looking for an easy meal. We were right.
The lodge is located at the lower lake near the mouth of the Brooks River. We had an incredible little cabin with 4 bunk beds, a tiny shower, and a toilet. Pretty "bear" bones but nice enough. This picture on the right is the view from our front door. There were 4 cabins just like ours that were situated above the river looking down. In addition to our 45 minute mandatory bear safety course that was provided by National Park Rangers immediately after we got off the plane, we were warned as we were being taken to our cabin that bears frequent the area and to make sure there was absolutely NO food in the cabin. Also, not to run out of the front door first thing in the morning because there may be a bear right there. As we were walking out, we had to step over a very large pile of bear scat (or poo). A funny thing happened right after we got back from fishing on our second day and had laid out all of our fishing gear on the front porch. I heard a wrustle in brushes below us leading out to the river and was immediately convinced it was a bear walking up toward us. We began to frantically try and gather all of our gear and throw it in the cabin and a fisherman comes walking up through the brushes. I saw him and let out a huge sigh of releif, he said "sorry, not a bear...just me". I was actually VERY releived. Our hearts were pounding.
So, how many bears did we see? Not too many. Actually a total of 2 during the 48 hours we were there. BUT there was one bear that had made that area his home and we could find him pretty easily within an hour if we wanted to. Matter of fact, this same bear was roaming the beach where our float plane pulled up so we had to make a couple circles out in the lake while we watched him walk down the beach...chasing off the guys that were trying to meet the plane and take our luggage.
That gave us all of our thrills and some great photos for the first 36 hours until a second bear showed up the morning before we left. The two bears, who were feeding on dead fish at the bottom of the river, gave us a great show and the park ranger allowed us to stay a little closer than the 50 yards required. It was definitely a different feeling seeing the bears from the platform and only being a dozen feet from them and then seeing them about 25 yards away ON THE PATH!!! It was an exhilerating feeling being that close to a bear...and feeling very safe. The bears honestly didn't care about us and were only interested in the fish. The only time you could find yourself in trouble is if you surprized a bear or got between a sow and her cubs. We were constantly yelling "hey bear" and talking loudly as we walked around the camp and on the trail out to the falls. Although our hearts were racing the entire time we were there, we always felt safe.
The bear that we saw the most was a very entertaining bear. One ranger said that he couldn't tell the bears apart until he sees them fish. Their different styles of fishing is sometimes the only way to tell them apart. This one had a very unique approach. He would stand up in the river and look down in all directions at the fish around him. He would go back down on all fours and walk a couple more feet before standing up again and looking around. It was very cool to watch and gave us some great pictures and video.
So besides the bears, fishing is the main attraction to this location. I had read fliers describing this place as a "world class" fishing spot. I had no idea what to expect until we saw it and experienced it ourselves. W O W ! It was amazing. The enormous red, pink, and silver salmon were constantly jumping out of the water. It was hard to get a feel for how many fish were in the lakes and river until we crossed the foot bridge and could look down and see them. There were literally thousands of them. I brought my fly rod with me just in case we had the opportunity arose and boy was I glad I did. We were able to rent another rod for Lisa and waders and we headed up to the mouth of the upper lake, where there wen't so many bears, and fished there. We waded out 20 or 30 feet and after standing still for a while realized that the thousands of fish had surrounded us. We stayed out there for almost 5 hours and caught a couple fish but had an incredible time....and we never saw another person the entire time we were there, a testament to how secluded this place really is.
We've had some amazing adventures since we arrived in Alaska but this one will be hard to beat...eventhough we only saw two bears and it rained the entire time. We are already planning next years trip, just can't decide July or September although we're leaning toward September. Here are some more pictures of the bears.