Katmai National Park

Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, June 2017

Lookie .... photos from 2017 ... and I edited mine before Scott could do his (so there's more to come). 

This was my first time really far off the road system in Alaska. We flew to King Salmon and then took a puddle jumper over to Brooks Camp. You land on the beach and head straight to the ranger station for bear school. After being deemed bear aware, you are set lose in this ecosystem where bear and human coexist. But never to fear there was ample staff all around - we've never seen so many rangers before and for good reason too!

The campground is surrounded by an electric fence roughly a quarter mile from the ranger station. As we approached the camp with its electric fence, fire pits smoking, and trail crew chopping wood, I felt like we survivors in a zombie apocalypse searching for shelter. After setting up camp, we headed out to see bears.

June is a less busy month at Katmai - the salmon are just starting to come in and the bears are just arriving. We had been following reports of what bears were starting to show up at Brooks Falls so we knew there were some in the area. Our first day we had the platform almost to ourselves for hours with just a few common mergansers out fishing. Scott and I spent the time getting used to the telephoto lenses we rented - a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and a Tamron 150-600mm f/5-.6.3 (PS we ended up buying the Tamron - the Canon is a beautiful lens but the Tamron gives us bigger range). We also found that 400mm was enough zoom for the platform at Brooks Falls - but we figured we'd like the extra zoom for other adventures. The platform also had new rules this year - no tripods, only monopods allowed. I decided to hand hold my lens and Scott bought a monopod for the trip. 

Our first bear had two yearling twins. She had very pretty light brown ears. We spent hours watching her fish and chase after her rowdy twins - completely worth hanging out at the platform for hours. 

Second day started out a little rainy. We decided to head up Dumpling Mountain to take in an aerial view of Brooks Camp. Then it was back to the platform for more bear viewing, which included a bear fight between our light eared momma bear and a big grizzled male. Momma stood her ground and chased off the male. 

Our third day was a trip out to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Originally, Katmai National Park had been set aside for this valley to be the star attraction. Over a hundred years ago, the valley was filled with hundreds of feet of ash from the Novarupta volcano (the largest eruption in the 20th century). The ash covered the rivers, which were super heated from the volcanic activity. This created a valley full of steam fumaroles. The original geologists who came to study the area thought it would be the next Yellowstone. However after a few years, the steam fizzled out. You can still visit to see the amazing pyroclastic flow covering the valley flow and the rivers that have slowly cut their way through. We're definitely coming back to backpack out into the valley. 

We then were back on the platform at Brooks Falls where we finally saw a bear successfully catch a fish! And we also got to see a stand off between five bears. The platform was noticeably busier now that the weekend had arrived but we still had plenty of room. We also got to experience a bear jam at the lower river bridge. When bears approach the bridge within 50 yards the bridge gets closed. This means that you may not be able to get to the Brooks falls platform or get back to the lodge/camp. We were stopped by one of the Rangers and pushed back several times as we waited for a bear to clear the area. 

Our last day at Brooks Camp we headed to the platform early in the morning. The morning light was quite harsh and shooting wasn't great. The rangers seemed to be practicing for crowd control for the coming July when the platform is limited to 40 people and everyone gets a one hour viewing time before they get pulled off and have to put their name on the list to get back in again. There were certainly less than 40 people on the platform so it wasn't a big deal for us. 

We had to eat at least once at the lodge - famous for its buffets. It was pretty decent and well priced considering everything has to be flown out. We then joined a ranger for a walk through Native Alaskan archaeological sites. Then it was back onto the float plane to head back to the big city and plan our next adventure. 

Definitely want to backpack Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, backpack and pack raft Aniakchak, and come back in the fall to Brooks Camp to see the colors! Coming in June was great - even though there weren't as many bears it was worth it to have space on the platform (though I did get my space stolen once when I stepped back for a few second to switch out a lens - by an off duty interpretive ranger of all people - he ended up being cool).

Favorite things on this trip:

1. Watching the bears interact with each other. Who has dominance? Who decides to leave and who decides to fight? Different fishing strategies - snorkeling, belly flopping, snatching fish out of the falls. 

2. Baby bears. We saw two sets of twins and one set of triplets. Didn't get great photos of the triplets - we learned that she was a first time momma and very protective of her cubs - most of the time they were up a tree. 

3. Meeting the "old timers" at the camp ground. One guy has been coming two to three times a year since the 1950s. We also met Mo Gillian who studies bear behavior on her "free time" - she had decades of research on the Katmai bears as well as polar bears up north. 

3. Making friends with the rangers. We always seemed to run into the same ones. We decided it was because they figured we were trouble and were keeping tabs on us. 

4. Hanging out with our companions - Morgan and Dani! Thanks for coming with us!

Dumpling Mountain hike. We were very disappointed to not find dumplings on this trail. 

Dumpling Mountain hike. We were very disappointed to not find dumplings on this trail. 

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour

One of my favorite shots - Buddha bear

One of my favorite shots - Buddha bear

Momma employing her belly flop technique - she was my favorite bear to watch. 

Momma employing her belly flop technique - she was my favorite bear to watch.