Humans chase grizzlies in Alaska's Katmai National Park
The ritual begins in early July. Thousands of bright silvery sockeyes head up Alaska's
Brooks River toward spawning grounds in Brooks Lake. Nearing the end of a remarkable
journey and two or three years at sea, the salmon face one final obstacle: a six-foot-high
waterfall. Though not high enough to stop the fish, it does delay their progress. And
waiting for them are huge, hungry brown bears: a dozen or more may congregate here in July
to feast. They grab sockeye from atop the falls, "snorkel" in the pools below,
or watch from stream banks, waiting for scraps.
Also watching and waiting are 30 camera-toting tourists, squeezed onto an elevated
wooden platform along the riverbank. Like the bears, they, too, leave sated. At the peak
of the salmon run, as many as 60 brown bears roam the area. They often fish within 50 feet
of the viewing platform, and are also seen on the lower river from a second platform and
even in Brooks Camp, a nearby developed area with lodge, cabins, visitors' center, and
campground. By summer's end, more than 13,000 people will have visited the area, perhaps
the world's most-photographed gathering of grizzlies.
Brooks Camp started out as a sportfishing destination in 1950. Back then it was rare to
see bears because they were traditionally chased away or shot by anglers who didn't want
competition for the salmon. That all changed when the National Park Service began managing
Brooks River in the late 1950s. Within three decades it was transformed from a sleepy
fisherman's paradise into today's Wild Kingdom photo op.
Except for some incidents of poaching, Katmai National Park's bears are no longer in
danger of being hunted-but they are in danger of being loved to death. Brooks Camp
straddles a critical bear-travel corridor adjacent to the feeding areas. As many as 300
people pass through Brooks daily, mostly day-trippers who fly in for several hours of
high-priced bear watching. All visitors must attend the Park Service's "bear
etiquette school" to learn how to behave around the animals, but for the most part
they're free to roam.
Fortunately, there's more to do at Katmai than hang around the crowds at Brooks Camp.
Until more bear-friendly rules are in place (which may be as soon as next summer),
consider other options: take a bus tour to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, formed in
1912 by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, or head off on backpack trips into 4 million
acres of backcountry. (The park offers only two mapped hiking trails, but you'll find
passable cross-country routes along lakeshores and gravel bars and ridges.) Even in the
backcountry, this is bear territory. The region claims the highest densities of brown
bears in North America-which explains why so many humans are willing to endure
high-density tourism to see them.
NUTS & BOLTS
How to Prepare
To ease the burden on the bears, consider avoiding Brooks Camp when it's most
crowded: in July, when the sockeye run peaks, and in September, when spawned-out salmon
wash down the river. Be prepared for cool, wet weather and strong winds. Brooks Camp is
290 miles southwest of Anchorage and inaccessible by road; most visitors fly in to the
town of King Salmon (where Katmai Park's headquarters is located), then take a floatplane
35 miles to the river. The Park Service manages a campground with about 30 campsites, and
the privately owned Katmai Lodge is next door. Backcountry permits and bear-resistant food
canisters are available at visitors' centers in Brooks Camp and King Salmon.
For More Information
To learn more about the wildlands beyond Brooks Camp, contact Katmai National
Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 7, King Salmon, AK 99613; (907) 246-3305. To make campground
or day-use reservations, call (800) 365-2267. For more details on bus tours to the Valley
of Ten Thousand Smokes or the lodge, contact Katmailand Inc., 4550 Aircraft Dr.,
Anchorage, AK 99502; (800) 544-0551.
For Deeper Reading
Jean Bodeau's Katmai National Park (Alaska Natural History Association, 1992) is the essential natural-history guide to the Katmai region. Another good reference is Katmai Country (Alaska Geographic Society, 1989).
The Politics of Place
The Brooks River bear-viewing program has protected humans fairly well, but the
bears are still at risk. Park Service scientists, the Sierra Club, and other environmental
groups agree that the Brooks Camp facilities along with swelling numbers of day-use
visitors displace "non-habituated" younger bears and sows with cubs.
In 1996 the
Park Service moved to limit the number of day visitors allowed in Brooks Camp, initiate
ranger-led escorts to the viewing platforms, and relocate Brooks Camp a mile away from the
feeding areas. Those plans were stopped by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R), who inserted
language in the 1998 appropriations bill prohibiting the park from spending money to limit
visitation. Stevens instead demanded that Katmai's managers find ways to increase visitor
Jack Hession, the Sierra Club's Alaska representative, argues that the lodge and most
park facilities should be relocated to the edge of the park and a safer campground be
built for backcountry users. He points to Alaska's McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and
Admiralty Island National Monument, where visitors are carefully managed and commercialism
absent-but public support is solid. For more information, contact the Club's Alaska office
at 241 E. Fifth Ave., Suite 205, Anchorage, AK 99501, (907) 276-4048, or Friends of
Katmai, P.O. Box 7, King Salmon, AK 99613, (907) 246-2133.
Bill Sherwonit is the author of the pocket field guide Alaska's Bears (Alaska
Northwest Books, 1998).