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Sierra Magazine
Way to Go: In Bear Territory

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 use.

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).

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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