Last month I joined up with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris for a tour to photograph the coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos) of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. It was an experience of a lifetime for me, one I so enjoyed that I am hoping to return in 2014.
Why choose a photography tour rather than heading out on my own? Logistics and experience. Having never traveled to Alaska, if I were to try and work on the logistics for this trip myself, I would have been pulling my hair out.
From Anchorage, one flies approximately 1-1/2 hours on a PenAir turboprop to the “bush community” of King Salmon (there are no roads to this place from any major city). Upon reaching King Salmon, you and your luggage are bused a short distance to the Katmai Air building where you and your luggage are weighed, loaded onto the floatplane, and flown out to the park.
Your floatplane will land on one of two lakes, depending upon weather conditions. During good weather, planes land on Naknek Lake, where the walk from beached floatplane to visitor center is maybe 50 - 100 yards. If the weather is too inclement, though, the plane will land on Lake Brooks, where you and your luggage are then ATV’d to Brooks Lodge or Brooks Camp.
Brooks Lodge and Brooks Camp are next door to each other with access to the same lodge lobby, mess hall, bar, lodge office, trading post, freezing room, food storage locker, and outside eating area (which is surrounded by an electric fence). Brooks Camp is operated by the National Park Service, while Brooks Lodge is operated by Katmailand Inc., the park concessioner. The NPS website provides a nice overview of the camp.
Upon landing, while your luggage is carted to your assigned room, you are led directly to the park visitor center to watch a 15-minute orientation video on bear behavior and safety, after which a ranger stands and reinforces the salient points of the video. The whole presentation lasts maybe 30 minutes. You cannot enter the park proper until after having attended this orientation session. Once you are issued an official “bear etiquette” pin, you are free to roam the area.
A few bear etiquette rules:
* Stay at least 50 yards from any bear encountered.
* Obey the ranger when he/she asks you to back up or move.
* Never leave your gear lying around – either keep it right beside your legs or wear it on your back when viewing the bears.
* Don’t even think of leaving your gear (like a camera tripod) outside of your lodge room; bears are curious creatures and will investigate anything that tickles their fancy.
* Talk loudly when hiking to let the bear know you are present – they would rather avoid you than confront you.
* If encountering a bear, wave your arms to look bigger, back up slowly (never run), talk soothingly and move off of the trail several feet to allow the bear to pass.
* Don’t make eye contact with a bear you encounter because it might consider that a challenge.
* Food and beverages (other than water) are prohibited anywhere except within enclosed buildings and designated outside eating areas.
* Flash photography of the bears is prohibited.
* If you are fishing, be prepared to spend more time out of the water than in it, if a bear wants your space. Also, be prepared to cut your line and back off if the bear is interested in that fish you just caught.
Bear spray is allowed, but you might want to check first with each of your airlines to find out what you can and cannot pack onto the plane. The members of the photo tour and I roomed at Brooks Lodge, so I cannot comment in any detail about the camp. I *can*, however, tell you of my experience staying within the lodge area.
Brooks Lodge Layout
Stays at the lodge itself are limited to 4 days during the peak viewing months of July and September. For any stay longer than that, you should make arrangements with the National Park Service to reserve a tent spot and transfer to the campsite located approximately ½ mile away from the lodge.
Brooks Lodge has a total of 16 rooms to house 60 people. Each room has bunk beds accommodating two to four people. There is a single motel-style building with 10 rooms and the remainder of the rooms are located in small cabins dotting the area. ￼
I shared a room in the motel-style building with another lady photographer on our tour. There were two sets of bunk beds, a small toilet, sink, shower, and one desk area with a single folding metal chair. Electrical outlets for our computers and chargers were located at the head of each bottom bunk and beside the towel rack next to the sink. The two screened front windows could be opened to allow the fresh air to circulate. Everything in our room was clean and basic – no frills.
I left my stuff strewn over the upper bunk while I slept in the lower bunk. The clearance on the lower bunk is pretty low and I bonked my head more than once. The walls are thin and the toilet – when flushed – makes a HUGE whooshing sound. As such, there are signs in the bathrooms asking that the toilets not be flushed during the night to both conserve water and as a courtesy to your neighbor. (FYI, the tap water is clean and fresh-tasting – better than any bottled water.)
A path behind the cabins and paralleling the seasonal employee lodging leads to the Cultural Center, where there shelters a replica of a pit house that was discovered back in 1960. These people lived in this area for 9,000 years. They sure had a great view (location, location, location).
As mentioned previously, the main lodge houses a very small bar, a lobby with central fire ring, and the mess hall. Meals are served cafeteria style three times a day: breakfast at 7 a.m. -– 8:30 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m. -– 1:30 p.m. and dinner at 5:30 p.m. –- 7:30 p.m. The food is simple and delicious.
Food and drink (other than water) are prohibited outside buildings and designated picnic areas. This is done so bears don’t associate food (or cooking smells) with people and handouts. ￼
Directly across from the lodge is a building housing the main office on one side and the trading post (gift shop) on the other side. In the office one can rent a kayak or fishing gear or purchase a spot on the bus for the day trip to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (about $90 which includes a box lunch).
The small trading post has T-shirts, magnets, pins and other souvenirs, along with canned sodas, water, and snacks. A few feet from the trading post is the freezing room, where any fish caught and kept must be gutted and cleaned and stored (most fishing out there is catch-and-release, but sometimes people catch a fish for their dinner). From there, the path leads to “The Corner” and Brooks River, across which spans a long floating bridge leading to the opposite bank and the Lower Platform.
This same path to the bridge parallels the shoreline of Naknek Lake. Visitors are encouraged to utilize the path as opposed to walking along the shoreline, since the bears regularly frequent the beach. Actually, bears make use of the trails through the lodge, too, and it’s not unusual to see a 900+-pound bear amble along past the mess hall windows or plop itself down for a rest in front of the trading post.
While bears do lumber along the trails through the lodge area, they are dissuaded from sticking around by rangers’ loud voices and clapping. This is why the rangers discourage visitors from clapping when on the trail (and thus confusing the bears, who associate clapping with staying away from the lodge). Instead, it’s best to talk loudly or sing to alert the great bruins of your presence.
Katmailand Inc. has a great interactive map with panoramic camera views of specific areas like the lodge and platforms.
Sport fishing is almost as popular as bear viewing.
Back in 1950, Brooks Lodge was regarded exclusively as a fishing camp. The Brooks River and Brooks and Naknek lakes provide excellent fishing, with Brooks River reserved for fly-fishing only. A number of sport fishing packages are offered by the concessioner. ￼
There are three well-built platforms dedicated to bear viewing. The first one encountered is the Lower Platform located next to the floating bridge. A hike of about 1/3-mile takes one to a trail leading another 2/3-mile to the Riffles Platform, with the Brooks Falls Platform a little further upriver from Riffles. The Brooks Falls Platform is best-known for those iconic images of the bears catching the jumping salmon. ￼
Because the Brooks Falls Platform gets so crowded during peak viewing season, a ranger stands by, clipboard in hand, taking names and limiting people to stays of one hour before asking them to move off and make space for someone else. After an hour, it’s OK to return to the platform for another turn.
Aside from the trail leading to the various viewing platforms, there is really only one other trail of any consequence, and that is the moderately strenuous Dumpling Mountain Trail, which allows the hiker an expansive view of Brooks Lodge, Naknek Lake, Lake Brooks, and areas in between.
About Those Bugs
A word about the mosquitoes. They are larger than the ones in southeast Texas, where I currently live, and you can’t feel them when they bite. Many people wore head nets to ward off the literal swarms of those pesky insects. I used DEET (100%), which worked very well…..in the places on which I sprayed it. For those areas without DEET, the mosquitoes left bloody welts that I had (and which still itched) one week after my trip. Benedryl cream or hydrocortisone cream takes care of the itch.
As our photo tour leader informed us on our first day in Katmai, at least 50 percent of us would be guaranteed to have some sort of “close encounter” with a bear. On the morning of our return to Anchorage, as my roomie and I stood on the porch, breathing in the fresh cool air and enjoying one last look at the Brooks River beyond, a great brown bear silently lumbered past, not more than 20 feet from us.
Three little cubs quickly emerged around the corner, gamboling after their mother.
Recovering from our collective gasp, I quickly raised my camera with wide-angle lens up to my eyes and captured several images of this sow nonchalantly ambling along. Not giving us a second glance, she and her triplets entered the tall grass of the place that is her home - a fitting good-bye to us from Katmai National Park and Preserve. ￼