Photography In The National Parks: The Bears Of Katmai

“Walk quickly!” the ranger urgently called out to the two of us as we were halfway across the floating bridge between Brooks Lodge and the Lower Platform.

Without another word, my fellow photo tour attendee and I hefted our tripods with supertelephotos attached and “walked (very) quickly” across to the opposite gate nearest the platform before they closed down the bridge for a morning “bear jam.”

Last month I fulfilled a wish from my bucket list and joined up with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris for a tour to photograph the brown bears (Ursus arctos) of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

Alternate Text
Fishing the silky waters at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve. Rebecca Latson photo.

Why choose a photography tour rather than heading out on my own? A photo tour takes care of everything: logistics, itinerary, meals, local travel to and from the destination and room & board.

Also, a tour to a place like this guarantees I actually have room and board (last time I checked, the lodge and campsite were both full to capacity with walk-ins turned away). As a rule, photo tour operators also distribute helpful material regarding contacts, suggested clothing and camera gear, available day trips prior to and after the main tour, maps and other resources.

The Gear

The list of suggested camera gear proved extremely useful, although I still managed to overpack (as per my norm). I know from past experience that I wear the same outfit in the field for several days straight so I don’t need much in the way of clothing. Camera stuff….I overpack.

Here’s what I took with me:

* Two camera bodies: Canon 5D Mk III and Canon 1-DX

* A rented 500mm f4L Mk II lens

* A rented 17-40mm lens (I took that instead of my 16-35 because I wanted to use my Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue filter on it – they don’t make above a 77mm size for this filter and the 16-35 uses an 82mm filter); next time I visit Katmai, I’m taking the 16-35mm

* 100-400mm lens

* 70-200mm lens

* 24-70mm lens

* A rented Wimberly gimbal tripod head Induro BHD3 ballhead

* Induro Carbon 8x CT314 tripod

* Polarizing, Neutral Density, and Grad ND filters

* 42 memory cards of 8GB & 4GB sizes – I take lots of memory cards because I don’t like to re-format in case anything happens to any of the other methods for storing my images during a trip

* 2 portable hard drives

* 1 memory card storage device (Sanho Hyperdrive Colorspace UDMA 250GB)

* 15” laptop

* iPhone to take short videos

* All the assorted battery chargers and various cords for the other items listed above

After most of the gear was carefully packed (and then rearranged numerous times) into my Lowepro Flipside 500 AW, the camera backpack (minus the laptop, cords, hard drives and card storage device) weighed 28 pounds.

Alternate Text
Yearling triplets at the Lower Platform. Rebecca Latson photo.

If I take this tour again in 2014 – which is what I am currently planning – I will leave behind the Induro ballhead, the 24-70mm lens and the 70-200mm lens. I’d leave the ballhead because I was either using the gimbal head only, or hand-holding the lens/camera combos. As for the lenses, I made a point to use all of them at least once, but there were a couple I used no more than once.

There are three viewing platforms in this area: the Lower Platform, the Riffles Platform, and the Brooks Falls Platform.

Walk down the path from the lodge to a long floating bridge gated on both sides. At the far end of the bridge is the first viewing area known as the Lower Platform, which has an upper and lower tier (all three platforms have upper and lower tiers). This platform’s vantage point affords expansive views of Naknek Lake, the entrance to Brooks River and the surrounding marshy areas, all of which are populated with bears from day to evening.

Gazing into the water from either the Lower Platform or the floating bridge, one can see the silvery flash of salmon as they swim en masse within the shallow water. Use a polarizing filter to reduce the water glare and get an even better view of those salmon.

The platform essentially faces northwest, so the morning provides sweeter light than in the evening, although the evening light there is pretty nice too. The only time the light flattens and becomes harsh is – of course – during the midday hours. When filling the frame with the bears, though, flat light doesn’t matter as much.

While this area is visited by both bear sexes, you will have a greater chance of seeing sows and their cubs.

Alternate Text
Jsut hanging out between meals. Rebecca Latson photo.

Many of the males stick to the Brooks Falls area and the sows want to protect their babies from the boars, who might try to kill the cubs. This location is where we received our first sightings of two sows, each with a set of triplets.

There’s really no one perfect lens to capture all of the action – this goes for all three of the platforms. You can utilize a wide variety of lenses from 70-200mm on up to 500mm or greater; a wide-angle lens makes for some nice landscape images, too, at this platform. An assortment of lenses is called for because the bears will walk right up to the Lower Platform, thus negating the use of any supertelephoto.

As a matter of fact, during our first day here, a couple of bears began mating right next to the platform stairs – that was a surprise to all of us, including the rangers, and it definitely closed down the bridge for awhile (“bear jam”). Because I only had my 500mm and the 17-40mm attached to the cameras, I had to use the wider-angle lens to catch the action (ahem). I knew then and there this was going to be an awesome four days in the park.

The Riffles Platform 

From the Lower Platform, walk up the road 1/3 mile to a path on the right side (across the road from the outhouse). Hiking almost 2/3 mile through the forest along a fairly level trail (good for those of us hefting big lenses) brings you to the gated entrance of a well-constructed boardwalk which gently slopes above the ground to a heavy barred door. Through that door and a turn to the right leads to the Riffles Platform.

At this platform, you can see Brooks Falls in the distance to the left and a series of shallow rapids (riffles) to the front and right. Sows and their cubs may frequent this part of the river, although I never saw them during my stay – probably because there were too many boars nearby at the falls. Older bears and younger (inexperienced) bears stick around this area too because there is less competition for space. It’s probably also easier for them to see and feel the salmon in the water without the distraction of the waterfalls.

The Riffles Platform faces toward the northeast, so evening is better than morning for good lighting conditions. During the majority of the day, the light can be flat and harsh (unless it’s overcast ).

As with the Lower Platform, a variety of lenses may be used for the Riffles, although I don’t think a wide-angle lens here would be that useful. The bears would appear too small and the landscape is not as vast or striking as it is at the Lower Platform.

The Brooks Falls Platform

This is the area from which are taken the iconic photos you see on websites and in books.

Alternate Text
Catching lunch at Brooks Falls. Rebecca Latson photo.

When I tell people I’ve been to Katmai National Park, they stare at me blankly until I ask them if they’ve ever seen pictures of the bears standing over the falls with jumping salmon.

Then the comprehension dawns.

The Brooks Falls Platform is a little further upstream from the Riffles and is reached along the same boardwalk. Day-trip bear viewers aside, this platform swiftly fills up with both photographers and non-photographers. A ranger routinely stands with clipboard in hand, taking names and limiting the stay to one hour. When she calls your name, you must leave for an hour before returning. If you want to avoid those people who have flown in for a day of bear-viewing, I recommend arriving at this platform soon after 7 a.m. (day trippers begin arriving around 10 a.m.) and also around 3-5 p.m. to stake out a spot.

Photography here is tricky due to the dark tones of the bears against the bright white of the waterfalls. This platform faces northeast just like the Riffles, so the best times for capturing good images at this location is during the morning hours *before* the sun really begins to rise high above the horizon and in the evening, when the sun (on a clear day) bestows a gorgeous golden side glow to the bears and scenery.

Since some of the bears stand still for two or three seconds as they peer intently into the rapids, you can get away with using either your polarizer or a dedicated neutral density (ND) filter for a fairly long enough exposure to achieve that silky water effect. I captured this next image on a rather quiet day when hardly any fish were jumping (thus there was only one bear) at 1/10 shutter speed with a 4-stop ND filter.

As I mentioned earlier, space can get pretty tight. If you are on the second tier to this platform, the best lens to use is the one with the greatest focal length in order to edge past the parts of heads or hats or cameras on the lower tier which may intrude into your composition. This is especially true if you are short, like me.

A supertelephoto at Brooks Falls is also great to capture images across the other side of the river bank, such as this bald eagle I spied taking off from a semi-submerged snag one morning. 

The Bears

I’ve given you a layout regarding the photography of this area, but I wanted to write a little bit about the bears themselves, since they are the reason all those telephoto lenses are routinely lined up on the viewing platforms.

I have an extremely healthy respect for bears, black or brown, bordering almost on fear; I’ve seen what an angry bear can do to human flesh.

Alternate Text
Turf battles happen in rivers, too. Rebecca Latson photo.

This is the reason why I have rarely ventured very far on a hike of any length by myself in a place like Glacier National Park. This trip to Katmai was a way for me to actually watch the bears interact with each other and nature with some measure of relative safety.

Oh, these are wild bears, make no mistake, but they are more habituated to the humans viewing them from afar than any bear in the lower 48 would be. And during spawning season, these bears are far more interested in the abundant salmon than in any silly human with a big honkin’ lens. The bears I accidentally encountered (two, actually) never gave me a backward glance (bit of a thrill for me, though).

They call them brown bears, or coastal brown bears (official name: Ursus arctos). I would call them grizzlies because of their color and that hump on their back (musculature believed to help with digging). In Alaska, they reserve the term “grizzly” for inland bears (I have no idea where the boundary for one term ends and the other begins).

Biologists give the bears of Brooks River distinguishing numbers, but many of the great bruins also have nicknames like “Flo” and “Popeye.” Every bear has some distinguishing characteristic, like a distinctive scar or a particular facial feature (a drooping lower lip) or mannerism (a head bobble when fishing).

Each bear has his or her own little fishing spot, and for the most part, they tend to respect each other’s territory. Sometimes, though, squabbles break out, but generally they end as quickly as they begin. Usually, the altercations consist of much posturing, open mouths, teeth bearing, and roaring (which can be heard all the way back to the Lower Level Platform a mile downstream). Sometimes, though, a fight ensues, with biting and clawing.

Almost every bear I saw at the falls had scars on the face, across the snout, on the top of the head or the neck, back, or butt region. Some of those scars were huge. Hair doesn’t always grow back (as thickly) on those wounds so the scar patterns can be quite distinctive. 

It’s extremely difficult to not anthropomorphize those amazing creatures – especially the cubs. I personally believe bears can feel frustration when they make a grab but miss a tasty catch.

Alternate Text
Eagles fish the waters near Brooks Falls, too. Rebecca Latson photo.

I believe there is a familial bonding between sow and cub – otherwise why would she protect her cubs so closely and – if required – fight a larger, heavier male to keep the babies safe? Giving a bear emotions and feelings, though, can often lead to a bad ending for bear and/or human alike. That is why Katmai National Park has such strict rules regarding the prohibition of feeding or getting very close to these creatures (humans must remain at least 50 yards away from a bear). As one of the sayings go: A fed bear is a dead bear.

During my stay there, I noticed that we humans tended to feel compassion toward those particular bears that we thought might not survive the winter. One bear had fallen from the falls and broken a hind leg a month or so prior to our arrival; the break was evident to all of us and it was difficult to watch it move. Another bear I watched one evening at the falls was obviously a very inexperienced fisher; I could see its ribs and headbones prominently while it stood around in the water, looking for a fish or for some other bear’s meal leavings. I and a few others quietly cheered for the bear when it finally did latch on to a fish.

After reading a short, thin booklet purchased at the visitor center titled Brown Bears of Brooks River, I realized the assumptions I and my group made above about which bear would survive the winter might be incorrect. Bears have incredible healing powers, and if they don’t catch as many salmon during the time I visited, they might make up for it in the fall season; even though the salmon will have fewer calories to them, they will be in the dying stage and easier for the bears to catch.

Such is survival within the natural world of Ursus arctos at Katmai National Park.

So, if you ever have the chance to visit the Brooks Lodge area within the park, I say Go! Go! Go!  One word sums up *my* time in the park: INCREDIBLE!