The magnificent Bald Eagle perched atop the Alaskan Cedar on a late summer day at Katmai National Park
The Arctic region and the brown bears were a fascination for a long time. In September of 2012, I was very close to the Russian part of Alaska, in Vladivostok, and really wanted to visit Kamchatka. I was told it was not worth going, if not for August. Going to Alaska to watch the Sockeye Salmon run and Brown Bears fishing was on my mind but not in the scheme of things for the summer of 2013. I had spent enough hours researching on backpacking in Central and Eastern Europe. Thanks to unfortunate realities, I was stranded in US. For some reason, I had thought the sockeye salmon run was in September (It’s a time to see Bears catching Red). Those who know little bit about my travel planning would know I have to plan it right – right place, right time of the year, right species, right gear, right guides. In a week’s time, I researched and was all set to visit and camp in Alaska, alone.
Brooks Camp is one of the most popular wildlife viewing, or more specifically Brown Bear viewing places in the world. It would not be an exaggeration to say it is as popular as Masai Mara for Wildeebeast migration or Bandhavgarh for Bengal Tigers. The lifeline of this place is the Sockeye Salmon, which make an arduous journey from the pacific ocean to the fresh waters of Alaska for spawning. The upstream migration provides opportunity for many predators feasting on the protein rich Salmon.
The arrival of Sockeye Salmon at Brooks Falls is not easily predictable. However, the best times are between 3rd and 28th of July on most years. In May 2013, I was told they are taking reservations for July 2015. No surprise that the Brooks camp lodge with capacity of 60 guests needs reservations 2 years in advance. Fortunately, I was able to get a camp site for 3 nights. Perhaps because I was going alone. Larger groups definitely need advanced planning. The reservation for camp site opens on January 5th every year and get booked in a few hours.
Los Angeles -> Anchorage -> King Salmon -> Brooks Camp
You can reach King Salmon on Alaskan, Penn Air or other commercial airlines. However, transfer from King Salmon to Brooks camp is through float planes operated by few private players. Katmailand is one of the popular ones and was my preferred operator. I booked my return trip with them from Anchorage and was a smooth process. For good or bad, it is a fixed price flight at $685 ex-Anchorage.
Many rivulets and water bodies connect the fresh water breeding grounds of salmon to the Pacific Ocean
The flight from King Salmon to Brooks camp is a fascinating one. As a fan of Disney’s TaleSpin, it was almost like a dream to fly on a float plane. Taking off from a small lake in King Salmon, the 40-minute flight takes you through the amazing scape of Alaskan peninsula. The views of the expansive Alaska and the numerous rivulets, ponds and lakes amidst many mountains was a treat to watch. The small float plan lands on the beautiful Naknek lake that drains into the Naknek river and eventually to the Bristol Bay and Pacific Ocean – the upstream route salmons take for the freshwater spawning grounds. Bristol Bay is one of the largest Salmon fishing areas in the world. The regulations ensure no overfishing and enough Salmons reach fresh waters to spawn and continue the life cycle.
The beautiful green-blue hues of Naknek lake on a blissfully day with clear sky, a rarity in Alaskan summer
Everyone that visits Brooks Camp must undergo a mandatory Bear Safety instruction conducted by the rangers. This is to ensure there visitors know how to behave. As at any other popular national park in the world, it doesn’t come as a surprise how some tourists conduct themselves. After the mandatory orientation, I walked almost a mile with my 50lbs backpack and camera gear to the campsite. Later realized there’s a push cart! Setup my tent and went for a lunch at the lodge restaurant. Though the prices are a little steep, food is totally worth it considering the remote location of the camp. There is at least one good vegetarian option for every meal and also few delicious desserts.
Campground from the lodge is about 0.8 miles, and the falls platform from the lodge 1.8miles. The walk between these would give you numerous encounters with bears. You are expected to make noise and warn the bear of your presence – contrast to other wildlife viewing experiences where you keep quiet to ensure you don’t disturb the animals. My first day at Katmai was gloomy and it started raining by the time I reached the falls platform. My relatively inadequate rain gear would come under test for the next few days. I felt if I have survived the monsoon in Agumbe, I can handle any rain. The exciting part of the afternoon was that there were few salmons jumping (~ 3-5 per minute), and there were few hungry bears. Although Brooks fall is the best place to see a Bear catch a jumping salmon, you may not get to witness it if you are not lucky. Salmon and Bear timing need to match as I figured out the next few days.
Catching a jumping Salmon is an acquired skill, passed from mother to cubs, and needs patience. Capturing the action shot needs patience too.
One can stay at the falls platform for a maximum of one hour if it is crowded. Many visit the place on a day trip, fly in the morning and fly out in the afternoon. Hence it gets busy during the day. However, those who stay overnight get the advantage of 22 hour sunlight days of Alaskan summer. The falls platform closes at 10pm. I stayed till 9:45pm on one of the days and while walking back alone, encountered a big brown bear right in my path hardly 30 feet from me. Two thoughts: stay put and get a wide angle shot or walk back. Instinct said wait and see what the bear does and then decide. Obviously the bear doesn’t give a shit about me and wants to show who’s the boss. He walks straight towards me. I start walking back and soon jogging backwards making some noise. His stride is much bigger and gains ground sooner. Fortunately there were few more who were walking back from the platform and join me. Someone suggests we get off the track and into the woods. We all get out of his path and a few hundred feet away in mix of tall grass, shrubs and trees. We keep yelling and making noise, as instructed by the rangers. After a few minutes, he walks away. Phew!
On the first night, when it wasn’t raining, a few of the campers lit a fire at the campground. On the other nights, the lodge restaurant with a fireplace provided a much needed oasis of warmth. Not only did I get to meet lot of awesome people from around the world, but also managed to dry my gear and the fogged up lens on most afternoons and late evenings.
Meeting awesome people and drying my gear at the fireplace of Brooks camp lodge restaurant
The best and also the worst part about Alaskan summer is the terribly long days and sunlight. Almost 22 hours of daylight means, you as a photographer are out all the time. Though it was cloudy on most days, it created a fantastic soft lighting situation. With a good camera that can produce images without much noise at ISO-800 or 1000, you can shoot almost for 17-18 hours a day, if you can stay up that long. My day would typically start by 7:30 and end past midnight, with intermittent breaks. Between the campground, lodge, falls platform and other small trails, I’d have easily averaged 8 miles a day.
First day afternoon provided good opportunity for Bears fishing of Salmon on the falls. Soon after, Bears were full. The following days, there were plenty of Salmons jumping (~70-75 per minute at times), but hardly any bears at the falls. If you are visiting to see a bear catch a salmon jumping in air, make sure you have at least 3 to 4 days at Brooks camp. However, the lower platform is an excellent place to spend time and observe wildlife. Common Mergansers with chicks, Mallards, Arctic terns, Arctic Skua, Ospreys, Bald Eagles and many other birds can be spotted right from the platform. The beautiful Naknek lake and bears around it provide excellent opportunity for some landscape shots.
On the 3rd day, I signed up to visit the Valley of 10,000 smokes. Katmai National Park was established because of a volcanic eruption at the beginning of 20th century, and not because of the Bears. The valley is an expansive space of volcanic ash that is inhospitable for all life forms. A modified-to-the-terrain bus takes you on an hour long journey to the valley from Books Camp. It was incredible to see the dead valley in the middle of picturesque green mountains and tall trees. It is like a canyon in the middle of evergreen forest. No picture makes justice to the valley of 10,000 smokes.
Volcanic ash and lava flowing over the valley has not let any life form to exist. Only recovering recently and slowly.
Cannot end the post without a mention to the amazing park rangers at Katmai National Park. Without these rangers, Brooks camp wouldn’t be a place that it is. The platforms and the bridge are setup only for the summer, in May of each year and taken down in October. They ensure people get to have the best viewing and fishing experience, and at the same time bears stay wild and with minimal or no human interference. Here are few more images from my stay at the Brooks camp:
Bear blocked the trail to the falls platform for nearly an hour and rangers kept an eye.
My tent pitched at the campground – image here as I searched a lot to find out how the campground was since I was camping alone
Where is the Eagle? Lower platform is the best place to spend time and watch eagles, ospreys, terns, bears and other birds.
Bald Eagle makes an aerial maneuver – a treat to watch standing at the lower platform
Arctic Skua makes an unusual appearance
A courting pair enjoying the summer
One last image. The day I visited valley of ten thousand smokes, it had been raining heavier. I had been out in the rain from 7am till about 9:30pm, with very little break. I had hiked over 12 miles. We (Max, Dario and I) had missed out on the sighting of a sow with cubs earlier in the day. We waited at the lower platform on that cold, rainy evening hoping for some action. By 9pm, the rain had stopped but the light was still bright. By 9:45pm, tired and cold, we decide to head back to the camp. As we walked half way across the bridge, we saw the mother bear walk her cubs out – cautiously looking for any other bears. We just stopped at the middle of the bridge and she walked up to the edge of the water and at the perfect angle for us. The elation was unbound. You need to get lucky in wildlife photography to capture good images. However, you increase your odds by spending more time in the field.
My favorite image of the trip. Got very lucky after waiting for hours in the cold and rain
Gear: I rented my gear for the trip since I had sold most of my gear before embarking on the 2 years at business school. I researched quite a bit on the gear that I need. I took my favorite lens, Canon 100-400mm. It provides a great flexibility. You will find bears at close ranges. Even at the falls falls, you will not need longer than 300mm for a good image of the bears. For Eagles, Terns, and other birds, have a 500/600mm. Body I used was 7D and Rebel XSi. A high ISO tolerance and faster fps camera is very useful.
Having rain covers is useful, don’t have to dry lens when it gets fogged up otherwise. Mosquito and bugs are common in Alaskan wilderness. Though it was less than what I had read about, I had a bug repellant spray and a head cover.
Some useful blogs I researched and read before my trip: Gordon Liang
Booking campground: http://www.recreation.gov/camping/Brooks_Camp_Campground/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=70949
Booking lodge and flights: http://www.katmailand.com
It was a fantastic trip to the Brooks falls. I stayed at the lower platform until 45min to my flight on the last day at 6pm. Also, It was great to meet some awesome photographers Massimiliano and Dario from Italy, Laura from Fairbanks, Tim and Shekar from the Bay area. There were many others I shared dinners and lunch with. I didn’t feel anytime that I was traveling alone. I continued my journey in the Alaskan Peninsula, to Anchorage and then to Seward, Ninilchik and Homer. More on that in the following post.
P.S.: I need donations for buying new gear. All my photographs are under creative commons license and can be used for non-commercial work only by providing credits to the photographer.