Letters - Chapter 1

BEAR WATCHING 

Bear watching has become a big tourist activity in Alaska and Katmai National Park has become a popular destination to safely observe and photograph concentrations of coastal brown bears at close range. 

July 14, 1996

Hello, good evening. 

It is hard to start this letter. It is just hard to know how to start. 

Donna just said, “This was a good day.” She is right. Presently, she is unfolding her sleeping bag and complaining about a big lump right under where her butt is supposed to be. We have moved into the last of the 20 available campsites here at Katmai National Park and Preserve. We will be here for nearly a week. We are here to photograph bears. And do some fishing, too. And camp. (Can you believe this, Donna has started doing sit-ups!) 

We arrived at about 4:30 p.m. and began to set up camp and made supper. Before we could even eat supper, we had already seen 10 bears. After supper, we went to the lower viewing platform and saw perhaps 20 more. As well as a large-sized bull moose. So far, it has been absolutely awesome--and it has just begun. We have five more days to go. I am tired. 

More later. 

July 18

That was not much of a start. I will try harder this time. 

Bears. We came here to see bears. We see bears everywhere! Anywhere. Any time. Middle-sized bears. Miniature bears. Singles. Doubles, more. The most we saw all at the same time was 13. And a mother bear with two cubs; another with three cubs. They are close and far and, thankfully, none has been too close.  

Bill Jr., Donna, and I had flown from Anchorage to King Salmon, where we boarded a floatplane to get here to Katmai National Park and Brooks Lodge. The trip actually began last January, when after two hours of nonstop dial and redial, I made a phone-in reservation to camp here for the week. It has been a wonderful trip so far. When we get tired of doing whatever we are doing, we go look for another bear. We have rarely waited longer than a half hour before another one showed up. 

Brooks River is part of the headwaters of the Naknek drainage in Bristol Bay and most of the streams and rivers of Bristol Bay are crowded with sockeye, or red, salmon. Brooks River has an abrupt 6-to 8-foot falls, which is a challenge for the salmon to jump. They pause below the falls until they are ready to jump. While they wait, they become bear food. These bears migrate from 40 or 50 miles to take advantage of this tremendous food source; and because the food is abundant and easy to catch, they become unusually tolerant of other bears at nearby feeding stations.  

Brooks Falls is a good place to see the feeding bears and watch their interactions–the fighting and posturing and the scuffles that happen. The National Park Service has built a viewing platform that provides a safe vantage point. A mile or so downstream, at the mouth of the river, another viewing platform allows great viewing of bears and lake scenery. But of course, we see bears everywhere, like along the shoreline of the lake, which is just near the campground. Beautiful. A couple of times actually in the campground. Eating a meal can be a challenge if a bear comes ambling along the shore. Drop everything and grab a camera! Although we have seen many more bears than I expected and we have more pictures than I want to pay for, each sighting is different and special and offers a more unique picture than the last. Even if it is mealtime–when a bear shows up, take a picture. 

Donna especially enjoys seeing the cubs. They frolic and tumble along behind Mama. She catches a fish and holds it for them. They growl and tussle and try to sound ferocious. The big bears, however, do not need to try. When they growl and tussle, they are ferocious. After you’ve seen a fight and watched bears running by within 20 feet, it can be very spooky walking back through the woods, especially under low-light conditions. Trust me. 

We have been so busy watching bears and taking pictures of bears that aside from a trip to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, we have hardly had time to fish. Tomorrow, always tomorrow.  

Oh, I almost forgot–Brooks Lodge, a commercial venture on a park inholding, provides an extra dimension to our visit. Today, we had an all-you-can-eat noon meal which we took full advantage of. And 2 days ago, we took showers for $4 each. Interesting place. And, Brooks Lodge rents cabins for visitors if you don’t want to camp out. 

July 20

We must leave today. I am lying in my sleeping bag nearly ready to awaken Donna and Bill so we can have breakfast and begin to pack. Did I mention that Karel opted not to come along on the trip? She thoroughly enjoys camping, but she does not enjoy camping while bears are playing just outside her tent. I think that only once, maybe twice, was a bear actually sighted within the confines of the campground. But we often see them at the edge of the lake, about 100 yards from the campground.  

The most important rule here at Brooks Camp—or anyplace where bears are common—is to practice good behavior. The Park Service strictly enforces this rule. No food in a tent or in a pack. Always make noise to avoid surprising a bear. Bears always have the right of way. Where does a brown bear sleep? Anywhere it wants to. And, let sleeping bears lie. If they happen to take a nap on the trail to a viewing platform, nobody can use the trail until the bear gets up and leaves. Always be alert. 

Bill Jr.’s comments:

It has been an amazing experience for me. To live here in Alaska for 16 years and then come here to see this makes me realize how much more there is in Alaska outside Southcentral. The landscape is pretty much the same as what I am used to seeing; only it is more pristine and clean. Actually, the weather is not clear, but that is southwestern Alaska. This is a secluded real wilderness that is marred by an overabundance of tourists. Many Europeans, many Lower 48-ers, and some Alaskans, too. So far, the Californians have taken the prize for the stupidest and most surprising of tourists. 

Watching these bears has been a wonderful experience in such a beautiful place. It is only after you leave Alaska that you grasp the magnitude of its beauty and majesty in comparison with the rest of the United States. There has been no better way to practice the rules of bear safety than to fish and live around them. It has been great seeing a real wilderness in its natural beauty in this 7-day stay. 

Donna writes: 

As the preceding pages have said, this was a wonderful experience. It was so much more than anything I had expected. I thought that Katmai would be interesting, but that I would quickly get sick of it. That didn’t exactly happen. As Bill once said, it was like we were on our own safari. 

Bears were everywhere. It was amazing that we could get so close to the bears. They were very tolerant. They tolerated people in their house and they tolerated each other. We were often closer than 50 feet.  

One mother bear even used people to her advantage. At the falls, where mostly large males fed, she would stash her cubs right up under the platform so she could go fish for them. This close proximity to humans helped to protect the cubs from the boars. Of course, I did not mind. Seeing the cubs was my favorite part. They were cute. 

Just one more extreme of Alaska, that is, one more beautiful extreme of Alaska. It was a great privilege to experience the thriving communities of beautiful but intimidating bear in a gorgeous setting. 

From all of us:

We always like to see wildlife when we are out, but watching bears for a week at Katmai is a truly awesome experience. 

Love.

Bill, Donna, Bill 

June 20, 2008

Oh, wait, there is more . . .  Brooks Lake and Brooks River are part of the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the world’s largest sockeye salmon production factory. Brooks River drains into Naknek Lake and the Naknek River which, together with seven other major river systems, flow into Bristol Bay. All 5 species of North American Pacific salmon are found in Bristol Bay; however, sockeye, or red salmon are by far the most numerous. Why would this be? Simple. Habitat. More specifically, the drainages of Bristol Bay contain abundant amounts of habitat that is well suited to the rearing requirements of young sockeye salmon.  

As the adult sockeye salmon migrate through the shallow waters of the Bristol Bay estuary, they are harvested by commercial fishermen. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery has been carefully managed and it is recognized as an example of a successful, stable fishery that has maintained a long-term sustainable harvest. In fact, this fishery is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. 

Sockeye salmon have the most complex life history of all the Pacific salmon. After sockeye salmon enter freshwater to lay their eggs, they swim upstream until they encounter a lake where they pause in their migration several weeks or a month before they move on to the spawning grounds, where they excavate nests or redds. Most spawning is in midsummer in small streams and rivers, but also, to a lesser extent, along the margins of some lakes and islands.  

The eggs are buried in redds where they incubate until about midwinter. After hatching, the embryonic fry, called alevins, remain in the gravel until they absorb their yolk sac, when they emerge from the gravel to become free swimming. Typically, newly emerged fry migrate to lakes where they rear. Fry that emerge from redds downstream from lakes are genetically programmed to swim upstream toward the lake, whereas those from redds upstream from lakes migrate downstream to the lake. The rearing fry prey mainly on microscopic free-swimming invertebrate animals called plankton. Sockeye salmon rear in lakes from 1 to 3 years before they migrate to the ocean as smolts.  

Sockeye salmon migrate for one to three years around the North Pacific Ocean, where they feed mainly on small shrimplike organisms. They grow and mature until they return to freshwater to spawn and die.   

After they die, the nutrients that have been stored in their bodies are released from the carcasses. The nutrients are dissolved in the water and fertilize the very base of the food chain that provides food for the young salmon after they hatch and migrate from the spawning areas into the many lakes of the region where they rear. The freshwater habitats of the eight river and lake systems and the fertile ocean currents are the machinery of the factory that converts the raw material into a valuable commercial harvest and more spawning adults to maintain the cycle. Thus, the salmon themselves provide the raw material to drive the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon factory production.

One last tidbit. Each population of sockeye salmon is somehow uniquely adapted for their particular stream and lake system and, collectively, they compose the huge, biologically complex grouping of populations that make up the entire Bristol Bay sockeye salmon resource.  

Link: Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park - http://www.katmailand.com/lodging/brooks.html