Brown Bears of Katmai National Park in Summer 2012 Trip Report

By David Boston on Nov 05, 2012

Summary:  Travel to Katmai National Park and Preserve to photograph brown bears (grizzly bears) feeding on sockeye salmon at Brooks falls and along the Brooks River. The tour started in Anchorage, AK and included travel to King Salmon by turboprop airplane and from King Salmon to Katmai National Park by float plane. Two partial days and two full days are spent in the park photographing the bears from various viewing platforms along the Brooks River and at Brooks Falls.

Initial Impression:  Summer camp with bears.

Lodging:  Lodging before and after our trip to Brooks Camp was at the Crowne Plaza in Anchorage. The hotel is convenient to the airport and a short walk to several good eating establishments. The rooms were roomy, comfortable, clean and quiet. Wireless Internet is provided free of charge. Facilities are available for storage of unnecessary luggage, etc. during the trip to Brooks Camp (for which you want to minimize the amount and weight of luggage you take with you). The hotel provides a good, although somewhat pricey, breakfast (buffet or ala carte) and good lunch and dinner.

Lodging at Brooks Camp is barracks style with four to a room. The rooms are small, with two bunk beds, wash basin and private shower and toilet. There seemed to be adequate power outlets for recharging batteries and working on the computer, although there is very little actual work space. The rooms are primarily intended for sleeping because, while you’re at Brooks Camp, you really want to be outdoors enjoying the opportunities to photograph the bears.

Meals at Brooks Camp are in a community dining hall, on a set schedule, and served buffet style. They were all excellent, with a good variety of offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. This was somewhat surprising since Brooks Camp is very remote and all provisions must be flown or ferried in. Due to the presence of the bears, you are not allowed to have food or drink (other than water) outside of the dining hall, but then, again, are you there to eat or to photograph bears? The dining hall has a large gathering space with a central, wood-burning fireplace, which is a great spot to sit around, sip hot chocolate or coffee, and discuss the day’s activities. There is also a full service bar in the dining hall for those who would like something stronger to sip on. The dining hall is also a better spot for computer work (reviewing the day’s shots) during the non-dining hours.

There is a trading post at which supplies (insect repellant, mosquito nets, toiletries, soft drinks, souvenirs, some outerwear, batteries, etc.) are available for purchase.

Getting there: Getting to Brooks Camp is not easy, but it is fun. You depart the Anchorage airport on board a comfortable, modern turboprop airplane (in our case a Saab 340, seats 30) for the approximately 300 mile flight to King Salmon. In King Salmon, you transfer to the air carrier that will take you to Brooks Camp. After weighing you and all your belongings, you are assigned to one of several float planes for the 40 mile flight to Brooks Camp. This flight may be aboard a de Havilland Otter or Beaver or one of several small Cessnas. The flight can be bumpy, but the pilots are exceptional and water take-off and landings are quite exciting. If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, Dramamine® or equivalent is recommended.

Upon arrival at Brooks Camp you are required to take a brief bear safety course. The NPS rangers take the safety of the park’s visitors and the park’s bears very seriously. They ensure that visitors are well versed on how to avoid conflicts with the bears and how to respond should a close encounter occur. Additionally, the rangers are present at most of the high traffic (human and bear) areas and will close access to humans if a bear is in the vicinity. The training, plus the vigilance of the park service, and the human habituation of most of the bears makes a visit to Katmai an opportunity to observe more bears in less time and much closer than anywhere else in the world.

Leadership: Len Rue, Jr. leads this trip. Len is well-versed in wildlife and landscape photography, having grown up spending many years working with his father, well-known naturalist and wildlife photographer Leonard Lee Rue III. Len knows Alaska, he knows bears, and he knows Katmai and Brooks Falls. As it should be, Len’s first priority is the safety of his clients, but after that, he is a guide, teacher, adviser, fellow photographer and friend. On this trip, Len noticed that some of the photographers weren’t quite comfortable in the reviewing and processing of their images, so, one evening, he conducted an impromptu Lightroom® workshop. Len always made sure that we knew what the schedule was, what to look for at a particular photo spot/opportunity, and how to best shoot under the conditions at the time. He spent his time getting to know each of the photographers on the tour and offering assistance whenever he detected uncertainty or lack of confidence.

The Bears: OK, now for what you’ve been reading through this report for … the bears. You will sometimes see photos of Brooks Falls with ten or more bears fishing at once. We were a little early this year, and we didn’t have bears like that, but, we had bears. And, we had them everywhere. We had them at the falls, in the river, in Brooks Camp, on the trail to the falls, outside the barracks, everywhere. And, we didn’t have to wait long to see our first bear, which delayed our initial access to Brooks Camp by about a half hour, while we waited for her to clear the area so that we could cross the floating bridge across the Brooks River. We saw bears fishing, sleeping, grazing, mating, swimming, and sparring. We saw adults (big ones!), sub adults, and a few cubs (but no spring cubs, although we heard some were in the area). If you want to see and photograph bears, and much closer than most places (but still at a safe distance), Katmai National Park and Brooks Falls is the place to go. Close encounters with bears are common here, but, if you exercise caution and follow the rules and procedures provided by the park service, they are non-threatening and can be safely concluded.

Photography at Brooks River is generally at one of three viewing platforms. The lower river platform offers views of the river where it enters Naknek Lake and is the area where the less dominant bears fish. This is an area where you are more likely to see a sow and her cubs. It is also the area closest to Brooks Camp and where there are opportunities to photograph fishing enthusiasts braving exposure to the bears to catch sockeye salmon.

The other two platforms are an easy mile hike up a forest trail. The riffles platform is downstream from the falls and offers a good view (looking upstream) of the entire falls. It is also an area that many bears pass through on their way to the falls. The riffles platform is sometimes crowded, as it serves as a waiting area for those on the waiting list for the falls platform. However, it is generally not as crowded as he falls platform, and there is no time limit to your stay on the platform.

The falls platform is the most popular and most crowded of the three viewing platforms. It is situated immediately alongside the falls and offers excellent views of the bears fishing on the falls and below the falls. During peak periods of the day, access is limited to 40 persons at a time and for a one hour visit. The park rangers control access and you must sign up on a waiting list for a spot on the platform. Once your visit is completed, you can return to the sign in station and sign up for another available time slot.

All three platforms offer excellent opportunities for photographing the bears, each with it own unique activities and views.

Weather: We had lots of overcast while in Katmai, with some drizzle during parts of the day. The overcast, while cutting down on the level of light available, also gave us some very nice lighting conditions on the bears and the water. Exposures in this lighting was relatively simple, although higher ISOs had to be used to get the shutter speeds high enough to catch the action.

It was cool most of the time we were in Katmai, with the temperatures staying mostly in the 40s and 50s °F (5 - 15 °C). The sun came out one morning, and stayed out most of that afternoon, making it much warmer. Van Os advises coming prepared for any kind of weather, dressing in layers, and bringing rain gear. This is good advice. When the sun came out, lighting conditions were much harsher with much more contrast between the white water of Brooks Falls and River and the bears. In some cases, this lent more drama to the photos, but I think that most of us preferred the softer lighting of the overcast. Just like coming prepared to dress for any weather, you must come prepared to shoot in widely varying lighting conditions.

Mosquitoes: They were everywhere, and pretty much, all the time. They seemed worse the day the sun came out, but they were also present during the overcast. The only respite came when it was drizzling. The mosquitoes we encountered were not huge monsters, as one might have heard, but they were a nuisance, especially around the face. Good repellent containing DEET worked well (I only got one bite the entire time); however, some of the group resorted to wearing head nets. Insect repellent and head nets are available for a reasonable price at the Brooks Camp trading post.

Gear: Other than the obvious (a camera, plenty of batteries, and media (or film)), the following equipment is crucial to maximizing the experience at Katmai:

  • A good sturdy tripod — if nothing else, it slows you down and makes you be more deliberate about your photography.
  • A polarizer — I used one all of the time. Even during the overcast days, it was especially helpful in removing the sheen from the darker part of the water and making the appearance of the water more dramatic and the colors more saturated.
  • A long lens —400mm (or 300mm with a 1.4x extender) is adequate in most cases. The bears are pretty close to the viewing platforms most of the time. A 100-400 zoom is ideal for shooting at Brooks Falls.
  • Rain cover for the camera and lens —It drizzled a lot and equipment got saturated.
  • And a note about exposure. There is a lot of white water in the river, which, a lot like snow, can fool the camera’s meter into underexposing the image as the meter tries to turn that white water into 18% neutral gray. Be prepare to use exposure compensation to defeat the gray tendency of the meter.

The Photographers:  We were a group of twelve from Australia, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington. We were hobbyists, semi pros, and pros and there was a wide range of experience and expertise. All were willing to share tips and to help when questions arose about exposure, equipment, composition, etc.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris:  In their typical fashion, Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris covered all the bases. They kept us well informed up until time to depart for our adventure, handled all our lodging and meals, and all the travel between Anchorage and Katmai. Except for bear jams and some drizzly weather, everything went smoothly, thanks to Photo Safaris’ tour planning and execution.

About the Author:  David Boston is a serious hobbyist who shoots for his own enjoyment and relaxation and to share with others. His favorite subjects are landscapes and wildlife and this was his 7th tour with Van Os Photo Safaris. See photos from the other Van Os safaris that David has enjoyed as well as many more of David’s Katmai photos at: http://netrealm.org/public/Dave/index.htm.