Brown Bears of Katmai National Park 2013 Trip Report

By Len Rue, Jr. on Oct 22, 2013

A visit to Katmai National Park in Alaska at the peak of the July salmon run to photograph the huge concentration of brown bears that congregate there should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’ve led the Joseph Van Os Photo Safari to Katmai for many years—yet I never grow weary of returning. Every year brings new bears, different photo opportunities, and unending entertainment. The bears put on quite a show. No one ever seems to tire of watching and photographing bears—and Katmai is one of the best places to do it.

I know of no other place in the entire world where you can walk among free ranging large carnivores, as you do at Katmai, and live to tell about it. During the salmon run the bears have an unending supply of protein-rich fish to catch, so they are fat and happy. To have a safe and memorable visit, people are taught to give the bears their space whenever they come close—and the system works. I tell everyone during the first-night orientation that probably 25% of them will have some kind of a close encounter with a bear before the trip is over. And I am usually right. At Katmai, the bears really are everywhere and it is possible to meet up with one just about anywhere. Katmai not only provides endless photo possibilities, but everyone comes away with experiences and stories to tell that will last a lifetime.

Our July 2013 trip was a memorable one. Fish were plentiful in the river—and that always brings in the bears. One evening, up at the Falls Platform, I counted 18 bears in sight at one time with 12 of them fishing just above and below Brooks Falls. Bears are just like people in one regard—some are great fishermen while others, well, not so much. This year, one particular bear stood at the top of the falls and was very successful catching fish as they jumped into his mouth. Another large bear totally submerged himself in the deep pool just at the base of the falls and, about every two minutes, resurfaced with another large salmon in his mouth. The bears less successful at fishing developed the fine art of stealing fish from the other bears whenever they could get away with it.

For a large animal that lives a solitary existence for most of the year, it is fascinating to watch the endless interactions and conflicts that arise when they come in close proximity to one another at the falls. Age and size matters when it comes to which bear has dominance and gets the best fishing spots. Quite often a conflict is settled with a lot of open-mouthed roaring. Rarely, conflicts develop into an actual fight until one of the bears backs down.

Bald eagles are also a very common sight along the river. One day, at the Falls Platform, we watched as an eagle dropped down out of a tall tree, dove into the water—and plucked a large piece of salmon right off a rock only about 8 feet from a bear. The eagle was up and away before the bear could even react!

Of course, everyone loves to photograph the bear cubs. This year two sows—one with three spring cubs and the other with three yearling cubs—repeatedly moved through the Lower Platform area and gave all of us great photo opportunities. One of my favorite images was taken of the sow with the three spring cubs checking out the danger to the cubs—by standing fully erect—as another bear was walking closer.

Katmai is in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness and it is therapeutic for the soul to leave the rat race of our modern-day lives for a few days and walk among bears. In July, at the height of the summer salmon run, the brown bears of Katmai provide endless photo opportunities and fascination.

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