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Travel: In the land of the great bears

Exploring Katmai National Park

Tussling over salmon in the Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Kim Fenske photo.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

SUMMIT COUNTY — Katmai National Park is nearly synonymous with the great brown bears of Alaska. I targeted the area during my summer backpacking tour of Alaska because I wanted to live among the brown bears and witness the feeding frenzy during the summer salmon spawning run at Brooks Falls.

Katmai National Park was primarily established in 1980 to preserve the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, an area covered with ash from the 1912 eruption of 2,760-foot Novarupta Volcano. These days, the park is well-known as a gathering place for grizzly bears.

Daily PenAir flights take visitors on the 290-mile trip from Anchorage to the tiny airstrip at King Salmon. Small amphibious planes shuttle guests the remaining 30 miles from the Naknek River, across Naknek Lake, to the national park visitor center at Brooks Camp.

As my float plane rounded 2,440-foot Dumpling Mountain and dropped toward the beach at Brooks Camp, I was deceived by the small waves below and did not have a moment to brace before the plane began skipping across the water. I scanned the beach and saw a bear approaching us from the point at the south end of a row of tethered aircraft.   stepped quickly onto a plank tossed into the water beside the plane and hurried into a small log cabin for a briefing provided by park rangers.

After the orientation, I gathered up my gear and started out on the path north of the cabins to the campground. I saw a bear approaching me on the path, so I stepped aside and waited a few minutes. When the bear passed on the beach below me, I continued down the path and found a plastic gate entrance to the campground with a fence of pulsing electric wires around the perimeter.

In camp, there were no assigned sites. Paths led through the trees and tall grasses to small flattened patches available for tents. At the beach side of the camp, several wooden shelters faced toward the camp with a picnic table in each for dining. A small building was divided into sections for food, gear, and fuel storage with a sink for cleaning.  A privy was south of the storage building.

Once I had chosen a damp patch of ground for my tent and stowed my gear, I hiked back toward the visitor center. As I approached the cabins, a park ranger was attempting to chase a bear away from the buildings. The bear was finding deep, lush grasses growing at the building foundations and was in no hurry to leave. I continued past the cabins and crossed the wooden bridge to a platform overlooking the mouth of Brooks River.

Once aboard the platform, I joined a large group of visitors being held by the rangers due to the presence of a sow with three cubs nearby. After the bears passed, the rangers released us to continue down the mile-long path to Brooks Falls. Every time I hiked down the path to Brooks Falls during the next few days, I met bears grazing among the willows and marsh grasses and rambling through the mature forest on paths leading to the shore of Brooks River.

At Brooks Falls, I found a dozen boars sprinkled among the boulders in the rushing water. As hours passed, the behavior patterns and personalities of the bears emerged.  The bears gazed at the currents, waiting for the salmon to rush through the pools and leap over the falls. The best fisher remained in one hole the entire evening, quiet until his paw would rise out of the waves with a huge fish trapped by his claws. He grasped the dorsal fin in his teeth and peeled the skin away from the flesh. Then, he pinned the fish to the rocks and chomped down huge hunks of the fish until only a piece of tailfin stuck out of his mouth like a toothpick.

The hide of the big boar was sliced by claw and canine tooth from altercations with another huge brown bear. Several times the fisher pulled-up a catch only to be approached by the second most powerful boar who attempted to intimidate him into surrendering his catch. The close encounters led to howling matches and, sometimes, a fur-flying fight. The immature males and the sows kept a safe distance away from the boars, circling, snorkeling, and perching several bear lengths above or below the coveted fishing holes at the base of the falls.

When I left Brooks Falls to return to my campsite, my senses were on heightened of alert the entire time that I was hiking along the trails in the park. Everywhere I hiked, fresh bear scat steamed in the paths. The lush rainforest herbs provided good cover for the movements of the bears. Whenever a willow tree shuddered at the side of the trail, I knew that a bear was grazing on the tall marsh grasses a few feet ahead.

I quickly became aware that the park guidelines for distances between bears and visitors were silly. Numerous times, I stepped aside when a bear was closing the gap between us. I was often inadvertently within a few bear lengths of a grazing immature male or grazing sow with cubs.

At least twenty bears crossed my path each day, with official estimates of the brown bear population adjacent to Brooks Falls approaching one hundred. The experience of living among so many enormous bears separated Brooks Camp from every other Alaska destination.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

Spring excursions:

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

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