Bear Viewing at Brooks Falls and a Bear Encounter
Jul 21, 2010
|Wednesday July 21 – Bear Viewing at Brooks Falls and Bear Encounter
Today is the big day of the main event we had planned for Ellie’s visit..Flying out to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park for Bear Viewing! If you have ever seen photos of Grizzly Bears standing at a waterfall catching Salmon on TV like a National Geographic show or others it was likely filmed at Brooks Falls.
We arose early, packed our lunches and snacks and headed to the Lake in Homer where we were to board our plane and take off for the fabled Brooks Falls. The planes are float planes and we flew with Bald Mountain Air, the same outfit we had used in 2005. They had two pontoon planes going out, ten passengers in each. We flew in the closest plane in the plane photo. We arrived at 8:30 for a 9 AM departure. The weather unfortunately was quite overcast but at least it was not raining, but it was windy. This was Ellie’s first flight in a small plane and we had to wear headsets to hear the pilot over the noise of the engines!
The flight took about an hour and a half each way and as we gained altitude and crossed Cook Inlet several of the mountains and volcanoes were visible. Mount Redoubt, at 10,197 ft is the highest and visible from almost anywhere along the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, it gave us a puff of smoke that day, and is also visible from Anchorage. The clouds had a few breaks and when he found an appropriate opening our pilot dropped to a low altitude and followed several rivers through the mountains of this vast park until he reached Nacnek Lake where he made a very smooth landing to bring the plane up to the beach. We looked out the window and saw our first bear out on a small spit of land a few hundred yards from where we landed.
This is a National Park and we were not on a guided tour, the flight just brought the various folks to the park. You are turned free to roam the park once you have completed a mandatory 20 minute “Bear Etiquette” training course at the Brooks Camp Visitor Center. At the completion of the session you receive your “Bear Etiquette” pin to put on your outer garment showing any ranger that you have completed the course. The first thing that they stress is that unless you are on one of the bear viewing platforms you should always keep at least a 50 yard distance from any single bear you may encounter and if it is a sow with cubs that distance is 100 yards. These bears are wild and they do not want to acclimate them to humans or let they associate humans with food. You may not take any food out to the viewing area and whatever you don’t eat at one of the few picnic tables near the Visitor Center is to be put into a food cache that is latched to prevent bears getting into it. They also have caches for gear but we only had two small backpacks with our lunch and snacks plus our cameras. Some folks come here to back country hike/camp and/or to fish the rivers, streams and lakes, but most are here to view the bears. Within Katmai a 2004-2005 aerial survey was made of the bear population and found a total of 413 bear groups (657 individual bears) and they arrived at a total population estimate of 2183 plus or minus 379 bears for the entire park.
After quickly eating our lunch the three of us started down the approximately 1.4 miles of trails to get to the Brooks Falls viewing platform. This trail takes you past a place they call “the corner” which is a point shortly before you reach a gated wooden bridge across the Brooks River. The bridge is only about 2 tenths of a mile from the Brooks Camp area where the Visitor Center, some cabins and a restaurant and gift shop are located. The significance of the corner is that it is where a park ranger is stationed to watch for bears that are coming down to that area to feed. These are frequently sows with cubs as the bigger boars (males) at the falls may try to kill and eat their cubs. The boars normally lead a solitary life. However, when the salmon are running and they are stocking up on fat to carry them through the long winter hibernation they gather along the river and at the falls. There is a second ranger at the far side of the bridge on a viewing platform and it is a very common occurrence that they close the bridge and stop people in either direction while bears are present close to the area.
After crossing the bridge you are on your own to take the trail a little over a mile on up to the falls. The trail leads through the relatively dense boreal forest and after being just wide enough for a pickup truck or van for a few hundred yards past the bridge it turns to a 3 to 4 foot wide dirt foot path called the Brooks Falls Trail. We were stopped at the corner and had to wait for about 10 minutes due to a bear sighting before we were allowed to cross the bridge. Once onto the dirt foot trail we were alone other than passing some people who were returning from the viewing areas.
I say areas as there are two viewing areas up river, the falls, which they limit to no more than 40 visitors at any one time; and the “Riffles Platform” along the river bank about 150 yards below the falls. At the falls platform people are only allowed for one hour as long as other people are waiting. The Riffles Platform is not limited as to the number of people but would only hold about 30 or so people on two levels.
When we arrived at the juncture of the path leading to the Riffles Platform the ranger stationed there said the falls platform was full and put our name on a waiting list similar to what you would find in a busy restaurant. We headed to the Riffles and started watching the half dozen or so bears near that area. I never realized how often bears stand on their hind legs to watch for fish or just to watch for other bears etc. It was easy to see how excited we all were to see these majestic large animals in their natural environment. The cameras were busy with many choices to be made as to which bear(s) to photograph. Before we had been there a few minutes three more bears wandered out of the woods very near the Riffles platform and walked almost directly underneath us about 20 to 30 feet away.
The bears in Denali Park had all looked very light colored and though these were similar bears, they mostly looked much darker because they were wet from being in the river. As you may see from the photos some had dry heads or backs but nearly all had wet legs and bodies, often giving a somewhat strange appearance.
After about half an hour on the Riffles Platform we were called for our turn on the Falls Platform. What a sight, about 14 large bears were at the falls when we arrived! We had seen them from a distance from the lower platform but to be right alongside the falls with these creatures was just hard to believe. We will let the photos speak for themselves. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did taking them!
When I can figure out how to get my videos onto this blog I will post some of them for your enjoyment. Ellie took over 300 photos of bears, Pat took over 200 and I took dozens of videos and some still photos. We will be glad to share more with anyone.
When we had finished with our time at the Falls Platform Pat started alone back down the path back to the bridge and the visitor center while Ellie and I went back out to the Riffles Platform for a few more photos. While walking the trail alone Pat composed a song to sing to alert any bears of her presence on the trail entitled “Bear Bait”. It went something like “What am I doing in this Alaska State, Bear Bait, Bear Bait. What am I doing in this here park, Bear Bait, Bear Bait, Here I go down the trail, Bear Bait, Bear Bait.”
Ellie and I thought we would catch up with Grandma but she was well ahead of us and made it to a point near the bridge when she spotted a bear that was on another small trail nearby. She wanted to take photos of it but the ranger in the area told here to get up on the platform which she did. The bear, a large sow came quite close to the platform, tried to go around it then headed up the trail toward the falls. Pat got good photos of her. The ranger told Pat that the sow was being pursued by the largest boar bear in this area of the park. Soon the boar came up close to the platform and headed down the trail after the sow and again Pat got good photos of the boar.
The GREAT BEAR ENCOUNTER!
I tell all of this to set the stage for what was to become a serious Bear Encounter for Ellie and Grandpa! We had come down the footpath trail and turned onto the slightly wider trail heading for the bridge and looking for Grandma. I spotted a bear out in a marshy area toward the lake that was standing up frequently. She had a fairly large, probably yearling cub with her. I wanted to wait and watch her and get some video. Ellie cautioned me that the bear seemed to be getting closer but I said it was OK as the bears were headed to cross the trail behind us.
Sure enough, the two bears came out on the trail we were on about 35 or 40 yards behind us. I was filming as they started away from us and the sow turned and looked back at us but decided we were no threat and they walked away down the trail. Ellie and I turned to continue walking down toward the bridge when we looked up and coming right down the trail at us was a large bear! It was about 40 to 50 yards away when we saw it and walking at a pretty good pace. I told Ellie we had to get off the trail and we stepped into a very small opening in the brush that let Ellie get about three feet off the trail and I got between her and the trail. We couldn’t get further off because of dense brush and a drop off into marsh water. We started speaking to the bear as we had been trained, “hello bear” in calm voices. Well relatively calm anyhow. I was filming and Ellie took some photos. The bear passed down the trail right by us, no more than 6 feet away!
Once the bear had passed we stepped out back into the trail to take photos of it going away. Again when we turned around to continue down the trail Oh My God, Here comes the biggest bear I have ever seen and it is only about 35 yards away and we had just stepped out in front of it!!!! Once again we moved quickly back into the same small spot and tried to remain calm all the while talking to the monster bear. Ellie’s voice was getting higher every time we said “Hello Bear” and maybe mine was too! That big bear looked at us and then passed by probably about 5 to 6 feet away! We did get pictures of it going away, luckily for us it was still off on its quest of the sow!!! I will post more photos when I get some from Ellie and also when I can get a video uploaded!
Grandpa and Ellie now share a very special bond they will always remember!
When we found Grandma at the bridge platform everyone was pretty excited as they had just seen the sow and the big bore headed down the trail. And Pat had the photos of them!
As we headed back over the bridge and to the airplane we were advised that there was a sow with not two, not three but four cubs at the beach. When we got to the plane we got the photo of them. Four cubs is very rare and it made a great ending to a really exciting visit to the Brooks Falls area!