Armchair photo tours: A bear watching tour at Katmai National Park and Preserve

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Photos by Cheryl Landes

Continued from the armchair photo tour, A flight from Anchorage to Katmai National Park and Preserve

We landed at Brooks Camp at the Katmai National Park and Preserve at 12:10 p.m.

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The copilot unloaded our lunches and went ahead of us to store them in the food cache and reserve viewing times for us at the upper viewing platform at Brooks Falls. The pilot stayed with us while we walked the short trail to the visitor center.

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At the visitor center, we attended a mandatory orientation before hiking the trail to Brooks Falls.

The orientation covers bear safety tips. The Brooks Falls Trail, which leads to the lower and upper viewing platforms, crosses bear country. Often bears are spotted along the trail, so it’s important to know what to do when we see one.

  • Make noise while hiking, because the bears feel threatened from surprise encounters.
  • Travel in groups of four or more.
  • If a bear appears, stay at least 50 yards away, because crowding makes bears aggressive. Slowly back away or move off to the side while calmly talking to the bear.
  • Never carry food or anything that smells like food. Bears have a strong sense of smell. If they believe food is nearby, they will become aggressive.

Read more about bear safety.

After we finished the orientation, the ranger gave each of us a pin. We had to wear the pin when we were on the trail. If we didn’t, we couldn’t hike to the viewing platforms.

The Brooks Falls Trail starts at a bear gate at the end of a boardwalk crossing the Brooks River. Two rangers stood at the gate and checked for pins before allowing hikers through.

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It’s a six-tenths-mile walk on the Brooks Falls Trail to the viewing platforms. The dirt trail crosses meadows and forests.

There are two viewing platforms, the lower and upper. Both wooden platforms are along the Brooks River, where the brown bears spend most of their time fishing for salmon. We could stay on the lower platform as long as we wanted.

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The view of the falls is farther away, but there’s usually a lot of activity from the female bears and their cubs. The mama bears keep their cubs away from the male bears, because the males are aggressive when they’re fishing and they’ve killed cubs who get in the way.

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We waited on the lower platform for our turns on the upper platform and watched two cubs and their mother wander around below.

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Mama bear mostly stayed out of sight, under the platform, but the cubs could see her while they played in Brooks River and plucked salmon from the water.

When a cub caught a salmon, it carried the fish to shore.

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Then the cub dropped the salmon in a comfortable spot in the woods near its mother, sat, and ate. Both cubs took their time eating and savored every bite.

Viewing on the upper platform has a 45-minute time limit, because space is limited. When it was time for the next group to go, a ranger came to the lower platform, called our names, and checked us off the sheet before we went to the platform.

The upper platform has close-up views of Brooks Falls, where we saw the salmon trying to jump to the top of the falls as they swam upstream. Some made it after a few attempts. Those that didn’t became a meal for a bear.

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The male bears fish at the falls, the prime salmon source, and they compete for the best spots. When my turn came to watch from the upper platform, only one bear was there. He caught 25 fish during the 45 minutes I was there.

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Gulls hang out near the male bears, because the males are messy eaters.

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When a male bear grabs a salmon, he eats the most tender part of the meat and leaves the rest in the water. The gulls munch on the leftovers.

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The male bear mostly ignored the gulls. He was too focused on catching his next salmon.

After my time was up at the upper viewing platform, I returned to the lower platform. By then, the mama bear and her cubs were gone. I hiked back to camp for lunch.

During my hikes in both directions, I didn’t encounter any bears on the trail.

Back at camp, there are strict guidelines on how visitors eat lunch. After we retrieved our lunch from the food cache, we had to go to a fenced-in picnic shelter. We couldn’t eat the food we brought anywhere else in the camp.

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Brooks Camp has cabins to rent, and there’s a trading post and cafe onsite for guests. Reservations are required and fill quickly. For more information and to make reservations, go to katmailand.com or call (800) 544-0551.

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Other lodges are located within Katmai and the Alaska Peninsula, and many offer tour packages.

The only ways you can travel to Katmai National Park and Preserve are by boat or air taxi, because there are no roads. The National Park Service has a directory of approved transportation providers. My trip was on Regal Air.

The sun came out in time for our return flight to Anchorage, and we were treated to more spectacular views.

More bear viewing adventures

Watch the bears live at Brooks Falls at the brown bear salmon cam.

Check out my armchair photo tour of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

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