Stepping off a float plane onto the beach at Brooks Camp can be disorienting.
“Where are the falls? Where are all these bears? Do we just walk there now?” one wonders.
The answers to these questions – and plenty of others – are answered at a brief orientation film shown to nearly every visitor before they make the short hike up to Brooks Falls, one of Alaska’s most iconic outdoor spots.
“Brooks belongs first of all to the bears and other wildlife. As visitors we need to let them be wild, and watch out for our safety,” the authoritative, almost ominous voice narrating the enjoyably dated video explains. The video, which is available in English, Japanese and other languages common to the hundreds of visitors who will pass through each day in July, then covers the ground rules.
“Keep 50 yards away from any bear, and 100 yards away from a sow with cubs.” Stay alert at all times, and make noise with your group. Give the bear the right-of-way, and don’t make eye contact. Keep children close, gear in hand, and leave all food and scraps back in the designated cache behind the electric fence,” the narrator said.
“Overall we’ve had very few incidents here at Brooks Camp, and I think that is largely attributable to the fact that we have very strict food control, and we’re able to educate every single visitor that comes through here reasonably well,” ranger Michael Saxton said. He’s the lead wildlife technician at Brooks.
Katmai’s rangers estimated they had 40 individual bears at Brooks in July, not including cubs, being observed by 300 to 400 visitors each day. Some humans camp overnight, some fish the river, but most step off the plane and head for a few hours at the viewing platforms.
Dating to 1950, Saxton said NPS has only recorded three “incidents” of bears tangling with people around Brooks, and none were fatal. In 1966, a fisherman cooked his catch at his campsite and woke up to a bear dragging him away before another person scared the bear off. In 1991, a ranger walking down the old trail — improved with a new boardwalk in 2000 — got too close to a sow and cubs and was charged. She wrapped herself around a tree while the sow roughed her up, and afterwards it was discovered she had a bite mark on her arm. Saxton said the third is a “story” that no one has been able to verify actually happened, but supposedly involved a family who knew to step into the woods if bears came down the trail. When a bear happened along, mom is said to have jumped one way, dad jumped the other, and junior, left in the middle, was barreled over by the bear and sustained scrapes and bruises.
Brooks has a lodge, a restaurant with cold beer on tap, campsites, and a number of other facilities that seem a bit out of place in the middle of southwest Alaska’s wilderness. Rangers know these comforts can put visitors in a less defensive mode than perhaps they we ought to be, so there is a large contingent of staff to keep an eye on things. According to Cathy Bell, Katmai’s chief of interpretation, there are probably a dozen interpretative rangers, five bear management technicians, 10 law enforcement and maintenance staff, plus a handful of volunteers at Brooks during the summer peak.
One of those rangers is Tandi Stephens, who directed our small, ad hoc group to a mound of grass not far past the lodge.
“I’ll just bring you up here. Right now we have some bears right off the trail, so we’re just sort of holding here,” Stephens explained in hushed voice.
Another ranger approached with an update, and a third, nearer to the bridge, called information to Stephens on the radio.
“Copy, you have a bear at the upriver end of the marsh, near Big Island, and then bears are now at the river between Corner and Point,” the ranger said as the group waited.
“This is where we earn our bear pins, and this a trust. You trust me and I trust you, so we’ll go as a group, that’s always safer, and please listen,” Stephens explained to the visitors, none of whom appeared alarmed. She asked this reporter to spit his gum out in a trash can behind an electric fence a few hundred yards away, but swallowing it was faster.
Katmai’s rangers keep a close watch on the bear activity near the bridge, intending not to leave people stuck mid-river or, worse, on the bridge with a bear. The traffic delays can last a few minutes to an hour or more, and it’s all up to the bears who barely seem to notice the humans. Nearby, fly fishermen wade the river mouth, and visitors question among themselves if they’ll be shouted at for wading across should the delay go on too long.
On the other side of the lovely Brooks River and up the trail, visitors reach the first of two viewing platforms.
“If you’ve just arrived and are hoping to add your name to the wait list, we have our little pager system here. I’ll write down the name of your party, the number of people with you and when there’s space available that pager will buzz continuously,” ranger Rebecca Nourot explained to one group after the next. She politely smiled off the “can we get some appetizers while we wait” for the umpteenth time of the day as she handed out the pagers, which are the same as those used in chain restaurants.
NPS has determined that only 40 people should be on the Falls Platform at once, and there is a one hour time limit there. The lower Riffles Platform provided ample bear-eating-salmon viewing while groups waited their turn. When the buzzer beckons, visitors are asked to ignore bear cubs rolling in the soft grass below as they are hurried across an elevated boardwalk between two Jurassic Park-sized doors.
Cathy Snyder from North Carolina was among the 40 mesmerized visitors on the Falls Platform, each a little starstruck to stand so near to a few of Brooks’ biggest internet stars. The hefty bruins moved little from their earned spots in the “jacuzzi,” grabbing sockeye as they passed underneath or leapt over the falls.
“It’s my first time out, it’s been great, and the bears have been hungry,” Snyder said gleefully.
Being near to the bears, mainly while walking the trails, did not frighten her. Nor did she mind the presence or directions of the rangers, or getting held up for a while at the bridge while two cubs played in the water. The experience felt balanced and well-managed, she said.
“Oh absolutely, lots of fun, and they’ve done very well,” Snyder said. “They’ve kept a good eye on it, and I’m not worried about my safety at all.”
Of course, as NPS wildlife biologist Leslie Skora points out, nature plays a big, obvious role in keeping bears and humans apart, too.
“The tremendous salmon resource helps everybody seem to get along a little better,” Skora said.
The number of bears at Brooks Falls has been growing, as have the number of people coming to see them each year. The rules have changed a few times, as has the infrastructure and the number of onsite rangers. It may be too tightly supervised now for the liking of some, as a few King Salmon-based lodges have grumbled lately, but ranger Saxton said it’s part of the Brooks Camp tradeoff.
“Of course when you have this many people and this many bears, we don’t like to use the word ‘safe’ out here, you can’t promise anything,” Saxton said. “But we do the best that we can, and part of that is having a slightly more controlled environment.”