Katmai National Park Bears: Brooks Falls, Salmon & Brownies!

Iconic Brown bear photographs? Read on. Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is a great destination to practice your bear photography skills. It’s also a great place to wander around and feel the sensation through your body that you are no longer at the top of the food chain. There are lots of bears here and for the most part they are concerned with salmon, sleeping and more salmon. That’s good news for visitors. As they really are not concerned with your presence as long as you are not irritating them or just plain clueless. Now, all this “bear love” is subject to change with a bad salmon run. Large and hungry bears do not make good photo subjects. Well fed and feeding bears should be your goal at Brooks Camp.

Best Time: Early July through late July is when the salmon are running. The salmon run peaks in mid July. The bears simply follow the salmon. Late August/September the salmon die and the bears return. Both times have ample opportunities for bear photography. It you want the iconic brown bear catching the jumping salmon then July is your time.

Getting There: Keep it simple. Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to King Salmon ($500-600 round trip). Katmai Air Service: 907-246-3079 King Salmon to Brooks Camp (~ $300.00 round trip)

Staying: Tent camping in their designated camp. Not expensive but hard to reserve a site at recreation.gov These sites fill up within minutes of opening at the New Year.

Cabins are expensive, small and a 1 to 2 year waiting list. Great if you need the security of 4 walls but not practical if you want to see the bears 2 or more years. They are in a great location. At the center of camp, clean and well maintained. In fact the entire camp is a nice area to relax by the lodge fire, socialize, eat and drink etc. You can rent fishing gear, hire a guide or rent a canoe. Top notch service at Brooks Camp.

Backcountry Camping: Free, no permits and open year around. The only restriction is that you have to be camped 1.5 miles from the Brooks Camp Complex and have a bear proof food container. Bring your own or check one out from the NP service.

I tent camp. Simply get off the plane and put your excess gear in the storage unit next to the Ranger orientation cabin. Go to the first available orientation. Get your bear orientation button and hike off a couple of miles down the main trail to find your camp site. Take photos along the way of bears. (no worries, you will see many bears 24/7) Set up your camp and hike back to Brooks Camp for a really good meal, snacks, fishing gear, camp fuel, etc. and a good bear book. Again, you can stop by the platforms for photography along the way to and from your camp to Brooks Camp. Link to Brooks Camp map:

https://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/images/Brooks-Camp-map.jpg?maxwidth=1200&maxheight=1200&autorotate=false

Photographing:

Along the trails to the platforms and from the platforms you can photograph bears around the clock if you so desire. Pay attention as sometimes rangers will ask you to stay to the side of the trail and give bears the right of way. The adolescent bears play often plus get chased off a larger males territory so be alert. It’s not uncommon to have them come running and lumbering into to your pathway. I’ve even had subadults use me for cover while avoiding a dominant male. Talk about your “Eddie Haskell” complex. I’m not kidding. The 500 pound subadult ran 50 yards from a large male. Stopped and stood 3 feet away from me while the grumpy old male lumbered on his way.

You can also rent fishing waders and make way along the bear trails through the marshes and along/in the river. This is how to beat the crowds, say hello to fisher women and men and get eye level bear shots. Get comfortable with bear biology and behavior, use common sense and go enjoy the landscape.

The falls platform is monitored for crowds so during the day there is a waiting list. The busiest time is between 10 am and 5 pm when the day flight tours are peaking. Eat an early breakfeast and have the platform to yourself at 7 am.

Lenses: I recommend a 16-35mm for bear scapes and alpen glow landscapes. Along the trail intentional or unintentional bears will be close enough for a 16 -35mm. This is a unique perspective for bear portraits. 70-200mm works good from the falls and riffles platform. A 100-400mm works good from all platforms and along the trails, river and in the marshes. For the once in a life time bear portrait a 500 or 600mm will work but remember these focal lengths can be tricky at the falls platform. Space can get tight and you may be limited with too much focal length. I carry two cameras/lenses on a harness. 95% of the time I have a 70-200mm 2.8 ii on a 5d4 and a 100-400 mm ii on either a 7dii or 1dx ii. I will switch out the 100-400 with a 600mm. When the sky is pink and purple I will try the 16-35mm and 70-200mm on two different bodies. The chance for photographing a bear or bears with mountain backdrops, water and interesting atmosphere is so good that this year I am bringing a medium format Fuji Gfx 50s specifically for bear scapes.

If I could only take two lenses I would take the 70-200mm and a 100-400mm. The zoom beats a fixed lens in this enviroment. You need flexibility with focal length because you will be constrained by the rangers/safety, to the platform or limited in space by the bears themselves.

Gear:

1. Take a sleeping pad. The ground is cold year around in Alaska

2. The usual: sleeping bag, bear cannister, light tent or bivy.

3. Insect repellent, head net, personals etc.

4. Layers: Wool, short & long sleeve shirts, shorts (insect repellent a must), rain jacket or good rain poncho, wool socks & hat…fleece if wool doesn’t suit you. Dry socks and hiking shoes/boots.

5. A floopy hat works good with the rain and the sun plus the flexible brim is easier to photograph with. Get a good one and you can use it to fetch H2O.

6. A good water bottle/filter. You can get tap water at Brooks Camp. Tip the bar tender for ice and fill up with meals.

7. Food storage is and must be strict. I take a small cannister of jerky, cheese and trail mix for snacks and eat the bulk of my food in Brooks Camp. It is really good food and worth every penny. Eating once or twice a day in camp will save time and your back.

8. Always pack a small survival pouch just in case things go south. Include a multi tool knife, protein bars, fishing tackle, whistle, fire starter and a compass that you know how to use.

If you are primarily photographing bears there is no need for technical hiking boots. Get a pair of fast drying trail shoes and wool hiking socks. You may buy a shower token in camp and there are also bathroom facilities.

Bear Behavior:

I am a biologist and I have photographed bears for around 20 years now. What does this mean? It means that I could get ate by a bear tomorrow the same as anyone else. When tromping through bear country there are a few bear basics that you should commit to your “second and first nature”.

1. Let bears know that you are around but you don’t have to be a babbling idiot about it. I have repeatedly seen rangers make too much noise around bears. To the point where you can see a previously content bear become irritated with the noise and hand waving. The important thing here is that you do not want to make a habit out of suprising bears. Stay alert and do not day dream in bear country. Hum or sing quietly, whistle occasionally. Pay attention to blind corners or bends in the trail. Blind spots like dead fall, boulders and willow/alder flats. Mother’s with cubs, a kill site, a mating pair etc. are situations were the bear must know were you are.

2. When photographing bears let them come to you. Do not walk in direct lines with or at bears. This can be threatening to them. Do not follow them. Following in wildlife genetics usually means “Stalking”. Walk in archs around bears and let them have the right of way. They must feel that they have their personal space. They are not only paying attention to your movements but also making sure that they are not treading on a dominant bears space. Large boars can injure and kill smaller bears at the drop of a hat. Yes, I have seen this in person. There was absolutely no negotiation or warning.

3. For a quick study of bears you only have to go to your city park and dog watch. While bears and canines are different animials they share many behavioral traits. I am not saying that you will be bear proof by dog watching but it will begin to open doors to understanding bear behavior.

PAY ATTENTION to the EARS. In general if a dog looks playful i.e. perky ears, bright eyes and bouncing around they are content and happy. Same look for the bear. When the ears tuck and the browl scowls the dog and bear are no longer content. When a bear or dog stands on their hind legs this not a threatening posture. They are curious and try to get a better view and smell. If you see a bear doing this try and let them know what and where you are. Both species use their nose the most but bears can see just as well a you and hear even better than you. So when a dog looks mean: hair standing on neck/shoulders, ears tucked, teeth showing etc. it is irritated. Same with the bear. If this is the bear in front of you speak calmly and work slowly to diffuse the situation. No sudden moves or loud noise. Use your bear deterrents (spray, bangers, flares etc.) if the bear charges or stalks to close. Yes, after this has failed playing dead after contact works more often than fleeing, fighting or climbing a tree. You probably cannot climb a tree faster than a bear can cover 30-40 yards. They only appear lumbersome and slow. They can flat move when properly motivated.

4. The best option in bear country is to keep your wits about you and stay out of close bear encounters. Your best tool in bear country is your brain. STAY AWARE of your surroundings and the moods of the surrounding bears. At Brooks Camp they are worried about salmon and staying out of the way of dominant bears. Stay alert and give them the right of way and you should be good to go.

5. If you are in a situation where a bear is slowly following you for a mile or two and his demeanor is secretive with his ears down or tucked. Use caution here. This bear may be stalking you. At Brooks Camp it is probably just following you to the platforms. Bears, when it is safe to do so take the path of least resistance. The trails at the park are nice paths of least resistance and the bears use them. Still, be mindful of bears; black, brown or polar that follow you and have that stalking/prowling posture and tucked ears. Some bears turn predatory on humans and this is what they look like. Walk to safety or stand your ground. Do not play dead with a predatory bear. That just makes getting dinner easy for them. Go out swinging with a predatory bear. This paragraph has been more about bears in general than the bears at Brooks but just the same it is important to study and learn what predatory bear behavior looks like.

6. Bear references are endless but here are a few to get you started. A study of these will help keep you safe but they will also get you better photographs.

>Stephen Herrero, “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance (great for bear behavior and hiking in bear country)

>Doug Peakcock, “Grizzly Years” (searching the human soul with bears as a catharsis)

>Gary Brown: “The Bear Almanac” (a great all around bear book)

>Thomas McNamee: “The Grizzly Bear”

>Benjamin Kilham: “Among the Bears”

>>anything by the Craigheads, Murie etc.

In addition to reading, watch nature videos and get an idea of different bear behaviors. They are not prejudice creatures. This means that when they aggressively confront a competing bear or wolf this is the same body posture and behavior that is exhibited when they are angry with you. Likewise, when they are happy go lucky and sliding down a snow bank and exhibit this behavior in your presence you are good to go.

Wild Turkey

Photographing a wonderfully intelligent and graceful bird when you can find them is a real treat. Benjamin Franklin advocated for the Eastern Wild Turkey to be our National bird. Noting the turkey’s craftiness and intelligence he lamented the Bald Eagle’s penchant for scavenging. Turkeys are very entertaining birds to observe and photograph. Finding them has become easier over the last decade do to extensive reintroduction programs by various organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department.

Tom & several hens in late winter/early spring. Deep snow and at 8,200 feet of elevation. Southwestern, Colorado. Canon 5d4 & 70-200mm ii.

Turkeys can be found in a myriad of habitats but seem to favor a patchy habitat of open grass/forbes dotted with dense brush and eventually stands of nice trees. They use the grass/forbes for foraging plant material, seeds and insects. Shrubs can provide berries, nuts etc. but are also prized for their cover. Turkey hens use dense shrubs for nesting cover. Turkeys also use shrubs for escape cover, shade and resting. Turkeys enjoy taller trees for roosting and shade. So, their habitat is a mosaic of vegetational patches or levels. These vegetational zones are by or close to water. The prime habitat for turkeys is riparian habitat. Think of a creek or river bottom. Lots of riparian trees and shrubs interpersed with reeds, cattails, forbes and grasses.

State parks, wildlife refuges and National Parks are good places to find turkeys. They habituate well to human presence. Sometimes becoming too tame for their own good. This trait also make farms and ranches with adjoining public land good places to look for wild turkeys. Before going out look at distribution maps and speak with local park officials or look at birding club postings etc. Start with riparian habitat in early morning and late evening. In spring they are harder to find because the hens nest and are under cover most of the day. Males disperse during nesting season so the turkey population seems even more sparse. With late spring and early summer comes the new chicks and soon turkeys appear in large flocks. If you are in the right area you will see flocks of 6 to 12 and up to 40 individuals.

Photographing:

Photographing wild turkeys can run the entire gamut of equipment, including a blind. Or it can be as simple as pulling off the highway and getting beautiful turkey shots with mountains for a backdrop. Like most wildlife subjects you must do your species and habitat study and then time their movements with the seasons.

I bring my normal complement of wildlife lenses. 16-35mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm and a 600mm. If I could only bring two lenses to a “turkey shoot” they would be the 70-200mm and the 600mm. If I could only bring one of my camera bodies it would be the 5d4 over the 7dii and 1dxii. Yes, the latter two are faster “wildlife” cameras but turkeys when in their natural elements and content are slow moving, methodical birds. There is no need for 10 fps and AI servo etc. When photographing turkeys I am in Portrait or turkey scape mode as opposed to wildlife action mode. The 5d4 in this case has more megapixels, dynamic range etc. than the 1dxii & 7d2. So I put the 70-200mm or 100-400mm on the 5D4 and the 600mm on the 7d2 or 1dx2.

A 16-35mm will work at times with a large flock and colorful surroundings. Turkeys are active year around so they will be found in flowers, fall foliage and snow. A turkey scape in fall foilage is a strong image in North America. With the strong association of Thanksgiving, turkeys, fall foliage and the changing seasons.

Turkeys need a sit and wait approach to photograph them. The less movement from you and your equipment the more content the turkeys. If they are familiar with humans a few steps in arcs may be tolerated. Truly wild turkeys require stealth or a blind.

When males are actively displaying (fall and spring) they become less timid. These are the best times to get closer shots of turkeys. When males are dispalying the entire flock tends to let their guard down. During these times you can pick and choose your spots to photograph.

Birds In Flight

Birds in flight (BIF) make interesting and beautiful images. Capturing them can be difficult but made easier with the right equipment and camera settings. It is an interplay between available light, ISO, F/Stop and Shutter Speed. One should also be investing in a good telephoto lens that has great autofocus. Invest your money in the lens before breaking the bank on a camera. A great lens can serve you for decades. Cameras, even the best ones come and go every 3-5 years. I shoot BIF with a Canon 7d2 and 1Dxii coupled with L telephoto lenses. Partly because that is what I am invested in but mostly because although Canon is lagging with dynamic range and a few bell and whistles for me it is the best complete system for wildlife on the move. Your best start is to learn and shoot with the system that you have and go from there.

Bay hawk Canon 7d2, 70-200mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO 400

Let’s discuss the important physical parameters involved in getting good BIF shots.

Available light. The more light the better because with more light you can increase your depth of field and have a much faster shutter speed. A fast shutter speed is the most critical aspect of getting a sharp image with BIF. However, the harsh light at “High Noon” is not always conducive to a pleasing photograph even if it is a sharp one. If harsh light is the only light that you have, you still have a couple of options. With the best one being waiting until you have better light. The second one is to use a polarizing filter. I like Moose Petersen’s circular polarizer with an A-1 Warmer incorporated into polarizer. You loose some light with a filter but it is a good trade off with harsh light. To be honest a lot of bird in flight shots must be taken outside of the “golden light” times. One should also consider shooting for a bit of blur in the shot if light conditions are falling off. If done right it can give a the image a sense of motion. If done incorrectly it can just appear like an out of focus shot. Artistically either a very sharp BIF or one that shows motion will work. It depends on what you want as a photographer.

ISO: ISO is a cameras measure of light sensitivity of the camera sensor. Increasing the ISO will allow the camera to “gather” more light but it comes with the cost of introducing noise into the image. Prudent application of the concepts discussed here and your images will look great. Even at poster size prints. I normally keep my ISO between 400 and 600. Only going to 600 or a tad higher when it is the last option. If your end goal of the photo is small prints and social media increasing the ISO and associated noise increase is a workable situation.

Shutter Speed: This setting is the holy grail for BIF. I try and get the right available light, ISO and F/Stop that allows a shutter speed of over 1/2000. Ideally, 1/4000 – 1/6000 works superbly. Sometimes this depends of your subject. Freezing a hummingbird etc. works well at 1/4000 of higher but can be done with 1/3200 or even 1/2000 with informed persistence. A soaring hawk or eagle works at 1/2000 or even 1/1000 if you catch a meandering one.

F/Stop: More light? Higher f/stop number. f/2.8 allows more light to hit the sensor than f/6.3 but be mindful of your depth of field (DOF). Lower f-numbers give a shallow DOF and higher ones give more DOF. Birds in flight have several areas of focus that are important for a good shot. Things like eyes, beaks, talons, wing tips and tails. These are spaced far enough apart that depending on the bird can require an f/stop of 3.5 to 8.0 or so. Sometimes you may have to sacrifice a little DOF in order to freeze the bird with a high shutter speed.

Great isn’t it? This interplay between f/stop, ss & ISO is one of the many things that make photography interesting and an art form. These 3 parameters are what allow you to go from taking good photographs to creating art with your camera.

Study the posted images here and look at the interplay between these parameters. An important thing to do before stepping into the field is to adjust the settings for the “ball park” so that when that golden eagle streaks in front of you are not fumbling with camera buttons and dials.

I typically set my camera to these settings before leaving the cave:

Auto Focus Drive: AI Servo & High Speed

Focus Point: Single point and centered

ISO: I start at 400 and cross my fingers that I do not have to increase it.

F/Stop: f/6.3 or 7.1. If I need more light I will go to 5.6 or even 3.5 with the 70-200mm.

Shutter Speed: 1/3200 or 1/4000 if the light is on my side. If it’s one of the great days 1/5000 or 1/6000 is the setting.

Most modern cameras will have autofocus presets in the menu. I have found that for the most part with Canon that the factory setting works just find. Especially if I can get the shutter speed up.

Birds in flight and tripods? Soaring flocks of geese or a floating eagle lend themselves to tripod work. Quick song birds or raptors on the move lend themselves to hand held work. Let’s take a look at how I would shoot hummingbirds.

If I have a nice flower patch with multiple hummers and increased shot opportunities I will shoot from a tripod. If opportunities are limited and I will be moving often I will shoot them hand held. When using a tripod I will set my equipment up in front of one stellar flower with a nice fore and background. I will try and incorporate rocks, logs etc. that complement the subject. I will prefocus on a flower and patiently wait for the hummers to make their rounds. Chasing them with moving lens makes them skittish so I tend to just lay back and count daisies.

Calliope Norwood, Colorado Canon 7d2, 100-400mm ii, f/7.1, 1/4000, ISO 500

Magpie, Norwood Colorado, Canon 7d2, 70-200mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO 600

In order to get closer to birds and wildlife in general read my blog post, “Sit Spot”. It has good ideas to help with this. I will post more BIF photos with camera settings so that your brain will start to put the numbers with the different scenes.

“Sit Spot”

Indigenous people for eons have used the concept of a sit spot for better hunting, ceremonies and to just plain collect their thoughts. It is a fairly straight forward idea that can be applied to photographing wildlife or even street photography. In this blog I will go over the idea of a sit spot and how to apply it to local surroundings and to a lesser extent when on distant locations. There are no set rules with a sit spot but you will find that with consistent and intelligent application your opportunities to photograph elusive and common wildlife will increase greatly. You will not have to get closer to your subjects. They will come closer to you!

Hunter-gatherer societies both past and present use a variety of skills and coordinated efforts to put food on the table. One these skills involves a “sit spot” or a place to simply go and spend time at in frequent intervals. Sitting quietly in the same place that has good food, cover and water for wildlife will habituate most wildlife to human presence. Animals that aren’t threatened and feel comfortable with going about their daily business will not mind you and your camera quietly observing and capturing images. You will also find just as the ancients did that this repeated exercise, prize or no prize, is a quietly active form of meditation. Who knows, maybe the calmer brainwaves put the wildlife at ease.

“Landing” Chickadees are the first to closely greet you at your sit spot. When the birds have accepted your presence others are soon to follow. (Canon 7d2, 100-400mm ii)

Look no further than National Parks to see a grander scale of this idea working. Wildlife have learned that they are protected in the parks and hence, the chance of photographing a bear in Yellowstone NP is much higher than photographing one in the National Forest where they are hunted for sport etc. In the parks they have accepted human presence and for the most part go about being themselves. The same thing can happen if you choose your sit spot wisely and go there often.

The following are the finer points of using a sit spot to increase your chances of photographing wildlife:

  1. Pick an area that has good food, cover and water for wildlife. Sometimes this can be in your backyard, city park, public land etc. These resources do not have to be on top of each other. Just in the general area or so that you are in an area were wildlife are coming and going to these resources. Just make sure that it is a spot that you are willing to go too frequently. Which brings us to number 2.
  2. Frequency: The more quiet time that you can spend at your sit spot the greater chance of wildlife accepting your presence. They have to have time to accept your presence into their daily rhythms. If you are an infrequent and cumbersome visitor you will be alone on most outings. This is why your sit spot location will work better if it is local. You have to be there often for this concept to work.
  3. Pick an area that is safe from human threats and comfortable etc. and one that is relatively quiet. Don’t worry that your backyard or local park is too small. It is just as easy to spot a bobcat or coyote in town as it is in a National Park. I have a relative that lives in the suburbs of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex and he records bobcats weekly with his security door cams. Sometimes 2 or 3 at a time. He even had a bald eagle dive for a rabbit in the common area of the neighborhood.
  4. Wildlife periods of activity vary but your best bets are early morning and evenings. These time periods also can offer better light and side lighted subjects. Being at your sit spot at the same times will also let the “locals” know when to expect you. But don’t let schedule conflicts keep you from going out. The most important thing is to simply be “there” frequently.
  5. If this technique fails for all other subjects it will not fail for birds. Birds will eventually land on you. (hard to photograph while they are on the brim of your hat)
  6. Beginner’s sit spot: a bird feeder, bird bath or garden pond and a comfortable chair. This is a great way to practice with birds in flight, nature portraits (a future blog) and familiarize yourself with your equipment.
  7. Must have: Patience
Cinna color phase of black bear. Walking through native wildflowers (hand sowed) on way to small pond. (Canon 7d2, 100-400mm ii)

You can also apply this concept on vacation or chosen photo destinations. The same principals apply. The main thing that changes of course is the time scale. Do your research on your chosen subject(s) and when you arrive go to those locations and sit often. People are amazed at what they see without ever expecting to see it at their sit spot. If you practice these concepts long enough in the same area you will eventually start to see wildlife while doing your own daily activities. My “backyard” is a tad bigger than most but being immersed in it has led to bear, coyote, raptor, hummingbird photos etc. galore. The included photos have all come from applying the sit spot idea to my backyard. Cheers…..

Sometimes wildlife is not the prize. Solitude and a gorgeous sunset ruled the day!