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:
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.
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.
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.