Of all the bedtime stories I’ve read to my kids where cute little bears play the main roles, nothing prepared me for the up-close and personal views of the Alaskan brown bear.
Katmai National Park is located at the head of the Alaska Peninsula approximately 290 air miles southwest of Anchorage, encompassing over 4 million acres of land and water. The park is famous for its brown bears and fish populations. Bristol Bay streams, including the Naknek River, are the source of some of the world’s largest salmon runs and have been for approximately the last 4000 years.
As a result, the brown bear of the Alaska Peninsula are big, really big. That size is a direct result of the abundance of spawning salmon, a nutritious and plentiful food source that contributes to rapid growth for feeding bears. The salmon make the bears what they are; without the profuse run of salmon, the bears would not come together in such high concentrations or attain such massive size.
Fishing in Katmai is defined by anglers as “combat fishing.” In peak bear viewing times, July to September, anglers spend much more time out of the water than in. The park has a rule, to stay a minimum of 50 yards away from a male bear and 100 yards from a sow with cubs. Of course, it can be challenging to fish in the Oxbow River and predict when a bear might play peek-a-boo as it emerges from the tall grasses that border each side of the river. It is good scary fun.
From my safe vantage point I was happy to see these 2 anglers taking turns to fish. It’s important to always have someone “spot” bears for you. Often anglers become so involved in fishing that they forget to watch for bears.
Even though the bears have become habituated with humans and there is such an abundance of salmon for the bears to feed on, it’s wise to keep your spider senses on full alert. Bears approach anglers because they have learned to recognize them as a source of food. Especially the splashing of a fish on line will often catch the attention of a bear. To fish here you have to know how to break your line quickly and move out of the water until the bear passes.
Carrying a camera instead of a fly pole, I was walking down a path from the beach to the Brooks Falls, when a curious juvenile male unexpectedly reared up in the tall grass just 12 yards ahead. This guy looked more like a dirigible in a fur coat and far less cuddly than anything I’ve seen at ‘Build a Bear’. I instinctively pointed the lens in his general direction, squeezed off a few frames, before bidding a methodical and slow retreat. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I remember hearing him doing the math: one 150-pound photographer equals 25 sockeye salmon averaging six pounds apiece. Hmmmm.
In a place where you are no longer on the top of the food chain, a little fear of these fabulous bears is a good idea. But you can’t let it from keeping you home. I hope someday to return to Katmai to wander carefully among these fabulous bears. They really are what make Katmai so very special.