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Brooks Falls Trail

Katmai National Park, Alaska

     The fog was rising off the surface of Beluga Lake as we stood on a floating dock, arms crossed as a brace against the morning chill. A distant hum broke the silence of the post dawn hour, and in anticipation we scanned the horizon for its source. From out of the clouds appeared the figure of a float plane, smiles crossed our faces for this would be our transportation to Katmai National Park.

     Our flight was booked through Bald Mountain Air, based out of Homer, Alaska. The pilot, Eric, gently landed the plane on the water’s surface and then guided it over to the dock. He welcomed us, and the two other people on the flight, and told us to hang tight while he fueled up the plane for our journey. Before long we were skidding along the lake’s surface, the water splashing over the floats, and then in an instant we were airborne. The transition was so smooth we hardly even noticed the lift-off. Watching the Homer Spit fade in the distance was an exciting and beautiful experience. We were finally on our way to one of the most anticipated hikes of our lives…Brooks Falls.

     Katmai National Park and Preserve is not a place you just decide to visit on the spur of the moment. Getting there can be quite expensive and it takes many months of advanced planning. Almost a year earlier we had procured our coveted spots at Brooks Camp, the park’s summer headquarters. We had attempted to book spots at Brooks Lodge on our own, but it was sold out. We then decided to try using a booking service, our thoughts being that most of the spots are reserved in advance by these companies. Sure enough we found open spots at the Lodge through Go Alaska. Before booking with this company we searched the internet, and checked with the BBB, to make sure that the company was legitimate. Everything checked out fine. We put down our deposit of $600, and marked on the calendar when our final payment would be due. Long story short, we came to discover that this company is defunct. We lost our deposit, but at least we didn’t get duped out of the entire amount which was close to 2K. I am writing about this because I want everyone to know what this company is about, had we went ahead and paid our money we would have been stranded in Anchorage with no airline tickets and no reservations at the lodge, and by then it would have been too late to make other arrangements. Luckily, if you can call it that, we found an article via the internet warning about this practice. We found the article in May so it was early enough that we could, with major scrambling, make alternative plans. Of course, Brooks Lodge was out of the question, as spots fill up quite early, so Plan B was to stay in the campground. We, by the grace of God, were able to reserve a spot, but the flights were a different story. All flights out of Anchorage were booked! Our hearts sank with the news, and we thought all hope was lost. But we pulled ourselves together and found the great people at Bald Mountain Air.

     Thoughts of a hard lesson learned soon faded away, just like the shoreline of Homer, as our plane rose higher into the sky. As we flew out over Cook Inlet and gazed down into the shimmering water, our pilot spotted a group of Humpback whales. He banked the plane and circled an area where about six of them were feeding. We could see the spray from their blowholes, and we even watched as one breached and then splashed back down into the water. The whole flight was wonderfully scenic; lush green islands dotted the inlet, and as we flew over the peninsula you could even see moose grazing by sparkling lakes. With all the great Alaskan scenery the 2 hour flight went by pretty quickly and we were soon landing on Naknek Lake.

     Katmai National Park is best known for Brooks Falls, where thousands of salmon, much to the delight of bears and photographers, try their luck at jumping the falls in a predestined journey to spawn at the place of their birth. Their upstream struggle is made all the more difficult by the hungry bears that have developed quite a skill for fishing. Perched on the brink of the falls, and in the whitewater below the falls, the grizzly bears wait in anticipation of the coming feast. Watching the bears hone their different fishing techniques is fascinating, and one of the most remarkable events I have ever witnessed. But before you can hike to the falls you have to be briefed on bear etiquette. When the floatplane touches down on Naknek Lake your first instructions are that none of your luggage can touch the beach. You must immediately take your luggage to the gear cache and then head into the NPS Visitor Center, where you watch a bear-orientation video with instruction on how to handle a confrontation with a bear, and more importantly how to avoid one. Katmai has the world’s largest population of protected brown bears; more than 2000 live within the park’s borders. So the odds are quite high that you might run into a grizzly as you are walking along the trails, just pray that you don’t come between a mama bear and her cubs.

     After passing our bear training we were awarded with Brooks Camp pins and sent off to scout out a sight for our tent. The campground is surrounded by an electric fence and all food and scented items must be stored in the food cache. Camping in a park where bears have the right of way is a pretty intimidating undertaking, but if you follow the rules of etiquette peaceful coexistence is easily attained. When I say bears have the right of way, I mean that literally. If a bear decides to take a stroll down the beach, or take a nap on the trail, no visitors can come within 50 yards, 100 yards if it is a mother with cubs. This often creates what is known as a “bear-jam”, and much to the chagrin of day-trippers these jams have been known to last for hours, ironically eating into the time they have to view the bears. That is why it is a good idea, monetarily and chronologically, to spend more than a day at Katmai.

     We set up our tent with no problems, and encountered no bears along the trail to camp, now it was time to head for the falls. The hike back to Brooks Falls passes through a dense forest with a lush carpet of mosses and other spongy ground cover. I know it is spongy because we had to take a detour off the trail, onto the thick plants, in order to give way to a sleeping bear. The first section of the hike begins at the lodge where it then heads back along a road that skirts the shores of Naknek Lake. A floating bridge spans the river, and often plays host to many a curious bear. After crossing the bridge you come to the first observation deck, these viewing platforms, three in total, are a secure way of watching the bears. The first deck is a great spot for watching the bears swimming in the river, often right under the bridge, and playing along the shores of the lake. Continuing on down the road you head a half-mile into the forest where you will see a composting toilet on the left, and signs marking the intersection with the Brooks Falls Trail on the right. Stepping onto the Brooks Falls Trail is like stepping into a goblin forest. And hiking the half-mile trail through the dense forest, with its myriad hiding places, is one intimidating experience. This is definitely not a place to quietly take in the beauty of the scenery; it is however, a place for practicing your ability to project your voice and to applaud. Clapping and reciting the grizzly mantra, “Hey Bear--Nothing to eat here, bear”, soon becomes second nature. We must have hiked this 2 mile roundtrip circuit at least five times, and each time you make the trip one thought is always in the back of your mind—“While I am here I am not the top of the food chain.”

     Along the half-mile trail you will find the two other observation decks. The observation decks are accessed via a series of locked gates, these serve to keep the bears from coming up behind you on the platform. Once inside the gate, you walk along an elevated platform where it is forbidden to stop until you reach the observation decks. Often bears are right under and around the boardwalk, and it is hard to not stop and observe them, but the rangers feel this practice interferes with the bear’s normal behavior. In the center of the system of walkways is a covered shelter area where you can wait or rest. While resting at the sheltered area we were able to watch a mother bear suckle her cubs just a few feet from where we were sitting. From this area you can access both observation decks. The first deck you reach is called “The Riffles”, this is a great spot for watching the bears boulder hop across the river or sit on top of the rocks, and it is usually where younger bears hang out in order to escape the wrath of aggressive males at the falls. The final deck is prime real estate, located on the brink of Brooks Falls it affords incredible views, and there can often be a waiting list. A ranger takes count of people at the platform, 40 at a time can visit, and if more than 40 are waiting for a turn the ranger will place a one hour limit on viewing. When we first arrived at the final platform there were 19 grizzlies at the falls, including a mother bear and her three cubs. We couldn’t believe our eyes! It was an amazing sight.

     That night, before heading back to our tents, we stopped in the lodge for some refreshments. You can stay in the lodge until 11pm, drinking and telling stories around the center fireplace. We took full advantage of this cozy atmosphere every night, and during the day the meals served by the lodge are not to be missed. The lodge is a super gathering place, a place to make new friends and share adventures. We met several wonderful people including John Erickson, a professional photographer who graciously let us use his 600mm f4 lens! Now that is what I call generosity. We even got to meet Bonnie Franklin, the star of “One Day at a Time”. She was even kind enough to pose for a picture. Other intriguing conversations were enjoyed while talking with Frank, a ranger/photographer, and Brad, who is a docent at Ano Nuevo State Reserve in California where he guides tours out to see the elephant seals. With such warm people and warm ambience it is hard to tear yourself away and head to a cold tent.

     Our next day was spent entirely at the falls, broken only by trips back to the lodge for meals. The wildlife we saw that day was unparalleled by anything else we have ever seen. Bears crowded the falls for prime fishing spots, some catching them in mid-air from the top of the falls, while others sat in the plunge pool below the falls, pinning the fish beneath their massive paws so that they could dive into the white water to retrieve them. One fascinating thing that we learned while watching the bears eat the fish, is that they don’t eat much of the red meat. The reason for this is to focus expending energy on the high fat/high calorie parts of the fish like the brain, eggs, and skin. It is captivating to watch the bears bite off the head, and then strip the skin from the fish, all within minutes of the catch. The rest is then discarded, but not wasted. Seagulls and younger bears make good use of the leftovers. In fact, another predator in the food chain was also making good use of the discarded fish. Just when we thought the setting couldn’t get any better a gray wolf emerged from the woods to join in the fishing expedition. The face-off between bear and wolf was something straight out of National Geographic. The wolf would vie for scraps by sneaking up behind a fishing bear, and then as soon as the bear would turn around the wolf would run for the hills. Despite the wolf’s erratic behavior he managed to catch a few fish for himself, proving he didn’t need handouts from the grizzly. Even Bald Eagles were flying over the river with a fresh catch in their talons, in fact everywhere you looked there was wildlife.

     After a full day of bear viewing Pick, Dar, and myself decided to head back to the lodge for the last time that evening. It was about 6pm when we began hiking back through the lush woodland, the light was beaming down through the trees bathing everything in a golden shower that made the emerald green forest practically glow. As we walked we sang, and dutifully recited our mantra, “Hey Bear--Bony Humans coming through, make way”, and then Pick noticed movement up ahead, just off to the side of the trail. A bear was standing just to the left of the trail, near where it made an S-curve. We all stopped dead in our tracks. We discussed what we should do, and tried desperately to remember our bear training. Dar was clapping and yelling “Hey Bear”, and we thought we had things under control, and then another bear appeared. Okay, now there were two bears frolicking in the woods about 100 yards from us, fine, just don’t panic! All three of us were shouting in hopes that the bears would see that, you know, dominate humans were headed in their direction and they just better look out! They appeared to be younger bears, about 4 feet tall from the tip of their shoulders to the ground, and I just kept wondering how long they stayed with mama, and if they still had a mama where was she?! While Dar was clapping, and Pick was yelling, and I was wondering, out came bear number three! Oh God, we’re doomed. No sooner then that thought passed through my consciousness did the bears start running. Yes running, no not away from us! They were running right down the middle of the trail straight towards us! Right, so play dead, no wait! Umm, stand your ground, assume the fetal position…Hell, I couldn’t remember what to do. Did they even cover being attacked by three unruly bears, which quite obviously were part of some sort of rogue gang! So, I did the one thing you ARE NOT supposed to do…I started to run, I wanted to get back to where Pick and Dar were standing, you know, safety in numbers. I only got in 1 step before Pick snapped me back into reality by yelling “Don’t Run!!” That was enough to jar my brain into action. I grabbed my camera, stood my ground, and yelled at the top of my lungs. I watched the bears veer off the trail, about ten feet from us, and run right past us. I was even able to snap a picture of the bears running past Pick. When the whole thing was over, I wasn’t as shaken as I expected I’d be, but I was still worried that mama was just around the corner, but other than that I was pretty calm. Pick seemed to be in control as well, but Dar was pretty shaken. In fact, she clapped so hard that she later ended up with bruises on her palms, and the whole way back to the lodge she vowed to never step foot on the trail again. Of course, she finally came to her senses and returned to her courageous self. It was definitely an exciting experience, and we are all thankful that it turned out like it did. We would have been in serious trouble if those bears would have had other intentions. Later that evening we came to learn that our harassers were sub-adult bears, meaning that they are in their first summer away from mom, and like any other mammal out from under the watchful eye of mom they tend to be a bit ornery. So basically, we were being tormented by some rowdy teenagers. Well, it is certainly an experience we will never forget!

     In fact, our entire experience at Katmai was unforgettable. A lifetime of memories were created in just 3 days with the brown bears. On our last day we were scheduled to fly back to Homer at 10am, so we made one last early morning trip back to Brooks Falls. Just a few bears were out fishing on that rainy day, but to watch just one bear in such close proximity is an experience unequaled by anything else. It was hard to leave the platform for the last time, but we knew someday we would hopefully return. A family of Mergansers were swimming in the river below us as we packed up our camera gear one last time. The hike back to the beach was damp, but our spirits were not dampened. We were looking forward to the flight-seeing tour aboard the float plane, and we were already looking back at Katmai with no regrets.

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