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Witness the annual mecca of brown bears at Brooks Falls

Brooks Falls on Katmai island, Alaska has been long considered the best place to photograph brown bears in the world. One of the most famous wildlife photographs in the world, "catch of the day" by Thomas Mangelsen in 1988, became the iconic image of Brooks Falls. Over the years, countless photographers have attempted to emulate his classic photograph.

I have been longing to visit Brooks Falls for several years until I finally booked the trip for the summer of 2020 in spring 2019 originally. Unfortunately due to Covid-19 pandemic, it was postponed to this August. We were not sure about the brown bear activity in August, since July is considered as the most active time in general. For some reason, the brown bears came late to the falls this year. We were fortunate to witness this annual brown bear mega reunion. Normally they are solitary creatures within their own territory. The salmon migration attracts them to Brooks Falls each early summer, mostly, for the month of July.

A brown bear opens jaws and waits for the spawning sockeye salmon flying to her mouth

The journey to Brooks Falls took us more than a day. We flew to Seattle, Washington first, the took a late night flight to Anchorage, Alaska. After seven hours of lay way, we boarded a Beechcraft aircraft operated by Alaska Central Express for about 2 hours, we landed in King Salmon, the closest town near the Katmai island. Then we took a floatplane by Katmai Air for about 30 minutes, arrived at the Brooks camp in Katmai National Park.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a park ranger. She gave us a lesson (bear school) regarding bear safety, this is required for every visitor prior to any activity at Brooks Falls.

Then we went straight to the Brooks Falls after check in the cabin. It is about 1.2 miles from the camp to the falls, by passing bridge over the Brooks river.

Entrance to the bridge.

Bridge over the Brooks river

We saw the sockeye salmon in a huge endless stream passing under the bridge, see the photo below. There is an underwater camera streaming the fish migration live on youtube.

Trail to the falls

The viewing platform and Brooks Falls

There is a limit of maximal 40 viewers on the platforms in the peak season. The park ranger will call the tourists out once one hour viewing time is over. We did not experience any limit during our visit because there were less than 40 visitors each day. We had to wait sometime for the front row position on the platform though.

Paradise or battlefield?

The above photos shows the view of the falls from the viewing platform. Many brown bears position themselves in different positions. The prime estate, best spots for fishing is on the top of the falls. Only the most powerful and high ranking bears have the privilege to stay. The less powerful bears stay below the falls. The rest only can catch fish in the downstream river.

Different bears have acquired different fishing skills. The bears on the top of the falls, they stand there, waiting the fish jumping into their mouth. The bears below the falls in the jakuzzi will raise their heads with open jaws to catch the fish who failed to jump over to the upper water. Some less skilled bears will pounce on the fish when they see the fish passing by; while some bears will snorkel to find fish.

Meet 480 Otis

Otis is the oldest and probably most beloved bear at Brooks Falls. He showed up on July 27, very late for the season. Last year he showed up on June 23. The rangers thought he was dead before he showed up at the falls this year. He is about 25-26 years old, equivalent to human at 90 years old. Otis is a past winner of the park’s annual Fat Bear Week competition. ( Current winner is 747, in last photo. ) He also was featured on the DisneyNature movie. A true star of bears! He is very slow, usually stays at back end of the falls “his office”, half sleeping most of the time. Long live Otis!!!

Life lesson at the falls

The baby bears were learning fishing skills from their mom. One of the baby bears was apparently not a good student. He/she felt bored, went to play with neighbors, and played with tree branches. This bear probably will have more difficult time in the future life compared to his/her sibling. They were very lucky though to stand at the premium spots because of their mother—— born with silver spoons in their mouths! Sounds familiar?

Catching fish is too boring!

I like to play! Me too!

The tree leaf does not taste good at all!

"Little brother, come down to learn how to catch fish!"


Mother:" You didn't listen, no fish for you!"

How to eat Salmon and bears table manner

The brown bears have their own way of eating salmon, (no need for wasabi or soy sauce, just kidding). They usually skin the salmon on both sides, and eat the skins, then eat the brain, then the rest, leaving the fish head and spine bone to the scavengers. Sometimes when their stomach are kind of full, they just eat fish skin and brain, throw away the rest. ( They build up body fat quickly by eating fatty tissue of the fish).

"What ?"

" Not for you!"

"Where to bite?"

Dreaming about more salmon

River walk with the park ranger

After photographing the bears at the falls for a whole afternoon, we decided to do the river walk with park ranger the second morning.

After putting on waiders, we walked with Ethan, the park ranger, to about five hundred yards downstream from the falls. The sky was dark and eerie, misty drizzle. We were quite concerned and worrying about heavy rain, it would not suitable for photography. Ethan assured us, "the weather on Katmai island changes every fifteen minutes. "

View of the falls, mountain and sky from downstream in Brooks River

This was a quite exciting experience. There were a handful fishermen casting their baits in the middle of the river. There were a few brown bears walking along the water's edge towards the falls direction. Suddenly, one of the fisherman waved to us forcefully, we turned around, saw a big bear now in front of us about 40 years away and walking towards us. We had to yield to the bear and stayed way.

Angler casting downstream in the Brook river

A big bear walking towards us

On the way to cafeteria for breakfast

The "bad ass bear" is coming

"Are you guys scared?"

In order to give the bear a direct way to the fall, we walked on the river bank to the ground beneath the Riffle platform, which is about 100 yards downstream from the falls. We had much better angle of view from the ground, other than looking down from the platform.

"Get out of my way!"

Once the bear passed us, we started walking in the river again following the stream. We saw a couple of bears still sleeping on the river bank. It must be a very conformable bed! Do you see the markings on the wall?

Then we saw a mother bear with her two cubs fining in the river.

Mother bear in the rain

The baby bear watching a flock of Merganser ducks passing by.

Bald eagle and bear

Salute to salmon!

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