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Waiting for the Salmon - Brooks Falls, Alaska

7/11/2023


Earlier this month, we made a return trip to Alaska. It was a make-up trip of sorts. Back in 2021, we were supposed to visit Brooks Falls as part of our trip to see the Denali and Seward areas. Unfortunately, that portion of the trip was cancelled due to bad weather. Our flight from Anchorage could not make it out to Katmai NP. Fast-forward a couple of years, and we actually managed to win the lottery to stay at the lodge at Brooks Falls for three nights.


Brooks Falls is located in Katmai NP. This is THE place for the iconic shot of migrating salmon leaping up the falls and into the hungry maws of waiting brown bears. We had most of an afternoon, three nights, and most of the following day here. Each day brought something a little new, but we probably did not need this much time here. When researching this trip, it was kind of hard to figure out what to plan for and what might be the best lens to take. There is a bit of conflicting information on the internet - go figure. So, here is what my experience was like. Hopefully, it will help someone else plan their trip.


First up, camera lens. I saw everything from your longest lens with an extender down to 50mm suggested online for this trip. I took a 200-400 mm with a built-in 1.4x extender attached to a Canon R5 (which has a 50 megapixel sensor). This was overkill and overly heavy to carry/hold for this trip. You are hiking a little over a mile one way, standing for hours on end, and then hiking back. A 100-400 mm on this body would have been perfect. Shooting at 560mm (400 x 1.4) meant I could stand on the platform and shoot bears down at the riffles. This really is not your standard use case here. Conversely, a bear standing at the near edge of the falls meant the 200mm was a bit too much lens. 100mm would have been great here. Having the zoom helped a lot. I just did not really need the extender. Also, take rain gear for you and your camera. Next up, time of day. You really want to be there in the afternoon; meaning after 6:00 PM. On a sunny day, the sun will be at your back and providing the best light you can get. It is still a bit off-angle, but at least your subject is not backlit. Mornings before the sun clears the trees is second-best. Once the sun is above the trees, you really need cloud cover to keep shooting. "Daytrippers" (people coming in for the day), do not start to arrive at the platform until between 9:30 and 10:00 in the morning. Getting up, skipping breakfast, and hitting the platform at 7:00 (when it opens) will get you a couple hours of shooting before you have to start putting your name in and cycling in and out of the crowd. Conversely, getting dinner right at 5:30 PM and rushing through your meal can get you down the to platforms after the daytrippers have left. It can still be a bit crowded, but most are people who have not ate yet; so, they will head out for dinner and leave you a few prime hours of shooting with the sun at its best angle. If you are staying at the lodge (and I recommend trying to stay at least one night), you really do not need to be at the platform in the middle of the day. Rest up, backup photos, and enjoy lunch. Finally, there are the bugs. There are more mosquitoes here than anywhere else I have ever been. Walking without repellent is like walking into a wall of bugs. Most likely, and I never thought I would say this, you will want a headnet. Even with repellent, there are times when you are constantly batting bugs away from your face. We fared fine without one, but honestly looked into buying one at the store. They were out.


What makes this place special is the salmon. Sockeye salmon are returning to their spawning grounds. As part of this journey, they have to make the leap up Brooks Falls. Listening to the people around me, I could hear talk of there being 20 - 40 bears at a time at the falls, in the past. At our peak, we had six. Why so low? No salmon. Leading up to our time here, we were following the action at the falls on the Brooks Falls Bear Cam. There was no bears. Peak activity is supposed to be around mid-July. The word is that it was a very late winter in this area of Alaska, and the salmon had not returned yet. The cams were showing no bears up until about four days before we started our trip. Then one bear showed. The next day, there were two bears. They would mill around for a bit and then disappear for the day. I stopped watching. I just did not want to look. This trip was going to be what it was going to be and no amount of hopeful gazing at a webcam feed was going to change that. Happily, things turned out to be pretty good. Was it the masses of bears we heard about with constant shots of fish leaping the falls? No. Was it still an amazing experience? Yes. I would have loved a chance at the iconic shot, but there just was not an opportunity. I also would have loved to not shoot from the platforms. You are just too high up, and you have to shoot down on the bears. Obviously, there is a reason you are restricted to the platforms. You can get a river pass that allows you to shoot from the river away from the falls. I would rather have a guide with bear spray if I was going to attempt that, though.


One last thing to address before I jump into things. The bears here are legendary. They come here year after year. People follow them and know them by name and number. Bears are assigned a number by the parks service on their second year. Names are a bit of a mystery on how they are assigned. Otis is one of the oldest and most beloved bears. Unfortunately, he had not returned during our time there, but he has returned as of this writing. Others have names like Grazer (a highly successful female), Bear Force One (named for his number, 747, and size), Bean, Backpack, and an array of others. Some just have numbers. 856 (which Carmen called "Hoss") was a behemoth bear that dominated the falls while we were there. Each year, people follow the bears, post about them, and adore them from near and afar. At the end of the season, the parks site allows people to vote for their favorite fat bear during "Fat Bear Week". The amount of weight the bears put on here is immense. The salmon run here is critical to their survival. It is amazing to see how some webcams and the dedication of the parks service has really brought people together and allowed them to participate in this true spectacle of nature. I hope the issues with the salmon run this year are more of a fluke of the weather and not telling of a longer term issues. It is truly amazing to witness.


What follows is a bit of the day-to-day highlights of the trip. It is all bears. Bird photos can be found in a separate post.


Day 1-

We landed at Brooks Falls and were immediately shuffled into "bear school". This covers the dos and don'ts of being at Brooks Lodge. This ranger has the toughest job; having to contend with an overly-eager audience that is more intent on looking out the windows at bears than paying attention to the material. Bear school passed and luggage in room, we immediately ran out to the falls. Of course, it is midday and sunny; absolutely the worst time to go shoot. We did it anyway. We made the hike, checked out the platforms, shot too many photos, and then headed back for dinner. I say it like it all happened so directly, but it was anything but that. There were distractions (aka bears) everywhere.

After a quick but good dinner, we were back out on the platforms a little after 6:00 PM. The sun was still out, and we did not quite realize how fortunate we were, at this point. We shot until near 10:00 PM, when the platforms close for the night. Here is proof we shot too many photos.

We also had one other bit of luck our first evening. We had our first catch. A bear just suddenly dunked its head under water and came up with a salmon. Luckily, I was watching it at the time.


Day 2-

We were up super early to allow an hour to walk down to the platforms and get there by 7:00 AM. We did not really need an hour, but it allowed us to take our time and enjoy a few distractions along the way. The morning was heavily overcast. We were surprised to be the first ones to walk onto the platform. We shot until the daytrippers started arriving. We put our names in for a couple of cycles (you had 30 minutes each time) and then headed back to the lodge.


Even by now, the photos were starting to look a bit repetitive. To change things up a bit, I started experimenting with slow shutter speeds on some photos. It was a bit of a challenge to time the shots when the bear was still enough for the shot to work. I had plenty of time to try, though.


The falls really only consists of a few "spots"; hence the heavy repetition. Some spots have names, others I am ascribing names to them. The "spa" is an aptly named area directly in front of the platform. It is intense and bubbly. The bears loved to just sit in this spot.

At the far side was an area I called the "bowl". It is a curving area that sits behind a large boulder. It appears to be fairly shallow but fast in this area. Bears, particularly 856, would come and just sit in this area.

Of course, there is the "lip" of the falls, but no bears where hanging out up there as of this morning. Along the far bank of the river was a rock wall with a set of undulating rapids that the bears liked to fish in, too. Finally, downstream of the falls was the "riffles". This area has a nearby platform as well and was fished regularly.

Repetitive or not, I was just glad to have bears to photograph. I had kind of written the trip off leading up to it. If nothing else, I was looking forward to a few days of being totally disconnected. There is no phone or internet service here. Any bears were going to be a plus. Thankfully, that was not an issue.

Of course, bears were not restricted to the falls. They were everywhere. The lodge area was frequented by several bears. Rangers were constantly monitoring the bears and shooing back people; although the bears needed discouraged a few times, too. The river area around the bridge was particularly popular with females with young. So, getting back to lunch took a lot longer than planned.

Under the bridge there was always a lot of fish. The salmon tended to stick to deeper waters, but Rainbow Trout liked to shelter in the shallows under the bridge. I was told the trout were also waiting on the salmon. Once the salmon started spawning, the trout would feast on the salmon eggs.


We ate, we napped, we went back after dinner. It poured rain most of the day. So, napping was not that big of a deal. The sun came back out briefly that evening. We had our first bear on the lip this afternoon. This is Grazer, and she is one of the most successful fishers at the falls. She is also one of the fiercest. I saw her run off some larger males and charge some fisherman down beyond the riffles.

I also thought I was going to witness my next catch. A bear charged up the rapids near the wall and pounced, but he came up dry; well, he came up wet... very wet.

Catching salmon (or even not catching salmon) is tough work, and we had one big guy decide to take a nap on a sandbar in the river. This bear was massive, and he had no fear of sleeping with the others around.

At times, the bears would come and sit just below us. It took a while, but I finally got a shot that I wanted. Look at these monster claws.

Bears would come and go. Whether it was the lack of fish (there were none jumping while we were there) or that there was a more dominate bear there that kept them away, I do not know. Some would come for a little bit and then leave. We shot until near 10:00, again, and then walked back.


Day 3-

We kind of messed up. We were up early again. We got down the the platform and there were no bears. Unlike the previous morning, there were already people here. There just were not any bears. 856 came in and wandered down into the river. He stared at the falls for about 2 minutes, turned around, and walked away. We took the hint and went back and grabbed breakfast just before it closed. Then we walked back. By this point, the walk was getting painful. It is not terrible. It just becomes tiring after a while. The walk combined with the hours of standing at the platforms begins to wear on you. Anyway, we got back, and the platform and the falls were busy. We had, apparently, missed out on several feedings by leaving. Note to self, stick to plan. At least we had better light. It was not sunny, but it was only lightly overcast; so, it was still fairly bright.

The real highlight was a couple of playful bears. They started out up in the bowl area.

Then they wandered down to the riffles area, where they were briefly joined by a third bear.

By this time, the daytrippers were showing up, and we were cycling on and off the platform. We decided to head back and check the river for bears. The massive crowds on the bridge told us that there were cubs to be seen.

Midday was a bit of a wash-rinse-repeat of the day before. We just did not have an excuse for napping; as it was not raining. We headed back down to the river after a very quick dinner. We did run into a small delay along the way. By this point, the hike was routine. We had not become any less cautious, though. We were still making noise (talking) and keeping an eye out. Regardless, we were surprised. We walked around a corner, and there was a very large bear 10 foot in front of us. It was hidden behind a bush just around the corner. We backed up slowly and warned some others. We all stepped off the side of the road, and the bear calmly walked by without even looking at us. What a crazy experience.


We got to the platform and were greeted by a large group. It thinned quickly, though. We had our best light of the trip this evening. I took a lot of pictures.


Day 4-

We had a short day, but we had a good one. We had to fly out at 1:00 PM. This meant bags packed and ready by 9:00 AM. You leave them in the room, and they handle everything for you. All we had to worry about was lunch and paying off our meal and concessions tab. We had the rest of the morning to shoot.


We experienced another delay on our hike to the platform. This one was not quite as close as the previous day, and the bear moved off into the woods instead of walking past us. Even with the delay, we were on the platform at 7:00 AM. It was a bright and clear morning. This was causing a bit of backlighting, but it was not awful, yet. The thing that really set this morning apart was the fish. They were really jumping.

The number of fish meant we got to see several successful captures. The whole thing started right in front of us when a bear in the spa dunked down and caught one. He hauled it out and ate it under the platform. When he was finished, he walked out to the spa and immediately caught another. This one, he ate in the shallows near the sandbar.

Every catch attracted one or more gulls. After the bear was done, the gulls would feed on the rest, although there never seemed to be much left.

With all the activity, one of the bears moved up from the riffles to try its luck. It slowly walked up river and then started searching. Before long, it broke into a sprint and was chasing something.

The bear suddenly stopped and then fixed its gaze on the water. The fin of the fish gave it away.

The bear broke into another charge and leapt at the water.

Just as he came up, a salmon leaped away in the water, but he had caught his fish.

It all happened very quickly. The bear hauled his catch over to the far bank and ate it by pressing it against the wall. Regrettably, I turned my attention away, thinking he would be occupied for a bit. He must have ate it in a hurry though. Just as I turned to look back at him, he was just lunging in the water and catching another!


Not to be outdone, the bear in front of us caught another. Five captures in one morning seemed pretty good! It was a pretty fantastic morning, and it was good to see activity picking up - even if this was our last day. Things slowed down on the river after this, and the crowds on the platform picked up. We took some more photos and cycled out. I hung out at the riffles while Carmen went back to the falls platform, again. There was not much new to shoot.


We walked back to the lodge for lunch and to pay our tab. The river was amazingly free of bears around the bridge. The fisherman were enjoying some uninterrupted fishing, for once.


After lunch, I packed up my camera and sat back in a chair to take notes for the day. This was a mistake. I wanted to be prepared for our flight. The camera takes a few minutes to take apart and then fit into my pack, and I did not want to hold things up by doing it right before we were supposed to board the plane. While taking notes, Carmen came in and excitedly called me outside. Laying in perfect view on the beach was a mother bear and her three very playful little cubs. She had been nursing them and now was just sitting there with them frolicking around her. As I watched, one little cub leaned up and bumped noses with its mom. They were super-cute, and I am glad Carmen came to get me. It was a great way to end the trip; even if I did not get any photos.


Speaking of photos, I know there are a lot here and that the post was very long. If you had the patience to get this far, I appreciate you taking the time to look and read it. I hope you enjoyed the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them. It was an amazing experience.


Thanks for reading,

Mike








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