Monday, December 23, 2013

Watch brown bears fishing for salmon await

Bown bears fishing on Brooks Falls. Photo courtesy
of Katmai NPS.
Map of Brooks Falls Trail, courtesy of Katmai NPS.
Day hikers can watch gigantic brown bears fish for salmon on the Brooks Falls Trial at Katmai National Park in Alaska.

While the oft-photographed and filmed falls is the highlight of the 2.4-miles round trip out-and-back trail, getting to the national park is an adventure in itself. No roads lead to it, so you either must take a boat or air taxi, which requires advance planning and reservations several months in advance. July and the first half of September mark the best time to see fishing bears and to enjoy the fall slate of park services.

Floatplanes land at a couple of different spots in Katmai, but opt for one touching down on Naknek Lake. From there, you’ll head to the park’s visitor center, where a bear-orientation video is required viewing. The video covers how to avoid a confrontation with a brown bear and what to do in case one occurs anyways.

Bears have the right-of-way at the park, so you should plan to stay overnight. As humans are not allowed to come within 50 yards of a bear and within 100 yards of a mother with her cubs, if one decides to take a seat on your trail you can’t go on. Such “bear jams” have been known to last hours.

Staying overnight at Katmai requires either camping behind an electric fence or staying at the Brooks Lodge. Visit the National Park Service’s Katmai website for instructions about the reserve your overnight accommodations, which sometimes have to be made up to a year before your planned trip.

Noise is good
To reach the trailhead, from Brooks Lodge head south on the walking path toward Brooks River. The path briefly runs alongside the river’s confluence with the lake, and then a floating bridge takes you across the Brooks.

An observation deck – the Lower River Platform – is on the other side. Bears usually can be spotted swimming in the river and playing on the beach.

The path becomes an asphalt road south of the platform and curves west. In about a half-mile from the platform, the Brooks Falls Trail proper heads right/northwest. Watch for signs and the restrooms across from the trailhead.

For the next half-mile, you’ll get to do one thing that usually is verboten on hiking trails: Make lots of noise. One way to keep bears at a distance is to make lots of noise by constantly clapping your hands and talking at the top of your lungs.

You’ll definitely want to keep an eye out in this dense forest for brown bears. An adult male coastal brown bear can reach 1400 pounds in weight.

As the trail reaches the Brooks River, it forks to two viewing observation decks. Go right to the Riffles Platform first. Here you’ll see bears sitting on or hopping across boulders. Usually younger bears hang out at this rock, shallow part of the river.

Abundant wildlife
Returning to the main trail, you then can take the left fork to the hike’s highlight, the Falls Platform. Aggressive males prefer this prime salmon fishing spot; many stand in the roiling white water waiting for salmon to jump the falls or to swim under them.

Bears aren’t all you’ll see here, though. Wolves often linger along the shore, and bald eagles circle in the sky, scavenging scraps left by the bears. Seagulls also can be spotted snatching leftovers.

Each summer, the sockeye salmon return from the ocean to the place of their birth upriver so they can spawn. Unfortunately for the salmon, the falls is an obstacle that they must jump over. Fortunately for the bears, this takes the salmon out of the water, where huge paws can catch them mid-flight for a high-protein and delicious meal.

Many hikers spend hours on the platform watching the wildlife. And don’t be surprised if you also spot celebrities and film crews hiking with you.

Lastly, don’t worry about bears or wolves attacking you on the observation decks. You can only access the observation decks via series of locked gates that lead to the elevated platforms, which the animals can’t reach.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.