“Point, you’re going to want to retreat; Point, you need to retreat.”
During the day, park rangers stood sentry at various places throughout Brooks Camp, monitoring bear activity and sharing details with one another via radio. We were on the Lower River Platform, and the ranger had his binoculars trained on a spot across the Brooks River known as the Point. He was letting his counterpart know that a bear was headed their way.
The Point is the place that everyone has to pass through to get to the bear viewing platforms, which are on the opposite side of Brooks River. A park ranger is posted there, and he or she clears people to approach the floating bridge that crosses the river. It’s here, on both sides of the bridge, that bear jams—traffic jams caused by approaching bears—frequently take place.
We could see as clearly as the ranger that people were piled up at the Point, waiting to cross the bridge, which was already closed because another bear was in the water nearby. Now they had to retreat because another bear was approaching from the beach. We watched as they followed instructions, turning around and heading in the direction of the lodge. I could see the bear in my binoculars, a good-sized creature out for a stroll. It disappeared into a short stretch of woods and then emerged on the Point, walking across the place where people had just been standing. It headed upriver without lingering, and everyone was then allowed to return.
The bear jam phenomenon
Bear jams are a side effect of a Katmai National Park rule dictating that people must maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from bears. The purpose of this rule is not only to protect people but also to keep the park bear-centered. Humans come to Brooks River to have the magical experience of seeing brown bears in their natural environment, but the bears come to live their lives: they eat, mate, raise their cubs, and prepare for winter here. Our presence no doubt has an impact on them, but the rules try to minimize that impact.
NPS staff go to great lengths to enforce these regulations. They stop visitors any time a bear has the potential to cross that 50-yard designation, and all human movement in the area freezes until the bear moves on, hence the term bear jam. It’s a common phenomenon and a source of both humor and frustration for bear watchers.
Comedy, but thankfully no tragedy
Being caught in a bear jam sometimes had the feel of a madcap comedy. The bears were everywhere and might emerge at any moment, which meant we had to shift our position based on whatever direction they were heading. We might be at the Point ready to cross the bridge, for example, when we’d have to retreat back to camp because a bear was approaching from the river. Then suddenly another bear would be trotting down the trail from the opposite direction, and yet another one (or more) would be cutting through the woods and headed our way. One time we ended up standing on a mound near the fish freezing building, waiting as bears from multiple places moved around us. There might be bears by the platform, bears by the bridge, bears on the camp trail, bears on the beach—we were hemmed in by bears.
Staff shepherded us one way and then another, this way and that. It felt like a dance as we swayed forward, backward, and around the bears. We were playing a crazy game of Twister, contorting ourselves in all manner of shapes so as to avoid impeding their movements. We didn’t want to keep them from food sources or resting places or quiet time with their cubs.
But this gridlock could lead to some serious unrest amongst the humans. The bridge was sometimes closed for hours, stranding people on the far side who wanted to return to camp and preventing those on the camp side from reaching the platforms. And if you’re stuck on the far side of the river around suppertime, well, that just sucks. You can’t carry anything with you but water, and prolonged bears jams around mealtimes created some seriously cranky bear watchers.
The rangers, who were outgoing and people-oriented, were sympathetic to the frustration of their human guests. Most were laid back and recognized that, while they had a job to do, we’d traveled a long distance to see the bears. When they could, they walked groups of people through the woods and around the closed area, but that didn’t always work (there were bears that way, too, ya know).
People sometimes expressed irritation with the animals causing the traffic jams. They might direct a comment to the one sleeping in the grass: “Wake up, bear,” or to the one leisurely sniffing the bridge gate: “It’s time to move along.” And sometimes, when a bear left the 50-yard zone only to have another one (or two, or five) enter the area, food-deprived bear watchers started to think that the bears had mounted a coordinated effort to screw with us!
How to survive a bear jam
So, yeah, the bears of Brooks River disrupt human plans a-plenty. But bear jams are a way of life at Brooks Camp and something that visitors need to expect. Here are some tips for surviving them, compiled from both National Park Service resources and our personal experiences:
- Be prepared to stand around in inclement weather; bring layers, a hat, and rain gear.
- Allow plenty of buffer time for meals and flights. Staff warned us that, on the day we flew out, we shouldn’t even cross the river because we might get stuck on the far side. Whether the rangers would’ve actually let us miss our plane in the event of a bear jam, I don’t know, but we didn’t take a chance, because they seemed pretty inflexible. And the bears weren’t going to stop their behaviors just to accommodate us. On our final day in camp, we hung out on the beach and at the Point until our flight left mid-afternoon.
Remember that the opportunity to see bears exists throughout the camp.
You don’t have to be on a bear watching platform to watch bears. As I’ve pointed on in previous posts, the possibility of seeing them exists anywhere in camp. The Point, for example, was one of our favorite spots. Sometimes we’d hang out there and watch the activity at the mouth of the river. Sows with cubs and subadult bears frequented the area, and we always saw something interesting.
Remember, you can’t take food with you to the platforms, so before you head out for a day of bear watching, chow down.
Scarf like a linebacker at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Binge like your survival depends on it.
Gorge like you’re Otis preparing for the Fat Bear contest.
The meals in the lodge were buffet-style, and we loaded up. At breakfast, Dale ate every meat item that was served, along with eggs. I had heaping bowls of oatmeal stuffed with nuts and cream (and brown sugar of course), as well as fruit, yogurt, and eggs. We headed for the platforms feeling as if we’d just sat through a Thanksgiving feast, but the food stuck with us. And in the afternoon, we returned to camp early, creating a buffer against potential bear jams that could spoil a perfectly planned supper. If you’re one of those, like me, who is at risk for spiraling into serious hanger,* plan ahead!
Next to eating as much as is humanly possible at each meal, accept is the best tip that I can give you.
- Accept that bear jams are going to happen.
- Accept that at Brooks Camp almost everything is out of your control.
- Accept that we as visitors aren’t entitled to anything. Neither Katmai National Park nor the bears owe us anything.
- Drop any expectations that you might have of what a trip to Brooks Camp is going to be like. This is a particularly difficult attitude for me to adopt. I build expectations around everything, from where I’m going to be in a year to what the next hour of my life will entail. And Katmai was no different, not surprising since it was such an important trip (bucket lists and all that stuff). As our trip neared, I began to worry that we wouldn’t see any bears, and one night I even dreamed that we arrived only to find that the fish were gone, and with them, the bears. Wow. My expectations were so high that I was having nightmares! And then when we did arrive and that first afternoon experienced a long bear jam, my anxiety spiked again.
So yeah, it’s an understatement to say that I had pre-existing expectations about our trip. But once I let go of these notions and accepted that bear jams were an integral part of the experience, I relaxed and enjoyed myself a whole lot more.
Besides, with bear jams, the entertainment was built-in:
Why the rules are good
Yes, the rules that exist and the bear jams that result from them may lead to frustration and hanger. And it did sometimes have an air of the arbitrary: if we cross to the other side of the trail, or step into the woods, or stay on the platform, the bears won’t notice us.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves; the bears know we’re there. They’re intelligent creatures with heightened senses and an inherent curiosity; of course they know we’re there. And no matter how heroic the efforts of the staff or how frequent the traffic jams, the bears of Brooks River either become habituated to people or avoid the human-occupied parts of the river altogether. There’s no way that the Brooks Camp arrangement, which places humans within such a dense population of wild animals, can be completely free of encounters and disruptions.
But we can mitigate our impact, and that’s what these rules try to do. By creating this imaginary perimeter around the bears, we reduce both interference with their lives and the chance of negative (or tragic) human-bear interactions. These rules also make it possible to have the intimate experience for which Brooks Camp is renowned.
One last piece of advice: Allow yourself to be humbled
The most unnerving, and humbling, moment at Brooks Camp is when you realize that, here at least, we are not top dog, top of the food chain, rulers over our domain. The bears are bigger than us, both literally and figuratively, and this is their home—nay, their kingdom. We are merely guests.
Go with the rhythm and routines of Brooks Camp and you’ll have an incredible experience. Meditate on how small we are. Rejoice each time you see a bear and and don’t take for granted that they’re always there, because they’re not. And if you come with the attitude that Katmai owes you nothing, then you’ll laugh at the wonderful craziness of it all when you’re stuck in yet another bear jam.
*Hanger = hunger + anger, clearly a dangerous combination! I should note that the dining room was always good about staying open after hours for people who were stuck on the far side of the river at suppertime.
The park has considered building an elevated bridge to reduce the occurrence of bear jams, but apparently that idea has been floated around for a while with no concrete outcomes. The Katmai National Park website discusses these plans here.
Brooks Camp rules for avoiding bear interactions
These are the rules introduced at Bear Orientation and enforced throughout our stay:
- Maintain a distance of 50 yards or more from any bear.
- Step off of the trail and yield to any bears headed in your direction.
- No lingering or taking photos on the bridge. You must move across quickly to avoid getting trapped on the bridge or chasing a bear away from its food source. Plus the window for crossing is often very short, so don’t dally—get across before it shuts down again.
- Be alert at all times and make noise where visibility is limited.
- If you encounter a bear, stop making noise once the bear is aware of you.
- In case of close encounter, speak to the bear in a soft voice, wave your arms, and back away slowly.
- Always check the beach before taking the campground trail.
- Do not carry food, beverages, or any other odorous items around Brooks Camp. Eat and drink only in buildings or designated picnic areas. Water is the only beverage you can consume outside of designated areas.
- All food, beverages, fish, garbage, equipment used to cook or store food, or any other odorous items must be properly stored.
- Put garbage in designated indoor receptacles.
- Do not leave gear unattended at any time.