We watched through the windows as four bears, a mother and cubs, strolled up the path. These were Alaskan coastal brown bears, one of the largest land carnivores in the world, and Dale and I had just ducked into the bathrooms to avoid them.
Such was life at Brooks Camp, part of Alaska’s remote, immense Katmai National Park and Preserve. The camp, situated where the Brooks River empties into Naknek Lake, is smack dab in the middle of brown bear territory. Around 40-60 of them use the river between July and September, congregating to eat the salmon that swim upriver each year. While the bear population is fluid and dissipates when the fish are gone, this gathering constitutes one of the highest concentrations of brownies in the world.
As residents of Alaska, Dale and I are no stranger to bears. We live on the Kenai Peninsula, which boasts healthy populations of both black and brown bears, and they frequently make their presence known, cutting through backyards and investigating porches, leaving piles of scat and paw prints the size of saucers. Some become habituated to people and the illicit pleasures they offer—chicken coops, unsecured trash, outdoor freezers—but even in most of Alaska, encounters aren’t everyday occurrences.
At Brooks Camp, on the other hand, not only are bear encounters likely, they’re almost guaranteed, and people come from all over the world to experience these up-close meetings. Dale and I made the trip so that we might wander amongst these creatures in their home territory, even if it meant getting trapped in the bathroom a time or two.
Brooks Camp is only a tiny part of Katmai, and yet the majority of people who visit the national park go here. What started as a fishing camp in the 1950’s is now the epicenter for many of Katmai’s activities, including not just fishing but also hiking, camping, and, of course, bear watching.
No roads connect Katmai to the outside world, and access to Brooks Camp is by air or water. Like most people, we arrived by float plane, landing on Naknek Lake. The view as we touched down was of a sandy shore with forest beyond that, as well as our first bear, a magnificent beast asleep on the beach.
Upon disembarking, we went through the National Park Service’s mandatory Bear Orientation. First, a park ranger oriented us to the camp, which includes a dining hall, cabins, campground, and park offices, as well as three bear watching platforms on the opposite side of Brooks River.
The ranger pointed out that bears could be anywhere. “See that trail?” he said, gesturing to one of the dirt paths that runs between camp buildings. “We try to keep the bears off the trails, but they’re as convenient for the wildlife as they are for people, and we see them in camp all the time. Earlier this week, an adult male, all 800 pounds of him, strutted up the path right outside our office.”
Since encounters were a matter of when, not if, safety was reviewed next. The rules are centered around keeping the bears wild and uninterested in humans. First, that meant leaving the snacks behind: food and drinks were only allowed in a few designated areas, and all we could carry with us was water. Next, etiquette dictated that we keep a distance of 50 yards between us and any bear and avoid contact by stepping off the trail or leaving the area when one was near. If, despite our best efforts, a close encounter was imminent, we were to speak in a soft voice, wave our arms, and back away slowly. We should neither turn our backs to the bear nor run, as this made us look like prey.
“But,” said Gert, a jovial Dutchman whom we’d met on the float plane, “if you do run, make sure you are faster than the other guy.” He then elbowed Dale and winked.
At the conclusion of the presentation, the ranger gave each of us a pin to wear throughout our stay, a sign that we’d attended orientation. We were then dismissed, free to enter the realm of the bear.
Bears normally require a large territory and don’t take kindly to encroachment by other bears, but food sources along the Brooks River are so abundant that these particular specimens are unusually accepting of one another. Sure, fights occur, and struggles for dominance, and a boar will occasionally commit infanticide, killing a cub that’s not his own, but for the most part, they tolerate each other—and us—well.
It’s a good thing, too, because our six days at Brooks Camp turned out to be one long bear sighting. They roamed the trails and the woods, waded across the river, swam in the lake, and slept wherever they pleased. At Brooks Falls (probably the most famous bear watching locale in the world), the biggest of the boars caught leaping salmon as they attempted to jump the falls. Some of these big guys would weigh 1,000 pounds come winter, and they dominated the best fishing spots, but at Brooks Camp there was room for all. The river attracted sows with offspring and young adult bears trying to find their place in the world, and we saw cubs nuzzling their mothers’ necks and adolescents sparring and playing.
We weren’t completely alone with the wildlife; rangers stood sentry at key points throughout camp and didn’t hesitate to redirect us when a bear entered the scene. This phenomenon, known as a “bear jam,” could freeze human movement for hours, even trapping people on the opposite side of the river, away from food, accommodations, and transportation. The delays sometimes led to cranky visitors, but the strict rules and diligent staff kept both the bears and humans safe.
The rangers couldn’t be everywhere, however, and Dale and I had several close encounters in remote areas. Once, as we emerged from the pit toilets near the Brooks Falls Platform trailhead, an enormous—and I do mean enormous—bear popped out of the woods. He was 20 feet in front of us and headed our way.
“Get in the bathroom!” Dale said. We backed into a stall and huddled together, listening for any indication that the big guy was planning on joining us. All we heard was silence, so after a minute or two, Dale said, “Ready?” No, I wasn’t, but we had to go eventually, so we cracked the door and peeked outside. There was no sign of the bear, but a park volunteer approached. She gave us a funny look when we emerged together from a single stall, so I said, “We saw a huge bear.”
“Oh yeah, I passed him on the road a minute ago. Handsome fella,” she said, then shrugged and slipped into the restroom with no further explanation.
By our last day at Brooks Camp, we felt like pros. We were bear savvy and ready for any encounter.
Our plan was to visit the platforms one more time before catching our flight that afternoon, but first, we needed breakfast. As we piled our plates high with buffet food, a bear and her brood caused a ruckus outside. This was a sow known as Divot and her three cubs. Obviously unaware of the “no bears in camp” rule, the family had trespassed several mornings during our stay, and today they decided to loiter in the grassy area outside the kitchen.
The staff shouted and banged pots and pans, but Divot and cubs were unmoved by attempts to haze them back into the woods. Oh, they might trot away, but seconds later they’d be back. The cubs were older, around two years of age, and like typical adolescents were impulsive and rebellious. At one point, right in front of staff, a cub snatched a kitchen doormat and looked back defiantly as it trotted away, prize in mouth. “Little asshole,” an employee muttered and laughed, accepting defeat.
After a few minutes of mayhem, the trouble makers wandered away, so we finished breakfast and stepped outside, ready for one last bit of bear watching. We hadn’t gotten very far, however, when Divot emerged from behind a cabin, cubs in tow.
Neither of us was alarmed (we’d finally become accustomed to bears popping out of nowhere), but it was our responsibility to yield the right of way, so we ducked into the first building we could find.
Yes, we were once again trapped in the bathroom.
The family was in no hurry, and we watched through the windows as they sauntered back and forth, pausing here and there to snack on the grass. They were fuzzy, blonde plump-balls, so fat from a summer of eating fish that even the cubs looked big. One by one they plopped down on the ground. Mom stood tall and surveyed the scene while the cubs wrestled and nipped at each other.
I could hear Dale laughing from the men’s bathroom. “Such scamps!” he said. After several delightful minutes, the family heaved themselves upright and disappeared into the brush.
We exited our hideout and agreed that there was no point in returning to the platforms.
“What if we got trapped again?” Dale said. “Or stuck in a bear jam on the other side of the river?”
I nodded. “We could miss our flight.”
But it was more than that. We’d just watched a bear family doing their intimate, very bear-y things from the refuge of a bathroom. What more could we ask? Besides, as we’d learned in orientation and every day since, the bears were everywhere. We hung around the dining room until our flight arrived, knowing that another encounter might be right around the corner.