Trapped in a bathroom: The Katmai bear experience

Photo of Bear 708 and cubs, taken from the bathroom


While staying at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, Alaska, we ate breakfast every morning in the lodge, and it was here, just outside of the dining room, that we had one of our more memorable bear encounters.  Perhaps my favorite story from our trip, it precisely captures the wonderful chaos that is a visit to Brooks Camp.

The camp, which started out as a fishing lodge in the 1950’s, sits on the point of land where the Brooks River empties into Naknek Lake.  It makes up a tiny part of Katmai National Park and Preserve—4 million pristine acres on the Alaska Peninsula—but is the main destination for most visitors.

And that’s because, in the summer, the Brooks River becomes a feeding ground for one of the biggest land carnivores in the world, the Alaskan coastal brown bear.  Hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon pass through this tiny river on the way to their spawning grounds, and the bears congregate to eat them.  The bear population is highly fluid and will disperse as soon as the fish are gone, but around 40-60 of them use the river during these months, making up one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world.

Brooks Camp, which consists of a lodge, cabins, campground, and administrative buildings, is bordered on all sides by bear territory, including Naknek Lake, Brooks River, and forestland.  A network of dirt trails cut through the camp, and these paths are used by both people and bears.

The staff use noise and other non-harmful hazing techniques to keep the bears in the wilderness areas, but the trails are as convenient for bears as they are for humans, and invariably they’re seen in camp.  Several mornings, we saw bears on the trails:

We saw these bears from a distance and alerted the woman (far right) that she was headed straight for them. The bathrooms are on the right; the kitchen is far left

Twice, we watched through the dining room windows as bears strolled along the paths.  Here are pictures from the first observation, taken from the dining room:

We watched these bears meander up the trail next to the bathrooms, which are on the right
The bathrooms, with the bears on the trail to the left.  A few guest cabins can be seen in the background

This group consisted of three cubs and their mother.  Someone identified the sow as Amelia (Bear 708).*  The cubs were older, around 2.5 years in age, and, like typical adolescents, they were playful and impulsive and hadn’t fully learned their boundaries yet.

The first time we saw the family, they passed through and didn’t linger.  Our final morning in camp, however, was a different story.  They again made an appearance, fuzzy, blonde plump-balls so fat from a summer of eating fish that even the cubs looked big.

Dale took this picture outside the dining room

They moved back and forth along the trail, alternating between trotting and pausing to sniff the ground.  The kitchen staff shouted at them and banged pots and pans together, trying to haze them away from the area, but the noise wasn’t much of a deterrent.  They might scurry away, but seconds later they were back, sniffing, exploring, and plopping their plump bottoms on the grass.  They were curious and even a little rebellious.  At one point, right in front of the staff, one of the cubs snatched the doormat from near the kitchen door and looked back defiantly, prize in mouth.  “Little asshole,” an employee muttered affectionately.  It was a classic moment in a trip that had many, many highlights.

After a few minutes the bears disappeared.  Having finished breakfast, Dale and I decided to stop by the bathrooms before heading to the bear viewing platforms, so we stepped outside.  We hadn’t even reached the bathrooms, however, when we saw mama bear poke her head around the corner of a nearby cabin.  Oddly—I guess by this point we were acclimated to the possibility of seeing bears—neither of us was alarmed, but we ducked into our respective bathrooms and watched as all four bears emerged from between the cabins.  I had a great vantage point and took pictures through the windows:

One of the cubs
Two cubs and mama.  The Brooks River can be glimpsed in the distance

After a few minutes of delightful mayhem, the bears finally disappeared into the brush, at least for a while.  We were free to emerge from our hiding places and go about our day, adding one more tale to our collection of Katmai memories.

For six days, this was our life at Brooks Camp.  We had numerous bear encounters (including another incident in which we retreated to a bathroom to get out of an enormous bear’s path).  We were literally surrounded by some of the biggest (and best behaved) bears in the world.  They were everywhere. 

Katmai is special.  It’s one of the few places on earth where one can observe these wild, intelligent, beautiful, dangerous creatures in their environment, doing their very bear-y things—eating, sleeping, lumbering, playing, snuggling, posturing, fighting, interloping, and so on.  In numerous upcoming posts, we’ll share stories, facts, and pictures from our trip, as well as bios of our favorite bears.  Hopefully, through all of these posts, we can convey a bit of the love and awe that we felt for the bears and for the park.  Katmai is one of America’s most amazing national parks, and we can’t wait to share it with you.


Oh, how I love this picture.  Little scamps.

*I don’t know these bears well enough to confirm that this is Amelia and her offspring.