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The previous evening after dinner, we discussed the plans for today and our pilot suggested we head to the famous Brooks Falls to photograph the bears fishing at the waterfall. He said that everyone needs to photograph this at least once in their lives. I think everyone has seen pics of this place and it’s quite the tourist destination. We had envisioned that we’d be in wilderness the whole time of our trip, not at Brooks, however, I hadn’t shot it and heck, why not get that trophy shot since it represents the quintessential bear/fishing experience in Alaska. Going to bed that night, that was our plan, weather permitting.
We awoke to a solid layer of clouds overhead, heavy with condensation. Breakfast in the lodge was another yummy selection of foods and we ate our fill as we discussed our options. According to the weather service and Iliamna ATC, nobody was flying anywhere for a little bit until the clouds lifted, which they were expected to do. We settled in for a wait and reviewed/processed images in the lodge. After 1.5 hours, our pilot said that it looks like we should get ready and see if we can make it to Brooks Camp. It’s about an hour flight in a westerly direction and we have to cross a couple of mountain ranges. He cautioned us that there is only a small chance (15%) we can make it there with the weather in the area. If we go and try to make it and cannot, we will divert to a different location for the days shooting. We dressed in our waders in case we diverted and met on the dock with our gear (At Brooks, no waders needed, it’s all gravel trails)
As we taxied out on to the lake, we received special clearance from the airport to depart towards our destination, we were one of the first up flying that day. The clouds stayed low, around 1800 feet. We flew west over the massive lake hoping that we’d get a break in the cover to jog between the mountains.
After some trial and error, we managed to find a path through the mountains and the clouds to make our way to Brooks Camp. Our plane touched down on a glassy smooth lake and we taxied to the shore. We were the first airplane there! Sometimes there are as many as 100 planes parked there with tourists from Homer, Anchorage and other towns throughout Alaska, bringing people in for a day trip bear experience. We beached the plane and unloaded our gear, ready to start the adventure
As we were unloading the plane we could see two sub-adult bears about 400 yards away on the beach playing in the water. Looked like this could be fertile bear country! Our first stop, which is mandatory, is to visit the ranger station and receive a safety briefing. Ranger Matt gave us our briefing and showed a video made in the 80’s about how to behave around bears. It was kind of funny to us that just yesterday we were 10 yards away from bears in the wild. The official rules are that we cannot approach the bears closer than 50 yards, but they can approach us closer if it’s their choice. We learned the rules of Brooks camp and then received our commemorative graduation bear pin (that we needed to wear at all times there to signify that we have received our “training”)
Brooks Camp is a fairly large compound, containing a campground, cabins, general store, food caches (safe houses to store food) and other infrastructure buildings. There are many gravel paths between these areas as well as trails heading off to to forest or river. For viewing the bears, there are two main platforms; the lower “riffles” platform and the upper falls platform. Because of the number of people visiting Brooks, each person is limited to 40 minutes at a time on the upper platform. Once your time is up, you let someone else have a turn and can wait for the next available spot to open up at a congregation area lower down the trail. Because it was early in the morning and not many visitors, we grabbed our packs and made a bee line for the upper platform. The trail to the platform is about 1 1/4 miles long (at most), starting off on a gravel road and then transitioning to a forest path. One of the interesting features is that near the beginning of the trail, there is a floating walkway across a swampy body of water. We were warned that this could be closed for visitor safety at any time by the rangers if there were bears in the area. As we approached the bridge, sure enough, it was closed because a bear was nearby. We waited for about 10 minutes and the bear moved off, so we were allowed to cross and continue our walk to the upper platform.
The road turned to trail and then the trail turned to elevated walkway above the forest floor. We could see numerous signs of bear in the grasses below, including discarded fish carcasses. The walk was a bit reminiscent of Jurassic Park in how we had to pass through gates, walking through a somewhat primeval forest. We eventually made it to the congregation area and there was no ranger and nobody waiting, so we continued on to the upper platform. There are two levels of the platform and I quickly grabbed a spot on the lower platform, in the corner, with what I though the best angle viewing the falls. One thing to mention, tripods with legs splayed out are not allowed on the platform, only monopods. We improvised and used our tripods as monopods to provide some shooting stability.
It’s not a big falls by Oregon standards, but it was plentiful with fish and provided several prime areas for the bears to fish. Because of the relatively few people at the falls this day, we were allowed to stay almost 1 1/2 hours photographing various bears that fished in the falls or just downstream. There were perhaps 6 bears fishing here this morning and all of them didn’t have a ton of gusto for the job at hand. Never did a bear fish from on top of the falls, that classic shot we’ve all seen. Regardless, we still got some great shots of the fish jumping, the bears feeding and had that quintessential Alaskan experience.
Lots of fish jumping up the falls, trying to make it upstream to spawn
Fishing below the falls
We were eventually asked to leave and make room for others, so we packed up and headed back down the trail to meet up with our pilot and grab our lunch from the plane. On our journey back, again, a trail was closed due to bear activity, but our wait was very short. We grabbed our lunch from the plane and sat in the picnic area which was protected by an electrified bear fence. Since I was hot wearing the waders, and, really only needed one lens (100-400mm), I stashed my waders and camera bag in the airplane for the afternoon. We were all having some low energy and not sure if we wanted to go back to the upper platform. We decided to hit the lower platform and check out that vantage point, and, it didn’t require any wait time.
As we were on the lower platform, a mother and her cubs can wandering by and posed for a couple of pictures. The lower platform did give us a view upstream towards the falls, giving a slightly different perspective. While we were there, we noticed a couple of bears starting to fish from on top of the falls.
With growing excitement we put our names on the list to go back to the upper platform in the hopes of catching that classic shot. After about 20 minutes, our buzzer went off and we reported to the ranger to be let in to the upper. When we arrived at the platform, it was full and we had to elbow our way to the railing to get a good perspective on the falls. Immediately we saw a bear on top of the falls actively fishing and we quickly got our cameras set up and started shooting.
Over the next 40 minutes, we watched this bear catch and eat at least 20 salmon. He would stand on top of the falls at a spot where lots of fish were jumping. Waiting patiently for a fish to jump high enough, he would open his massive mouth and catch a fish mid-air, then slowly back away from the edge of the falls and walk a short distance to a flat rock to eat the fish. Once done, he would return to the same spot and repeat the process.
As we watched him catch and eat many fish, we chuckled because as he ate more and more, it seemed he would get pickier about which parts of the fish he would eat. Eventually it seemed that he would only eat the tastiest parts and then let the rest of the fish float over the falls downstream to other bears waiting to catch the cast-off.
There were so many fish jumping they even were bouncing off the head and sides of the bear in their frenzied attempt to make it upstream. We eventually ran out of time and were kindly asked to leave the platform to make room for others. We had a fantastic experience and felt that we all had gotten some excellent shots, burned through some memory cards, and were happy to call it a day and make our way back to the plane and fly back to the lodge.
One problem though…when we got to the floating bridge, there were probably 70 people waiting to cross. The bridge was closed and when I asked, it had been closed for almost 1 1/2 hours!!!! We could see 4-5 bears in the general area of the walkway and understood why, in their over cautious way, they had closed the bridge. We sat down to wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually I started taking pictures to pass the time and actually came away with a couple I liked.
After about 30 minutes, we were getting concerned that we would miss our departure time and our pilot would become concerned. That and one in our party isn’t the best at waiting 🙂 so we hatched a plan. We noticed that there were fisherman in the waters near the bridge, apparently it’s ok to be in the water around bears, but not trapped on a bridge. Some in our group still had their waders on and our plan was that one person would wade across the water, get the pilot and taxi the airplane to another beach nearby where we could jump onboard. With some giggles and a bit of anxiety of the unknown, we sent Bill out in to the water. Thankfully he is tall because the water came up to his chest as he waded across. After 15 minutes he made it to the other side, much to the consternation of the rangers since the paths were closed on that side too due to bears. Thankfully Bill didn’t get eaten and he found the pilot in the base camp lodge. 10 minutes later we see the airplane taxi across the water towards the nearby beach. We grab our stuff and meet the airplane, load up and take off for home.
Flying home, still under overcast skies, I decided to try a bit of aerial photography.
We made it back to the lodge in time for pre-dinner snacks. Over a roast beast dinner, we relived the day and some of the great behaviors and mannerisms we observed in the bears. That night, we hung out in the great room and processed images, swapped stories and relaxed from the adventurous day.
The clouds never cleared during the day and the weather forecast for the next day was again for clouds and a chance of rain. So, we would make plans in the morning for where we will be going since everything in Alaska is weather dependent. Feeling satisfied and accomplished, I headed off to a good nights sleep.
Click HERE to read Part 5