Bears. Salmon. Volcanoes. Wilderness. Culture. These are the terranes of Katmai. Each is distinct, but in combination these features create a place like no other. Read about the uniqueness of Katmai in this blog.
Kamishak is a long, winding river which empties into Kamishak Bay at the very top of Katmai National Park and Preserve. It has little visitation...by people. I had the opportunity to go for work and spend four nights, five days on this river doing what was later explained to me as "extreme camping."
In early July, bear 402 abandoned her yearling cub. Rangers, including myself, were routinely asked, “Will it find another bear to care for it?” My usual response to this question was coldly factual, "Adoption of cubs by another bear is very rare. It has been documented, but is unlikely to happen." However, bears, even young bears, are adaptable and smart. They possess the ability to recognize favorable situations and take advantage of them. 402’s abandoned yearling is no exception.
Before arriving in Katmai National Park and Preserve in May, I had worked two years in the desert of the American Southwest. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that the first thing I noticed about Katmai was the water. Water infuses all life on the planet, but it seems especially prevalent in Katmai. That the weather, landscape, and geographic features all seem completely reliant on water is something that struck me when I first arrived to Katmai and in the months since.
The Bristol Bay region is some of the largest runs of Pacific salmon in the world. Salmon are the keystone species of Katmai National Park. The Brooks Camp area and Katmai in general would not be what it is today without sockeye salmon. Everything present has been built on salmon and their annual migration from vast oceans to Katmai.
The Brooks River is well known for its bear viewing opportunities. Each summer, people come from all over the world to view brown bears in a pristine environment. Those who visit the Brooks River in August, however, may not see many or any bears. Why?
Pop! When I saw the tranquilizing dart strike 854 Divot, I knew that there was much work to do and we needed to be quick about it, but I couldn’t help but feel a sigh of relief. “This might just work,” I thought, “We’ll be able to remove the snare.” Frankly, I never thought we’d get the opportunity.
Dominant male bears along the Brooks River gain many advantages over other bears. They can access the most preferred fishing spots when they choose, easily appropriate food from other bears, and have a higher likelihood of courting female bears and siring offspring. Gaining access to food allows bears to grow larger. Growing larger gives bears a greater chance to become reproductively successful.
Katmai’s female bears go through a somewhat predictable cycle. They nurse their offspring while caring for them and don’t go into estrus while nursing. These behaviors happen with regularity and are the “norm.” However, bear behavior is full of surprises.
July 1 was a busy day at Brooks Camp. Late in the evening, while many rangers were still dealing with 402’s yearling cub in a tree at Brooks Lodge, another ranger discovered a dead bear near the cut bank on the Brooks River.
If and when the public think of Katmai National Park and Preserve, they are increasingly thinking of bears, particularly wild brown bears in relatively large concentrations. From the popular Alaska attractions of Homer and Kodiak many wildlife tours visit a place called Hallo Bay.
Why is a rusty clock important to Katmai? Because it belonged to Roy Fure, one of the park’s former residents. Fure and his family used this alarm clock while living at his cabin in the Bay of Islands. This cabin is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Prior to 2006, Katmai’s spruce forests appeared healthy. Under the dense canopy of needles, little light filtered through to the forest floor where mosses and shade tolerant shrubs held a dominant foothold. Reaching toward the sky were many spires of green-needled spruces that intercepted much of the incoming light. Today, however, even the casual observer walking through those same forests will find something amiss.
In 1964, George Gryc, then chief of the Alaska Geology Branch of the USGS, visited the geological survey party that was mapping the Iliamna quadrangle, which was then just north of Katmai National Monument. During his visit, the geologists landed on Grosvenor Lake to do some mapping. During their lunch break, Gryc began investigating a sandstone bluff near the edge of the lake, looking for fossils. According to a 1972 letter to the superintendent from Gryc:
“I noticed, rather incidentally, a stick that seemed unusually weathered lying on a ledge. I picked it up and noticed that it was worked. I looked around and after some searching noticed a couple of more similar pieces (shafts) sticking out of a crevice..."
A simple bone needle, broken into four pieces, is perhaps not as exciting to look at as a spear point, an oil lamp, or an incised pebble, but it can tell us as much or more about the lives of the people who used it as any finely worked point or intricately carved pebble can.
In the Brooks Camp Visitor Center, a bear pelt hangs in the rafters. This pelt belonged to a young female bear nicknamed Sister. After obtaining food and equipment from people, Sister became the last bear destroyed at Brooks Camp. This is a story of mistakes and loss. It teaches a lesson that we should never learn the hard way again.
While much of the Lower 48 and Canada have experienced a bitter cold January, Alaskans are experiencing unusually warm temperatures. These warmer-than-average January temperatures are not in themselves unusual, what’s really odd is how long they’ve stuck around.
Brown bear cubs are from 1/3 to 1/10 of that predicted for female mammals of comparable size. Why would brown bears give birth to such small and vulnerable offspring? Like many natural phenomenon, no one knows for sure but biologists have some ideas.
As Lake Brooks and Naknek Lake freeze over during the Alaska’s long, cold winter the Brooks River continues to flow. Its currents carrying wind-swept white spruce trees and icy sludge downriver. However, beneath the truculent waters, Brooks River is alive with life.
To many, the Brooks River is the heart of Katmai National Park & Preserve. It is also a National Historic Landmark and an Archeological District consisting of 20 different prehistoric sites.
From 2002-2003, working with the Council of Katmai Descendants, NPS archaeologists partially excavated one of these 20 sites in an attempt to answer research questions and learn about the site before sections were lost to erosion. Some of the artifacts found during this excavation were delicately designed incised pebbles.
It was a great year on the bearcam with many memorable moments. Who can forget bear 469’s attempt to persevere through injury, the playfulness of young and well fed bears, or the care mothers took to protect their cubs? The insight gained into the lives of bears and the intimate moments we were able to observe dominate this bearcam year in review.
In the early 20th century geologists had a limited understanding of volcanoes. Plate tectonic theory was still half a century away. Radio communications in remote, volcanically active areas were unreliable or non-existent. Eyewitness accounts of volcanic eruptions were difficult to gather. Seismographs, an essential tool for contemporary volcanologists, were almost unheard of in Alaska. For many years, little was known or understood about what happened in early June 1912 on the northern Alaska Peninsula.
One adaptation that has evolved in some mammals is hibernation. Hibernation is a state of dormancy that allows animals to avoid periods of famine. It takes many forms in mammals, but is particularly remarkable in bears.
Every once and a while, you may see people on the floating bridge while a bear is nearby. The people in the photo above were not behaving appropriately for the unique bear viewing opportunities at Brooks Camp. The wildness of the bears and the wonderful experiences for people at Brooks Camp is dependent on everyone giving bears space.
In winter, ice and snow cover much of Katmai’s landscape. Salmon fry bide their time waiting to become smolt and run to sea. Later in the year and soon after the smolt depart, much larger salmon are returning from the ocean. In late June, schools of silvery and energetic fish begin to pulse through the river. During August and September, the Brooks River is dotted with ruby-colored jewels digging nests and fighting for territory. Soon after, the waters of Katmai begin to quiet again. The salmon have spawned and most are dead. Eggs are quietly incubating.
These are extreme contrasts, but the Brooks River is a dynamic place. Maybe nothing else better illustrates this than the annual sockeye salmon run--a powerful example of change, adaptation, and instinct.
Watching the bearcams on explore.org gives anyone with internet access an opportunity to experience the dynamics of a bear’s world. We get to observe the playfulness of cubs, the intimacy of mating, and the satiation of hunger when a bear eats a salmon. However, when we watch the cams, we will also see some unpleasant aspects of the bears’ world.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill heavily impacted Pacific coast of Katmai National Park. Although the spill occurred over 250 miles away, more than 1055 tons of oiled debris was removed from the park’s shores. In some areas, oil can still be seen today.