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.
Most of the time when a volcano erupts, it does not send avalanches of fifteen-hundred degree surging volcanic rock across the landscape, completely burying whatever might lay in its path. Nor does a volcano typically send a column of ash twenty miles into the sky, turning day to night and blanketing a hundred plus mile radius of land in a foot or two of ash. Katmai's volatile young volcano, Novarupta, erupted in such a manner in 1912, and it left behind compelling proof of its explosive might.
Bears in Katmai grow large, very large. For example, adult males average 700-900 pounds (272-408 kg) in mid summer! By October, well fed, large-bodied males can tip the scales above 1000 pounds (454 kg). Why do male bears grow so large? What advantages does large size confer to male bears? Competition for food and mates may provide answers.
Each spring, I have questions floating around in my head. As spring wanes and summer approaches I wonder, what stories will unfold along Brooks River this summer? Which bears will have cubs? Which bears will maintain dominance along the river? Which will survive and endure another year of hardships in the bear world? Which will become casualties? One story from 2014 already added another chapter.
The first day of a new season is always one of the most exciting. It’s a mix of old and new, seasonal and permanent, hopes and expectations. There is so much happening, it can be hard to absorb it all. One aspect that never changes from the beginning of one season to the next is that we must all be trained to do our jobs in the most efficient, effective, and safe manner possible.
Bears at Brooks River are assigned numbers for monitoring, management, and identification purposes. Inevitably, some bears acquire nicknames from staff and these nicknames are shared with the public, but naming wild animals is not without controversy. Is it appropriate to name wild animals?
On July 1, 2014, bear 130 Tundra was found dead near Brooks River. Since this bear was well known by rangers and the public, her skull was collected and cleaned so it could be used for educational and interpretive programs. As it turns out, Tundra’s skull reveals a biography of trauma she apparently suffered through several years before. Bones don’t lie. They tell the story of pain and healing. As a yearling cub, this bear apparently persevered through potentially traumatic damage to her skull.
2014 proved to be an exciting year for fans of the Brooks River bears. Let’s recap the drama and events captured on the Brooks River. These are my choices for 2014’s most notable bearcam moments. Which story resonated most with you?
Explorers of Katmai Country: In this continuing series of posts, we’ll highlight different people tied to Katmai’s varied history. Today, we focus on Robert F. Griggs who led the charge to protect the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. No single individual has made longer lasting impacts on Katmai's modern history.
Explorers of Katmai Country: In this series of posts, we’ll highlight a different person tied to Katmai’s varied history.
Much of what we know today about the early American period of Alaska is due to the pioneering efforts of one man, Ivan Petroff. He is largely responsible for compiling the US Census for this territory twice, in 1880 and 1890, as well as exploring and publishing on many areas along the Alaskan coast. In many ways this Russian transplant was the leading American authority on Alaska of his day, a prominent position he held until he was discredited in a most public and humiliating manor during tense international negotiations. Does that not read like a high powered plot in a John Gisham inspired best seller?
Explorers of Katmai Country: In this series of posts, we’ll highlight different people tied to Katmai’s varied history.
The first person in this series was an adventurer, linguist, collector of antiquities, probable plunderer of historic documents, and the originator of mysterious crystal skulls. These descriptions and more can be applied to the nebulous French national Alphonse Pinart.
Every summer between twenty-five and forty million sockeye salmon return to the lakes, rivers, and streams of the Bristol Bay watershed. Against immeasurable odds, they have reached the apex of a salmon's life: the spawning period. It is on these spawning grounds where the individual stories of salmon become more apparent.
Who's on bottom of the bear hierarchy? Young subadult bears, like bear 500, that's who. On Sunday, October 5, part of an extended chase was seen on the River Watch bearcam. 435 Holly’s adopted yearling chased subadult bear 500 while Holly’s spring cub and Holly herself tried to keep up.
In May 2014 my wife, Ann, and I were vacationing on the southern Oregon coast. Upon checking my email while watching Pacific waves crash against sea stacks I saw an unexpected message from my former Katmai National Park supervisor. Curious, I thought. I have not heard from him in some time. “I know this is a long shot, but would you consider returning to Brooks Camp this summer?” he wrote.
Within the vast fresh water lakes of Katmai National Park and Preserve lie a hidden gem known as the Bay of Islands. Here nestled within the furthest reaches of the north arm of Lake Naknek, a one to hour motorized boat ride from Brooks Camp, stretches a happy geological accident of numerous granitic islands. These mostly unnamed islands jut out of the dark waters as deeply forested mounds, calling to mind the renowned coast line of Maine. As I glide my kayak through the tangled channels separating the mounds, which appear at a distance like green bristling mole hills, I can almost picture the long receded glaciers that carved these rock formations into the pleasing rounded shapes before me.
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.
July 1, 2014 was a stressful day for rangers and one yearling cub at Brooks Camp. Around 10 AM bear #402 became separated from her cub near the mouth of the Brooks River. The yearling walked and ran to Brooks Lodge and climbed a tree just outside of the lodge. The cub was not reunited with its mother until 8:15 PM. This situation highlights the challenges of managing people and bears at Brooks Camp.
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.