The Blowing Preserve

August 26, 2014 Posted by: Mark Kaufman

A bear fishes the confluence of the Moraine and Funnel Creeks
Many bears fish Moraine Creek in August. (NPS/M. Fitz)

Brown bears are the consummate omnivores, and Katmai National Park and Preserve provides an untrammeled land for its most dominant inhabitant to travel in search of food of all shapes and sizes. Bear scat proves this well; one can easily identify blueberries, grass, and pungently digested salmon in summer bear droppings. And come August, the creeks and rivers of the Katmai Preserve, perched atop the northern tip of park, are a place to watch your step for this diversely composed scat.
 

Maximizing caloric value, though, serves as the bears' unmatched motivator. The bears of Katmai have watched and learned the habits of sockeye salmon well, and they have come to expect the arrival of these salmon at certain times in very specific places. The Brooks River, for instance, is a popular place for a population of brown bears to visit in July and capitalize upon a river that sees an early salmon run. The oldest known Brooks River bear, a large female numbered 410, has been visiting the river for over two decades.
 

But when the salmon density wanes, bears will depart for more profitable fishing destinations. In August, two creeks and their confluence see another profound concentration of brown bears: Moraine and Funnel Creeks, located in the Katmai Preserve. The salmon here begin arriving in early August after an impressive one hundred mile journey up the serpentine Alagnak River and through Kukaklek Lake. Here, the brown bears shun their solitary tendencies and await the salmon's arrival.

Google Earth image of 100 mile journey of salmon to Moraine Creek
The red line in this satellite image of Katmai marks the freshwater journey of sockeye salmon as they return to Katmai National Preserve. The boundaries of Katmai National Preserve are marked in green. (Google Earth)

These two creeks run in the high tundra, at eleven hundred feet, where the landscape has been carved into smooth slopes and gentle ridges by past glaciers. Moraine Creek is certainly an apt name; it has carved through an impressive cake of glacial deposits containing rocks of all origins and colors, ground together, mixed, and mashed by creeping glaciers. In fact, a popular bear viewing spot is at the edge of these glacial deposits. One can look down twenty feet into the river and observe brown bears dashing at dense clusters of red salmon.

In the glaciers receded absence, one will find that tundra has encroached upon the land-- blueberries and crowberries grow rampant on the ground and upon the hills. Taller shrubs, like green alders find shelter and hospitable growing conditions in the lee of wind protected ridges. Willows, though, are not so particular; they'll grow in the open and adopt a westward leaning character from the incessant east wind.

Even when the creeks are stocked with starkly red fish, the bears will sometimes vanish. Do they take refuge in the willows or bed down beneath the alders? One can't be sure, but some folks think that the wind may make bears more wary. Brown bears rely primarily on their keen sense of smell—a sense several times stronger than that of bloodhounds—but when the wind blows over the open habitat near Moraine Creek, one can experience sustained winds of thirty miles per hour, and gusts all the greater. When howling winds disperse important scents, might the bears become less confident in their surroundings, and consequently become less active? And who can blame them? Would you venture outside if environmental factors made you almost blind?

An anemometer measures nearly gale-force winds in Katmai National Preserve
A handheld anemometer measures sustained winds over 30 miles per hour (49 kilometers/hour). (NPS/S. Wolman)

Indeed, Katmai National Preserve is a wild place. There are no signs, nor benches to sit on. There is no hope of making a phone call or finding shelter from the storm. But that is the attraction of the high tundra in the blowing Katmai Preserve, where nature can be somewhat predictable and the elements fickle, but fleet footed red foxes will pass you on the trail, and they always seem to know where they're going.

Sunset over Crosswinds Lake
(NPS/S. Wolman)

Katmai National Preserve, bears, salmon, weather




8 Comments Comments icon

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  2. September 02, 2014 at 06:24
     

    @ Cody: Good thoughts. Bears are especially interested in nearby scents. A sow with a cub, for instance, would be interested in knowing where other bears in the area are, to avoid bringing her cub into proximity with any potential danger. As for Bear 410, she made her September return to the Brooks River in a timely fashion--yesterday. She must have spent her monthlong absence at other rivers or creeks with dense concentrations of salmon; she looks quite big, and fit for hibernation.

     
  3. September 02, 2014 at 05:57
     

    @ Jake: As with most places in Katmai, the answer is floatplane. Getting to Moraine and Funnel Creeks is no different. Small floatplanes land on the aptly named Crosswinds Lake. A 5 to 10 minute walk along a distinct and regularly used trail will lead you to the confluence of Moraine and Funnel Creeks, and hopefully some great bear viewing. Over 100 concessionaires serve Katmai National Park and Preserve, many of which offer flights and guided tours. They can be found here: go.nps.gov/1i7ykf During the summer season, Brooks Camp is the most popular park destination. The park concessionaire here, Katmailand, offers seat fares on flights to and from Brooks Camp. The ideal months for bear viewing here are July and September, as opposed to August.

     
  4. September 02, 2014 at 01:30
     

    Sounds like a magical place. The tidbit about bear 410's 20+ year tenure is impressive. I guess the bears are the true locals there. Also interesting that the bears might not be too keen on losing their sense of smell in the wind. I'm sure that would get confusing. What an intense mixture of scents from near and far would be carried in those strong winds.

     
  5. September 01, 2014 at 01:55
     

    How do you get there?

     
  6. August 31, 2014 at 01:34
     

    @Dngr Rngr: During our mid-August trip to the Katmai Preserve, when the bears vanished, as they commonly did, it happened in or near thick communities of alder and willow, which grow thick on both banks of Moraine and Funnel Creeks. The Moraine cut-bank overlook is a great opportunity to observe this happen: A bear will catch a salmon and then might choose to eat it along the bank of the river, and in doing so moves into a thick collection of willows. And then the bear, no matter how big, dark, and imposing he or she might be--disappears completely, without a whisper of movement! Here at Brooks Camp we commonly see something similar, although it's not always shrubs that the bears disappear into, but high grasses. Visitors to Brooks Camp will have the opportunity to see bears vanish into these high grasses from the Lower River Platform. Look out for this, September visitors......

     
  7. August 28, 2014 at 06:04
     

    Good post! Are the bears able to find much shelter on the tundra? Are there enough alder and willow to house a large and cantankerous concentration of ursines?

     
  8. August 26, 2014 at 07:01
     

    Profoundly well written and dramaticly enticing missive. The author should be elected head of the chamber of commerce. My interest level is on tip toes. Good grace in heaven which way do I steer?

     
 
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