The bears of Katmai National Park

I was just six feet away from a 800lb giant in brown fur with huge paws and a jaw that could cause serious damage. Yet I was able to photograph this huge bear and come away safely.

It was exhilarating and it’s the type of incredible wildlife experience you can only have at the Katmai National Park in Southeast Alaska.

There are around 2,200 Alaskan brown bears that live in this active volcanic landscape that surrounds Mount Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. They are related to the Grizzly Bears found elsewhere in America.

They hibernate for around seven months of the year and lose a lot of body weight during that time. Of course they wake up hungry and just in time for the summer months when salmon returns to the Alaskan rivers in their millions. This means these bears are so well nourished they soon become plump up and often grow to be the biggest in the world.

So, the best time to be there is during the summer months when you can watch the adept way they fish, feed their cubs and teach the cubs how to fish.

They can be seen at Brooks River and even more so at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park catching sockeye salmon in June and July and silver salmon in late August and September.

Getting there is an adventure in itself. I had to catch a small four-seater plane and the Beaver floatplane I was in skimmed over the emerald green expanse of Southeast Alaska and ended with a smooth landing on a calm and glassy Lake Naknek finally coasting up to a sandy beach at Brooks Camp.

If I was nervous about arriving at Katmai National Park I was more nervous about getting there in small plane with only one engine.

Bear & Floatplane c Jim Chamberlain
Bear & Floatplane (c) Jim Chamberlain
I knew any adventure to Alaska, even in the summer, would be weather dependent. I was there in late July and was lucky that it was warm, partly cloudy with patches of blue sky peeking through the cloud cover.

I couldn’t wait to get my camera out of my backpack and get going but first I had to attend “Bear School” by a Park Ranger before before continuing my trek to the bears. This lasted around 30 minutes and we learned about the bears and their habits and especially how to keep all of your parts intact. The rules of engagement are simple and easy to follow. Testament to that is that I still have all my parts even after having a very close encounter on the trail.