Klondike Kid's Field Notes for Brooks Camp Bear Viewing
Everyone visiting Brooks Camp to view the large numbers of brown bears feeding on migrating salmon and interacting with each other will want to maximize this once in a lifetime experience. This section of information is derived from firsthand experience and may provide those who plan to visit Brooks Camp the opportunity to capitalize on every moment they will be there. We'll give you an idea of how things are set up, what the routines usually are, and a few personal tips scattered about.
Dress for the weather. Although its summer, temperatures can be in the 50's and 60's, the wind can blow and there is always the chance of rain. Lightweight rain gear will keep you and your camera gear dry as well as act as a windbreaker to keep you warm.
The first viewing area, the lower bear viewing platform, is located at the mouth of the Brooks River where it enters Naknek Lake. Bears that use this area for fishing and feeding are generally the younger bears who have little seniority in the pecking order of brown bears. They are usually quite energetic as all youngsters are and their inexperience at catching fish can provide some wonderful video footage of their antics. The platform is quite large and will accommodate many more visitors than the upper platform. Bears may come quite close, sometimes even resting right beneath the support pillars which can provide some very close viewing and photos. The platform is built to prevent bears from entering it. This is also the viewing area where handicapped persons in wheelchairs have access.
Access to the lower viewing platform requires crossing a floating bridge on the river. Quite often bears will learn to fish quite close to this structure where salmon are schooling and easier to catch. They may even use the bridge themselves which will create delays in visitors accessing the lower viewing platform or wanting to leave to go to the upper viewing platform at the falls.
Expect delays due to the proximity of bears on the trail or around the viewing platforms. Bears always have the right-of-way and caution is always exercised by the park personnel assigned to managing the movement of visitors to and from each of the areas. Close encounters can occur at any time so keep those cameras and video gear handy.
The upper viewing platform is located at the upper end of Brooks River where there are a series of waterfalls. This is the classic bear fishing area you have seen on National Geographic wildlife programs. The platform is much smaller than the lower one, accommodating a maximum of 40 persons at one time. Delays can be frequent and lengthy for visitors. This is a high density bear area where animals move about frequently. Park personnel on the trail and at the platform coordinate the movement of guests in small groups, sending some out at the same time as a replacement group coming in.
The Brooks Falls area of the river is where the big males and the sows with cubs congregate to fish. Interaction between bears at this location is frequent and personalities as well as fishing techniques of each bear can be quite diverse. Close-up viewing is also possible here as bears move from one area to another.
Don't scrimp on your camera gear. A good video camera can provide some incredible memories of this experience and make you the envy of all your friends. If you take still photos, use a good 35mm camera equipped with a variable zoom lens or minimum of a 200mm telephoto with perhaps a doubler. Use a polarizing filter on your camera. It will cut some of the glare on the water and add more color saturation to vegetation in the photos. Take plenty of film, video tapes and batteries. For most Day Use visitors, this will be a one shot opportunity.
Viewing times are much shorter at the upper viewing area due to its smaller capacity than at the lower platform. During the peak visitation periods in July, viewing may be reduced to as little as 20 mins. per group. Bear encounter delays can provide those on the platform some additional bonus viewing time.
If you will be staying overnight in the campground or lodge, your opportunities for more viewing are increased. Rising early and beating the crowds, especially before the Day Use visitors arrive by plane, and viewing late in the day after these visitors have left will give you more quality time. Also early risers may get the chance to see brown bears walking along the lake shore on their way to the fishing grounds; something that doesn't happen after visitor activity increases later in the morning.
KUDOS: Thanks goes to Candace Ward, USFW, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, for her firsthand information provided in this material.
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