Exploring Bear Country in Katmai National Park, Alaska
We soar above the wild and rugged Alaskan terrain of Katmai National Park and Preserve. It’s my first time in a float plane and I am surprised at how smooth the ride is considering its tiny size. We land on vibrant aquamarine Naknek Lake and instantly spot two HUGE grizzly bears on the beach. We are quickly ushered to a “holding spot” by a National Park Service ranger, who is on his radio planning our navigation around a sow and her cubs. My heart is racing and it feels like a film set of a Planet Earth documentary.
At any moment I’m expecting David Attenborough to pop out of the trees
We are eventually cleared for travel down the path towards the Ranger’s Station. It is there that we are briefed on all things bears and how to NOT end up as dinner. Onwards to the campground to secure our spot for the night. Matthew and I get maybe 50 yards down the trail before spotting a bear on the beach, only steps from where we need to walk by. A ranger redirects us to an alternate unmaintained forest trail, so off we go, bush whacking through the long grass yelling “hey bear” every few seconds (and shaking in our boots).
The campground has an electric fence surrounding it, though bears have passed through it in previous years. After settling in, we decide to head off to see the bears at Brooks Falls – the main reason we came to Katmai National Park… and what a treat it was! During the first 2 hours at the Lower Overlook we encounter at least 20 bears, including multiple sows and their cubs.
The overlooks are raised and “bear proof” (I mean, they could probably get up there if they REALLY wanted to), which means you can get extremely up close and personal with the wildlife. After this successful encounter we venture onwards to the Brooks Falls Overlook. The journey there isn’t without drama, for we come within 15 yards of a male grizzly on the trail. Luckily he is way more interested in the prospect of eating salmon than us… so we continue on.
Waiting for us at Brooks Falls are numerous hungry bears feeding on a seemingly endless supply of salmon. The bears are having a field day feasting on the rich food source, some eating 30+ salmon in one day! We take WAY too many photos and hours of video footage.
After 8 full hours of standing and not eating (no food allowed outside of the lodge or campground), I decide to head to the lodge for a bite to eat. Matthew, being the crazy guy he is, pushes through the starvation and opts to continue shooting while I’m gone. An hour or so later I start the journey back to the Falls, only to be stopped by a ranger due to a “bear jam”. This is the term used to describe when a bear is within 50 yards of the trail, thus that section needs to be shut down until the bear moves on. Bear jams are the reason that visitors can get stuck on either side of the river for hours at time. Luckily I don’t have to wait long before a ranger can escort a group of us along the lakeshore towards the bridge entrance.
Matthew is waiting for me across the bridge at the Lower Falls Overlook, tired and hungry but buzzing with creative energy. When shooting he seems to go into some sort of super human state that allows him to skip meals, go without sleep, and omit bathroom breaks for a ridiculous amount of time (like 24 hours!) I think I am tougher than the average person, but that man’s resilience is beyond anything I can muster.
Onwards to the falls we go. We encounter numerous BIG bears on the trail, including one running in our direction. We swiftly move out of the way and exclaim to each other just how wild this place is. Eventually we make it to Brooks Falls Overlook and are treated to some gorgeous golden light and endless bear entertainment. The bears are literally gorging on salmon after salmon, with no indication of slowing down. At almost 10pm we decide to head back to the campsite for some much needed rest.
We set our alarm and are asleep within minutes… only to do it all again the next day
Here are some more images from our time in Katmai National Park and Preserve – all credit going to myself and my husband, Matthew Hahnel. We shot with the following cameras/lenses: Sony a7RII + Sony 70-200mm f/4 and Canon 1DX Mark II + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L. Read more about my travel photography gear in this blog post.
You can check out more about our National Parks Road Trip with Drink Evolve here, including a guide for visiting Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Disclaimer – Our National Parks Road Trip is sponsored by Drink Evolve, though all opinions and reviews are (as always) my own. The camera gear linked in this post contain Amazon affiliate links, which means that (at no cost to you) I receive a very small amount of the sales value if you choose to make a purchase. Thank you for supporting my blog!