Katmai National Park is best-known for its three prime attractions: bears, bears and more bears. Within Katmai’s borders lie several spectacular mountains, such as Mt. Douglas volcano and Four-Peak Mountain, as well as scenic creeks, rivers and lakes that are seasonally teeming with salmon. While brown bears draw the majority of visitors, salmon draw the bears.
After circling through the vast Pacific over their brief lifetimes, millions of salmon return to the very spot where they were hatched in order to spawn and renew the cycle. These brilliantly-hued fish attract not only photographers, but hordes of fishermen, and both are eager for just the right trophy.
Perhaps the most popular little spot in this four-million-acre national park is Brooks Falls. An easy one-mile stroll up the Brooks River from rustic Brooks Lodge, the wide but surprisingly low Brooks Falls is a prime migration route for the determined salmon on their way back to the tiny gravel-filled creeks of their birth. The salmon-rich waters attract a multitude of big, hungry brown grizzlies eager to put on as much weight as possible as they prepare for their long winter’s nap.
It is likely that most of the images that you have seen of big brown bears catching jumping salmon in their gaping jaws were made right here at Brooks Falls.
As a rule, Katmai’s voracious grizzlies are so intent on catching and eating their sushi buffet that they pretty much ignore the photographers who are sometimes lined up tripod-to-tripod along the riverbank. Of course, best wildlife practices—such as moving slowly, being quiet and generally unobtrusive—are important here. A long lens will be useful, but not as long as you might think. You are likely to be so close to these hefty omnivores that a medium-long zoom will be the most useful.
Brown bears also frequent the Brooks River crossing just a short walk from the lodge. The footbridge there is well-patrolled by national park rangers and may be closed intermittently throughout the day for the safety of both the four-legged as well as the two-legged visitors.
Another great spot to see and photograph grizzly bears in Katmai is Geographic Harbor. As the name implies, this area is right on the coast and is reachable by small plane from Homer, Alaska. The choice of location depends upon the salmon run which can vary widely week by week and requires skill to track and predict.
In addition to the bears (and the salmon), Katmai offers a few photogenic spots that are accessible from the Brooks Lodge.
First is the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, reached only by a lodge-operated big yellow bus. The combination ride and hike takes most of a day and is well worth your time. This volcanic area was named for the massive eruption of the once huge Novarupta volcano which literally blew its stack back in 1912. For decades after that, this whole valley continued to simmer and smolder from countless small vents. Hence, its unusual but descriptive name.
Naknek Lake is just steps away from the lodge. If luck prevails, you might be fortunate enough to catch a rainbow there. The lake is well-known for sport fishing, including fishing for sockeye, king, pink and chum salmon.
The best way to travel to Brooks Lodge is by air from Anchorage. Research weather conditions and prepare appropriately. Make your lodge reservations early as rooms could be scarce when the salmon are most plentiful. Once you reach the lodge, you will be relying solely on foot power.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer and co-founder of Master Image Workshops. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.MasterImageWorkshops.com which also lists tours to national parks led by Jerry or photographer Kerrick James