KATMAI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE — You won’t be able to hear a bear walking behind you here. Despite weighing around 1,000 pounds each, the park’s roughly 2,200 brown bears are inordinately quiet. But you will register their roars from deep in the woods. And the snapping of salmon spines when an apex predator cracks open a cold one.
Those sounds are particularly loud in a “bear vortex,” which is how wildlife guide and photographer Jon Kuiper describes being surrounded by four bears. A “bear-nado” means you’re at the center of six bears. Eight bears is a “bear-nami,” and “double digits is just, like, ‘bear-icane,’” said Kuiper, 35, who has earned the nickname “Bear Daddy.” He has a large tattoo of his favorite bear, 32 “Chunk,” on his right triceps.
Kuiper works at Brooks Lodge at Brooks Camp, arguably the best place in the world to see swarms of bears up close.
Brooks has garnered international fame thanks to webcams that have been live-streaming from the park since 2012, as well as Fat Bear Week, an online tournament celebrating the bears as they bulk up for hibernation. More than a million votes were cast in Fat Bear Week ‘22, and 10 million people tuned in to the cameras last June through October.
Some bears now boast celebrity status, such as Kuiper’s beloved Chunk, and 480 “Otis,” one of the oldest regulars at Brooks River. Devotees support their favorites by buying merch and writing songs. Superfans follow the bears like the Kardashians — getting to know their personalities, fishing styles and family lines — but only the most dedicated complete the trip to Alaska.
‘Summer camp’ for fat bear fanatics
It’s impressive that anyone makes it to Katmai. Getting to the motherland of fat bears requires the kind of time and money Taylor Swift fans put into attending the Eras Tour. First there’s the flight(s) to Alaska. Then a floatplane or water taxi to the park (you can’t drive there) that will set you back at least $400, round-trip.
“There’s nothing easy about figuring out how to get here,” said Margo Egli, owner of Bear Trail Cabins and Campsite in King Salmon, the town many use as a jumping-off point to get to Brooks Camp.
To stay the night at Brooks, you have to enter a lottery system with bleak odds to reserve one of the lodge’s 16 rooms. Each sleeps four and costs $955 per night, before tax. The alternative is day-tripping — a risky (and expensive) option, given Alaska’s mercurial climate — or staying at the 60-person campground, which is also competitive to reserve. Backcountry camping in bear country is free.
“If you’re here, I think usually it’s because you really want to be here,” said Melissa Freels, an Oregon resident whose September visit marked her 12th trip to Brooks Camp.
In 2018, Freels started a private Facebook group to help other bear enthusiasts navigate the intricacies of planning a Katmai trip. It now has more than 7,000 members who swap travel tips, gear recommendations and bear photos from their Brooks adventures. The group keeps a running list of who’s visiting Katmai and when. Members team up to share lodging.
“Some people call it summer camp because we tend to come the same time of year,” said Freels, 50. “It’s a really just great community of people.”
There were 33,908 recorded visitors to Katmai in 2022, a fraction of Yellowstone’s more than 3 million, and down from a pre-pandemic high of 84,167 in 2019, and a little more than half ended up at Brooks Camp. Cynthia Hernandez, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, said in an email that many factors contribute to park visitation, “so without further data, we can’t confirm an increase or decrease in visitation due to Fat Bear Week itself.”
That data is coming. Lynne Lewis, an environmental and natural resource economist at Bates College in Maine, is working on a survey of park visitors.
Although she can’t speak to those results yet, Lewis can say that “visitation has exploded” and that the combination of the bear cams and Fat Bear Week does seem be a contribution. On the bear-viewing platforms, people flock like paparazzi to ID and photograph the ursine A-list. Seeing 128 “Grazer” or 435 “Holly” are ultimate bragging rights.
Bears as far as the eye can see
I paid $185, excluding tip, to join Freels and her friend from Spain on a guided bear-viewing excursion along the Brooks River. Most visitors stay on the bear-proof wildlife-viewing platforms around Brooks Camp, but if you apply for a permit or go with a professional guide, you can get into the river with the bears.
In loaner wader overalls, the three of us followed our guide, Evan Rosatelli, 30, through forests of spruce and birch trees to the riverbank, where we tromped through muddy, tall grass in search of bears. They were not hard to find.
We ran into one sleeping on the trail on our way over. There were at least a dozen in the river, and a few more in the surrounding woods. There were huge bears, leaner bears, babies with their mothers. Everywhere you looked, majestic bears.
That meant we could never stay in one place for long; park rules require visitors to stay at least 50 yards from bears at all times. You learn that in mandatory “bear school,” which is required for all visitors at Brooks Camp, even seasoned regulars like Freels.
The curriculum involves a catchy 10-minute video and ranger talk. A few key takeaways: Never run from, feed or scare the bears; if one comes your way, talk to it in a calm voice; and never carry any food or scented items on you.
At the end of class, rangers hold up items left behind by visitors that have been mangled beyond repair by bears. The message is not to leave your belongings unattended, but it’s not a huge mental leap to imagine a bear doing the same to a human body; it’s a necessary reminder, after years of conditioning that bears are cuddly. (See teddy bears, Paddington, the Sleepytime tea bear.)
The park takes these rules seriously to maintain its surreal harmony. So far in its history, there has been little conflict. There were some “pawings” at Brooks Camp in 2018, and a swatting in the backcountry in 2021, but neither resulted in severe injuries.
Mike Fitz, a former Katmai ranger who created Fat Bear Week in 2014, writes about the worst Brooks Camp incident in his book, “The Bears of Brooks Falls” (the bible for park visitors and Fat Bear fans alike). In 1966 — before an electric fence was installed around the Brooks Camp campground, and rules around food storage weren’t strict — a camper was dragged from his sleeping bag by a bear. He was dropped after screaming (“my impression was that the animal was startled,” the man told Fitz) and required five months of hospital recovery in Anchorage.
The most extreme example became the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 film, “Grizzly Man,” wherein a some 1,000-pound bear fatally mauled activist Timothy Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, 37. They were on the Katmai coast clear across the park from Brooks Camp.
Unbothered by paparazzi
It took me a minute to register the bear beelining at us.
Like the Tourons of Yellowstone, I was focused on documenting the scene — and dodging piles of dead sockeye discarded like garlands of organ meat.
Had this happened a few days earlier, I might have panicked. But I’d been to bear school. Rosatelli and Freels weren’t screaming or folding into the fetal position, so I didn’t, either. We turned to retreat calmly, and the bear juked a hard right — maybe just executing a “dash and grab” fishing technique.
“If bears were as bad as people think, there’d be a thousand maulings a year,” said Tim Rubbert, author of “Hiking With Grizzlies: Lessons Learned,” who was spending two weeks camping at Brooks. “Bears aren’t out there looking for you.”
The bears at Brooks Camp are habituated to people, meaning they’re used to us gawking at them with cameras and fishing in their river. Bear management technicians, or “bear techs,” also “haze” the bears to discourage them from getting too comfortable around people. This “aversive conditioning” may be as mild as yelling or clapping to usher them out of camp, or, in rare cases when bear behavior is deemed more dangerous, using bear spray or rubber bullets.
“Bears pop out on people frequently here,” said Eric Johnston, a biological science tech in the bear management office. “We never want to say it’s a ‘safe place,’ but bears are very habituated here.”
Johnston added: “As long as you can be still and quiet and give them enough room to operate without discomfort, they’ll cruise right by you.”
Hours into our bear tour, Freels’s friend from Spain gasped. She’d spotted Otis, the four-time king of Fat Bear Week, emerging from the woods across the river.
The legend had been missing for a few days, now here he was. His massive ham hocks dragged through the water, fat and muscle rippling with each heaving step. It felt like a celebrity sighting; bear Robert De Niro just came out of nowhere.
Rosatelli said he has encountered a range of Otis fans. “One lady was reading him poems off the Falls (viewing platform),” Rosatelli said. “And she was definitely crying.”
Too many tourists?
People are allowed to fish in the Brooks with a permit, and although the lodge draws more interest for bears than world-class rainbow trout, it still gets both kinds of visitors.
We watched a couple of fishermen in the water shirk basic rules, such as taking photos with their fish as bears closed within 10 yards.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges with people in the river not behaving the way they should,” said the park’s media ranger, Naomi Boak.
The issue goes beyond anglers and the river. Staff must constantly remind travelers not to approach wildlife for photographs throughout Brooks Camp. It’s the same bad behavior Katmai ranger Gil Molina saw working at Yellowstone National Park for a decade, but at a much smaller scale.
As wild as it feels now, it used to be even wilder.
“The bears would come right through camp — people would be banging pots,” said James Kistler, 62, a software engineer from Arizona who has been camping at Brooks regularly since the pre-fence ‘90s.
Kistler found out about Katmai from a Lonely Planet guidebook. He has watched the visitor numbers increase over the years but thinks the real surge came when the webcams were installed.
“This place got real busy,” he said. “A lot of times I’ll come in July, and July here — it’s a madhouse. There are hundreds of day-trippers.”
When Richard Russell, a retired fish and game biologist who lives in King Salmon, started visiting Brooks Camp in 1973, there were no elevated platforms for bear viewing, just a bench alongside the river.
“Once they put the platforms in, people felt more secure,” said Russell, 77. “It’s easier now than it used to be.”
As infrastructure continued to improve, visitation continued to increase. With no limit on the number of day-trippers allowed at Brooks Camp, and hordes of people arriving daily during peak season, you can see why the more time you spend at Katmai, the more you hear employees and visitors describe it as a “ticking time bomb” or “Jurassic Park with bears.”
The risk level can feel confusing as a visitor. Once you’ve gone to bear school, you’re free to roam in one of the most remote parks in America, where there’s zero cell service and a dangerous-but-also-not population of wild animals around every corner. You’re allowed to hike Dumpling Mountain, where some bears make their dens for hibernation. Or walk the shores of the otherworldly blue Naknek Lake and compare your shoe prints to the fresh, behemoth paw prints in the sand.
Inside the wood-paneled Brooks Lodge, there’s a bar with a few stools, a buffet restaurant that serves three meals a day, and a large fire pit with 11 plush chairs circled around it. Hang around, and you’ll meet the range of travelers who venture to Katmai.
Everyone seemed to feel as if they made it to Brooks in the nick of time. One Explore.org bear-cam moderator told me it may be her last trip; the place feels too commercial since it replaced a floating viewing platform with a permanent bridge. Others complained of the crowds and the cost.
“I just don’t want to see it get wrecked like Glacier or Yellowstone,” said Rubbert, who lives in Montana.
Then there were the starry-eyed go-getters on a mission to visit every national park, and young people coming off their summer working in other parts of Alaska. There were wildlife photographers wielding three-foot-long camera lenses. There were multigenerational families, empty-nesters from China, solo campers on big Alaska adventures.
They were passionate and elated to be there. Like the burly veteran from San Diego who had an active MRSA infection in his leg and refused to cancel his trip. There was no way he was missing such a special opportunity.
“If I die out here ... I’ll die doing something I truly love,” he told me.