On Tuesday afternoon, online viewers tuned into the Dumpling Mountain live camera in Katmai National Park and Preserve, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of the park’s famous brown bears. Instead, all they could see was a desolate mountainside shrouded in a thick mist.
So it was a surprise when a soaked hiker entered the frame and paused in front of the camera.
Although there was no live audio, he seemed to say “lost” and “help me” several times, according to commenters who said they were able to read his lips.
“There is someone distressed on the camera,” one viewer posted in the Explore.org live cam comments around 8 p.m. Eastern.
Viewers notified Explore.org staff, who in turn notified their partners at the National Park Service. Within hours of those early warnings, a search and rescue team escorted the hiker to safety.
“That was a first for the bear cams for sure,” said Mike Fitz, a resident naturalist with Explore.org and creator of Fat Bear Week — an online bracket-style tournament measuring the pre-hibernation preparation of Katmai bears that has brought the park fame in recent years.
Hiking to the mountain’s overlook is described by the Park Service as “moderately strenuous.” It’s an 800-foot climb over 1.5 miles from Brooks Camp, where visitors from around the world come to fish and observe the park’s brown bears. To climb to the mountain’s summit is another 2.5 miles without a maintained trail.
Thanks to the concerned webcam viewers and Explore.org staff, park rangers were notified of the distressed hikers, says Cynthia Hernandez, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. And shortly after the viewers began commenting, an Explore.org moderator posted: “Thanks viewers for letting us know. Explore is aware and able to get in touch with Katmai. They are also reviewing the footage.”
“The park sent a search and rescue team to find the hiker, who was caught in windy and rainy conditions with poor visibility,” Hernandez said in an email. “Park rangers found the hiker a few hours later, unharmed, and brought the hiker back to safety.”
Online, viewers watched rangers emerge from the fog, locate the hiker and help him down the mountain. There was a wave of elation in the live chat comments as well as in the Facebook group for fans of the park’s bears.
“Aaaand I’m crying because I’m so relieved. I first noticed that hiker about 3.5 hrs ago. Those rangers made it up there fast!” one commenter posted.
It had been a wet, windy afternoon on the park’s Dumpling Mountain, where some of the park’s bears are known to hibernate during the winter.
“Weather up there was really poor that day … about 50 feet visibility,” Fitz said.
Fitz, who was previously a Katmai ranger, said weather can change quickly in the park. With Katmai’s proximity between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, the region is stormy.
“And the weather on top of the mountain is often much, much worse than what you find across the [Brooks] river,” he added.
As in the rest of the park, there is no cell service on Dumpling Mountain. And where the hiker was lost, there wasn’t any shelter, either. Around the mountain camera there aren’t any trees, just alpine tundra. Fortunately, that made it easier to spot the camera’s large tower, solar panels, radio antennae and wind turbine.
The Explore.org live cameras in Katmai are best known for capturing footage of the area’s healthy brown bear population. From late spring to early fall, viewers around the world tune in to watch the bears binge salmon before hibernation. Viewership of the park’s seven cameras surge around the time of Fat Bear Week.
However, the camera on Dumpling Mountain sees considerably less action than the ones pointed at the park’s most popular fishing spots.
“There are thousands of people watching the webcams all the time, and while the Dumpling Mountain camera has people watching it all the time, there’s not that many,” Fitz said. “It’s not the most scenic camera … especially on a day when it’s completely fogged in.”
So it’s something of a miracle that anyone noticed the distressed hiker.
Fitz was enjoying a quiet evening at home when he got a work message about the incident. He helped communicate with Katmai rangers and camera operators to keep an eye out on the hiker. Many of the cameras at the park are simple models, but the one on the mountain was supposed to be able to play an alarm message. Fitz and the team recorded one and tried playing it to the hiker even though they weren’t sure if he could hear it.
“I said, ‘We’re aware of your situation. The rangers are on their way. It may take them some time to get there. Please stay where you are. Let’s try to stay warm,’” Fitz said.
Whether the hiker got the message, he stayed near the camera until rangers arrived and was able to walk down on his own.
“We want to thank the fans for raising the alarm and we want to thank the park for jumping into action quickly,” Fitz said.
The next day, after fans finished celebrating and the fog cleared, the Dumpling Mountain live chat returned to business as usual with bear enthusiast posting screenshots of idyllic wilderness views and updates on bear activity in the nearby river.
“Lots [of] fishing with the bears,” one user commented.