Walking through Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park is like walking through a reverse zoo. People are quarantined and shuffled around and blocked off to allow the iconic brown bears to go about their business in their own home.
The compact community of Brooks Camp consists of a National Park Visitor Center, a lodge with separate cabins, a campground, employee housing cabins, a dining hall, a restroom, and a gift shop. These buildings are close together with modern conveniences like walkways and lights, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe from the park’s curious creatures.
Cole and I strolled along the path connecting the Visitor Center to the lodge restaurant when we first experienced the bears at Katmai.
Immediately a ranger walked toward us, telling us to stop. We stood with other visitors in a spot near the trail, waiting for our next instructions but also trying to catch sight of our first Katmai grizzly. I was scared out of my mind. We had just been through the mandatory “bear school” and knew the protocol, but I was concerned that everyone around me seemed way too relaxed about the fact that we were just kind of standing there, waiting for a bear to walk toward us. Sure enough, the ranger watched carefully and walkie-talkied as the brown bear ambled along the trail a mere 50 yards from where we stood.
I didn’t like it, but I did feel safe.
The bear management at Brooks Camp is one of the most interesting things you’ll see if you visit this area of the park. The bear team literally sprints around camp, relaying information about bear whereabouts, quarantining visitors, and scaring bears out of the area, all day. They also station themselves at areas of the trail to Brooks Falls (of grizzly-catching-salmon fame), constantly updating each other when bears are on the move. Getting from point A to point B can take extra hours because a bear might decide to take a nap on the trail.
Bears rule at Brooks Camp.
And the system to handle these bears is incredible.
Even though the opportunities abound, there have been no negative bear encounters in the management system’s history. None! If you saw just how many bears are moseying around, you’d be impressed.
The rangers at Katmai maintain a few regulations to ensure the success of their system:
- Upon arrival, all visitors must attend “Bear School,” a 20-minute video + talk with a ranger in the visitor center.
- Visitors must stay 50 yards away from bears at all times. (Compared to Denali’s 300-yard rule, this is not very far)
- Several rangers are stationed at corners of the trail to Brooks Falls to provide constant updates about bear movements
- When a bear enters the developed Brooks Camp area, several rangers assist in the control of visitors
- Rangers present additional information about bears and bear management during evening programs and short talks
So why does this work so well at Katmai, yet there are still bear attacks at parks like Yellowstone? Rangers told us this was due to a variety of factors, namely the fact that bears here in Katmai are full. Bears in Yellowstone don’t have a salmon run in their backyard, so when they kill another animal, they become dangerously defensive of the carcass. These bears also have to be a lot more active while they constantly snack on berries and other low-protein foods. The bears at Katmai are just kings. They go fishing once or twice a day, then sleep to conserve energy the rest of the time.
Staying at Brooks Camp for a few days is a fascinating experience. Most of the conversation around the indoor lodge fire centered around those bears and what they were doing. People seem to respect the animals immensely, and we saw no one getting too close or taking any risks. Diehard visitors even know the names of each bear who walks by.
Living with bears is not only possible, but it’s necessary for the dozens of park rangers and concessionaire employees stationed here year-round. To witness these residents casually (but cautiously) detouring around an 800-lb bear like it was a squirrel was mind-blowing at first. But after three days in the park, we were practically doing the same thing. (Maybe a little less casually on my part).
Bears simply become part of your daily life from the time you enter the area to the time you leave.
I’m not sure that living with bears is my thing (I was still on high alert for a week after we left) but people certainly are changed by the experience. In a world of iron fences and plastic flyswatters, it’s refreshing to live among the animals for a few days. Katmai National Park makes it safe and accessible for humans and bears to enjoy this experience.
It is their home, after all.