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Brown Bear Photography at Brooks Falls

Brooks Falls Salmon Fishing Brown Bear.
A brown bear catches a spawning salmon at Brooks Falls.


Photographing grizzly bears in the wild had been on my bucket list for a long, long time.  I had researched many locations in and around Alaska, including Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, and the McNeil River Game Sanctuary.  But one location kept jumping to the top of the list.  Not because of flight schedules, accommodations, or scenery.  It was about one shot.  That one shot had lingered in my head for over a decade, which forced me to choose Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park as my first brown bear adventure.

Every now and then, you’ll see an image that makes your jaw drop.  I have seen several appealing images of grizzly bears over the years, but Thomas Mangelsen’s iconic image of a bear fishing the waterfall near Brooks Camp had, by far, made the biggest impression on me.  In many ways I think it was the single biggest reason that I wanted to photograph bears in the first place.  Like many outstanding action shots, Mangelsen’s timing was perfect, and it has left many photographers in awe. His shot was taken long before the digital area. To think that he captured this with film makes it even more impressive.


Getting there wasn’t going to be easy.  You can’t drive to Brooks Camp because there are no roads leading to it.  Taking a boat would be silly due to the cost and length of time needed.  Oddly enough, the Pacific Ocean is actually east of this location.  No commercial flights are available because there are no runways.  Well, with the exception of the lakes that surround the area.  In other words, it was time to get creative.

Brown bear sow protecting her cubs at Brooks Camp.
A sow protecting her cubs in Katmai National Park.

So the journey started with a commercial flight near my home in Iowa to Anchorage with a brief layover in Minneapolis.  After an overnight stay near the airport, I caught a short flight on Alaska Airlines to a tiny town called King Salmon, located near the Aleutian Mountain Range in Southwestern Alaska.  The following day involved a short flight on a float plane provided by the fellas at Katmai Air to finally touch down on the gorgeous Naknek lake, just east of Brooks Camp.  I was armed with three Nikons, three lenses, and enough camping gear to last me for five days.


If experience has taught me anything, it’s that if you try to chase one shot, you’ll likely end up empty handed.  To make matters worse, out of the 30 grizzlies that roam the area, only two were known to fish the falls, one of which had died the summer before.  Challenges are one of the things that make photography so enjoyable and for me, action photography is mostly about the thrill of the chase.  The real threat of failure is part of the rush.  Conditions change quickly.  Scenes change quickly.  Most importantly, subjects change quickly.  Send 100 photographers to the same location and you’ll likely get 100 different results.  In this scenario, you have a fast moving waterfall, a challenging lighting situation, salmon trying to jump five to six feet in the air, and a grizzly bear waiting at the top of the falls for her next meal.

I quickly learned that in order to capture the iconic shot a Brooks Falls, I was going to be faced with more challenges than I had anticipated.  First off, the salmon have to be jumping.  After many hours of research to plan the trip, I was confident that this would be the case during the month of July due to the salmon run.  That said, this proved to be extremely inconsistent.  Many hours would be spent staring at a waterfall without a fish in sight.  Secondly, I needed a bear to “fish the falls”.  The simple math told me that with one bear dead, my chance of success had been reduced by 50%.  While I was able to capture several images of bears throughout the area, Day 1 came and went without a single bear fishing from the top of the falls.  Day 2 was the same.  Day 3………total whiff.  So on Day 4 I had resigned myself to the fact that I was chasing a ghost.  Don’t get me wrong, Brooks Falls is an astoundingly amazing place with a high concentration of brown bears.  But as I had learned many times before, chasing one shot was likely to end up with a memory card full of disappointment.

Closeup shots of brown bears are tough to get in the wild.  One of the many reasons that Katmai National Park is such an amazing place.
Closeup shots of brown bears are tough to get in the wild. One of the many reasons that Katmai National Park is such an amazing place.

The sow showed up to save the day.  Well, at least she saved my trip in a lot of ways.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sow approaching the top of Brooks Falls with two yearling cubs.  After five days of travel, four nights in a tent, dozens and dozens of miles hiked with a 40 pound backpack, the clock was about to run out. This was my one and only opportunity to catch the iconic Brooks Falls image that I had been seeking for over a decade.

While I attempted to “geek the hell out of it” with multiple cameras setups and wireless remote triggers, this shot was ultimately captured the old fashioned way.  By using manual focus, ISO, white balance, and exposure, the camera’s job was easy.  The last thing I wanted was to capture an image that was garbage because my Nikon decided to outthink me.  Thankfully, the scene unfolded so fast that I didn’t have time to confuse myself in the fog of camera geekery.  Otherwise, I’d probably be planning my next trip to Brooks Falls.

Brown bear with salmon
Successfully catching a salmon in mid-air is a talent that escapes most brown bears at Brooks Falls. Just imagine trying to catch an 8-pound bag of flour in your mouth at a high rate of speed.

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