Katmai After Hours: The Story of 856 and 402

The “What”

I was in Katmai National Park July 17 – 21, and during that time I had the opportunity to observe the courting behaviors of the now famous couple: bear 856 and bear 402. 

402 next to the platform
402 next to the platform

Before I left for Alaska last week, I had been aware that 402 had abandoned her yearling cub and may have gone into estrus while big and burly 856 was hot in pursuit (thanks to explore.org). Having this knowledge in the back of my head, I understood the motivations behind the playful teasing and flirting when I first witnessed it between these two bears at the falls. Given how low salmon counts were and, at times, driving rain, this courtship became a source of comic relief for those of us on the platform, and we projected our human emotions onto the couple.  Several times 402 came inches from the platform, and when 402 was near, you knew 856 wasn’t far.  At times their behavior was cute, but most of the time it was as you would expect from a bear: aggressive.  856 behaved like a jealous boyfriend. He would let his frustration be known to his fellow bears at the falls by frequently chasing them off. But who wouldn’t be frustrated after a fruitless week or two of female stalking?

Sharing the falls
Sharing the falls

The “Who”

July 20 was a beautiful day in Katmai, sunny, warm, and a cloudless blue sky, and a far cry from the washout on the previous day. Despite the nice weather, the salmon counts were low (at most 2 or 3 jumping the falls in a minute) and the bear activity at the falls reflected this.  The sub-adults and cub-adults were doing their belly flops in the riffles and Otis was in the jacuzzi.  Despite this lull, Meril and I maintained our position at the falls from 08:00-23:00.  By mid afternoon, 402 (for the non-bear community’s sake lets call her what the bearcam watchers call her “Brooke“) came up the river with 856 shadowing close behind (lets just call him “Hank“)  . They continued to play this mostly one-sided game of follow-the-leader.  Hank’s aggression was clear to everyone- human, bear and seagull- he even drove Otis away from the whirlpool. As the shadows began to make their way across the river, and the quality of light increased, Brooke decided, while Hank observed, to tease another large and dominant bear…

Bear 747 had been fishing in the jaccuzi when he decided to climb the waterfall and stand in the sun.  Brooke got up from the bank she was sitting on and went up to where 747 was standing. The angst was instantaneous for Hank. The agitated big bear jumped the falls to be by Brooke’s side, and a small standoff ensued. Hank and 747 settled their dispute like true bear gentlemen, requiring only jawing and light pawing. Once it was settled Hank took his prize and headed away from the falls into the woods…I thought it would be the last I saw of the pair that evening…

Bear Business
Bear Business

The “Deed”

Grazer walks in on something she doesn't want to see
Grazer walks in on something she doesn’t want to see

At 21:40 we decided to leave the falls and make our way back to camp along the walkway. We had an early morning boat ride to Margot and could use the rest. We passed through the heavy metal gate closest to the falls, and were stunned to observe what was in front of us.  Brooke and Hank, right before us, getting it on, bear style. The coupling was hot and steamy. Literally. There was steam escaping between their wet bodies in the forest light. There was a lot of snarling, nuzzling, ear nibbling, and vicious growling and biting. As the steam picked up, they heard a noise and quickly scattered. It looked like the farmer’s daughter and the traveling salesman were busted. I could see Grazer (blondie with big ears) up on the hill, but Grazer could not see the couple, and the couple could not see her. Both sets of bears tried to sniff out who or what was there. When Grazer realized that Brooke had suddenly spotted her. Grazer didn’t need any further instructions, she took to her heels and sprinted up the hill away from them, but Brooke chased after her, and Hank chased Brooke.  Brooke and Hank made a short, but speedy, loop on the hill and returned to the same spot they were before. Without skipping a beat, Brooke and Hank were at it again – the Grazer disruption lasted 54 seconds in total (according to the time stamps in my photos).

Small bear at 23:00 looking for salmon at the mouth of the Brooks River
Small bear at 23:00 looking for salmon at the mouth of the Brooks River

In its entirety, the mating session lasted about an hour, and during that hour Brooke and Hank moved and changed positions. It seemed that several times Brooke tried to tell Hank that she wasn’t having much fun anymore, but Hank didn’t seem to care, and would growl or cuff her when she objected. At one point while pointing my 600mm lens at the bears, I whispered down to my friend Meril who also had his 600mm out:  “This isn’t weird, right?”

At the end, when both bears separated, and they began to vigorously pull tufts of grass and eat it. Then Brooke skipped off towards the river. Hank still followed, but with the deed done, he moved with less urgency and even found the time to stand up and get a good backscratch on a tree…

We were left with a 1.6 mile walk back to camp, and a lot to discuss along the way.  And there were plenty of other bears still out as we reached the lower river in the gentle Alaskan summer twilight…

More Blog Posts to follow on the results of this trip.

Link to Meril’s Photos

Grizzly Mating www.mnmwow.com

Previous Katmai Posts

2014 Katmai: Pre-Spawn Preparation
2013 Katmai: Gear People Bears
2013 Katmai: Bear Behavior
2013 Katmai: Float Plane Lift
2013 Katmai: Cubs
2013 Katmai Packing List
2013 Otis Eats a Salmon

The gallery below is in chronological order, the events on July 20 unfolded in the order shown (the first photo is from the day before):

Back to Alaska: Pre-Salmon Spawn Preparation in Katmai

While sitting in my Mountain View office counting down the days/hours, it is difficult to contain the excitement I feel before my return to the Alaska Peninsula and the coastal brown bears that live there. 

July is all about the falls. Brooks Falls.  In the pre-salmon spawn days, this fall line acts like a speed bump, and delays the salmon’s arrival at its spawning ground.  This bottleneck also happens to be the spot where the bears are at their highest concentration. In some years 70 bears have been recorded in the river at one time, jockeying for prime fishing spots. The falls typically feature the largest and most dominant males, but at times there are some bold (or starving) females+cubs. It is at the falls that I will spend the bulk of my time on this trip.

In preparation, I have been viewing the webcam, scouting the behavior trends of the bears. Based on the behavior of the last week, as the salmon run started to ramp up, most of the activity was early to late afternoon, and continued long into the evening and after midnight (sunset is after 23:30).  Another good sign is the salmon have really started jumping today, with much higher frequency than in previous days. This is an important consideration because, like the bears on the falls, we humans may have to share time on the platform. So it will be good to know when the best times to be on the falls platform is. 

As such, the photography may take a slightly different focus than other wildlife trips.  First, the bears are going to be close. So close that my 600mm may not be the most practical focal length.  Of course, I am still planning to bring that behemoth and will use that predominantly with the 1D-X, but lets see what my secondary lens on the 6D will be.  Most likely will keep the 70-200mm at the ready, but am planning to bring my 300mm F/2.8 and give that a bit of a workout. At the moment, my plan is to be a “normal” person and only have two cameras strapped on, but this concept will be cancelled upon arrival and you will be able to see me with three massive body+lens combos (if I decide to re-activate the 1D-IV and use it with the 300.)

Only time will tell….

In the mean time, I finalize my trip preparations and read “The Beast that walks like Man: The Story of the Grizzly Bear” by Harold McCracken (1955)….see you in Alaska..

Katmai: Day One + Bear Behaviors

Near the base of the Alaska Peninsula, a national park stretches from the Bristol Bay lowlands across to the Shelikof Strait. Lightly visited and little known outside Alaska, Katmai is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite — combined.

– John Grabowska, Katmai,  2013. Alaska Peninsula

Katmai is an extraordinary place and I cannot wait for my next trip there 

The Brooks Camp area is teeming with the world’s largest land carnivores, the coastal Brown Bear. Who, despite being so large and powerful, are as laid back and relaxed as any bear I met before.  Completely different from those nasty interior grizzlies. The bears here are cool.  And while a bear of any size can be dangerous, the bears of Katmai tolerate the close proximity of humans and competing bears like nowhere else.  Such an abundance of high calorie food does an effective job to transform this ornery beast into a creature with an amiable disposition….

Attack that human? We Katmai bears don’t care!  

I am still trying to best figure out how to organize my posts on Katmai.  As you can imagine, many photos were taken, and there is a lot to say about preparations, gear reviews, bear anecdotes, and things to do differently next time.  Lets start with the experiences from the first day at Brooks Camp and some general observations made about the bears…and move forward from there…

Day One

Out on the Alaska Peninsula…

And so to the Alaska Peninsula we come, seeking the limits of the known world at the ends of the Earth…A cloud-cloaked landscape, the Alaska Peninsula is accessible only by air or water.  

The flight from Anchorage to King Salmon took about 90 minutes on PenAir and once in King Salmon, we took a short bus ride to the Naknek River to office of Katmai Air and their dock+float plane. While at the office, we weighed our bags and learned how much over the 50 lbs limit it was.  I was 80 lbs over the limit. Camera gear really starts to add up! Due the small size of the planes and their finite lift, the total load must be measured before taking off.  If the load is greater than what the plane can carry, gear is jettisoned and ferried in on later planes. Fortunately I did not have this problem, I paid the $0.60/lb overage charge and was able to get all my gear on my flight. The leg to Brooks Camp is a short one, only taking about 20-25 minutes.

The view we had when we landed at Brooks Camp
The view we had when we landed at Brooks Camp

After flying over soggy lowlands, lakes, and along the sides of mountains, we softly touched down in Nahnek Lake a little before 13:00.  We had arrived to Brooks Camp.  God rays shone down on the mountains in the distance as we disembarked on a wooden plank that lead to us shore.  Before reaching the shore, we could already see our first bear, swimming at the mouth of the river.  My nightmarish fear of not seeing any bears quickly subsided, the trip was off to a good start.  After finishing the 10 minute ranger led safety briefing, we lugged our gear to the campground.

 This campground can described as an area of tall grass and trees enclosed by a bear resistant electric fence (not “bear proof”) about 20m from the shore of Naknek Lake.  The campground is a bargain, especially when compared to the cost of the lodge.  Having a National Parks pass gives a 50% discount too. Three nights of camping cost only $18. With camp set up, we set off towards the river in search of bears…..

Bear Behavior and Preparation

Note Otis sitting in the far pool
Note Otis sitting in the far pool

By September the brown bears of Katmai are big, fat, and round. They are only a few weeks away from hibernation and have already put away the bulk of the calories needed to survive the Alaska winter.  The salmon here are Sockeye and this location is most famous for the iconic photos of the bears at Brooks Falls catching pre-spawned Salmon mid-leap.  It is possible to get these photos at the peak of the salmon run, which is usually sometime  in mid-July. It is during this peak that the highest concentration of bears falls is present at the falls. There have been times when over 70 bears (!!) were counted in the river. The peak is considered the best time to visit Brooks.  It is also the most crowded and expensive time to visit. The next next best time to visit is early September, when most of the salmon have already spawned and are patiently waiting to die.  

During September bears are more frequently found in at the mouth and at the source of the Brooks River. By this time, the salmon have exhausted almost all of their energy traveling from the ocean to their ancestral spawning grounds.  In the process of this journey, the sockeye begin a transformation from a silver colored fish to having the appearance of blood red and distorted sea monster.

One of the interesting aspects of visiting Katmai NP for the first time (and staying multiple days) is that you can visually track your improvement as a wildlife photographer.  Within a few hours, you are beginning to recognize the frequently observed bears.  First by appearance, whether it is Ted with his hip scar, or Otis of the far pool, with his floppy ear and head scar. After some more time, you begin to differentiate and recognize bears by their fishing techniques and mannerisms.  Some snorkel head down scanning the river. Some ambush an unsuspecting salmon by sprinting and pouncing.  Some bears exclusively scavenge and others steal. A few bears prefer to sit perfectly still and let the fish come to them, snatching the fish with a quick paw. Otis is known for this, and he would sit perfectly still in the rushing water for minutes. I was even able to take a sharp photo of him in the far pool with a slow shutter speed of 1/20s. 

Here is an animation showing Otis devouring a salmon.  Notice how he braces the fish on his shin.   Click through the image below for the full version of this animation

Animation of Otis eating a Salmon. Click through image for entire sequence and higher resolution download. Might be a bit slow, so be patient
Animation of Otis eating a Salmon. Click through image for entire sequence and higher resolution download. Might be a bit slow, so be patient

All of these observations are important and key to improving your photography. Once you are able to recognize a bear and associate specific behaviors to it, your ability to anticipate action before it happens is improved.  You begin to sense when a bear locks its radar on a fish, and can be ready to click the shutter at just the right moment. Let off the shutter after the initial catch to so buffer can be writen to memory, then burst again when the bear shakes water from its head.  It was even possible to recognize the differences in behavior between a failed and successful fishing attempt, before the bear brings the fish up. 

I still have much to learn before I can call myself a bear behaviorist expert, but it is amazing how careful observation increases your ability to recognize behaviors, and can drastically improve your photography.

Before leaving for Alaska, I studied as much information as I could to prepare myself.  I read the bear documentation and eBooks provided by the NPS, studied maps of the Brooks Camp area and viewed the web cameras.  All of these resources proved to be helpful.  By reading the NPS Katmai Bear eBook, it was easier to recognize which female bears were more skittish about her cubs and how it is possible to age a bear based on the size of their head in proportion to rest of body or how playful they are.  Young, or sub-adult, bears may look large, but their bulk may be excess fur.  The size of the head is a good way to gauge their age.  The head appears bigger in proportion to the rest of their body on subadults. So if you see a bear whose head accounts for approximately 1/3 of the total length, this is a good indicator the bear is young and still growing into its head.  The guide also made it easier to react safely to approaching bears and avoid a dangerous situation.  Viewing the web camera gave me an early look into bear behavior and introduced me to the weather patterns and lighting conditions that would likely be encountered. 

This preliminary knowledge served a couple useful purposes.  One benefit was that it helped to psych myself up for the trip.  Another benefit was it gave me some ideas for image compositions.  I began to formulate the type of images I would work to capture once on-site.  By thinking these images out in advance, I was more in control of my gear and ready to switch from say a stop-action configuration to a panning motion. 

Day One Gallery

Next Post: Cubs, close encounters, and gear review…

Alaskan Arrival

SF to Anchorage flight was this evening, now I am in hotel in midtown Anchorage, preparing for my great bear adventure.  Tomorrow I fly on two more planes:  Anchorage -> King Salmon, and King Salmon -> Brooks Camp (float plane) to reach Katmai National Park out on the Alaskan Peninsula.  All in pursuit of the massive coastal brown bears that live there… I will camp in the NPS campground there and maximize my time seeking out the bears.

I have cleaned my sensors and lenses, formatted 400GB worth of memory cards, charged 11 camera batteries, and re-activated 5 Pelican desiccants (this Peninsula is wet).  Lets puts this 500mm to work.

Check out the following link from time to time, you will see some bears, maybe you will see me.  This camera pans quite a lot, but there is a gated bridge that I will be crossing when it opens each day at 07:00 Alaska time.


Bear Hunter
Bear Hunter