Weekend Window to Katmai National Park
By MICHAEL HARRIS, Contributing Producer
Sept. 20, 2009
Katmai National Park and Preserve, in southern Alaska, is home to the greatest concentration of grizzly bears in the world.
Katmai is the place made famous by the documentary film "Grizzly Man," on the strange life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a bear lover who lived with bears in the wild until one took his life.
Grizzly bears are the largest land predators on Earth – topping 1,000 pounds and standing as tall as 10 feet. Alaskans refer to the bears in Katmai that live near the water, and have learned to make use of marine resources, like salmon and clams, as brown bears. Bears that remain 100 miles or more inland are refered to as Grizzlies.
ABC News Producer Michael Harris traveled to Katmai National Park for "GMA" Weekend's "Weekend Window" series. Here's his account of the trip:
I prepped for the shoot at Katmai by calling a colleague at National Geographic Channel, veteran filmmaker Mark Emery, who's been shooting in Alaska for some 30 years.
I asked Emery about the technical challenges of shooting bears in Katmai -- what kind of lenses are needed, how long the shots would have to be, will the photographer be 100 yards away from the bears? Two-hundred yards?
"How about 10 feet away?" Emery laughed. He said to coach the ABC News photographer, Kevin Ely, not to get spooked if he's shooting in one direction and a bear strolls past him from behind.
"Tell Kevin to just stay put," Emery said, "And they'll just keep walking by him."
Emery also suggested bringing an umbrella.
"For rain?" I asked.
"No," he said. "When the bears get too close, sometimes when you open an umbrella, they back off."
To get to Katmai National Park, the crew took an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Anchorage, and then a PenAir prop plane to a small town on the Naknek River called King Salmon.
Our journey into bears then involved an Otter -- a DeHavilland Otter float plane, to be exact -- and a foggy half-hour flight between the snow-capped peaks of the Alaska Peninsula, over the vast Naknek Lake and into the heart of this vast volcanic wilderness, to Brooks Camp and Lodge.
The lodge was founded in 1950 by Alaska aviation legend Ray Petersen in what's considered one of the best salmon and trout fishing spots in Alaska – the mile-long Brooks River.
The bears of Katmai love the fishing here, too. They're usually solitary animals -- but it seems that every bear in the expansive park congregates at this spot in July and September to feed on the sockeye salmon. You'll see as many as 80 or more of these massive creatures at a time. It's a scene unequaled anywhere else in the world.
About a half-mile upriver are the relatively small but powerful Brooks Falls, where hordes of silver sockeye salmon hurl themselves skyward on their epic journey to their spawning grounds. Or into the jaws of a waiting bear.
"It's the shot everyone wants to get," says Sonny Petersen, who currently operates the Brook Lodge. "The bear catching the salmon in his mouth. These animals are amazing. They just wait there patiently at the top of the falls, with all the force of that water pushing against them. It's really an incredible thing to watch."
And over the years, the Katmai Park Service and the lodge have made bear-watching a fairly easy thing to do. Elevated platforms and walkways lead people over pontoons and across the river – the only bridge in Katmai National Park – through the marshes and woods and to two viewing platforms at the falls. Rangers limit the number of people on the platforms, writing down names and, when space frees up, calling them out like a maitre d' of a restaurant: "ABC News, party of two?"
It's also extremely safe here. Upon arrival, visitors are made to watch one of Emery's safety films and sit through a thorough orientation. The final message from the ranger is a showing of a decades-old bear hide, "the last time something had to be done because visitors didn't follow the rules." Bad people, he said, not bad bear.
A dozen or more park rangers cover every nook and cranny of Brooks River, working their radios constantly, directing traffic, always giving bears the right of way – even if it means a "bear jam" from time to time. Hikers are held back on trails or kept on a platform, sometimes for an hour or more, during an ursine passage.
After half a century of coexisting with humans, the bears are completely uninterested in people. They go about their business of being bears. Generations have learned that the matter of chasing sockeye is far more pressing. There has never been a serious injury to visitors in the history of Brooks Camp.
The interviews for this Weekend Window to Katmai National Park were wonderful. Sonny Petersen has spent his whole life at or near Brooks Camp, but he has never lost his enthusiasm for this extraordinary place and these remarkable creatures. And, like his father, he loves nothing more than to share this experience with people from around the world.
For the second interview, we set up Emery and his National Geographic camera at a beautiful setting on a high marsh. During the interview, as if on cue, two young bears frolicked and fished about 100 yards away.
Even though Emery has been living and working with these animals for over 30 years, he keeps a psychological distance. He probably knows every one of the bears personally, but he doesn't coo at them like kittens or call them "Mr. Chocolate" or "Cupcake" or "Boobie."
Our final interview at Katmai was at the mouth of the Brooks River with an affable young National Park Ranger named Mike Fitz. We had to stop several times because of approaching bears, including a mother with her two cubs crossing from the other side of the river.
There's a wonderful communal spirit at Brooks Camp, from the park employees and bush pilots to workers at the lodge. Many of the tourists had traveled thousands of miles on this extremely difficult (and not inexpensive) trek to the Alaska Peninsula to check one more experience off their life list – to see grizzly bears in the wild and live to tell the tale.
Emery had one more bit of advice before the trip to Katmai – don't get your hopes too high about getting that prize picture of a bear catching a fish in its mouth. "Far more misses than catches at the falls," Emery warned, and photographers can wait weeks and still not get it.
It turns out that we got lucky – Kevin, our photographer, picked out a dominant-looking bear working a prime spot at the top of the falls, avoiding the temptation to shoot other action. He rolled the camera nonstop for several minutes, and then, fish on!
It was a perfect snare of a sockeye -- center-jaws, center-frame. The people on the platform burst into applause. For the bear, of course, not the camera crew. But it was quite a catch for us too.