Editor’s Note: Sherri Fries is an i Love Dogs Ambassador who has agreed to share with our readers her family’s summer adventure traveling from Virginia to the Northwest. Her first and second posts took us through Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska where she competed with border collie teammates Cleo and Wiki Wiki in AKC agility trials, and on to the Kenai Peninsula. In this post, she tells us about the AKC agility community in Anchorage and then her family’s extraordinary wildlife adventures in the Katmai National Park, where Sherri realizes her childhood dream of watching the brown bear fishing at Brooks Falls.
The best thing about Alaska is the people. It’s true the scenery and the wildlife are amazing. But it’s the people we’ve met that make the trip truly special.
We competed in our final Alaskan AKC agility trial this weekend in Anchorage and it was sad to say goodbye to everyone. They’ve become a great group of friends I’ll definitely keep in touch with. There are very talented handlers with wonderful dogs of all breeds. They come together to have a great time with their dogs, poke a bit of fun at each other, and cheer each other on. Two anniversaries, one 40 years and the other 50 years, were celebrated with cake. People cheered the runs and clapped for those receiving ribbons during the awards presentation. This is what dog agility is all about. Having fun with your friends.
This was also our National Geographic week and one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Alaska in the first place. We took a float plane to Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes where we camped for four days among the bears. Katmai is famous for the large brown bears that stand at the edge of the Brooks waterfall to catch migrating salmon as they attempt to leap up the falls on their way to reproduce. I read about this in the National Geographic magazine when I was young, and saw it on Nat Geo specials. It’s even more amazing to witness in person.
Like much of Alaska, Katmai is accessible only by plane or boat. We flew to King Salmon, a town that revolves around the summer salmon run and fishing, then took the short float plane trip. The scenery below is lush green, with grasses and spruce forests, full of pothole lakes left from the ice age glaciers, and meandering streams and rivers. The lake we landed on is a beautiful blue from the glacial silicates and dust in it. The migrating red salmon and rainbow trout were leaping. This rich fish life makes Katmai and Brooks Falls a destination for fly fisherman from around the world.
The lake was also our first introduction to the bears. Upon arrival you view a film on bear safety and rangers talk about the bears. More than 2,000 brown bears live in the park. These are all brown bears, though ones inland are often referred to as grizzlies. After the briefing rangers give everyone a bear pin to wear around camp so they know you know bear safety. This preparation is a good thing as the bears are everywhere and we are visitors in their home. We set up our tent in a site surrounded by an electric fence. When we walked out the gate, there was a bear about 20′ away walking down the beach. It was quite a sight. We backed up a bit to keep our minimum 50′ distance, then watched as it walked away toward the river. They are beautiful huge brown and gold bears with huge paws. My children and I checked out the large paw prints on the beach which had very deep nail imprints. It’s no wonder they can catch fish so well.
We took the path to the bridge which is monitored by rangers. At least one ranger stands at the river/lake intersection monitoring bears. Another ranger is on a platform on the other side of a 50′ wooden bridge that crosses the river. They radio back and forth on bears’ positions, and when a bear approaches they close the bridge. These closures last as long as a bear’s in the area. Fishermen reel in their lines and back away from the bears, and people on the bridge scurry across and climb up the viewing platform. Then you wait and watch the bears as they stand up on their hind legs, forelegs hanging at their sides, scanning the water for fish. The bears walk along the banks and right down the river itself, ducking under the bridge which sits just on top of the water. We saw one bear leap into the water, swim under the bridge, then walk on it’s back legs down the river toward the lake in search of lunch. Bears also swim quite far into the lake.
From the lodge it’s about a mile through the woods to reach the Brooks Falls viewing platform. Along the way you’re encouraged to sing, talk loudly, and ring bells so the bears don’t become too used to people. Since this is a slow tourist year we had an easy time watching the bears on the normally crowded viewing platform filled with cameras on tripods supporting huge telephoto lenses. On each of our visits to the falls there was at least one bear present, sometimes 10, all trying to catch dinner. They’d come and go up and down the river throughout the day. One of the bear biologists said the bears fish until 1 a.m., take a break, and resume around 4 a.m.
The bear’s fishing methods vary. One large male, Ted, likes to stand at the top of the falls facing forward as he waits for salmon to jump into his mouth. One bear likes to sit in the “jacuzzi” of the falls watching for fish. A young bear would go to the top of the falls, look for fish, then climb down and search the river below, standing up to spot the fish he’d seen from above. When they run after a fish their huge front paws come down together in an effort to trap the salmon. It’s impressive how fast the bears can run in the water. They can easily outrun a person on land.
Earlier in the month when fish were more plentiful the bears were more tolerant of another bear at close quarters. Now fish are fewer and the tempers flare. When a bear catches a fish it does a straight-legged “cowboy” walk, strutting and making itself look bigger, to keep the other bears away from his fish. Some bears growl at each other if one nears the other’s fishing spot, or if one caught a fish and the other wanted it. Some bears take off to the woods to eat their fish. Others sit in the river and hold their salmon in their paws, biting and pulling off the skin to eat first, then eating the bright pink flesh. Gulls and magpies fly about looking for scraps.
Ted is a favorite of many people. He’s a huge bear who’s often at falls. He acted much like a dog when one bear caught a fish. He slowly bowed and got very low in the water, begging for some of the fish. As the other bear ate he got lower and lower, and became more and more submissive. It didn’t work, though.
One of our favorite bears is the “goofy headed sub-adult.” Bears aren’t named until they’re about five years old as there’s a high mortality rate among cubs. The GHSA as he or she is known (hard to tell their sex at this age, too) would run up and down the river chasing fish and gulls, and sometimes running for no reason at all. When Ted or one of the more dominant bears would approach the GHSA would take off in the other direction. The rangers have a book with photos and descriptions of the bears usually to help visitors identify the bears.
We were also lucky enough to see a gorgeous grey and brown female wolf with long legs near the camp and by the falls. She walked along the camp stopping to look at us, then continue. The rangers said she’s been around a lot this year and doesn’t seem too afraid of people. When she trots through the woods she doesn’t make a sound, and she easily disappears among the tree branches and grass.
The main reason Katmai became famous wasn’t for the bears or fish. It was for the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. A cataclysmic 1912 volcanic eruption created the largest volcanic explosion of the century. The immediate area around the volcanic plug was covered with 700′ of ash, and another 100′ of ash covered the valley below. Robert Griggs was sent to explore the area. He remarked the entire valley was “full of hundreds, no thousands — literally, tens of thousands — of smokes curling up from its fissured floor.” Griggs believed the steaming vents would last for years and years, rivaling Old Faithful. In 1918 the President designated it a national monument.
Today the 10,000 Smokes have disappeared for the most part. Those smokes were created when the hot ash fell on lakes and streams, which then let off steam. But the monument is impressive all the same. We hiked down through thick trees, flowers, purple fireweed, lichen, mosses and berries to view the waterfall below. Glacial rivers have carved steep 100′ canyons through the bleached yellow ash down to the bedrock. Due to recent rains our final river crossing to view the falls was not to be. A new channel had opened up, carrying dangerous raging brown water on our intended path. So we just admired the river and the ash around us and looked for fossilized clams in the nearby rock.
On the bus ride my son spotted a mother bear with three furry spring cubs. Each crossed behind the bus, disappearing into the woods. The last cub disappeared, popped out to grab a mouthful of grass, then ran off again. We also saw a large moose grazing in one of the lakes and a huge beaver lodge. Back at Katmai we tossed big but light pumice rocks into the lake and watched them float.
Everyday we saw bears eating fish to gain weight for their winter hibernation; salmon with red and white bodies swimming and jumping in the rivers; and beautiful glaciers and lakes. It’s a wildlife paradise. On our way out of the campground Friday morning the bears once again let us know this is their home. One was sleeping in the middle of the path, so we had to go through the forest with our bags to reach the visitor’s center for our flight back to Anchorage.
Have you had an extraordinary wildlife experience this summer? Or, maybe you’ve witnessed a magnificent scene in nature. Tell us about it here.