In July, the waterfalls at Brooks River are packed with salmon jumping upstream to get to their spawning grounds. This attracts the crowds – of hungry coastal brown bears! That is great since it is an incredible sight to be seen. However, these sights attract crowds of people. Most of us try to avoid standing shoulder to shoulder as we watch bruins merely moving their heads to snatch a meal in mid air. Small scuffles play out in front of us as bears fight for a better spot in waterfalls. While human visitors to the falls tend to be more civilized, I would like to offer some tips for better experience at Brooks Camp visit.
After an hour and a half flight from Homer we arrive at Brooks Camp. We beach the float plane on Naknek Lake and let you off to start your visit. The beach is soft sand with small pumice rocks – see them float in the lake as you toss a few in the water! The first order of business is getting through an orientation by National Park Service rangers called “Bear Etiquette”. In order to maximize your time at the Brooks Falls, try to get to the Visitor Center quickly, getting a spot in the briefing room. The Visitor Center is located about twenty yard uphill from the flagpole with American flag; we try to park as close to the flagpole as possible, but sometimes there are 25 airplanes on the beach at Lake Naknek. If we have to park a little ways away, please walk up one of the ramps and on a trail towards the Visitor Center. The pilot will be busy for a few minutes tying the airplane to a tree – there are no docks or cleats at Brooks, we just stretch a rope to any bush or a tree up the beach. After a short video and a follow up by a ranger showing off a prop that used to be someone’s backpack but ended up as a toy for a curious bear, you will graduate and receive a pin you will be suggested to wear while you are at Brooks.
We ask you that you bring lunch or dinner with you, as the case may be – the total trip time runs at 6-6.5 hours before we get back to Homer with its great restaurants and some fast food places that pale in comparison with fresh salmon that bears catch. At Brooks Camp you can not take any food with you on the trail. The four options are: eat on the airplane just before we land at Brooks, on the airplane after we depart Brooks, at the camp next to the Visitor Center in a picnic area guarded by an electric fence, or as some well informed passengers of ours have done, during the Bear Etiquette briefing!
As you get through the orientation, keep in mind that everyone in the room with you is headed for the same place – platforms at the falls. It is about a mile walk from the Visitor Center to the prime spot for bears trying to get a salmon and for us to see those huge creatures scoring a meal. Once the platform nearest to the falls gets packed to the capacity of 40 people, NPS rangers start taking names and allowing one hour to view the bears once you are on the platform. When you walk up to the covered area, your name goes on a list, and when they call it out, you can get close and get the great views of the bears.
It seems like everyone tends to book for 9AM departure. While convenient for most people, it happens to be popular as a departure time and around 10:30 the beach at Naknek lake get packed! Floatplanes will be beached wing to wing, a few boats might be in the lineup and crowds of day visitors invade the Visitor Center. This slows down the briefing with questions like, “can I chew gum on the trail?” “Is it OK to bring chap-stick?” and on and on! While it is important to be well informed, this robs you of your time which could be spent looking at the bears instead of listening to bear stories.
Anyone who passes you on the trail will get on the platforms ahead of you – but do not run. Pay attention to the video, feed yourself before the orientation lets out and head down the trail so you would have a lot more time to catch that once in a lifetime photo!