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Snapshot by BruniCaselli

Snapshot by BruniCaselli

Brooks Falls Trail

By Mike Fitz

As soon as you arrive at Brooks Camp, you enter a landscape teeming with brown bears. After attending a mandatory bear safety talk, most people hustle to their true destination, Brooks Falls. The experience of watching bears at the falls is only part of the Brooks Camp adventure, however. Simply walking to Brooks Falls can be an exciting and memorable experience and allows great opportunities to explore a changing habitat.

The Brooks Falls Trail begins about a half mile from the Brooks Camp Visitor Center and immediately enters a dense boreal forest.

forest along Brooks Falls trail_2_06302016

My first experiences on this trail were quiet. This was a time, over a decade ago, when white spruce trees dominated the canopy. The forest floor was so lacking sunlight that only the most shade tolerant plants eked out a living under the spruce. After bud-burst in early June though, wildflowers like bunchberry, lingonberry, and single delight dappled the ground. The walk was quite lovely.

Cornus suecica, lapland cornel or bunch dogwood_06082018

Bunchberry (Cornus suecica)

Vaccinium vitis-idaea, lingonberry or lowbush cranberry, tundra and especially coniferous forest 2

Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)

Moneses uniflora, Single Delight, Falls Trail

Single Delight (Moneses uniflora)

I didn’t realize then how rapidly this forest would change. An intense outbreak of spruce bark beetles was peaking. While most of the spruce remained standing, many of the trees struggled to fight off the beetle attack.  Within a couple of years, most of the spruce trees were killed. Their needles browned and dropped from the canopy.

Without spruce needles intercepting sunlight, the understory began to explode upward. Thickets of willow and tall dense grass now grow where carpets of moss and lingonberry once monopolized the ground. Small spruce trees, their growth previously hindered by a lack of sunlight, also took advantage of the situation and began to send their stems rapidly toward the sky. For the willow, grass, and young spruce, the beetle outbreak opened completely new opportunities for growth and reproduction.

forest along Brooks Falls trail_2_07082016

Forest on Brooks Falls Trail_09042017

Anytime I walk this trail though, I remain aware that plants can’t be my sole focus. When I first arrived at Brooks Camp in mid May 2007, I had very little understanding of what went on there. Sure, I was told many bears congregate at the river during certain seasons, but in hindsight I realize I had trouble accurately envisioning the scene. This revelation sank in after the first few times I walked the trail to Brooks Falls.

Nearly everywhere I looked along the trail, I found signs of bears. Old scat, molded and aged after many months of decomposition, dotted the ground. Single lane bear trails converged and diverged from the park’s maintained trail. Tufts of hair hung on the sides of trees, and some trees bore scars a full eight feet above the ground from teeth and claws. Without seeing a bear on the trail, I suddenly understood that bears use it almost as much as people and the chance of encountering one here is significant.

Bear marking tree along VTTS Road_4_09202014

A tuft of brown bear fur clings to the bark of a spruce tree.

That first summer and despite my honest efforts to avoid them, I had many close encounters with bears, too many to remember in fact. The trend continues today, as it’s common for people to see bears along the trail. Now, however, lines of sight into the forest have shrunk as the understory has thickened and it’s even more difficult to see bears before they are quite close.

Brooks Falls Trail_09042017

Under these conditions, it’s sometimes a bit of a relief to reach the elevated boardwalk near Brooks Falls. Even then you might not be clear of bears though. Sometimes bears rest in a spot directly adjacent to the trail or, more rarely, right in front of the gate.

bear sleeping at gate to falls platform_07012018

Although it’s difficult to see through the trees in this photo, look closely for a bear sleeping in front of the gate to the boardwalk at Brooks Falls.

 

Once on the boardwalk, the last obstacle to navigate is a heavy-duty door designed to keep bears out (it would also work in event of zombie attack).

Gate on boardwalk_07072018

 

The Brooks Falls Trail offers conspicuous lessons in change. A rapidly transitioning forest opens opportunities to witness how tiny, native insects are a detriment to individual plants and a boon to others. Encounters with bears can easily reshape the hiking experience from relaxing to heart pounding. Getting to Brooks Falls is part of the adventure at Brooks Camp and it remains a lovely walk, just in different ways from when I first experienced it.

  • Carol Loveless

    The photo at the top of this blog is insanely sweet. Never heard of a bunchberry before, what a pretty little flower. Like in a lot of nature when one plant species is destroyed something else takes hold.

    • Bruni Caselli

      It’s one of mine from last year! Peanut and blond brother (128’s cubs) I’m so thankful and proud to use explore.org cams at that moment!

      • disqus_5qoTZ0kLnE

        i thought the two blondes were female – so Grazer had 2 males and 1 female?

  • Amanda Thompson

    A lovely interesting read. Brought back memories.

  • Stacey

    Wonderful!

    A terrific and vivid portrait of this trail, which is so central to the Brooks Camp experience.

    Really makes me feel as if I were there.

    Thanks for posting, Ranger Mike!

    • Nippykippy

      good morning Stacey!

  • Nippykippy

    lovely writing and keen observation. i love the noting how the undergrowth has changed.

  • Lovethebears

    Thank you Mike Fitz for this, it’s wonderful! The forest and trail is beautiful!! Also, I did not see the bear in front of the gate even though I was looking for one BEFORE I read the insert on that photo, they are very well hidden indeed!

  • Bommy

    Thank you for posting this. It’s wonderful to read about & see pictures of the trail on the way to the Falls. I can imagine it’s a bit unnerving & exciting getting there! Wonderful blog!

  • ♥NotJuergen♥

    great writing , TY Mike

  • sandiegojesse

    Beautiful photos and writing, Mike. You should write a book. I think, if I were to visit and encountered bears, I’d forget all of the tips given in the mandatory training session due to panic. My first season here online, I am amazed how quickly I became a bearaholic and how wonderful this site and chat are. You and the rangers add so much to the experience. It is greatly appreciated.

    • http://www.teatrremus.pl/ Kasia

      He is writing a book! And we can’t wait… :-)

    • Laurie Belmear

      We had a momma bear and coy encounter on this beautiful trail on 7/21/18.
      It’s amazing how you remember what to do! Incredible moment thanks to the Park rangers and their mandatory safety program.
      Mike, excellent writing. You captured the spirit of this trail.

  • texanrhonda

    Loved this blog. Thank you so much.

  • Savonna9

    Thank you for such a nice explanation of the area & changes. The trail is not very wide ! I would love to go but don’t want a close encounter with a bear on the trail !!

  • Baby peas

    Hi Mike. What do you do when a bear is sleeping in front of the gate? Turn around and go back? Are the people on the platforms delightfully stuck? (Unless one needed a restroom, yikes)

    • Carol S.

      I was wondering the same thing, i would imagine you would have to turn around because who knows how long the bear would sleep.

      I wonder why they love going by the gates. With all the lush grass around you would think it would be comfier elsewhere!

      • https://fitznaturalist.com/ Mike Fitz

        It didn’t look like a comfortable spot, that’s for sure. But bears are apt to sleep almost anywhere.

    • https://fitznaturalist.com/ Mike Fitz

      We stopped and waited at an appropriate distance for it to move on. Almost always, this is the best course of action when a bear blocks access to your destination at Brooks Camp. Thankfully, no other bears approached us from the other direction, but a large group of people had accumulated in short order. I had a park radio with me so I was able to communicate with staff who were holding people on the other side. After about 20 minutes, the bear got up and walked away.

      While I was with the group, I had to come out of my incognito mode and inform the group of our plan. However, it was good to do some face-to-face interpretation of bears like I was a ranger again.

  • Noni

    Mike, your writing pulls me in from the first sentence and captures my attention until the last. The pictures you post, along with your dialogue, truly help us to understand the beauty that is Katmai, especially Brooks Falls and all its surrounding nature. TY.

  • disqus_5qoTZ0kLnE

    I like Mike! Yinzer!

  • LuvBears

    The possibility of encounters on the trail is one of the things that makes me nervous about going. Any words of wisdom to walay those fears?

    • https://fitznaturalist.com/ Mike Fitz

      Hike in a group. Hike in a group. Hike in a group.

      Nothing you do in bear country has proven to increase human safety than hiking in groups of four or more. If you plan to visit Brooks Camp alone, you can often find other people walking to and from the falls who are quite happy to have another person tag along to increase their margin of safety.

      With that being said, I often walk the trail to Brooks Falls alone. When I do though, I try to remain alert, watching and listening carefully. Sometimes, I’m able to see a bear before it is aware of me, which allows me to back away without disturbing it.

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