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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.