A Tale of Brown Bears and Two Rivers
“This is a story of two Alaskan rivers, both rich in history and wildlife. The nationally famous Kenai River, meandering for 82 miles through the heart of the Kenai Peninsula empties into Cook Inlet. It is recognized more for fishing rather than for bears. And, the beloved Brooks River, equally famous but much shorter at only 1.2 miles, flows between Brooks and Naknek Lakes. Brooks River, best known for Brooks Falls, home of brown bears and the fish they love and follow. The life of any bear is at best a challenge, and their survival is often dependent upon a myriad of factors. Those factors as different as are the two rivers.
Most of our Brooks River bears are born within the range of several mountains and the land between two lakes. Often staying within the park boundaries, they spend their entire life here, returning year after year allowing observers to document and study the story of their lives. We know their mothers, their siblings and many of their extended family. In the absence of privacy we have also been a party to their creation. We have watched them grow from a coy, (cub of the year) to a yearling, then into a young adult. Who can forget the tireless wrestling and play of 32 Chunk and 89 Backpack, and last year as 503 and 151 Walker entertained us with their fishing skills and playful antics? Do not forget the seniors, the beloved 410, the oldest bear on the river who naps anywhere and anytime, for as long as she chooses, and 480 Otis, the Zen bear who fishes from his own office with a one day record of 42 fish. Will last year’s #1 bear on the river, 856, keep his title?
The bears of the Kenai, have no place they call home or place of refuge. There is no one who runs interference with well intended humans who have come to observe, photograph and sometimes interact with them. No common meeting ground where bear and salmon come together (like Brooks Falls), no perfecting specific fishing styles and dedicated holes and no place where they can fish and rest and fish and play with their young. Daily they face challenges along the river, created by domesticated animals, driveways, hunters, motorized vehicles, boats running up and down the river, humans in and out of cabins, the distractions and potential fatal interactions that each brings. All these barriers stand between the Kenai bears and the elusive salmon who have the advantage of a wide, deep and fast river.
Death does not play favorites and is no stranger to either river. It may come in the shape and form of a sow who, along with a sibling, holds a vigil for what seemed like an eternity over a dying cub. Heartbreak, perhaps a human term, happens as we watch a bear collapse and die in the middle of the river, or 868 who died on the shores of Naknek Lake, cause of death: unknown.
At Brooks we get to view many of those life and death struggles in full or partial view of the cams. This is made even more difficult because we know these magnificent creatures, having seen many come to Brooks as coys or spring cubs. We have had the joy and privilege of watching them become independent and grow into healthy strong adults and many now have families of their own. On the other river, those bears are only passing through, rarely staying long enough for anyone to recognize them or become familiar with a floppy ear, a scar from a previous fight, the unmistakable white tipped ears or upturned nose. They do make their rounds up and down the river, sometimes during the day, but more often in the quiet of the night, away from the noise of civilization. When they pass we may never know. It is as if it never happened. I have watched a sow with 2 cubs for several weeks navigate the gauntlet of cabins and steer clear of humans, keeping her cubs away from harm, only to have their lives ended due to avoidable and careless human behavior.
All this to say the bears of both rivers share and face common life struggles, but thankfully the bears of Brooks River have a slight advantage. Their home is in Katmai National Park. It is managed by a team of rangers and staff who are dedicated to ensuring this special place, the Brooks River, is protected for future generations of visitors, bears and the salmon runs that ensure their survival. They also have us, the often nameless faces of explore.org viewers. It is also our challenge to ensure their future is not uncertain and their habitat remains protected.” – KenaiRiver