It’s late September and across Alaska bears are scrambling to consume as many final calories as possible ahead of their long hibernation period. This includes those who swarm into Brooks River in Katmai National Park every summer, gorging themselves on the massive salmon runs that enter through Bristol Bay, while viewing platforms stand immediately adjacent, packed with human observers witnessing the spectacle.
It’s a uniquely Alaskan attraction, understandably enticing for tourists, park staff and scientists who will rarely if ever be so close to bears. At Brooks River, several elements have converged over the course of millennia to turn the location into an ideal nutritional conveyor belt for bears living in the region. They enjoy exceptionally abundant lives, even by apex predator standards. Yet there’s an extremely delicate balance in play at Brooks River, a balance that includes people and that has to account for us to remain balanced.
All of this and more is explored in “The Bears of Brooks Falls,” a fascinating and exceptionally well-written book by Michael Fitz. Fitz packs an enormous amount of information into a narrative that somehow never overwhelms the reader. In part this is because Fitz includes enough of his own experiences along Brooks River to offer a pair of eyes to see it through, yet never lets the book become a memoir about himself. Fitz’s writing is as delicately balanced as the ecosystem he details, turning this into one of the finest Alaska wildlife books I have yet encountered.
Fitz is a National Park Service ranger based out of Maine who first came to Katmai in 2007, and has spent most of the ensuing summers there. Specifically, he’s been posted at Brooks Camp, the fly-in lodge where tourists flock every year to stand on its platforms and watch bears pluck salmon from the waters like kids scooping candy tossed from a parade float. Though not a field scientist himself, Fitz has watched the process with the eye of a researcher, digging in to the natural and human histories of the area by reading deeply into scientific and cultural writings about the land and its animals, while keeping his own records of what he has witnessed that he matches against current science to illustrate both what is known and what remains uncertain regarding bears.
Fitz begins with the catastrophic and geologically quite recent event that carved the present landscape of the region. The 1912 eruption of the Novarupta volcano caused the collapse of nearby Mt. Katmai and created the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes through what would prove to be the most massive volcanic event of the 20th century.
This is just the start. Fitz details the process that led to the establishment of Katmai National Monument six years later, and how the discovery of the convergence of bears on Brooks River during the salmon runs led to the eventual development of tourist facilities.
Through most of the book’s first two-thirds, however, Fitz focuses on the bears themselves, as well as the world they live in. This means a discussion of how they evolved, how they survive, and how they interact with each other as well as humans. They not only fill an important ecological niche, but even fill sub-niches within the system, as social pecking orders force individual bears to either fight for the best fishing spots, or settle for the safety of less active locations.
Fitz possesses the ability to apply human perspectives to these animals in ways that bring out the motivations for their behavior. Yet he does this without ever anthropomorphizing them. By explaining how bears need to meet a year’s caloric needs in six months, he stresses that an obese bear in September is a healthy bear going into the den. “Gluttony is no sin when when your life depends on it,” he wryly notes.
It isn’t just bears that get treated to lyrical writing that makes them relatable without pretending they’re just like us. Midway through the book he takes a lengthy side trip to detail the life cycle of the sockeye salmon they feed on. It’s a tale he properly likens to the Odyssey. Of the millions of fish that hatch every year in Katmai’s streams, most will never make it to the tidewaters, much less survive several years at sea before navigating past fishing fleets, waterfalls, and, of course, hungry bears in their attempt at reproducing for the sole time in their lives before they die.
“Salmon aren’t marooned or shipwrecked by spiteful gods nor are they seduced by sirens like Odysseus, but they arguably endure even greater trials,” Fitz writes, with characteristic lyrical flair. “Every stage of their life is filed with significant risk, and few survive the journey.”
While his divergence into salmon is practically a short book in itself, it’s crucial to the primary theme, which is how Katmai’s bears live, and what is required to keep their population healthy. This, of course, means humans are part of the story, from the smallest to the broadest levels. The viewing platforms along the Brooks River impact bear behavior locally. And while for the most part keeping people in line is easier than doing likewise with bears, sometimes it’s the bears who have to be reformed. Meanwhile, the bitterly contested Pebble Mine proposal, though for the moment spiked, could, if revived and carried out, cause irreparable harm to the last remaining salmon run that hasn’t been disrupted and depleted by human activity. And even if Pebble never materializes, human-driven climate change is altering oceans and landscapes.
Fitz does a remarkable job of delving into all these areas and more, offering readers a comprehensive journey into one of Alaska’s most treasured gems that feels like a visit to the fabled Brooks Camp viewing platform, and then beyond. He takes us places we can’t go in person, bringing us into the lives of bears. His writing will prompt readers to love this land and its bears as much as he does.