Meet the Bears at Katmai National Park

a group of bears wading in a river by a waterfall, waiting for salmon to jump up

davidkl / Getty Images

Summertime means beating the heat and getting food onto the grill.

Well, for humans anyway.

For bears, summer is the time to start bulking up for winter hibernation, eating a year's worth of food over the course of six months. One of the prime spots that brown bears flock to is Brooks River, in Alaska's Katmai National Park. There, bears compete for spots to get all the best salmon while also teaching young cubs how to survive in the wild.

This time is also a prime opportunity for park visitors to spot the bears in the wild.

The Unbearable "Bearness" of Bears

Keeping track of the bears at Katmai can be a tricky, but since a number of bears return to Brooks River each year to feed, some bears are easier to keep track of than others.

Brooks River has seen anywhere between 33 and 77 individual bears over the course of any given July since 2001, according to the "Bears of Brooks River 2018" book released by Katmai. The same bears often return to Brooks River, especially since it's a reliable source of salmon. For instance, while more than 100 different bears made the trek to Brooks River in 2007, 50 of the 69 individual identifiable bears were those that rangers had spotted before. Some bears are new to the Katmai scene and only stay for a year, while others decide the fishing is so good that they'll stick around for a while.

Identifying a bear isn't easy, however. Bears that frequent Brooks River are not tagged or marked for identification, so rangers must rely on the bears' characteristics to keep track of them, including size, claw color, disposition, ears, face, hunting techniques, scars, fur color, and sex. Some of these characteristics, like size and claw color, aren't particularly useful, but ears, faces, and wounds can provide some help in keeping the bears straight.

Bears that visit Brooks River don't receive names; they're assigned numbers instead. Of course, plenty of bears get nicknames over the course of the year, like Otis, Scare D Bear, Enigma, Beadnose and Holly. The idea of naming (or not naming) bears can be controversial, especially as names often carry meanings. Enigma certainly has a clear meaning, while Scare D Bear is good wordplay on a bear who may not be especially brave.

A Who's Who of Bears

Brown bear No. 634, also known as Popeye, stands at the edge of the Brooks River
No. 634, nicknamed Popeye, will sometimes steal food from the smaller bears. Katmai National Park and Preserve/Wikimedia Commons

The bears of Brooks River book also functions as a guide, providing the bears' numbers and, if available, their nicknames.

Beadnose, for example, is a female bear first identified in 1999 and christened No. 409. She's had four known litters over the years. While her slightly upturned nose is something of a trademark—hence her nickname—she's also known for being one of the largest females, especially when she isn't raising cubs.

If identifying bears through a webcam isn't your bag, you can rely on the work of others to keep track of which bears show up during a particular season. Current and former park staff update a wiki devoted to the bears of Katmai. Each year has its own page with tracking information regarding individual bears, and you can keep track of the bears year by year.

Take Beadnose, for example: in 2018, she was spotted three times since May and with two cubs with her in the spring. (She has since emancipated them). Holly was also spotted three times, with two cubs around a 1.5-year-old trailing after her.

The wiki also includes links to social media posts from Katmai rangers. These posts can be text- or video-based, providing additional information on the status of many bears in the park.

Why Brooks River?

A group of three bears catching salmon with their mouths in a river

Rebecca Harding / Getty Images

Despite being a mere 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) long, Brooks River attracts the greatest seasonal concentration of brown bears on the planet. The reason is simple: delicious salmon.

Early in the summer, Brooks River is one of the first spots in the region where bears can easily catch pre-spawned salmon. In the fall, the post-spawned salmon also play an important role in the bears' preparation for hibernation.

The best spot is Brooks Falls. This tiny barrier stops some salmon from migrating, and it becomes a prime spot for bears to catch dinner. The two best spots are the lip, the area just above the falls where bears will attempt to snag leaping salmon with their jaws, and the "jacuzzi" at the base of the falls. This spot, otherwise known as a plunge pool, is popular among the most dominant males for its ease of gobbling up salmon. If a bear isn't particularly high in the bear hierarchy, they often wait their turn just downstream of the falls, either to take the place of a dominant male, or to scavenge the remains that drift down the river.

Watching the bears eat near a roaring river is one of summer's best soap operas—and you can catch it even if you're at work instead of being there in person.