Brooks Falls Bears: Wildlife and Survival on the Brooks River in Alaska
By Michael Fitz, The Countryman Press, 288 pages, 2021. $ 18.95
It’s late September and all over Alaska bears are scrambling to consume as many final calories as possible before their long period of hibernation. This includes those who invade the Brooks River in Katmai National Park every summer, gorging themselves on the huge runs of salmon that enter through Bristol Bay, while viewing platforms stand immediately beside it, filled with human observers attending the show.
This is a unique attraction in Alaska, appealing to tourists, park staff, and scientists who will rarely, if ever, be so close to bears. At Brooks River, several elements have converged over the millennia to transform the location into an ideal nutritional treadmill for bears living in the area. They enjoy an unusually abundant life, even by the standards of top predators. Still, there is an extremely delicate balance at play at Brooks River, a balance that includes people and must consider 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 a tremendous amount of information into a narrative that never overwhelms the reader. This is in part because Fitz includes enough of his own experiences along the Brooks River to offer a pair of eyes to see him through, but never lets the book become a memoir on itself. Fitz’s writing is as delicately balanced as the ecosystem it details, making it one of the best Alaskan wildlife books I’ve ever come across.
Fitz is a Maine-based National Park Service ranger who first came to Katmai in 2007 and spent most of the summers there. Specifically, he was posted to Brooks Camp, the air-accessible lodge where tourists flock each year to stand on its platforms and watch bears pluck salmon from the waters like children picking up candy thrown from a chariot. parade. Although not a field scientist himself, Fitz observed the process with a researcher’s eye, digging into the region’s natural and human history by reading in depth the scientific and cultural writings on the earth and its animals, while keeping its own archives. of what he saw that he compares to current science to illustrate both what is known and what remains uncertain about bears.
Fitz begins with the catastrophic and geologically fairly recent event that shaped the current landscape of the region. The eruption of the Novarupta volcano in 1912 caused the collapse of nearby Mount 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 beginning. Fitz details the process that led to the creation of Katmai National Monument six years later, and how the discovery of bear convergence on the Brooks River during salmon runs led to the eventual development of tourist facilities.
However, for most of the first two-thirds of the book, Fitz focuses on the bears themselves, as well as the world they live in. It 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 fight for the best fishing spots or settle for the safety of less active places. .
Fitz possesses the ability to apply human perspectives to these animals in a way that brings out the motivations for their behavior. Yet he does so without ever anthropomorphizing them. In explaining how bears must meet a year’s caloric needs in six months, he points out that an obese bear in September is a healthy bear that enters the den. “Gluttony is not a sin when your life depends on it,” he notes wryly.
It’s not just the bears receiving lyrical writing that makes them relatable without pretending they’re like us. In the middle of the book, he takes a long detour to detail the life cycle of the sockeye they eat. It’s a tale that he rightly compares to the Odyssey. Of the millions of fish that hatch in Katmai’s streams each year, most will never reach tidal waters, let alone survive for years at sea before passing fishing fleets, waterfalls and, of course, hungry bears in their attempt to reproduce for the only time in their lives before dying.
“Salmon are not abandoned or shipwrecked by evil gods, nor are they seduced by sirens like Ulysses, but they arguably endure even more severe hardships,” Fitz writes, with characteristic lyrical flair. “Every stage of their life carries significant risks, and few survive the journey.”
While His Divergence with Salmon is practically a short book in itself, it is crucial to the main theme of how Katmai bears live and what is needed to keep their population healthy. This, of course, means humans are a part of history, from the smallest to the largest. Viewing platforms along the Brooks River have a local impact on bear behavior. And while for the most part keeping people in line is easier than keeping people in line with bears, sometimes it’s the bears that need to be reformed. Meanwhile, Pebble Mine’s hotly contested proposal, although currently spiked, could, if reactivated and implemented, cause irreparable damage to the last salmon run which has not been disrupted and depleted by human activity. And while Pebble never materializes, human-induced climate change is altering oceans and landscapes.
Fitz does a remarkable job exploring all of these areas and more, giving readers a comprehensive journey to one of Alaska’s most treasured gems that resembles a visit to the legendary Brooks Camp Observation Deck. , then beyond. He takes us where we can’t go in person, bringing us into the lives of bears. His writing will inspire readers to love this land and its bears as much as he does.