Reality TV

When the automated scheduler posts this blog, I expect to be about half way through a rafting trip down the Kongakut River near Alaska's border with Canada's Yukon Territory.  Our float will originate in the Brooks Range mountains and end in the foothills at the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

We will have an excellent chance of seeing grizzly bears on the trip, and to do so in their truly natural state, unhabituated to human beings.  This is of course the best way to see these magnificent creatures, but a close second is to spend time in the company of somewhat habituated bears while fishing or at viewing locations such as Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park.  In general, as described in my post on the Brown Bears of Katmai, these animals are accustomed to humans and adopt a tolerant indifference to our presence.

Along with the McNeil River Game Sanctuary, Brooks Falls presents one of the best places for people to watch brown bears catching salmon.  Just seeing the fish pooling below the falls and then venturing to swim or vault to the top would be entertaining enough.  Observing bears attempting to intercept them adds a serious life and death element of drama.

Visitors to Brooks Falls take a short hike and then watch the action from viewing platforms, in reasonably close proximity to the bears themselves, who often leave the river with their catch in order to sit down and eat the fish on shore.  I have been to the falls many times, although not at all in the last ten years or so.  The two photos below were taken in 2000 with a pocket-sized Kodak Instamatic camera -- older readers will remember the type that used little cartridges of film -- and were subsequently scanned to digital format.

A major drawback of the Brooks Falls experience is the expense involved in getting there.  Because a floatplane trip is required from most locations, the cost is prohibitive for many people.  This seems somewhat antithetical to the openly democratic nature of our national parks, but is a fact of life.  Another issue is that the bears, while tolerant of people, are clearly aware of their presence and habituated to it.  In that sense, they do not exist in a true state of nature.

Both of these problems are mitigated by the live feed (pun definitely intentional) from summer "bear cams" that the National Park Service has operated at Brooks Falls since 2012.  The four cameras run all day, providing viewers around the world with an opportunity to watch the action without significant expense or intrusion.

I have recently been spending way too much time glued to this ultimate version of reality TV on my computer screen.  The other day, I was watching six bears standing above or below the falls, patiently waiting for an opportunity to grab a sockeye salmon.  One of the animals was quite a good fisher.  In a span of about 15 minutes he caught four fish, using a total submersion method, while none of the other bears caught any.  Finally, a bear standing on top of the falls broke the skunk by plucking one hapless salmon from the air as it threw itself up and over the cascade of rushing water.  Another fish met the same fate shortly thereafter.

The bear cams are wildly popular, so to speak.  To my surprise, they have even made stars out of some of the animals.  Evidently, people around the globe have formed attachments to some of the regulars who fish at the falls.  This became evident in early July, when the body of a female grizzly was found by Park employees not far from one of the observation decks.  

As described by Alaska Dispatch News, "Park officials believe the sow was killed by another bear and that the corpse was partially eaten by other bears, a reality of life among grizzlies.  But what made the death unique is that more than a week later, people from around the world are mourning Bear 130 -- better known to her fans as Tundra -- thanks to the live-streaming broadcast of Katmai bears monitored by viewers worldwide."

Wild animals as stars of reality streaming are not without some ethical and esthetic discomfort.  Viewing them this way comes dangerously close to the disrespectful "cue the bear" mentality that my friend Jerry parodies with his ironic catchphrase.  But, on balance, I think this is a responsible and minimally invasive way to share the experience of these animals with a larger human population than could possibly encounter them in person.

You can access the Brooks Falls live bear cams by clicking here.  Warning:  doing so carries a risk of addiction and failure to accomplish anything else for quite some time.

Brooks 2000-A
Katmai 2000-B