Previous Next

Katmai National Park in southwestern Alaska is known for two things: the volcanic landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes…and bears. The headwaters of numerous salmon streams bring massive numbers of fish to the region each summer. And those fish lure dozens of Alaska Brown Bears.

On the several photography and paddling trips I’ve led to Katmai, I’m often asked the difference between Brown Bears and Grizzly Bears. The short answer is there isn’t one — they’re the same species. The long answer is slightly more complicated. Grizzly Bears are found in the interior of the continent, while Brown Bears are coastal. In Alaska, coastal bears are much larger than interior bears because they have access to calorie-rich salmon. Grizzlies are smaller, and due to their less reliable food sources, more predatory.

Behaviorally, the two differ as well. Grizzlies are shy, skulking things that appreciate personal space. They don’t mingle with other bears and prefer humans to stay a few hundred yards away. Coastal Brown Bears, particularly those at Katmai, are incredibly social. At bear-viewing areas like Brooks Falls (where these images were made), it’s possible to see more than a dozen bears at once. Katmai’s bears are also much more tolerant of humans, and it’s possible to end up just feet away as one passes by. That proximity yields some of the best bear photography opportunities available.

Getting to Katmai requires a flight or two from Anchorage. There are two main options: a tour (usually day trips) organized by flight services that will take you straight from Anchorage to Brooks in a small float plane, or you can fly commercial airlines to the town of King Salmon, where a float charter can be arranged for the short trip to the park. Neither option is cheap, and if you want to stay overnight during peak season (July and August), make campground or lodge reservations early.

Photo EssayWildlife


About The Author

David Shaw

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, Arctic Wild wilderness guide, and wildlife biologist from Fairbanks, Alaska. He thinks the world’s wild places and creatures are too awesome not to protect. Visit his website at

  • Scott Hartman

    Beautiful series. Especially like the ‘abstract’ of the salmon… Good stuff

    • Wild Imagination Photography

      Thanks Scott, Glad you like the shots. Shooting salmon through the flowing water is a creative challenge. I like this one because the longer exposure blurs the water just enough to get a sense of the flow. Good to hear you liked it too.

  • Kathryn Nichols

    Enjoyed this series! Great photos… I particularly like the one of the salmon running and the Sow Standing (she made me laugh out loud). The bear in the photo with the gull looks like he means business… What a beast!
    Am wondering though, could the crowds be detrimental to the bears? Perhaps the park limits the number of folks who come each day..
    Great job :)

    • Wild Imagination Photography

      The number of people are primarily limited by the difficulties and expense of getting there, and the lack of overnight lodging and few campsites. But as far as I know there are no limitations set by the Park Service. That said, they manage the human traffic very, very well, and the bears are given priority in all situations. There are limits to how close one can be when not on a platform, and rangers stationed along the trail network enforce these boundaries strictly. In the several trips I’ve made to Brooks, I’ve never encountered a bear that I felt was stressed by the people. (I however have found the people to be occasionally, obnoxious. Still, it’s a fabulous place to watch bears.)

  • Lauri B Griffin

    Hi David – this Photo Essay gave me wonderful insight into the brown bears, and Brooks River in particular. My husband and I are traveling to Alaska in August and hope to be able to capture this type of behavior. Your photos are excellent – thank you for sharing!

The Kugrak is one dramatic valley among thousands.
A 1300km road trip through Namibia — all “self drive,” no guides.
Churchill, Canada is positioned near the world's largest concentration of polar bears.
Stalking the water-going creatures of the Galápagos.
I find this part of the world wildly inviting, and I must not be alone.
The trip had a significance for me that was harder to quantify but impossible to ignore.
"Attention ladies and gentlemen. We are now beginning our descent into Mogadishu."
Every year, an estimated 30-35,000 elephants are slaughtered across Africa.
Thousands of miles from those early memories, I am still entranced by the hook and line.
It's one of few places on Earth where you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.
After eight days, I thought I was going to miss them again, until a miracle happened.