By Michelle Werts

A few years ago, I vacationed in Alaska, and while I was lucky enough to see some caribou and moose while in Denali National Park & Preserve, I must admit I was a bit disappointed not to encounter — from a safe distance — a bear. Well, on Tuesday, Alaska’s Katmai National Park & Preserve gave me a way to vicariously see a bear — and become increasingly distracted from my work — with its newly launched Brooks Camp Bearcam.

Brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Credit: Patrick Moody/Flickr

Yes, you read that right: a bearcam. A live camera that is continuously streaming footage of bears fishing for salmon in the Brooks River. It’s engrossing — bears are there all the time! But why? As I’ve discovered, it’s all about the salmon.

According to Katmai National Park’s website, “The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay, Alaska, each summer. Part of those salmon move into Katmai National Park using the Naknek drainage and end up at Brooks Camp. This is why so many bears gather in July on the Brooks River Falls.”

Pacific salmon, of which there are many varieties, spend their adult lives at sea in the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean. However, they’re born in freshwater — from intertidal pools to mountain streams — and every year, thousands of mature salmon must return to the waters where they were born to give birth to a new generation. Once they leave their saltwater habitat behind, they face various threats to survival, including brown bears. Some salmon will die of starvation on the trip since they stop eating the minute they enter freshwater. Some will die from polluted waters, while others are caught up in fishing nets. All of these difficulties and other factors, such as habitat loss, have led many Pacific salmon species to be declared threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. (Click here to watch a video about and discover some of the work American Forests is doing to help Pacific salmon.) But I digress.

Brown bear cubs in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Brown bear cubs in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Credit: Patrick Moody/Flickr

Salmon are an essential part of bears’ diets, as salmon helps shore up a bear’s fat reserves for winter hibernation. Therefore, anywhere where salmon are ripe for the picking is ripe for bear spotting. About 100 bears live in the Brooks Camp area, where the bearcams are located, but Katmai is actually home to an estimated 2,200 brown bears. Because of its remoteness, which is good for the bears, Katmai only receives about 10,000 visitors per year, so the webcams are a way to bring the experiences of this Alaskan wilderness to a wider variety of people.

“I think it’s an unparalleled opportunity for people to get that front-row seat of the lives of the bears at Brooks Camp,” Roy Wood, chief of interpretation for Katmai National Park and Preserve, told the Associated Press. While two cameras are running now, the Associated Press reports that two more are to come, giving wildlife lovers many different bear activities to enjoy — from the catching of salmon on the falls to moms and their cubs downstream to aerial views of the ecosystem. You know I’ll be watching.