The annual return of Pacific salmon to the rivers of the north, in numbers beyond calculation, represents a massive delivery of protein and nutrients from the oceans to the land and the forest. The salmon drive that entire coastal ecosystem, and, in particular, they feed the bears.
To be sure, there are grizzly bears that live where the salmon runs don't reach and who never partake of that seasonal abundance. But those bears are smaller and less numerous than their coastal cousins. To see the biggest bears in the greatest numbers, you must come to where the salmon run.
One such place is the Brooks River in Alaska's Katmai National Park. The Brooks is only a mile and a half long, a mere connection between two lakes, but for sockeye salmon, it's the only gateway to the many spawning streams that feed the upper lake. So many fish crowd into the river that it seems to turn red and run backward. Midway along, they must surmount six-foot-high Brooks Falls. They mass in pools at the base, preparing to leap. For the bears, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet.
On any given day during the peak of the run, some 25 or 30 bears visit the area. Bears are normally solitary creatures, and sharing space with so many of their kind forces them to resolve some issues. They must establish temporary territories at good fishing stations in the river, and settle on a dominance hierarchy. An individual's position in this seasonal bear society must be constantly maintained, defended, and revised. These matters require a great deal of interaction--posturing, bluffing, displaying, and sometimes violence. There are winners and losers. Watching the bears at these times is like watching a Shakespearean play.
There are several kinds of actors on this stage. There are subadult bears, males and females, trying to make their own way in the world, but lacking experience and size. They find themselves marginalized and bullied by bigger bears. There are mothers with young cubs, who must be constantly wary of large males, but if confronted, are ferocious in defense of their offspring. Their tenaciousness wins them a place at the table. And there are the big males, ponderous brutes who are among the largest land predators on earth. When one of them arrives, the tenor of the proceedings changes. Territories shift around as they displace less-dominant animals, and a ripple effect spreads through the community.
It's a grand show, and one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet. And there's gallery seating available. The National Park Service has provided viewing platforms immediately above and alongside Brooks Falls, and by staying alert and adhering to the regulations, it is possible to stand almost shoulder to shoulder with these magnificent animals. You can watch them playing and fighting, struggling and thriving, and living their unfettered lives. Meanwhile the salmon leap and battle on, passing once more on their age-old cycle, giving again their gifts to the land and its inhabitants. The bears stand in, and partake of, a literal river of life.