Brooks Lodge is a remarkable place. It is a fairly simple, remarkably remote place for the wanderer, or the fisherman, or the nature viewer. It is most known as a primary destination for the professional nature photographer, and a jumping off point for the Alaskan traveler heading to other points more remote.
This review/travelogue of Brooks is no typical hotel review. I am a subjective visitor, interested in sharing my opinion of value rather than an objective dissertation and comparison. I either had a good time or I didn’t. I don’t compare everything to a five star hotel, and Brooks is no five star hotel – rather I judge my experience in a much more subjective manner. Did I get what was promised – and was it worth the cost (both financially as well as in time).
At Brooks, there is no pool. Some visitors stay in extremely expensive cabins in which the primary amenity is a toilet and shower. Cabins have two bunks – so it is not the place for lovers – and the small showers do suffer from the old fashioned scalding/freezing bursts of water. I did say that the cabins are extremely expensive – not overly expensive, or ridiculously expensive, or anything of the sort. Those judgmental words would imply that I share in the opinion that only wealthy fools would pay for this stuff. To the contrary, you are paying so that you don’t have to camp in a mosquito infested oasis. Is it worth it? For many, sure. Full disclosure: I stayed in the cabin.
Campers pay far less for the opportunity to enjoy Brooks. Given the expense of the cabin, the cost savings are more than worth it for the average individual. There are severe food limitations (in other words… no food in the campground), so this is not the typical camping, but the next time I visit Brooks, my plan is to camp during my stay.
No food may be brought in to Brooks, or carried around. Brooks wins big in this regard, as it sells you meals for high prices. The upside is that the meals are very good – buffet style, and at fixed times. Miss the meal times and you go hungry.
The staff and guides are pleasant and helpful. No problems there either. If you don’t like someone, which is not uncommon on the travel road, and particularly given the diverse collection of people who leave civilization to hang out in the bear-infested wilderness, get over it. You’re not here for them. This, however, is not the place for strong wills. You listen to them and stay safe. But on the travel road, diversity of character is embodied in places such as this. I love it. If you don’t, there are other places on the planet that may be more suitable to you. Go to the zoo if you want. Here, you’re here for bears in their natural habitat, or the fishing, or whatever. Personally, I don’t like the zoo.
Shooting the Bears
Brooks Lodge is most famous for its bears, and it is perhaps the best Brown Bear (Grizzly Bear) photography in the world. There are a handful of elevated platforms for safe shooting, but the bears have fairly free reign, so they may appear anywhere at anytime. Guides offer a mandatory 10-15 minute bear education, and there have been no maulings in the history of Brooks (unless there is a nasty secret), but at Brooks humans and bears do cross paths, sometimes in very close quarters. During our stay, running (courting) bears practically ran into some people. Our job, however, is to offer a 50 yard (100 years from cubs) buffer zone and behave in a bear safe manner (and make lots of noise when we walk around).
Through the day, rangers monitor the location of the bears, particularly from the platforms and at the “bridge”. If a bear approaches either side of the bridge, the bridge is closed and people are forced to maintain position or move out of the way. This is typically known as a bear jam (like a traffic jam).
Here is a pic of the bridge under ‘normal conditions’. Notice how the people just move across comfortably. Just no big deal. The rangers on both sides of the bridge are keeping an eye out and talking to one another, so the folks on the bridge know that there are no giant brown intruders.
Here is an image of a bear blocking one end of the bridge. He ultimately decided to take a nap, and this bear jam lasted for about an hour or so. This bear jam was interesting, particularly because it happened as the bears were transitioning from a rather passive day to a very active hour or so – with fishing, running, playing and some close approaches to some fishermen. One bear took a fisherman’s catch, and we saw the mom catch something to share with her cubs. The “interesting” part is that the day was so quiet that many of the pro shooters just tucked into the lodge. I had a good feeling so I spent nearly 2 1/2 hours on a platform while nothing happened. When the activity picked up, the bear jam made it impossible for many pros to shoot because they got stuck well away from where the action was happening (see my related article on Patience for the Nature Photographer).
In this image, some fisherman found themselves in trouble as bears approached from multiple sides. This image shows a bear approaching from down the river. We were watching this closely as bear after bear came into the fishermen’s space – not intentionally, just randomly. The fishermen were zigging and zagging to separate themselves from each bear only to find themselves approached from another direction.
Of course, the meat and potatoes of the place is in the bear viewing. There are two main areas, one by the bridge (the above photos were taken in that area), and the other by the falls. With that said, bear sightings can happen anywhere at any time, and under most circumstances you can keep your distance and fire off a few rounds quite comfortably. The only “safe” area are on the platforms.
You’ll hear that Brooks “discourages” tripods on the platform. Maybe, but that is mostly to keep the guests respectful of one another. They’ll move you along as well after about an hour if there are folks waiting. No big deal. Hang out long enough and the action will present itself to you. Be respectful by squeezing the legs a bit (the tripods, not other peoples’ legs) and adjusting the tripod angle so that you limit your real estate.
You might be asking what kind of lens you should bring. Answer: There is no answer. There are the landscapes shot wide. The falls were ideal with a 70-200mm lens for the most part. A little crop here and there and the frame could be filled, or left spacious. My preference is for there to be a bit of space, so the 70-200mm was perfect (I added a teleconverter for a fair bit). Looking through the longer glass is amazing, but I did find the awesomeness of the moment, such as looking inside the bear’s mouth while he devoured a salmon, did not result in great images.
Some photographers used the 100-400mm (Canon) or 200-400 (Nikon) and found that range quite suitable. I did miss the area longer than 200mm (that the 500mm just was too close to handle), so the 100-400mm might have been a better choice. My copy of the 100-400 lens is brilliantly sharp, and since I was stopped down a little bit anyway probably wouldn’t have lost too much in the translation.
The 500mm was ideal for much of my stay on the platform near the bridge. Not only that, some of the action (like the bear with cubs image below) was so far off that I used the 500mm with a 1.4x T.C. on the Canon 1D Mark IV which has a 1.3x crop factor. That makes my zoom like … holy hell far (910mm). There were other times the 500mm was just way too far, and I put that on the 5d Mark II body (full frame) so that I could lose some of that focal length, and I’d put the 70-200 with the TC on the Mark IV. My point… two bodies with two different crop factors allowed me to constantly customize my shooting. One thing is for sure – the bears don’t care about your focal length, and what is far could become close very quickly. I did learn quickly to keep both bodies out and ready.
Here are some shots at the falls. Just an amazing place to catch this incredible action.
Be cognizant of mosquitoes and moisture. Brooks is a haven for both. Bring (or buy) spray and use netting if it makes you more comfortable. As every nature shooter knows, comfort is key or your images will suffer. Bring a rain cover. Avoid changing your lenses as much as you can to avoid sucking moisture and dirt inside your lens. I try to shoot with these awesome gloves that I picked up at REI, but found myself so caught up that I’d often forget to pop them on.
So that’s it. I’ve been home only a few days and have tried to offer some examples from the place. Still quite a few images to sort. More to come!
My review of Brooks concludes by saying that Brooks is very much what it advertises to be. Bear viewing in the middle of nowhere, with mosquitoes and a moisture in rustic cabins and campgrounds.
The food however, while expensive, was quite tasty.
I’d go back again in a second.