How The Fat Bears Are Beamed From Remote Alaska To The World

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Bhawani Singh
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Welcome to Fat Bear Week 2020! Katmai National Park and Preserve’s brown bears spent the summer gorging on 4,500-calorie salmon, and they’ve transformed into rotund giants, some over 1,000 pounds. The park is holding its annual playoff-like competition for the fattest of the fat bears (you can between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6). Mashable will be following all the ursine activity.  

No roads lead to the fat bears. No telephone poles. No power lines.

It’s a remote world visitors access via floatplanes that land on a glacial lake in Katmai National Park and Preserve. How, then, does livestreamed footage of the bears reliably make its way from a salmon-filled river to viewers all over the planet?

“It’s an amazing feat,” said Joe Pifer, the manager of field operations for the nature livestreaming organization Pifer is able to send a livestreamed signal out of some disparate places, including an ocean cam located 34 miles off the North Carolina coast, affixed to an antiquated lighthouse tower.

The bear cam story starts at the famous 1.5-mile Brooks River, where each summer relatively gaunt brown bears return for the plentiful salmon run. By late September, the bears are transformed into profoundly fat animals

A map of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

A map of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

A zoomed-in portion of the map above, showing Brooks Falls (right), Dumpling Mountain, and King Salmon (left).

A zoomed-in portion of the map above, showing Brooks Falls (right), Dumpling Mountain, and King Salmon (left).

1. The bear cams

A bear cam affixed to a bear viewing platform in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

A bear cam affixed to a bear viewing platform in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Along the river, technicians have set up cameras to watch the bears fish, fight, sleep, and eat. Many of the high-resolution cameras, capable of zooming in and swiveling around, are attached to the park’s bear viewing platforms. 

At the Brooks Falls, the location of the most popular cameras, the cams are completely powered by solar panels, which are attached to roofing over an elevated walkway (other cams are powered by a diesel generator that provides electricity to Katmai’s Brooks Camp). There is bounties of sunlight (as much as 20 hours a day) for much of the bear cam season, so the sun-powered cameras receive plenty of power. The panels charge big batteries, which power the cameras and equipment. 

From the river, radio transmitters on the bear-viewing platforms then beam the livestreamed footage a few miles away, to the top of the 2,440-foot tall Dumpling Mountain, where other radio transmitters, called repeaters, capture the signal. (These wireless transmitters communicate through line-of-sight signals.) That’s how the livestream makes it out of the Brooks River area. But the footage isn’t out of the woods just yet. 

2. Dumpling Mountain

Dumpling Mountain photographed from the Brooks River.

Dumpling Mountain photographed from the Brooks River.

Image: knelson20 / shutterstock

A repeater atop Dumpling Mountain in Katmai.

A repeater atop Dumpling Mountain in Katmai.

Dumpling Mountain is the most difficult part of the livestream operation. Pifer, or members of his team, have to hike up there each summer to maintain and replace equipment on the repeater stations, which catch the signal from the Brooks River. 

“The number one hurdle is getting to the top of the mountain,” said Pifer. “One time my pack was 70 pounds,” he said, which turns the four-mile hike into a slog. The station gets pummeled by freezing temperatures, ice, and wind during the harsh winter months, requiring annual maintenance. “The Alaskan winter is everyone’s challenge,” said Pifer. 

The repeaters are primarily powered by solar panels, with a small back-up generator, if necessary. (There are two repeaters: One captures the signal from the Brooks River, and the other beams it off the mountain.)

The mountain has a glorious view of the river valley below, and accordingly, a direct line-of-sight to the river. Crucially, the mountain also has a direct line-of-sight to an Alaskan town some 32 miles to the west, a place called King Salmon. The repeater station then beams the bear cam footage to King Salmon, where a powerful radio transmitter in town, mounted on a tall National Park Service radio tower, grabs the signal.

3. King Salmon

A technician working on the radio transmitter in King Salmon, AK.

A technician working on the radio transmitter in King Salmon, AK.

Once in King Salmon, a place with internet, the bear footage is home free. The livestream is sent to, and from there, the bears in Katmai’s remote Brooks River are visible to anyone who logs on, explained Pifer. 

The bear cams and radio transmitters typically beam the livestream through late October and into November, when the long Alaskan darkness begins to shroud the land. By then, most bears have left the river to hibernate.

Still, people will watch the Brooks River flow through this distant, magical realm in late fall, with the fish long dead, the grasses now yellowed, and the trees bare. “Our viewers will watch as long as it’s live,” said Pifer.

Then, in some six months time, the bears will awake again.

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