AT THE FALLS, the Brooks River spills into itself—an endless splitting apart and coming together as the water hits the rocks. It’s where the salmon jump against the current as they make their way upstream to spawn. Even though they’ve spent their lives in the ocean, their bodies remember the river. Brown bears gather here to fish. Watching them stomp through the water makes me think I am being fooled, as if other animals have folded themselves into a bear costume.
I have never been to Brooks Falls, Alaska. I don’t even know it exists until I find it online. I discover the LiveCam during my first few months at a new job where the summer workload is so slow, I’m sure every day the boss will realize how little I’m doing and let me go. Even though there’s barely enough work to carry me through noon, I have to clock eight hours at my desk. The office is in one of those sad office parks where the only sign of life is a restaurant with a name as bland as its food. Ours is Henry’s.
I watch the LiveCam for the brown bears. There’s something about their dull patience that captivates me, their dead stare into the water as they wait for salmon to brush up against them. It’s the opposite of my gaze, bouncing between two monitors, clicking from one browser window to another, checking and rechecking my email, my Slack channel, my Twitter feed. Sometimes I forget about a bear for twenty minutes and, when I check back, it’s right where I left it.
I’m relieved to have this job, which pays me enough to live and does not send me into fits of sobbing at the end of the day, unlike the job I’ve left behind. It’s a step up, I remind myself, though I begin to miss the heft of the stress. It feels like my skeleton is going rubbery in my chair. I watch the bears to be reminded that a world exists beyond marketing calls and committee roundtables. I edit twelve pages of meeting minutes no one will read. I write copy for an email most people won’t bother to open.
I’ve noticed recently that even when I’m alone, I’m aware of the collective gaze. It’s like I’m constantly viewing myself through an Instagram filter, trying to angle the frame just right to make my life seem not perfect but genuine and fully lived. I am the actor and the audience and I’m beginning to wonder if this split can ever be repaired. The bears give me hope. The bears are not smug with their bearness.
With the camera fixed to the shore, I cannot see what the bears see. The water is frothy and opaque. I have to imagine how many fish are in the river based on the bears’ hunched postures and unblinking stares. The only time I can see any hard evidence of the salmons’ existence is when they try to leap up over the falls.
Someone controls the camera. It shifts to follow the action, but it’s always a step behind. It feels like whoever is responsible for maneuvering the camera has another more important job. The lens shows me the bears but also reminds me of all I cannot see. A bear lunges offscreen and returns minutes later empty-pawed. The camera swings suddenly to the right to reveal a bear and her cubs waiting on the shore. It’s unclear how long they’ve been there. A bear wading into the water moves with its head on a swivel as if it’s keeping track of something out of view. The camera is a constant reminder that the world exists whether or not I’m watching.
The storyline of the bears is impossible to lose track of, but it never goes stale. They are hungry. At first, I’m sure this cannot sustain the 24/7 programming, but I’m wrong. Their hunger is not like mine. Their hunger is singular. I will never understand what it is to feel the first breath of winter and know that all I have to sustain me are my own claws.
The stakes are high—life and death. Never one without the other. As soon as a bear dunks its snout into the water and paws a fish into its mouth, I am filled with a giddiness that spreads through my teeth. But then I see the writhing body of the fish in the bear’s claws—its scales slick and glistening, its mouth opening and closing like it’s trying to ask a question.
The bear is not concerned with mercy. Maybe to a bear there is no such thing. It peels the fish apart like it’s eating a piece of fruit, as if the teeth know no difference between a feeling thing and an unfeeling one. The fish comes apart like a magic trick. Suddenly there’s nothing more than a spine and a head. If I can forget the violence, the bear looks cute as it chomps down, human almost in that way it relishes the moment.
Seeing a bear eat does not undercut the drama. I know that hunger is a bottomless thing. As soon as the bear tips its head back and swallows the carcass, I feel a tightness in my jaw. Already I’m thinking about the next fish.
Little mini plotlines branch out from time to time. Two bears jockey for position at the top of a waterfall. A seagull perches on a rock, waiting for scraps. A mother rushes a male that gets too close to her cubs. But each of these stories is trapped within the story of the bears’ hunger like an organ inside a body.
As the summer presses into fall, I get anxious when I’m not watching the bears. It feels like I’ve left a pot boiling somewhere. My workload hasn’t increased and every time one of the bosses walks down the hallway toward my office, I’m sure they are about to invite me into the conference room to talk.
Their hunger is not like mine. Their hunger is singular. I will never understand what it is to feel the first breath of winter and know that all I have to sustain me are my own claws.
The days shorten. The glut of the summer is over. Now every time a bear catches a fish, the excitement is layered with a manic sort of fear. Even the bears move differently. They lose their easygoing gait. Scarcity only sharpens the hunger. I wonder if the bears can feel what’s coming, if there’s a dwindling within that prepares them for winter. I lean close to the monitor to try and read their expressions, but the picture is grainy. If their eyes betray anything about what’s to come, I cannot tell.
At night I lie in bed and imagine the bears burrowing into their dens. I’ve always pictured hibernation like curling into a pile of comforters. But now I consider the darkness, the grit of dirt. I think about what it must be like to crawl into the earth with only sleep between you and hunger—to know that if you jolt awake before the snow melts, there might be nothing to do but starve.
The camera goes offline late in the fall. One morning I go through my ritual of flipping on my monitors and, when I open the LiveCam, it says Off Season and begins playing a reel of highlights. I sit there stunned for a few minutes, watching moments I’ve already seen—a bear waiting at the top of the falls, pitched forward with its paws out, a bear crashing through the brush and stomping into the water. The fish are jumping, their bodies arcing out of the water, their tails fluttering. For the first time it occurs to me that although I have been enamored with the bears, I have been coming back to the LiveCam every day for the salmon.
Watching this old footage, I imagine how terrifying it must be for the fish to plunge breathless into the air. Their bodies twist, revealing the silver shine of their bellies. I wish I could ask them how it feels to have something in their blood pull them home. But I know that these fish are already dead. By now, even the ones who’ve made it all the way upstream are gone. Once they spawn, they stop eating. Without hunger, their bodies turn listless and they float downstream, bobbing along the rocks until they become corpses. Their flesh softens and begins to come apart as if the river itself has an appetite.
For now, here they are on my screen. I watch their ghosts lift up out of the water, the sickle shadows of their bodies fall short of the upper ledge again and again. They keep tossing themselves against the current until finally one of them slips up over the falls and disappears out of view. O