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They logged on to watch the famous fat brown bears. They saved a hiker's life instead

A livestream set up by Explore.org in the Katmai National Park for bear enthusiasts captured a missing hiker pleading for help on Sept. 5.
Screenshot by NPR
A livestream set up by Explore.org in the Katmai National Park for bear enthusiasts captured a missing hiker pleading for help on Sept. 5.

A handful of wildlife enthusiasts were probably hoping to catch a glimpse of Katmai National Park's famous brown bears when they logged on to a livestream of a remote Alaska mountaintop last Tuesday. But the resident celebrities were nowhere to be seen when a distressed hiker walked into view instead and pleaded for help.

The scene unfolded on the Dumpling Mountain livestream, one of 12 camera views operated by Explore.org inside the Katmai National Park.

Around 3:30 p.m. local time on Sept. 5, a man in a green rain jacket, wet and disheveled, appeared on screen and looked straight into the lens, clearly mouthing the words "help me." He returned a few minutes later, giving a thumbs-down signal.

"There is someone distressed on the camera," one viewer posted in the rolling comments beneath the stream. That message was seen by a volunteer chat moderator, who in turn messaged a Katmai Park Ranger.

After reviewing the footage, the ranger mobilized a search and rescue team, which found the man just about three hours later, not far from the site of the web camera.

The man was ultimately unharmed, Cynthia Hernandez, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, told NPR in an email. She added that the rangers were notified of the distressed hiker directly thanks to the concerned viewers.

When the chat moderator shared this news with the viewers, there was a flood of kind words and a sweet celebration.

"Aaaand I'm crying because I'm so relieved," posted the user who originally flagged the man's appearance. "Those rangers made it up there fast!"

Dumpling Mountain isn't typically a popular livestream

The cameras have been around since 2012, but really started to take off in 2014, with the advent of Fat Bear Week — a delightful man-made tournament in which the public votes on which of the park's bears has grown the most rotund as preparation for their winter hibernation. (This year's Fat Bear Week has yet to be announced, but the competition usually lands in early October).

Roughly 10 million people tuned in to the Katmai live streams last year, according to Mike Fitz, a naturalist with Explore.org who previously worked as a ranger at the park.

But most of those views went to the cameras trained on Brooks Falls, where the bears make daily stops during salmon spawning season.

Sitting about 2,200 feet above sea level, the Dumpling Mountain camera is more of a "scenery cam than a wildlife cam," Fitz said.

Stunning sunsets, like this one highlighted by Explore.org, are a main reason to tune in to the Dumpling Mountain live camera.
Screenshot by NPR / Explore.org
Stunning sunsets, like this one highlighted by Explore.org, are a main reason to tune in to the Dumpling Mountain live camera.

The camera auto-pans across a sweeping vista: Colorful alpine tundra shrubs dot the landscape while the largest lake in a U.S. national park (Naknek) stretches out in the foreground. Some of Katmai's 14 active volcanoes are visible in the distance.

But that height comes with tempestuous weather, which can often obscure the view and offers little in the way of shelter and food for the kind of big-ticket animals viewers crave. When NPR checked the stream on Friday morning, only 12 people were watching.

The camera itself is about 2 miles away from the nearest trail, which is described by the National Park Service as a "strenuous hike" featuring "steep portions" and some overgrown areas.

The climb rises 800 feet over 1.5 miles and ends about 2.5 miles from the actual summit of the mountain, but an unmaintained footpath continues on for a while before petering out.

Fitz says that makes it "a great place to find some quick solitude away from the river, away from the bears," but also shrouds the path in danger.

It's still unclear how the hiker found the remote camera

Cell service and shelter can be hard to come by on the rounded and short-shrubbed mountain peak.

And, during poor conditions, like the kind that set in on Sept. 5, "You really have no sense of direction," Fitz said. "The landmarks you saw on the way up disappear when the clouds come down."

The 4.1-million-acre Katmai National Park is tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, making it a prime spot for storms in any season.

Rain and wind were detectable on the camera Tuesday. Due to fog, the visibility appeared to be about 50 feet or less.

It's still unclear how the hiker found the camera installation. Fitz says the collection of solar panels and wind turbines sticks out amid the short vegetation, but it still isn't huge — maybe about 20 to 30 square feet total.

"This was certainly a first for us," Fitz said of the hiker asking for help, though wildlife viewers around the world have flagged pressing emergencies before, like an injured elephant at a Kenyan wildlife sanctuary.

"Our webcam viewers, collectively, are very sharp-eyed and they don't miss much," he added.

That was evidenced again on Sunday, when Dumpling Mountain's viewers, still recovering from the stress of seeing the hiker, caught sight of a big thing in a slim six seconds of the stream: A brown bear, rambling across the camera's view, miles away from his typical hangouts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.