Of all the National Parks in the park system, few bring out as many questions as does Katmai. Perhaps American Samoa draws out the jungle explorer in us to wonder of logistics and flight or ship docking times. And the same can be said of Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley, though these are reachable by bush plane only and are high above the Arctic Circle. But Katmai’s questions are not only of when and how to best quench our adventuresome needs, but also of a deeper nature. They are of the nature of our inmost fears, our own mortality.
For this is the habitat and home of one of the largest carnivores on the continent, Ursus Arctos….otherwise known as the brown bear or, more frequently, the grizzly.
Still, the dilemma nags at us. To be too fearful to come to a place where these bear roam freely and may cause possible harm or fatality; or to walk thrillingly down paths shared with these massive creatures sidestepping their piles of scat as we do.
I am here to assuage perhaps some, if not all, of these fears.
The Bears of Katmai
Being an outdoorsman, I not only treasure but deeply respect the nature of wild things. When hiking in bear country I will sing or carry on a loud conversation with myself while traipsing sierras and alpine meadow.
These activities of course alert the neighborhood of a human’s approach and help eliminate surprise.
When Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery first ventured beyond the Mississippi, they heard of a terrible bear with a raised back and of a disposition similar to a wolverine. These grizzlies of old were not afraid to attack humans in those days, for they considered man a source of food as well as a competitor of their prey. Their numbers far exceeded those of the grizzly today.
With the explosion of settlers, the bruin receded as a threat into the mountain heights. It is now, usually, in the best interest of any bear to avoid humans.
These days, bear attacks happen more as a cause of human mistakes than of wanton malice on the part of the bear. During my previous trip to Alaska, I had to drive cautiously around the Savage Creek Campground of Denali to get to my destination because a hiker had thrown a backpack full of food at a grizzly rather than back slowly away from the approaching animal. The same bear subsequently attacked another hiker a couple of weeks later in search of people food and now was being hunted by Rangers in order to be euthanized. One mistake had lead to another person’s injury and to the loss of an adolescent bear.
The bear of Katmai are less of a threat, it is my present belief, than anywhere else in the wilds of America. In most cases they have been cohabitating with people for two or three generations.
Upon leaving the campgrounds one early morning at Brooks Camp this past June in order to take a shower at the lodge, I closed the electrified fence gate behind me and sauntered up the trail. After about an eighth of a mile I saw a sow and two cubs coming my way. There is a “fifty yard rule” at Katmai and these 3 were slightly within that circumference. I backed away slowly as one is supposed to do. The mother hardly paid attention to me as she witnessed my slow motion retreat. And the cubs, I don’t think, had the wherewithal to see me.
When at the gate, I lifted the security handle as quickly as I could and stepped inside. The bears were now about twenty yards away, but the mother and one cub turned down a side path towards the lake. The 2nd cub came within about ten yards of the gate before he finally spotted me as I stood on a tree stump to take his picture. Once he recognized me as human, he promptly turned around looking for mama and sibling.
Though my heart rate surely had increased, there was a certain serenity about the encounter. Because I had kept my head, I came away with a story to tell my grandson and with a little wiser understanding of the bear of Katmai.
Safety and Picturesque Entrancement
It wasn’t only previous experiences with these four-legged brownies that helped me from confrontation; but upon arrival at the park, one must attend a mandatory bear orientation. The rangers do not overwhelm you with information and fearful stories, but lightly guide you through the 3 basic rules of prevention. Stay beyond 50 yards of any bear. (In almost all other wilderness areas the basic rule is 100 yards or more.) Carry no food or toiletries. Do not run, as they may think you are prey.
The park is full of qualified rangers, exceptionally knowledgeable and patient with the foibles of us visitors. They are also amazingly friendly and approachable. They keep a constant lookout for bears wandering nearby the Brooks Lodge and Camp. They are in radio contact with each other and one of them usually has “eyes” on any approaching bear.
There are also “Bear Techs” throughout the park. These are Rangers which have gone on to bear specific training. One afternoon while I was returning to camp, a solitary male bear had entered the the cabins area and a tech had kept us in a group beyond the 50 yard mark. Another tech didn’t like the bear’s actions and so used a loud snapping device to scare him off. When this didn’t work, he advised us to approach camp via an alternative trail while he dealt with the problem animal.
The last fatalities due to a bear attack in Katmai, incredibly, were of the famed “Grizzly Man”, Timothy Treadwell and his friend, Amie Huguenard in 2003. This was documented in a film by Werner Herzog. And, if you ever viewed this movie, you would probably be of the belief that this man had practically invited danger upon himself and his friend.
There are far more bear attacks in Yellowstone, for instance, than in this region of remoteness and picturesque entrancement. And that is due in large part to the lack of caution of the visitors there.
I once saw a grizzly sow exit a forested slope in Yellowstone with her two cubs as they came upon the roadway at dusk. I quietly pulled over my vehicle and rolled down the windows for my son and niece to take a few pictures. Soon the road was ensnared by numerous vehicles, people exiting their cars or standing through moon roofs. The person parked behind me actually allowed his pre-teen daughter to exit their car to take pictures of the animals, all within a scant dozen yards or so. I called out that the bear had cubs, suggesting that they should keep their distance. But no one took caution. I had to drive away alarmed and appalled at the frenzied behavior of the human species.
The Earth also Trembles
Katmai is actually one of our oldest National Parks. It was declared a National Monument in 1918 ( we are currently celebrating its centennial) shortly after a cataclysmic eruption happened in June of 1912.
This was the most powerful volcanic eruption on Earth during the 20th century. It caused multiple deaths in the immediate vicinity as ash covered the town of Kodiak so as to cause day to become night for many days.
One resident, a fella by the name of Ivan Orloff, wrote to his wife from Kaflia Bay: ….”A mountain has burst near here, so that we are covered with ashes in places 10 and 6 feet deep….we have no water. All the rivers are covered with ashes. Just ashes mixed with water. Here are darkness and hell, thunder and noise. I do not know whether it is day or night. The earth is trembling; it lightens every minute. It is terrible. We are praying.”
The volcanic plume spread south and east. Acid rain fell on Vancouver and Seattle. South Carolina became its victim days later, and after that, North Africa.
Though we may come to this place wary of grizzly bears, perhaps our most immediate danger are the 15 active volcanoes forming the northern corridor of the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Mt. Katmai shrouded in cloud
Today ash still covers the valley below Mount Katmai, though it has mostly consolidated into a type of rock known as “tuff”. The area is quixotically named The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The tuff and the three rivers which cut through it have caused the vicinity to become a fantastic wonderland of scenic exposures. Daily bus trips from Brooks Camp arrive here and can be secured for $96 per person, lunch included. It is a 7 hour adventure and features a ranger guided tour down to the valley floor and the falls of the Ukak River. It is a moderately strenuous climb back to the top, thick with rebirthing vegetation (including miniature dogwood trees). It is also thick with mosquitos. Deet and head netting are advisable, but not necessarily essential.
lupine and life return to the valley
You may also be dropped off by the bus in order to backpack more extensively into the valley. But this adventure would require more careful planning. It was my intention to stay out in the valley for an evening, backpacking several miles in, and then out using the bus as transportation back to camp the following day. But it would have required fording the valley’s rivers which I had heard could be somewhat treacherous even to those familiar with the crossings.
The decision to opt for the daily tour only was a little to my regret….for if I had planned on staying out in this wild place two or three nights instead of one, and had brought with me a pair of hiking poles, I would have Loved to explore the source of the famed eruption, Mt. Novarupta.
Although my regret was profound, my choice otherwise became my delight. For as the wilderness can provide deep personal reflection, so too can it afford the company of strangers.
The People We Meet
It was due to the shared venture of the moderately strainful hike into the valley that we became intrepid friends. Experiences in unfamiliar territories cause bonding and shared beliefs.
First there were Daryl and Cindy: a sturdy, well balanced couple in their 70’s who I noticed adroitly navigating the trail in front of me. At one of the overlooks they saw that I traveled by myself and so offered to take my picture. We spent many more minutes throughout the week talking and snapping away at each others’ cameras. Citizens of Alaska themselves, they have covered many grounds together in their lives.
Then there were the younger adults I sat with on the Valley bus who were from Husaak Adventures. These ten represented the middle eastern countries of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. It was their pleasure to visit our country and Katmai National Park, some for the first time. I had a lively, bumpy bus-ride conversation with Usama and Khalid. They invited me to visit the caves of Majlis Aljin, “the meeting place of the Jin” (or, spirits) in Oman. And one day I hope to take them up on it. I also befriended Usama’s wife, Medina and their friend, Sondos who both had wonderful stories to share.
I also had the opportunity to befriend a family from New Jersey. A mother and teacher, Laura had been separated from her teen aged kids because of the troublesome bear blocking our return to camp. Taking the alternative path thru the wet overgrowth was hardly noticed as we hustled along. She was finally relieved to see that her children, Evan and Emily were safe and happy in camp.
Emily and Evan with McKinley of Katmai Air
Her father, Ed was also on this trip, and what an interesting, adventurous life he has lead having worked in the Nepalese Himalaya during his life’s course.
There was also Cathy of Coeur d’Alene whom I had the pleasure of meeting. She and her two lady friends had come for the rugged experience of camping Katmai, trekking the wondrous trails, and viewing from the vaulted platforms the ripples and falls of Brooks River. It was comforting to see the bob of her white cap on paths ahead of me, for somehow I shared the excitement she felt of this place but could not disguise upon the features of her face. It is in the sounds of nature that we really become mindful of the hearts of others, in ways unworthy of words.
And then there was little Payton, a beauty in any light. Three years old, a month away from four, she had the most memorable experience of us all. The daughter of Jen and Tom, she had a bear experience of the third kind, something we hope never to repeat.
Her mother has been coming periodically to Katmai since she was 6 years old. And her grandfather has been venturing to this neck of the woods since the 1980s. So perhaps it is in Payton’s blood, or maybe even because of the good graces which seemed to be prevalent during the days we were there. Or maybe it was because of a lesson we all needed to learn, that Payton came into the dining room one night with a story to tell.
Her mother let Payton discourse it in her own, sweet words.
She was coming out of their cabin, “watching the bugs and the birds”, when …. “ A big bear ran right in front of me.”
“‘Mommy, Mommy, I saw a bear’, I said.”
“‘I think you didn’t’, Mom said.”
“Yes I did, Mom.”
“Then Mommy looked over her shoulder and said, ‘Yes you did’.”
Finishing, Payton then said, “I wasn’t even scared.”
Jen also explained that it was a momentary event, something that had happened in the blink of an eye, thinking it was a male bear chasing after a female.
In any event, though danger had flashed itself before us from the mouth of a babe, Payton’s tale also seemed to be an embrace of the mythical aspects of these creatures and the soundless pads of their feet. It was as if something had spilled out from the pages of the Brothers Grimm.
Even the Latrines
Katmai National Park had long been on my list of places to visit, and I was not at all disappointed with the adventure. Here are vistas to behold. I would even like to go back one day to visit again, and backpack under the stars of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
So if the writer in me has procured an abatement of your fears, or perhaps a small kindling in your heart, I have a few suggestions to share.
Since Brooks Lodge has a waiting list of at least 18 months and a small cabin may cost, in high season, upwards of $350 per night, I do highly recommend getting a permit for a campsite.
Brooks Camp has medium sized sites all semi-secluded from each other by tall willow grasses and violet colored flowers. The latrines are not only adequate, but actually smell quite nice. There is a cache cabin for gear and another for food and toiletries. There is an electrified fence of small voltage to dissuade bears from entry, though not entirely foolproof.
The cost of a campsite is $12 per night with a 7 day limit.
The best time to visit is, of course, during the first two weeks of July during the salmon run. But it can be very crowded at this time of year especially with day trippers adding to the swell of people. I chose to come instead during the final week of June. Though the weather was raw with temps in the 30s and an easterly wind off the lake, I found the park more peacefully quiet. A good gore-tex rain jacket with my fleece underneath made everything comfortable.
In order to gain a permit, you need to visit the national park system’s website at www.recreation.gov in early January. It is best to be online and have a telephone handy on the first day permits are issued (which in 2019 should be January 4th) at 8:00 AM Alaska time. I used the phone as a backup, but was able to make my reservation via the website.
Later in the year, approximately 6 weeks out or more, you can get a flight to King Salmon, Ak (from Anchorage and other locations). From King Salmon you will also need a flight by float plane from Katmai Air.
This airline does charge extra for luggage over 50 lbs., so be prudent in your packing. Because I only brought in small amounts of food and no utensils or cooking gear, instead being warefully dependent on the graces of the dining options at Brooks Lodge, my sealline dry bag was weighed in at 39 lbs. The girl at Katmai Air said I had broken the record in lightness for anyone camping so far during the year.
So many folks come to Katmai for the bear viewing that we often leave out a few other notable things of interest. Indeed, to capture a bear’s image on film can be a fulfilling experience. There was a camper named Lee who exemplified the naturalist photographer. She was always present on the platforms and trails showing patience and resolve.
But the main reason the bear come at all to Brooks Falls is to load up on red and sockeye salmon to sustain themselves through the long hibernation of these wintery latitudes. Therefore, Katmai is a fisherman’s nirvana, especially during the spawn in early July. The men walking in their waders in the river below the falls are, generally, seen as part of the terrain.
Besides fishing, one can also take an easy hike up to Brooks Lake to view and photograph it. Dumpling Mountain, which trail is behind Brooks Camp, is a much more strenuous endeavor. The game path is uphill through dense vegetation and can be extremely wet and slippery after a rain. But the overlooks of Naknek Lake are worth the effort. I do recommend traveling with others as this is prime bear nesting acerage.
There are also nightly ranger talks.
And then there is the dining room. Meals are available for lodgers, campers, and day trippers alike. Expect high prices due to the remoteness of Katmai, but also expect good food. I was extremely satisfied with the kitchen staff and the fruits of their cooking (and baking) abilities.
After dinner most folks lounge around the wood fire in the front of the dining room. There is a small cocktail bar here too. Across the way is the visitor center where you can get plenty of help and information, as well as a token for a shower and towel. There also is a small general store.
Seeking Their Souls
In addition to the staff at Brooks Lodge who are the friendliest people you would want to meet, there are also volunteers in the park who are eager to make your stay informative and fun.
Stacy, who had given up 6 weeks of her life for helping out at Katmai, was especially valuable by telling the stories of certain bears after following “the bear book”, a comprehensive identifying book, for many years. She told of Bear 503, who was nicknamed ‘Sub-adult”, and how he was adopted by the female, Holly after his mother abandoned him because of the over zealous advances of a male bear wanting to mate. Adoption of cubs is extremely rare. In fact, the abandoned cub had to somehow fend for himself before Holly came along. Usually abandonments end with the death of the cub. But 503 was seen shortly afterwards with a fish in his muzzle one day, causing the rangers to believe that this one just might make it. Hence the name, “Sub-adult”.
Holly’s adoption of him was even more unusual and was only verified after Sub-adult, having hung around with Holly and her cub for awhile, was one day spied nursing at his step-sister’s side.
Another volunteer I was happy to engage with was Moe. Moe is a friendly, amiable guy. A very kind individual. Upon explaining to him that I was a travel writer, but one who was not actually getting paid for my story, Moe revealed to me that the volunteers, such as himself, don’t get paid either.
This humbled me.
“So, I guess we get paid in other ways,” I ventured to say.
Moe looked at me square. There was a green light twinkling from the outer corner of his left eye. His ever present smile lessened a degree, and he said to me quietly, yet directly ….
“I got back my soul.”
And, blessed with sudden and green-lit awareness, I realized that he had!
Perhaps we all had ….
From the wilds of Katmai National Park, June 2018
---- John Syron