The second part of our trip to Alaska took place in Katmai National Park. Katmai is located on the remote Alaskan Peninsula southwest of Anchorage. Beyond the Alaskan Peninsula are the Aleutian Islands, and eventually, Russia. Katmai, like most of Alaska, is difficult to get to. The nearest town, King Salmon, is served by a commuter airline, but no roads connect it with the rest of the state.
We had made all of our travel arrangements for Katmai early on. Accommodations in the park are limited to three backcountry lodges and one developed campground. The campground and one of the lodges are located at Brooks Camp, on Naknek Lake near Brooks Falls. Brooks Falls is the world’s premiere location for watching grizzlies catching salmon. We made our reservations for the campground in January, as it typically fills well in advance during peak season. For Brooks Camp, peak season is in July and again in September. Those are the months when the salmon are running and the grizzlies are most active.
A number of companies provide air transport to Brooks Camp. After a bit of research, I found no reason to avoid using the Park Service’s official concessionaire, Katmai Air. Katmai Air runs the backcountry lodges and makes all of the necessary travel arrangements for visitors coming from Anchorage. It was convenient to use one service, and the other providers weren’t any cheaper.
Christy wanted to visit Katmai primarily to see the bears. I was looking forward to watching the grizzlies too, but my main interest was our upcoming backpacking trip in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. I crave unique experiences, and both parts of our Katmai trip promised exactly that. To be honest though, I was also a little nervous about spending four days in the valley. There are no official trails there, and there was very little information about the area available online. This is largely because anyone goes there. Although there is a map, there are no guidebooks. Most of the information I did find seemed to focus on the many dangers lurking there. The valley seemed to be infamous for horrific weather, terrifying river crossings, and its active volcanoes. Plus, the valley itself is a migratory corridor for grizzlies traveling between salmon runs on the coast and Brooks Falls. Although I had a rough plan for our four days there, for the most part, we’d be winging it. What could go wrong?
First though, we had a leisurely day hanging out with the bears and the rest of the tourists. We were up early on Tuesday morning, and made the short drive back over to the Anchorage airport. We returned the rental car, and I discovered that we’d brought it back a day late. Apparently I’d used the wrong return date when I made the reservation. Oops. Avis merely charged me for the additional day, but this was a bit alarming. As complicated as our trip was, I could only hope that I hadn’t made any other errors.
We checked in with Penair and dropped off our luggage. Our checked bags consisted only of our fully loaded backpacks. I was a bit nervous about this, but we didn’t really have a better option. Baggage was a concern, because everything we took with us to Katmai would have to be carried all week, including the backpacking trip. We had planned very carefully, leaving almost everything that wasn’t essential in storage at the hotel. Supplies are very limited at Brooks Camp, so we’d also brought almost everything we’d need for six days, including food. The only exception was stove fuel and bear spray. Those items aren’t allowed on commercial flights. We’d be able to purchase stove fuel at Brooks Camp, but we’d have to survive without bear spray. Bear spray isn’t sold at Brooks camp. Initially I was puzzled by this, but after spending a couple of days there, I can see why. In a place like that, large numbers of tourists toting bear spray would create more danger than it would alleviate.
After checking in, we proceeded directly to our gate. Oddly, we didn’t have to pass through security. We didn’t realize this until we found ourselves at the gate. I didn’t know it was possible to fly anywhere on a commercial jet in this country without going through security screening.
Our flight left on time, and we were lucky enough to get seats on the right side of the plane. Shortly after takeoff, Christy asked me what the two white mountains in the far distance to the north were. At first I was puzzled, but then I realized that there was only one possible answer. We could see Mount McKinley and its nearest neighbor, Mount Foraker, in Denali National Park. At the time I didn’t realize it was possible to see those peaks from so far away, but apparently they can occasionally be seen from various locations in Anchorage.
Sitting on the right side of the plane paid off again a bit later. We flew along the edge of Lake Clark National Park, and passed just in front of Mount Redoubt. The volcano had erupted in March, resulting in a major ash fall on Anchorage. The series of eruptions had disrupted air travel for several weeks. Redoubt was still smoking, but apparently its activity level had dropped off enough to allow us to pass close by. This was a relief, as I’d feared another eruption would prevent us from reaching Katmai, or leave us stranded there for an extended period of time.
The rest of the flight was uneventful, and we landed in King Salmon on time. The King Salmon airport was…intimate. From the plane we descended a rolling staircase and crossed 50 yards of tarmac to a one room building. Then we waited just inside for our backpacks. Once those were delivered, we found the representative for Katmai Air. We followed him and a handful of other tourists to a van, and were transported a short distance to the Katmai Air “terminal” on the Naknek River. There we went through an exciting process where everyone and every bag had to be weighed. Then, each passenger was assigned to a float plane. Unfortunately we were assigned to the second flight. That plane was still inbound, so we had a little time to kill. Our options consisted of wandering around inside the terminal swatting at the profuse mosquitoes, or wandering around outside the terminal swatting at the profuse mosquitoes. This was a grand time, and we were a bit jealous when the first plane with passengers bound for Brooks Camp departed without us. Fortunately ours arrived a few minutes later, and it only took a few minutes to board.
The flight from King Salmon to Brooks Camp was brief but scenic. It was a beautiful day, and the surrounding mountains, lakes, and rivers were lovely. Taking off from the middle of the river was certainly exciting. It was a bit like being on a speed boat that suddenly, improbably, goes airborne. Once we got above the tops of the trees, it was a little easier to relax, but it was nothing like being on a commercial airliner.
We began to descend as we approached vast Naknek Lake. As we descended, I spotted Brooks Falls below. Believe or not, I could even see a handful of Grizzly Bears congregating around the falls.
We had a smooth landing in the lake and taxied over to the beach. We got out carefully, and waited while our luggage was unloaded. We didn’t have to wait long to see our first bear. There was a large grizzly swimming out in the lake, not far from our plane. Unfortunately, we had some chores to take care of before we could see more.
First we had to check in at Park Service Headquarters for the bear safety video and lecture. All visitors are required to do this, and it’s probably a good idea. After all, we were visiting an area that is absolutely overrun with 900 pound bears. There were quite a few rules to follow, although most of them were common sense. On the other hand, the bears didn’t have to conform to any rules. Where can a bear go? Anywhere he damn well pleases!
The primary point of the safety talk was that these were wild animals. We were not visiting a zoo. I think most visitors understood this, but unfortunately not all of them. Or if they did, maybe after watching the cute cuddly bears for a few hours, they forgot. Overall though, I’m pleased to say that I didn’t see any completely moronic behavior. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen (I’m sure it does), but luckily we weren’t subjected to it.
The Brooks Camp area is patrolled by dozens of rangers. I’d guess that the ranger to visitor ratio is probably greater here than any other park in the country. The rangers’ primary responsibility was to eliminate all bear / human encounters. The bears always had right of way. If a bear decided to take a nap in the middle of a trail, the trail was closed. After only a few hours there, I began to realize that we were in a zoo, after all. There was a key difference, though. The bears weren’t on display – we were. Fortunately, the bears were far more interested in catching fish than in watching a bunch of silly monkeys.
After the safety talk, we checked in for the campground. Then, since I had a ranger’s attention, I decided to pick his brain a bit regarding our backpacking trip. We discussed our intended route, which he thought was reasonable. This was a little reassuring. His biggest concern though was our planned crossing of the River Lethe. In his opinion, this was one of the most dangerous things we could attempt in the entire park. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get anywhere in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes without crossing it. The only other option would be an out-and-back hike to the Mageik Lakes. We agreed to use this as a backup plan if we couldn’t find a safe place to cross the river.
From there, we made a brief visit to the camp store to buy stove fuel. I bought two canisters, which were expensive but not outrageous. A bit later, I wished I’d held off on this purchase. At the campground, we found a large storage locker full of canisters abandoned by previous visitors. Since you can’t take your fuel home with you, all of the leftovers end up here. The next time I visit Katmai, I’ll check there first before buying fuel.
We gathered our gear and made the ten minute walk down to the campground. The campground is located in a Cottonwood Grove, and the “cotton” was blowing all over the place when we arrived. By the time we left, all of our gear was literally covered with it. The campground is surrounded by an electric fence designed to keep the bears out (or the humans in?). We let ourselves in through a gate, which we were sure to close behind us. Once in the campground, we discovered the real penalty for being on the last flight. Sites are first-come-first-served and the campground was booked full. We wandered around for a good 20 minutes or so before we finally found a vacant spot in the far corner. It was actually a pretty nice spot, but it was so remote that nobody else had found it. We set up camp quickly, because we were eager to spend the evening bear-watching. On our way out, we dropped our food and packs off at the storage shed. Although the campground is surrounded by the fence, food still has to be stored away from the tents.
By this point, it was late afternoon. Of course, sunset was still hours away, and dinner could wait. We headed back towards the lodge (which is actually just a series of cabins), and from there, on to the Brooks River. Our goal for the evening was a visit to Brooks Falls, where we’d be able to see lots of bears. To get there, we’d have to hike a little over a mile on dirt roads and trails from Brooks Camp.
We were almost at the river when we encountered our first delay. At the river, the road crosses a floating bridge. Unfortunately, there was a mama and cubs napping next to it. That was too close for comfort, and the rangers had closed the bridge. There are no alternate routes, so we settled in to wait. Since we were hanging around, I made the short walk down to the lakeshore to check out the scenery. There I spotted two bears. One was swimming in the lake, while another was playing around at the mouth of the river. The second one was a little too close for comfort, so I backtracked to the trail. About that time, a large grizzly came strolling down the road from the direction of the lodge. Oh boy! Talking about being caught between a rock and a hard place! We had one griz approaching from one direction, and another heading our way from behind. Our most likely escape route was blocked by a mama and cubs.
A ranger escorted us out to the lakeshore, but away from the river. Christy and I were in a group of about 20 tourists there. This seemed like a good strategy until the bear in the lake started to approach shore. We evaded again by circling back towards the road. At this point, the single griz had passed by, so we followed him at a distance. He headed up the river, which spooked the mama and cubs. Amid this flurry of activity, the rangers reopened the bridge. We saw our opportunity, and hurried for it. So did everyone else, including a large group that had been waiting on the other side. We tried to hurry across, despite the throng of people coming towards us. Some people were in a sheer state of panic, which seemed entirely unnecessary to me. There are few situations so dire that they can’t be made worse with a healthy dose of panic.
BEAR’S GONE FISHING
We finally reached the far side of the bridge and hurried on down the road. We knew that only limited numbers of people were allowed on the observation deck at Brooks Falls. At this point, we were getting a little weary of waiting in an endless line of tourists. So we used our hiking experience and speed to leave the throng of people we’d crossed the bridge with behind. Initially this seemed like a good idea, until we turned off the dirt road and onto the narrow trail leading to the falls. The trail passes through a dark forest, and there was nobody else around. But where were the bears?
I reassured Christy that most of the bears were in the river, or at the falls. Unfortunately, there was no hiding the fact that there were dozens of bear trails crisscrossing the main path. It was obvious that bears passed through here frequently. We kept up a lively conversation and kept our eyes open as we hurried down the trail. Fortunately no bears materialized, and before long we reached the gated ramp leading to the observation deck. We strolled up the ramp, and encountered a ranger at another gate. He waived us through, indicating that the platform wasn’t full.
We walked out onto the platform, and my jaw went slack. I don’t know why, as I knew exactly what to expect. Somehow though, the photos and videos I’d seen from Brooks Falls didn’t do the moment justice. There were seven or eight massive grizzlies gathered around the falls. There were two bears perched at the top, waiting to catch leaping salmon. Others were largely submerged in the pool below, hoping for the occasional rebound. Other bears were scattered upstream and down, keeping a watchful eye out for running salmon.
We found a good spot to view the bears and take photos. Unfortunately, my tripod wasn’t quite tall enough to clear the platform railing. I thought about trying to shoot between the rails, but quickly realized how tedious that would be. Instead, I took all of my photos holding the camera by hand. This wasn’t ideal, but the lighting was adequate enough that this worked reasonably well.
We spent about three hours there. If people are waiting there is a time limit, but that wasn’t the case while we were there. The platform tends to be most crowded around mid-day. Our late afternoon arrival turned out to be excellent timing.
We witnessed all sorts of bear behavior while we were there. After only a few minutes, we realized that a particular rock at the brink of the falls was the best position. One female griz occupied this spot for the first 30 minutes or so, and in that time she caught 3 or 4 fish. She had excellent technique. Each time she landed one, she walked upstream a short distance to eat. Oddly, while she was absent, no other bear took her spot. It was always there waiting for her to return. Apparently the bears have some sort of system of dominance worked out that dictates who gets what position. I’m guessing that fighting plays a major role in this, judging from the number of scarred bears we saw. In any event, no other bear dared to challenge her.
Eventually she retired for the evening, and another bear took her place. This bear was far less skilled. After watching him for a few minutes, we decided that he had attention deficit disorder. He kept looking around, like he was nervous that he would be challenged for his position at the brink of the falls. He frequently lifted his head up, and on several occasions we saw fish sneak past him. He also yawned a lot, which was pretty exciting for us, since it displayed a fine assortment of sharp teeth.
Other bears demonstrated different fishing strategies. Some bears would wait on a rock until they spotted a fish, and then they would pounce. Others submerged themselves before resurfacing with a fish. There was even one bear that seemed to be surviving by picking fights and stealing fish from other bears. This bear went around trying to intimidate some of the others in hopes of an easy meal. We witnessed several of these battles that evening.
The fishing bears were fun to watch, but what was more enticing was the occasional family. We spotted a mama with 3 cubs, along with a mama with 2 yearlings. Yearlings are generally 1-3 years old, but are still nursing. Each family was fun to watch. The mama’s were largely focused on teaching their young how to fish. More importantly though, was their need to protect. A few days before our arrival, a male grizzly had actually killed a cub. The mama bear’s were always extremely wary.
People like to ask me how many bears we saw on our trip. The honest answer is that I have no idea. It was impossible to keep count, and even if we had, we probably would’ve counted the same bears multiple times. The best answer I can give is that the most bears we saw at any single moment in time was 16. Yes, at one point, we paused and counted all of the bears we could see gathered around Brooks Falls. 16 seems astonishing, but there very well could’ve been more in the woods away from the river.
After 3 hours, Christy and I were getting worn out. Standing in one spot on a metal platform is oddly exhausting. I hated to leave, but we knew we’d have another opportunity to watch bears after our backpacking trip. We headed back towards camp, but stopped at the Riffles platform on the way. This overlook is just downstream from Brooks Falls, and we’d heard that it was a good place to watch yearlings and cubs. There wasn’t much going on there at this time though, although the platform does offer a nice view of the falls from downstream.
We reached the end of the platform ramp and picked up the trail heading back towards camp. After only a short distance though, we spotted a bear coming towards us on the trail. We quickly retreated to the relatively safety of the platform, closing the gate behind us. Of course, the platform and ramp only offer the illusion of safety. If a bear decides he wants to climb up there, he will. Fortunately, they rarely get so inclined.
The bear eventually wandered off, and we made another attempt. This time we had the company of a few other visitors, which made the walk seem a little safer. We made it all the way back to the floating bridge without incident. There we stopped at the third overlook. This one offers a good view of the lower river and part of the lakeshore. Bears are frequently seen here, and this time was no exception. We spotted a mama and cubs, and watched them swim and stroll along the riverbank. This was as enjoyable as the fishing bears, and we weren’t in any hurry to return to camp. Still, when the bridge re-opened, we decided to go. After all, there was no telling when the bridge might be closed again.
We returned to the campground and made spaghetti for dinner. Afterwards, we organized our gear for our backpacking trip. This was pretty easy, since we hadn’t brought anything extra. In hindsight, we probably could’ve stashed our extra belongings in the gear or food shed while we were backpacking. I wouldn’t leave anything valuable in there, but I suspect that most gear wouldn’t be disturbed.
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