Visiting Katmai National Park: Adventure, Bears & Beauty, Oh My!
Of all the national parks in the park system, few bring out as many questions as does Katmai National Park. American Samoa may draw out the jungle explorer in us to wonder of logistics and flight or ship docking times. And the same could be said of Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley, though these are only reachable by bush plane and are high above the Arctic Circle. But Katmai’s questions are not only of logistical nature, or when and how to best quench our adventuresome needs, but they are questions 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.
Sure, we may be fearful of a place where these bears roam freely (and may cause possible harm or fatality) but I am here to tell you why you should consider traveling to Katmai National Park.
About 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 – which help to 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’d heard of a terrible bear with a raised back and of a disposition similar to a wolverine. These historic grizzlies were not afraid to attack humans in those days; they considered man a source of food as well as a competitor of their prey. Their numbers far exceeded those of the grizzlies today.
However, with the explosion of settlers, the bears receded into the mountain heights due to threat. 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 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 as a result was being hunted by rangers in order to be euthanized. One mistake lead to another person’s injury and to the loss of an adolescent bear.
I believe the bears of Katmai are less of a threat than anywhere else in the American national parks. In most cases they have been cohabitating with people for two or three generations.
A Bear Sighting
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 I don’t think the cubs 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.
Grizzly Man & A Word of Caution
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. If you ever viewed this movie, you would most likely believe that this man had practically invited danger upon himself and his friend.
There are far more bear attacks in Yellowstone than in this region of remoteness and picturesque entrancement – which can be attributed 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 cluttered with 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 just a dozen yards or so of the animals. 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.
Safety And Preparation For a Trip to Katmai
It wasn’t only previous knowledge and experiences with these four-legged brownies that helped me avoid confrontation; 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 visitors who may not be as well-informed. They are also amazingly friendly and approachable. They keep a constant lookout for bears wandering nearby the Brooks Lodge and the 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 Katmai National 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 area of the cabins 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.
A Focus on the Nature of Katmai
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, turning day into night for many days. 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. Perhaps our most immediate danger is not grizzlies of Katmai, but rather the 15 active volcanoes forming the northern corridor of the Pacific Rim’s “Ring of Fire”. (Though not of immediate serious threat, it is always advisable to stay informed on the activity of the area when traveling there).
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Day Trip
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 cutting 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 growing vegetation (including miniature dogwood trees). A tip: the area is also thick with mosquitos; Deet and head netting are advisable, but not necessarily essential.
It is also possible to get dropped off by the bus in order to backpack more extensively into the valley, but this type of adventure would require more careful planning. I had intended to stay out in the valley for an evening and backpack several miles in and then out, taking the bus back to camp. However, it would have required fording the valley’s rivers, which I had heard could be somewhat treacherous – even to though familiar with the area.
Ultimately, I chose not to go and regretted the decision – if I had two or three nights at my disposal instead of one and had brought a pair of hiking poles with me, 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 – along with deep personal reflection, the wilderness and a trip such as this can also afford adventure through the company of strangers.
First Strangers, Then Friends: The People We Meet
I became friends with Daryl and Cindy, a sturdy, well-balanced couple in their 70s, due to the shared venture of a moderately difficult hike into the valley – experiences in unfamiliar territories cause bonding and shared beliefs. At one point I spotted them adroitly navigating the trail in front of me. At one of the overlooks they noticed I was traveling by myself, and so offered to take my picture. We spent more time during the trip talking and assisting with each other’s cameras. I learned that they were from Alaska themselves and had covered many grounds together in their lives.
Then there were the younger adults I sat with on the bus to the Valley from Hussak Adventures who represented the middle eastern countries of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman, visiting the US 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. Laura, a mother and teacher, had become separated from her teenaged kids because of the aforementioned troublesome bear blocking our return to camp and had taken an alternative path through the wet overgrowth. She was relieved to finally see that her children, Evan and Emily were safe and happy in camp. Her father, Ed, was also along on the trip and I learned about his interesting, adventurous life working in the Nepalese Himalayas.
There was also Cathy of Coeur d’Alene and her two friends, who had come for the rugged experience of camping in Katmai, trekking the wondrous trails and natural landscapes. It was comforting to see the bob of her white cap on paths ahead of me – I too, felt the same excitement she wore on her face. It is in the sounds of nature we really become mindful of the unspoken words of others.
And then there was little Payton – three years old (a month away from four) who 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 had been coming periodically to Katmai since she was 6; her grandfather had been venturing to the same place since the 80s. So perhaps it was destined for her. One night she came into the dining room with a story to tell, in her own words – as she was coming out of their cabin, watching the ‘bugs and the birds’, “a big bear ran in front of me. I said, ‘Mommy, mommy, I saw a bear.’ “I think you didn’t,” Mom said. “Yes I did, Mom,” said Payton. Then Mom looked over her shoulder and agreed, “yes you did”. Payton chimed in to finish and said, “and I wasn’t even scared.”
Jen explained that it had been something that had happened in the blink of an eye – probably a male bear chasing after a female. Though danger had been in such close vicinity, Payton’s tale seemed to manifest the mythical aspects of these creatures – like something spilled from the pages of Brothers Grimm.
Tips for Visiting Katmai National Park in Alaska
Katmai National Park had long been on my list of places to visit, and I was not at all disappointed with the adventure. I would even like to go back one day to visit again, and backpack under the stars of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. If you too, feel a small kindling in your heart for this adventure, I have a few suggestions to share from my own experience.
Get a camping permit.
Since Brooks Lodge has a waiting list of at least 18 months and a small cabin can cost upwards of $350/night during peak season, I highly recommend getting a camping permit. The camp has medium-sized sites that are 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 also an electrified fence of moderate voltage to dissuade bears from entry (though not totally foolproof). The cost of a campsite is $12 per night, with a 7-day limit.
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 4) at 8 AM Alaska time. I used the phone as a backup, but was able to make my reservation via the website.
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 temperatures in the 30s and an easterly wind off the lake, I found the park more peaceful and quiet. A good GORETEX rain jacket with my fleece underneath made everything comfortable.
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 floatplane from Katmai Air. This airline does charge extra for luggage over 50 pounds, so be prudent in your packing. Because relied on the graces of the dining options at Brooks Lodge (which you have access to from the campgrounds), I only brought in small amounts of food and no utensils or cooking gear; my seal line dry bag weighed in at 39 lbs. The girl at Katmai Air said I had broken the record for lightest camping gear amongst travelers so far during the year!
Beyond the Bears: Other Things to See and Do in Katmai
So many folks come to Katmai for the bear viewing that we often leave out other notable things of interest. Indeed, to capture a bear’s image on film can be a fulfilling experience (like camper Lee, who exemplified the naturalist photographer and was always present, showing patience and resolve, on the platforms and trails).
But the main reason the bears come to Brooks Falls in the first place is to load up on red and sockeye salmon to sustain themselves through the long hibernation of these wintery latitudes. Therefore, Katmai National Park 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 for viewing and photo opportunities. Dumpling Mountain, the trail of which 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 this particular lake with others, as this is prime bear nesting area. To accompany your endeavors, you can also attend one of the many 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 with a small general store where you can get plenty of help and information, as well as a token for a shower and towel.
Volunteering at the Park
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 and told stories of certain bears after following a comprehensive identifying “bear book” for many years. She described Bear 503, who was nicknamed ‘Sub-Adult’, and how female bear Holly had adopted him after his own mother abandoned him because of the over-zealous advances of a male bear wanting to mate.
Adoption of cubs is extremely rare; this 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 with fish in his muzzle one day, causing the rangers to believe that this one was different and might make it. Holly’s adoption of him was unusual and was only verified after Sub-Adult, having hung around with Holly and her cub for a while, was one day spied nursing at his stepsister’s side.
Moe was another volunteer I was happy to engage with. He was friendly and very kind, and we connected over our similarities. Upon explaining to him that I was a travel writer but was not getting compensated for this particular story, Moe revealed to me that volunteers like him don’t get paid either. This humbled me. After the revelation, I ventured to say, “I guess we get paid in other ways.” His ever-present smile lessened a subtle degree as he looked me squarely and said, “I got back my soul.” I noticed a green light twinkling in the corner of his eye, and realized that he had. Perhaps we all had.
Check out more of John’s work on his website www.zenlifetraveler.com