Blown Over and Blown Away at Katmai National Park and Preserve

Floatplanes

Floatplanes are a common form of transportation in Alaska, but they aren’t immune to bad weather. NPS photo.

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a classic example of an Alaskan park—beautiful, remote and limited development. When high winds caused several accidents and stranded tourists in Katmai and a nearby NPS area, the park and concession staff came to the rescue in more ways than one.

According to a report from the park,

High winds roared over the Alaska Peninsula over the six-day period from July 23rd to July 28th. Sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph occurred throughout the period, with field crews measuring gusts over 70 mph. Several incidents resulted:

At about 5 a.m. on July 24, the park’s voicemail recorded a call reporting a SPOT device activation (SPOT is a portable GPS and satellite communication device used in emergencies). The caller said that his brother and friends were camped inside the Aniakchak caldera and were preparing to float the Aniakchak and Meshik Rivers. Later that morning, a SPOT 911 alert was received. [Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve is a separate NPS unit located south of Katmai.]

Due to weather restrictions ... the Coast Guard was asked to respond. An aircraft from the Kodiak Air Station evacuated three people and flew them to King Salmon.

They told park staff that strong winds moved quickly into the area while they were exploring the caldera and destroyed their campsite. Tents were ripped apart and large amounts of gear, including inflatable boats and supplies, were washed away into Surprise Lake. Other camp gear was scattered throughout the 30-square-mile caldera. The trio covered up with tent flies and huddled together through the night. All were rescued without injuries and were suffering only from mild exposure.

Floatplanes are a common form of transportation in Alaska, including the popular Brooks Camp area at Katmai. However, they aren’t immune to problems with the weather.

On July 25, a Cessna 185 flipped over while attempting to take off from Lake Brooks in mid-afternoon. The Cessna, piloted by Cecil Shuman, was taxiing from shore and had just turned to face the wind when it got hit by sustained winds of 40 mph and gusts into the 60s.

The left wing was caught by a gust, causing the plane to stand on its nose, then flip onto its back. Shuman and his four passengers were able to escape before the Cessna sank to its floats. Brooks Lodge employees saw the event unfold and responded in their boat.

Shortly after, National Park Service maintenance employees responded in an NPS vessel. Three of the five were picked up by the concession boat and the other two by the park boat. Rangers met the victims at the shore and provided EMS care. They were able to change clothes and were warmed aggressively. No injuries were sustained. All five were flown out by another commercial operator later that evening.

Due to severe winds that same day, several commercial operators ceased flights into or out of Brooks Camp. This poses a challenge, since many visitors to that remote area are on day trips, and overnight accommodations--and any facilities for that matter--are very limited. The park and concession staff rose to the occasion with a fine example of Alaskan hospitality.

Park staff and Brooks Lodge took steps to accommodate 63 additional visitors overnight at the camp by housing people in the park's auditorium, visitor center, and government quarters. All visitors were safely accommodated for the evening and all were able to make it out of camp the following day.

Adventures and the need for hospitality weren’t finished on July 25. Elsewhere in the park that same day,

Winds of up to 75 mph stranded a fishing guide and two clients from Enchanted Lake Lodge at the Moraine Creek area. Rangers patrolling in the area met up with the fishermen and provided tent shelter for the night. A sharing of food, shelter and sleeping bags made for a restless but safe night. The visitors and guide were picked up the following morning by their lodge plane.

Sharing food, shelter and sleeping bags with stranded visitors may be an Alaskan twist on “Say buddy, can you spare a dime,” but it also qualifies as a great example of customer service.

Comments

Yes, the weather on the Alaska Peninsula is powerful and not always expected. People, especially pilots, should expect it, and be prepared. National Park Service teams have been stranded in the Aniakchak Caldera for periods longer than a week, due to weather. When you go there you better be self-sufficient.

Just a technical point about the first report from the park: the Aniakchack Caldera is no where near Katmai, certainly not "in" it. The Aniakchak Caldera is way down the Peninsula from Katmai. The Caldera is inside its own unit of the National Park System, wholly distinct from Katmai National Park or Katmai National Preserve. NPS people sometimes allow their own administrative systems -- the park superintendent of Katmai National Park, Katmai National Preserve and the Alagnak Wild River also manages the two park units at Aniakchak, and entirely different kind of place. Similarly, NPS people refer to the battlefields of Fredericksburg and of Spottsylvania as "Fred-Spot" even though these two battles happened at entirely different points in the Civil War, and the Home of Franklin Roosevelt, and the Vanderbilt mansion, together with another NPS unit, are routinely referred to as "Ro-Va," homogenizing the places, although hopefully not also the distinctive significance of the areas.

The extreme of this homogenizing the meaning of national parks is Speaker Pelosi's proposal to bundle up all the distinctive park units around Golden Gate into one "national park(s)" [sic] designation.

Let us hope the park staff at Katmai realize Aniakchak National Monument, Aniakchak National Preserve and Aniakchak National Wild River were each established for their own, entirely distinct, purposes. Nothing to do with the units at Katmai, other than the managers.

Anonymous, you summed it up nicely. The park staff obviously did a good job of responding to the challenging weather common to the Alaska Peninsula. It brings back memories of "weather days" in the area. Visitors must be prepared for rapidly changing and occasionally violent weather. Sounds like the NPS will have to send some folks down into the Aniakchak Caldera to clean up the debris of shredded camping gear.

Anonymous -

Thanks for the clarification on the geography.

The park's report didn't annex the Aniakchack Caldera as part of Katmai, but merely included that incident in their overall report of the weather-related problems they responded to in the area during a two-day period. So, any confusion is my error, not the park's.


Mr. Burnett:

You are TOO kind:

"The caller said that his brother and friends were camped inside the Aniakchak caldera at Katmai and were preparing to float the Aniakchak and Meshik Rivers."

IE: 'at Katmai'

Yeah, sounds like the caller also failed to check his geography :-)

I made a couple of minor corrections to the story. I tracked down the park's original version of the report, which did not make any reference to Aniakchak being located in Katmai. Hope that clears up the loose ends.