Katmai NP : Another Gem in Alaska's Crown

I know I had promised that Nancy Bandley would tour Denali today, but that was before I knew she had more great Alaska parks to cover first! If you are new to Park Remark, Nancy has been writing a continuing series of articles we've been calling 'So you want to go to Alaska?' Nancy is the current president of the National Park Travelers Club (NPTC), and Alaska Specialist and Travel Agent. Oh yeah, and she's also traveled to all 390 park units! The journey continues today at Katmai National Park.

Bears At Brooks Falls : Roy Wood PhotographerKatmai is located on the Alaska Peninsula reaching out through the Ring of Fire towards Russia. It bills itself as the Brown Bear Viewing Capital of the World, and with approximately 2,000 of these large (1,000 pound) bears roaming its acreage, it is a legitimate claim. Katmai has no roads (sounds like a familiar theme to me) and can be reached by float plane from nearby King Salmon. One reaches King Salmon by regularly scheduled flights out of Anchorage, 290 miles away. King Salmon, as small as it is, is the last spot of civilization you will find before departing for Katmai. That is the only place to purchase food, supplies or obtain mail. Once in Katmai, your choice for sleeping is two, either camping out ( with the 2,000 odd bears) or a stay in Brooks Camp. At Brooks Camp the concessionaire runs a rustic lodge which does have purchasable meals.

In the spring and middle summer, the camp abounds with fishermen. The park offers some of the best fresh water fishing in the world. Including red (sockeye) and silver (coho) salmon, rainbow trout, and lake trout. But in July and September, the fishermen must share the river (Brooks), with the bears. They come out of hibernation hungry and head for the excellent picnic grounds of the Brooks River. In September, they are obtaining the last fat to carry them through hibernation and are stuffing themselves with Salmon. There are two viewing platforms built by the concessionaire on the banks of the river, so that bear watchers can view without disturbing the bears ( or probably more appropriately bears bothering the viewers ) . One of my clients there this July saw 22 bear in the river at one time, which included sows with cubs as well as the large boars. This is a rarity as usually they don't dine together. The boars are a threat to the cubs and Mama's generally keep away when boars are present.

The park also has moose, caribou, red fox, wolf, lynx, wolverine, river otter, marten, porcupine, beaver and snowshoe hare. Along the sea shore line, are gray whales, beluga whales, sea lions, and seals, as well as sea otter. As you can imagine, with such a large population of surface fish (trout), there are also the raptors -- bald eagle, hawks and owls.

Mt Mageik and Rainbow : Roy Wood PhotographerThe original designation of this park was as a national monument and meant to preserve the "Valley of 10,000 Smokes". As a result of the eruption of the Novarupta Volcano in 1912, the lava flow left 100 to 700 foot depth debris in the valley bottom. Many small fumaroles vented to the surface leaving the landscape to look like one steam vent after another or 10,000 smokes. Today the activity has gone, but left in place the fantastic scenery resulting in pyroclastic flow meets river. The river has cut a swath through the lava field leaving towering banks of 300-400 foot ash fall.

One reaches the Valley of 10,000 smokes from the Brooks Camp concessionaire operated bus. On board is an NPS naturalist, who tells the story not only of the valley, but also the park, it's natural features, the animals, and the human history. A year ago, we went early in the season, and found ourselves the only passengers along with several ranger personnel. A very private tour indeed. At the end of the 23 mile dirt road ( yes there is actually a road here ) accessible by fording two streams, there is a very nice visitor center (which showed recent evidence of bear visitation -- scat and claw marks) before the 1.5 mile hiking trail to the Ukak Falls, or even further 4 miles to the river to view the tall ash fall banks. When the volcano erupted, the acid rain fell as far away as Vancouver B.C. and it was dark for days in the local area. You couldn't even see a lantern held out at arms length. They estimate the blast was ten times greater than Mt St Helens.

For those with a history bent, there is evidence of 900 different prehistoric dwellings or camps in the park, dating back as far as 9,000 years. And for birders, a local resident the White Winged Crossbill lives here year round. Passersby are Tundra Swan, Loons, Grebes and the Arctic Tern.


I currently work at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, and wanted to correct a few minor errors in this post. The name "Brooks Camp" refers to both the park service and concession facilities, so the two choices for lodging are both in Brooks Camp. You actually have 3 choices-stay in the campground operated by the Park Service, which is surrounded by an electric fence, camp in the backcountry 1.5 miles away from Brooks Camp, or stay in Brooks Lodge, operated by the park concessionaire.

The bear-viewing platforms are built, maintained and staffed by the National Park Service. The 23-mile dirt road to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes crosses 3 streams rather than 2-two tributaries of Margo Creek and Margo Creek itself. These river crossings are possible because salmon are unable to swim upstream past Margo Falls.

You might not see a single bear, because you are not allowed to walk on the bear viewing platform.

It's important to know Katmai has a "stay 50 yards away from the bear rule". As a consequence it can be impossible to reach the bear watching platform for hours or even the entire day. Park rangers get to decide when you are allowed to cross the bridge. I don't want to debate the scientific basis of the 50 yards rule, which nobody including a bear biologist could explain, however I was appalled by the way rangers seemed to enjoy the power this rule gives. I would assume the rule was originally created to protect visitors and bears, however by now it is often misused by rangers to hold tourists back from seeing bears. We "lost" on several occasions openings to cross the bridge because rangers wasted time by e.g. explaining "how to cross the bridge as a group" instead of using the time while the bridge was closed. Just spend enough time explaining how to walk over a bridge and you can be certain a bear will come close enough to shut down the bridge. Another favorite ranger game was: "I get to decide who is first." - and who will not see any bears. The Katmai N.P. rangers do not seem to care about visitors, they seem to care about getting a feeling of importance from bossing around "rich tourists" they dislike with a passion. Justification: Safety. To my knowledge there are no reported grizzly attacks on groups of four or more people. Point this out and they will agree. Now you will hear things like, "we don't want to get the bears used to people", "we don't want a petting zoo" and plenty of other things "they want". I have never been to a park where the relationship between rangers and visitors is so poisoned and where the rangers enjoyed so little respect. Rangers in other parks are helpful great people.

A possible solution could be an elevated platform starting at the lodge, crossing the river and connecting to the platform on the other side. Advantages:
1.) Everybody could get to the other side of the river and see bears
2.) The bears would no longer be bothered by the floating bridge
3.) The ugly trail along the river could be re-naturalized
4.) The relationship between rangers and visitors would certainly improve
5.) Katmai would be an even safer place, than it is now

You know, if you want to see bears you are more than welcome to head out into the backcountry yourself; you will see plenty of them. National parks are not amusement parks and the various points of interest in them are not rides. If you feel like you are being cheated because bears are guaranteed to be handed to you on a platter within walking distance of the lodge, then perhaps what you interpret as a derisive view of "rich tourists" has some justification. You are attributing a lot of negative motivations to a group of people whose heads you don't have the privilege of being inside; you would do well to remember that they spend every day of the season doing crowd control on visitors who by and large come equipped with an entitlement mentality. Cut them a little slack.

If you have not found a single expert to explain to you the basis of the 50 yard rule, you have not done very much looking. Do you actually need it explained to you why you shouldn't get within 50 yards of a bear? While it is true that there are no documented *fatalities* resulting from a bear encountering a group of four or more people, there most certainly are documented "attacks" on such groups. The number four does not possess some intrinsic talismanic aura that automatically repels bears. Get four, or six, or eight people close enough to bears often enough - which is exactly what will happen as soon as rangers allow visitors to do whatever they want - and you will soon enough have a fatality from a group of four or more. More to the point, the purpose of the 50 yard rule is to prevent harassment of the bears. Please remember Brooks Camp is located inside a n-a-t-i-o-n-a-l p-a-r-k - the entire point of which is that the place belongs to the animals a lot more than the people. The rule is in place to prevent encroachment on the animals, to allow them to go about their business as unimpeded by human interference as possible. I honestly cannot believe I just wrote a paragraph explaining the efficacy of the "don't get close to bears" rule. Growing up in bear country has led me to attribute a much higher baseline of common sense to people than is deserved.

The above comments point out how uninformed most visitors to Brooks Camp are about why there isn't an elevated bridge to ease traffic flow. Please refer to the 1996 DCP/EIS which is available on the nps.gov/katm website. In 1996 after an exhaustive public review process the NPS decided to remove ALL facilities from the south side of the Brooks River to a new consolidated location on the north side. The purpose of this is to alleviate ongoing damage/conflicts with cultural and natural resources in the camp's current sensitive location. While back in 1996 the park managers had the foresight to make this controversial and difficult decision, current park managers appear to be pulling a fast one on the public and making claims of a "phased implementation" of park facilities, which will in all likelihood end up with a situation of most if not all NPS employees on the north side of the river, the lodge on the south side and a permanent elevated bridge to link the two. While some people (the concessionaire especially) would welcome this scenario, the fact of the matter is is that this is not what the 1996 DCP/EIS says is supposed to happen. Plus how can the NPS claim that it can't move the lodge due to lack of funds (the common reason why the DCP hasn't been implemented 14 years later) but turn around and solicit the Congress for $5-10 million for an elevated bridge that isn't even supposed to be there (the lodge and cabin are all Panabodes, very inexpensive). It's basically another bridge to nowhere in Alaska that benefits the Alaska delegation's buddies (the lodge owners), while expanding the human footprint in critical bear habitat/sensitive cultural resources.