Katmai National Park

Trip Start May 06, 2010
Trip End Oct 14, 2010

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Where I stayed
Brooks Lodge Campground

Flag of United States  , Alaska
Thursday, July 15, 2010

I went to the Anchorage International Airport for a flight to King Salmon just west of the Katmai National Park.  I then took a bus over to the river and caught a Katmai Air float plane flight to Brooks Lodge in the park.  The float plane pulled up at the beach and we were directed to the Visitor Center for our mandatory "Bear Etiquette" training course and safety talk outlining park regulations.  I then took my things to the campground, set up my tent, stored my food in the food locker and headed for Brooks Falls.

Katmai National Park was designated a national monument in 1918 to preserve geothermal features in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes that were created by the huge volcanic eruption in 1912.  The geothermal features turned out to be temporary.  Now fishing and watching brown bears catch salmon at Brooks Falls are the main attractions. 

You're supposed to stay 50 yards from the bears and 100 yards from a mother with cubs.  That sounds pretty straightforward and normally it is.  When there are bears around any bridge or trail that route is closed, resulting in a "Bear Jam".  They occur frequently but they don't normally last long.  But it's surprising how easily a1,000 pound bear can sneak up on you. You don't have to wander around the park for long before having a close encounter with a bear.  Roughly once a day I'd unintentionally find myself closer than the prescribed distances.  The closest was roughly 10 feet when a head popped up in the bushes next to me as I walked down the path from the campground.  Fortunately, the bears are somewhat habituated to people although the goal of the rules is to keep interactions between bears and people to a minimum.  Not everyone follows the rules though.  Katmai is the place where Timothy Treadwell used to come to be with the bears before one killed him and his girlfriend.

There are two viewing platforms near Brooks Falls.  When the salmon are heading upstream the most popular one, which is right at the falls, is frequently full during the day.  They allow around 45 people on the platform.  The rangers keep track of everyone there and kick you off after an hour or so to make room for someone else.  The second viewing platform, which is downstream a couple hundred years,  is larger and not as popular and serves as a waiting room for the main area.

Most of the pictures and videos you see of bears catching salmon as they jump into their mouths were taken at Brooks Falls.  Before getting there I had the impression that I'd see a lot of that.  It turns out to be much rarer than I expected.  Very few of the bears fish from the top of the falls.  Most of them sit in the water below the falls.  The few at the top of the falls spend most of their time waiting, as do the photographers trying to get the usual shot.  When the salmon aren't very plentiful you can wait for your hour and never even get a chance to get it.  And even when you have a chance it's tough to catch it. It's a lot tougher than I expected to get that shot.

For most of my time at Brooks Camp the mosquitoes were bad and the black flies were terrible.  They had a variety they called "White Sox" that left large bites that bled and took days to heal.  My shirt looked like something you'd expect to see on an accident victim with bloodstains all over it.  They bothered everyone but they seemed to really like me.  A couple of the float plane pilots started asking me if I needed to be flown out for a blood transfusion yet.

I stayed at Brooks Camp for a week.  I spent most of the time watching the bears but I did some other things as well. I went on the Valley of 10,000 Smokes tour where you get to see the volcanic ash left by the largest volcano of the 20th century.  It's a six or seven hour tour with narration by a park ranger.  You take a bus roughly 20 miles on what I believe is the only road in the park and then hike down to a waterfall and canyon eroded into the ash.  I also hiked to the Dumpling Mountain overlook, which gives you a nice overview of the Brooks Camp area.
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