by RIch Henke
- Aug., Sept. 2007

It is more common to avoid grizzly bears than to seek them out. But seek them out is exactly what my wife, Rena, and I did. Katmai National Park in Alaska has a grizzly bear population of more than 2,000. They are called brown bears in Alaska. Many of the photographs of brown bears grabbing fish in midair have probably been taken at Brooks Falls in Katmai. In July, you have to wait in line to get time on the viewing platform. During the high season, in addition to people staying at the lodge and campground, dozens of people fly in for day trips, making the area very crowded. But the bears are also there in late August and September when they gather spawned-out salmon all along the river. And the crowds of people are gone.

It is a long way to Alaska from California for a few days of bear watching. But there is no problem in finding other things to do in the area. In mid-August, Craig Miller and I met at Brooks Camp and did a 5-day backpack to the nearby Valley of 10,000 Smokes. This was followed by a 5-day canoe trip. Rena then arrived as Craig departed and the next several days were spent watching bears. Finally, on the way home, we did a 6-day wilderness backpack along the west coast of Olympic National Park in Washington State.

On June 6, 1912, the third largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred at Mt. Katmai. An area of over 40 square miles was buried hundreds of feet deep in ash. The event was ten times more powerful than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. Dr. Robert Briggs led several National Geographic Expeditions to the area after the eruption. He discovered a valley with steam fumaroles everywhere, which he named "The Valley of 10,000 Smokes". It was this valley that resulted in the area being proclaimed a National Monument in 1918. Katmai became a National Park in 1980 and by that time, was known more widely for the brown bears that live there. The smokes in the valley had largely died out by 1940.

Today, visitors travel a 23-mile road from Brooks Camp to the Visitor Center overlooking the valley on a daily bus tour operated by the park. The excursion includes a 3-mile round trip hike to the Ukak River that is formed where Windy Creek, Knife Creek, and the Lethe River join as they exit the valley. Backpackers also use this bus to access the valley, catching a return ride on a later day. Craig and I did a counter-clockwise loop and attempted to climb to the crater rim of Mt. Katmai to view the 1000-foot deep turquoise lake at the bottom of the calderas. We descended to the valley near the overlook and crossed Windy Creek. After following and crossing the Lethe River, we spent the first night in an old abandoned USGS research cabin about 10 miles up the valley. The entire area is still barren and covered with light colored ash that has been compressed and solidified up to 700 feet deep in places. The landscape is unlike any I have ever seen. The rivers have cut deep gorges through the hardened ash making them very difficult to cross. Frequent dust storms are produced by high winds. At the head of the valley are several snow-covered peaks, including Mt. Katmai, which are surrounded by large glaciers. The transition from an ash-covered wasteland to glaciers is surreal!

On our second day, we visited Novarupta, the vent near Mt. Katmai that was determined to be responsible for the 1912 explosion. Later that day, we set up a camp at the base of Mt. Katmai in preparation for our summit attempt the following day. We failed to reach the top on day 3 although we did ascend to 4500 feet, just 500 feet short. There were several problems. Because our map didn't have enough detail and the scale of the GPS UTM coordinate scale on our National Geographic Trails Illustrated map was incorrect, we chose the wrong glacier to ascend. But the terrain was spectacular and it was a good attempt. Near our camp, Knife Creek, the largest of the 3 valley streams originates by bursting forth from the glacier. After getting around this stream by climbing high above it on the glacier, it took us 2 more days to return to our starting point and catch a ride back to Brooks Camp on the bus. We had to navigate across several other streams and near the end had to jump a 3-4 foot chasm across the Ukak River. It was not a difficult jump but a mistake would have been fatal.

After a night in Brooks Camp to repack and watch bears, we loaded our rented canoe with gear and started the 73-mile clockwise circuit. The route began at Brooks Camp along the North Arm of Naknec Lake. After several hours of easy paddling, we reached a point where the shoreline turned east. Winds of about 25 mph stopped us as we rounded the corner. We had lunch, read, and ended up camping at that spot since further progress was impossible. Late the following morning, the winds died and we paddled to Fure's Cabin, one of the highlights of the trip. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the cabin was built by Roy Fure in 1916. It was reconditioned by the park about 20 years ago and is available to stay in, free of charge, by reservation. It is about 22 paddling miles from Brooks Camp to the cabin. The portage, the only one on the loop, was a short 1.5 miles but it is hard work to carry a heavy canoe over a rough trail and then make a second trip for the gear. At Lake Grosvenor, a 10-mile round trip excursion to the northern part of the lake allowed us to visit Grosvenor Lodge, an expensive fly-in destination for fisherman.

We continued the canoe loop southeast on Lake Grosvenor and then stopped to camp on an island. The next day, the lake first emptied into the Grosvenor River which quickly merged into the larger braided Savonoski River. After following this river for 13 miles, we reached the Iliuk Arm of Naknec Lake. A small island provided the best campsite of the trip. Winds came up again the following day stopping us twice for a short time. The lakes here are large and winds can produce waves too difficult to navigate in an open canoe. We followed the shorter north shore, which provided better protection from an east wind. Sea kayaks can also be rented at Brooks Camp, which might be a better option. Near Brooks Camp, we passed a brown bear in the water swimming in the opposite direction. We also saw several bald eagles but not much else. Several weeks earlier, travelers had seen numerous bears on the Savonoski River.

Rena arrived the following day seeing bears on the beach as her floatplane landed. We settled in for some serious bear watching. Everyone who arrives at Brooks Camp is required to take a 30-minute bear orientation course. You learn about bear behavior and the procedures to follow while at the camp. Many of the bears come back year after year, have been given names by the rangers, and have individual recognizable personalities. Some are more aggressive. In July, at Brooks Falls, the biggest, baddest bear always gets the best fishing spot and the other bears are careful to defer to him. A small female with cubs will sometimes chase off a larger less aggressive male. Another unique trait of the Brooks Camp bears is that they are forced by the concentrated food supply to interact with many other bears. In other environments, brown bears are quite solitary.

The rangers here do an amazing job of directing traffic. They carry radios and keep track of the bears that are in the area. Visitors are to stay at least 50 yards away from bears unless you are on the elevated viewing platforms. It is quite common to have to detour off the paths to avoid confrontations. The rangers do a good job, although you often inadvertently end up closer than 50 yards from a bear. Frequently, they often walk right through the lodge area only a few feet away from the cabins. In the more than 20 years that visitors have been coming to Brooks Camp, there have been no problems. It is important to note that this is a very special place. One should not assume that all brown bears can be safely approached to within 50 yards. These bears are busy eating salmon, preparing for the winter hibernation, and basically ignoring people. They do not associate people with food, which is due to the stringent procedures that are enforced at the campground and lodge.

The floating bridge across Brooks River is often a bottleneck. Sometimes you are trapped on the far side by bears fishing in the river close to the bridge. They have the right-of-way. You may have to wait several hours to return to the lodge or campground, which can interfere with meals or catching your departure flight. Everyone is taking photographs with huge camera lens and every variation of high tech equipment. At one point, we saw 18 bears at one time from the river platform. Amazing! We also saw thousands of Sockeye salmon in the river. In the evenings, there is a ranger led program at 8pm in the auditorium, which covers mostly bear topics but occasionally other subjects as well. Sitting in front of the fireplace in the lodge, you can relax and talk to other visitors.

On the way home, we flew to Seattle and spent 6-days hiking the northern part of the Olympic Coast Trail. One of the few wilderness hikes along the west coast, this adventure required using tide tables to determine when it was possible to round some "points", which could extend for ¼ mile. Fixed ropes were used to climb up and around other points with an occasional challenging climb. We saw very few people other than at the beginning and end. We highly recommend this hike. It is similar to the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island in Canada (which we did in 2006) but without the crowds and permit problems. We had to carry bear canisters, not for bears, but for raccoons who have made stealing food from hikers a fine art.

(1) To reach Brooks Camp requires a commercial air flight from Anchorage to King Salmon (approximately $400 RT). A ½ hour flight from King Salmon on a floatplane delivers you to Brooks Camp (approximately $175 RT). It is possible to use frequent flyer miles all the way from the lower 48 states to King Salmon.

(2) Camping costs $8/person /night. Reservations have to be made in advance. In July, campsites are hard to find, but in the late August/September timeframe, the 60-person campground was less than 25% occupied. It has water, comfortable cooking shelters to protect you from rain, outhouses, and 2 large storage rooms; one for food and one for gear. You don't have to leave personal gear in your tent. The entire campground is surrounded by an electric fence. Bears are often seen walking along the beach, just 25 feet from the fence. The campground is a 10-minute walk from the Visitor Center and the other services at Brooks Camp, including a $7 hot shower. The park provides carts for hauling your gear to and from the campground. It is recommended that you return to camp before dark so you do not accidentally step on a sleeping bear on the way home.

(3) Non-campers stay at Brooks Lodge. In 2007, the cost of a cabin not including food was approximately $700/night and they are almost always full. Perhaps a tent is a good investment! Campers can bring their own food or eat buffet style at the lodge with the other guests. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner cost $14/$21//$29 respectively. A soup and salad option for lunch and dinner is $17/$25.

(4) There is a small store that sells white gas, souvenirs, stamps, postcards, and a few other small staples. They also rent canoes and kayaks, which can be reserved in advance. Most people who go to Brooks Camp, go to watch bears, not to paddle. Canoes and kayaks were available the entire time we were there. There are no telephones and cell phones don't work. The last supermarket is in King Salmon.

(5) The Visitor Center is staffed primarily by seasonal rangers and volunteers, who make great sacrifices for this tour of duty. In general, I have never met a national park staff that was more enthusiastic and helpful. However, few of them had been on the canoe trip or the Valley of 10,000 Smokes backpack, so precise information about those endeavors was hard to acquire. Most of the visitors are interested in bears and that is where the park effort is concentrated. I would advise anyone with an ambitious agenda to obtain the required information before you arrive.

(6) There is also a Visitor Center at King Salmon adjacent to the arrival area for incoming flights. It has a lot of information about Katmai and other nearby areas. It is much better stocked than the Visitors Center at Brooks Camp.

(7) We paddled 83 miles on the canoe loop including the 10-mile roundtrip to Grosvenor Lodge. I measured the distance using a wheel on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map. Add about 4 more miles if you return to Brooks Camp via the south shore of the Iliuk arm of Naknec Lake. The distances on the park handout for the Savonoski canoe loop are incorrect.

(1) The National Geographic Trails Illustrated map called Katmai (1:100,000) covers the entire park. But be aware that the UTM coordinates on this map (and also on some of the other maps in the Alaska series) are incorrect. The latitude and longitude coordinates are OK. We discovered a greater than 1 mile error after our unsuccessful attempt to climb the Mt. Katmai crater. The rangers at the Visitors Center were not aware of the problem. National Geographic is now aware of it and will correct the error on the new edition.

(2) The book "Katmai" by Jean Bodeau, published by the Alaska Natural History Association in 1996, was very useful. It is currently out of print. I purchased one of the last copies from the King Salmon Visitors Center when I left. It has lots of information about Katmai, including natural history, bear behavior, and useful data about the more adventuresome canoe and hiking trips. The book was NOT available at the Brooks Camp Visitors Center.

(3) 15 minute topographical maps of the park are also available to review or purchase at both King Salmon and Brooks Camp.

(4) Katmailand, the outfitter for Brooks Camp, has a website which with a lot of information.

(5) Katmai National Park has a useful website www.nps.gov/katm/index.htm

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