Katmai was established as a National Monument in 1918 by a Presidential proclamation to protect the volcanically devastated region surrounding Mount Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. It was expanded over the years by four additional proclamations, then enlarged and re-designated a National Park and Preserve in 1980. So of course it was on my list of National Parks to visit.
I remember back in 1986 when I was doing my college internship in Yosemite National Park leading nature walks in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias one of the seasonal Rangers that I met there talked about working summers in Katmai National Park. Hearing her stories of this remote location accessible only by floatplane or boat and how part of her job was to meet each and every visitor as they got to the park and give them a bear safety talk was music to my ears! Imagine such a job and imagine visiting such a wonderful location. I knew that I had picked the best career ever.
Well I never took that opportunity to follow a career with the National Park Service (California State Parks was just as awesome a career) but I have always wanted to visit Katmai and see for myself the bears in that natural habitat. As soon as I decided to travel to Alaska this summer I knew it was time to fulfill my dream to visit Katmai National Park and as soon as I knew my sister Deanne was going to visit for a week I knew just what week she should come. As I mentioned in my last post, our original flight tour out of Anchorage was cancelled due to weather so we quickly packed everything up and headed to Homer. As I drove the RV, Deanne researched and then booked us a flight to Katmai in a few days with Stellar Air Service from Homer and it turned out we were very glad things worked out that way.
“Bears keep me humble. They help me to keep the world in perspective and to understand where I fit on the spectrum of life. We need to preserve the wilderness and its monarchs for ourselves, and for the dreams of children. We should fight for these things as if our life depended upon it, because it does.” – Wayne Lynch
Spoiler alert…… This blog post contains lots of bear photos! My newish camera did a great job of capturing over 900 photos just from this day at Katmai and it was hard to choose which ones to include. Hope my readers enjoy them and it inspires some to make this trek one day…….
Knowing that we were getting ready to encounter one of the largest bears in America (Polar Bears are even bigger) we boarded to flight plane to head for Katmai National Park. Special kudos to Stellar Air and Deb our pilot – they were great and very accommodating to whatever we wanted to see. Deb had grown up in Alaska and was a wealth of knowledge and stories as well as working with us to be sure that we had the best experience. Add to this the fact that we were on a smaller plane (with just one other visitor) and the cost was a couple hundred dollars less than our original reservation out of Anchorage and we scored big!
Katmai National Park and Preserve is managed for the following purposes, among others: to protect habitats for, and populations of, fish and wildlife, including, but not limited to, high concentrations of brown/grizzly bears and their denning areas; to maintain unimpaired the water habitat for significant salmon populations; and to protect scenic, geological, cultural, and recreational features.
But it was obvious that the main reason visitors come to Katmai (at least at this time of the year) was to see the bears. Mention Katmai National Park to most people and they will have no idea where or what is there but mention the popular photos of large brown bears catching salmon at the top of a waterfall and this is a sight that many can relate to. It was interesting to me to watch how the National Park Service has balanced the protection of the bears and the many visitors that come there to see them.
Brooks Falls is one of the best places in the world to watch brown bears because it is one of the first streams in the region where energetic and pre-spawned salmon are available to bears. In July, most salmon are moving through large rivers and lakes where bears cannot successfully fish. Early in the salmon run, Brooks Falls creates a temporary barrier to migrating salmon. This results in a particularly successful fishing spot for bears.
The objectives of the Katmai bear management program are to retain the natural population dynamics of bears, allow their natural patterns of feeding and habitat use to continue, preclude a learned orientation of bears toward people, minimize bear-human conflicts, and provide opportunities for humans to learn about, observe, and appreciate bears.
“If the human race is to survive, then we must respect the rights of other species to survive. Sharing bedroom space with a grizzly bear is not practical but sharing wilderness space is. We must therefore, restrict human activity in spaces where threatened or endangered species live. We must stay out of their bedroom. Set aside some wild spaces while they yet exist. Closing the wild spaces after all of the wild things are gone will not work.” – Bob McMeans
Bears are given the right-of-way except in residence areas. Rangers intervene in cases of harassment or self- endangerment and politely (at first) ask people seen within 50 yards of a bear to move away. Visitors are “protected” by fenced enclosures and elevated boardwalks. To get from the visitors center where we had our bear orientation to the falls area we had to cross a floating bridge on the river below where the falls are located. Whenever there are bears within 50 yards of the bridge the visitors are held by Rangers until the bears have voluntarily moved away from the area. Needless to say, with the number of bears in the area there is frequently a wait to get across the bridge. Because of a male on one side and a mother with cubs on our side we had to wait about 30-45 minutes to cross but it was fun talking with the Ranger and watching the bears in the area while we waited.
There is a limit on the number of people on the falls platform and the Rangers manage this professionally with the assistance of the same type of remote “buzzers” that they use at restaurants to alert you when your table is ready.
While you wait your turn for the falls area you can head down the boardwalk to watch the bears a little further downriver where we watched the younger (less dominate) bears and the mothers with cubs.
“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” ― James Rollins, Ice Hunt
The National Park Rangers at Katmai do a great job of people management. All of the protections in place are there to regulate the human visitors to the park. Essentially we humans are in a zoo and the bears are encouraged to be bears. It is truly a great thing to experience.
“When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all of the insects that bite have been poisoned … and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.” – R. Yorke Edwards
All grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. The bears at Katmai are brown bears. Grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species, but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies. Even though grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies of brown bear, the difference between a grizzly bear and a brown bear is fairly arbitrary. In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resources like salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources (hence they do not grow as big).
“Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.” – Aldo Leopold
Besides habitat and diet, there are physical and some would argue temperamental differences between brown and grizzly bears. Large male brown bears in Katmai can routinely weigh over 1000 pounds in the fall after a season of fat rich salmon diets. In contrast, grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park weigh far less on average. There have been no documented cases of grizzly bears weighing over 900 pounds in Yellowstone. Being this up close and personal to these amazing animals gives the visitor a greater appreciation for their power and majesty. Just look at the claws, paws and teeth on these guys!
“Those who have packed far up into grizzly country know that the presence of even one grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it. They know that when a bear dies, something sacred in every living thing interconnected with that realm… also dies.” – John Murray
It was great sharing this experience with my sister, who isn’t always the biggest fan of the outdoors. Growing up during our many family camping trips I found great pleasure in telling her that bears always ate the youngest or the one wearing green (or whatever color she happened to be wearing that day), no wonder she isn’t an outdoorsy type! This trip I tried to refrain but couldn’t resist telling her that bears loved carrots (she was wearing an orange jacket), once a big sister always a big sister I guess! Honestly I wouldn’t trade her as a sister for the world, she is the best.
Heading back to the plane with Deb (our pilot) and Pat (the other traveler) we shared stories about the bears and each thought to ourselves what a great opportunity it had been. As we took off heading for home Deb asked if we wanted to take a detour to see the “Land of 10,000 Smokes” – part of Katmai National Park, and of course we said yes as none of us wanted this adventure to end.
A we approached Homer two humpback whales cruised in the water below our plane – a great way to conclude the day.
I’ve already decided that I’m coming back to Alaska and Katami in two years if anyone out there would like to join me – it’s an awesome experience.
“It would be fitting, I think, if among the last man made tracks on earth would be found the huge footprints of the great brown bear.” – Earl Fleming