KATMAI NATIONAL PARK: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
The needs to knows on getting to Katmai National Park, Alaska to see the great brown bears and salmon runs.
GETTING THERE, WHAT TO SEE, HOW TO PREPARE
BY ARI MICHAELI
Purpose of my trip:
I have a lifelong goal to visit every national park in the United States (before you ask, there are 59). For my 30th birthday I decided to take a trip to Alaska, to Katmai National Park, which is extremely difficult to reach and seldom visited.
If you have ever seen photos of giant Alaskan brown bears catching fish on a waterfall, you are looking at a photo of Brooks Falls along the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The world’s largest bears show up to Brooks falls to gorge themselves during the Alaskan salmon run. The falls create a choke point which makes it easy for the bears to catch the fish. This is what I wanted to see.
How did Katmai National Park form?
On June 6, 1912, a new volcano emerged from beneath the mountains of southwest Alaska. For 60 hours, a volcano, later named Novarupta, sent ash into the sky as high as 20 miles. The Ukak River valley was buried under about 100 feet of ash and pumice.
The Ukak River valley was transformed into 40 square miles of barren ash, the heat and water trapped in the ash turned into superheated steam vents, inspiring the name, Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson created the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes national monument to protect the valley. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed into law, The Alaska National Interests Land Conservation Act, which would offer protection to 157,000,000 acres of land. It also created eight national parks in Alaska, one of which is Katmai National Park.
Getting to Katmai by plane:
Brooks Camp, the only developed area in the park, is about 280 miles southwest of Anchorage. The simplest way to get there is by taking a float plane from Anchorage, via King Salmon, the closest town to the park. With a population of about 300 people, the main industry there is fish canneries.
Getting to Katmai by boat:
There are no roads leading into the park. The only other way to get to Brooks camp besides the float plane is on a boat. This is the way that I wanted to see the park, from a boat on the Naknek Lake, which runs about 60 miles across the park’s interior. Turns out though, that there is no commercial boat service from King Salmon to Brooks camp and nobody rents boats in King Salmon.
Getting to Katmai by canoe:
If you want to rent anything in King Salmon (I mean anything, car, construction equipment, camping equipment), you have one option, Bob. Bob, at Alaska Eagle Eye, will rent and/or sell you just about anything that you need in King Salmon Alaska (except a motor boat, he has a plane, but no motor boat). He does, however, have a canoe. So, this was the plan, for me and my girlfriend to paddle 35 miles from the mouth of Naknek Lake to Brooks camp in a canoe.
How long does it take to paddle 35 miles on a lake, good question. The Google consensus seemed to be that one generally paddles about three miles per hour. So, about 12 hours to paddle to Brooks Camp.
The Town of King Salmon:
The plan was to arrive in King Salmon on Sunday afternoon and head out to Brooks Camp Tuesday morning. 2 nights in King Salmon, 4 nights in the park, and 1 night in King Salmon before heading back to Anchorage.
There is absolutely nothing to do in King Salmon. The town itself consists of an airport, a fish and wildlife office, the Katmai Ranger office, a grocery store, a restaurant called Eddy’s and one lodge, the Antler’s Inn. Antler’s Inn is run by husband and wife, Flora and Jim, who are very lovely people. Though I know they thought we were insane for taking a canoe all the way to Brooks Camp, they were kind enough to give us some bear spray.
On Sunday morning, Bob hooked us up with most of the supplies that we needed, (cooking fuel, electric bear fence, bear boxes) and of course the canoe and a ride to Lake Camp.
After visiting with Bob, we went to the Ranger office, which is located in the airport, across the street from Bob’s office. We checked in with the ranger and let her know of our plans. We asked her about how many people do this canoe trip every year. She said less than 20.
The only two places to eat in King Salmon are Eddy’s (the world’s diviest dive bar) and the King Salmon Lodge, which is a couple miles out of town. Flora offered all the guests at Antler’s Inn a ride to the Lodge every night so that people could eat dinner. The King Salmon Lodge has good food, but very expensive. Everything there is expensive because all supplies has to arrive by plane or by boat.
The Canoe Trip Day 1:
We arrived at Bob’s office on Tuesday morning. It was typical Alaska weather, 55 degrees and raining, perfect for a long canoe trip.
The scenery is unreal. There are no people on this lake. Every hour or so a float plane flies overhead, but no one else, just us on our canoe. If you have never been to Alaska or northern Canada, you have never seen wilderness like this. It is hundreds of miles of untouched terrain.
We were warned to paddle close to shore in case winds pick up and cause high surf. The water in the lake can’t be more than 40 degrees so if you swamp the canoe, you’re probably going to die. As luck would have it though, there was no wind, and so we paddled.
My thought behind traveling on the lake was that we would get to see a lot of wildlife. Turns out not much to see by the lake. No bears, no moose, no seals. We did see a Bald Eagle, which was cool.
There are two distinct landmarks on the lake. There is an unnamed island in the middle of the lake and there is a mountain at the end of the lake called Dumpling Mountain. The island was almost exactly halfway between Lake Camp and Brooks Camp, and Brooks Camp is at the base of Dumpling Mountain. So we just kept on paddling towards Dumpling Mountain. The sun doesn’t set until about midnight in July and even then it never gets fully dark, so we had a lot of time to paddle. The first day we paddled for about nine hours, past half way.
Precautions in Grizzly Territory:
Katmai supposedly has the highest concentration of Grizzly bears in the world. There are thousands of bears living in this area, so you really need to be smart about what you’re doing. One of the precautions we would take was to not eat at our campsite. We pulled off to the shore, made dinner, then paddled for another hour before setting up camp.
We had bear boxes to store the food in. Bob gave us a bear fence, which hooks into a battery to make an electric fence that will zap any bears that might come sniff you out. Additionally we were carrying bear spray that Jim and Flora had given us.
If the bear is really pissed off, the bear fence and the bear spray will not stop them. Everyone I talked to about camping in backcountry Alaska recommended bringing a gun. So, along with all of the gear I had my newly purchased .44 Magnum revolver. Now it may sound crazy to you, but in 3 bear attacks last year, one person was unarmed and killed, one person used bear spray and survived but was badly mauled, and the only person who escaped unharmed, was carrying a gun and shot and killed the bear before the bear could kill him. The second to last thing in the world I want to do is shoot a bear. The last thing is the world I want is to get eaten by a bear, so yeah, I was packing.
Canoe Trip Day 2 to Brooks Camp:
The next morning we set out for Brooks Camp. It was the only beautiful, sunny day we had. We made the paddle in about six hours. So in total we paddled 35 miles in 15 hours, a pace of 2 1/3 miles per hour.
As we got closer to Brooks camp, there were strange things floating in the water everywhere. Turns out they were pieces of pumice that have formed into rocks. Yes, floating rocks exist in this area of the world.
Pulling up to Brooks Camp, you enter this large cove where there are dozens of float planes landing and taking off. The ranger directed us to the campground and advised us to take our canoe and gear inside the fenced campground. As you find in Katmai, everything is designed to keep the bears away from your stuff and in particular, your food. Once you check in at Brooks Camp, you are required to go through bear safety training. It consists of a 15 minute video and some basic instruction by one of the rangers.
Aside from the campground, Brooks Camp has cabins that you can rent. They generally are booked over a year in advance, so if you’re not into roughing it in a tent and you want the cabin, you have to plan way ahead. There is also a cafeteria which serves three meals per day, open to the public.
The walk from Brooks Camp to Brooks Falls is about one mile along a trail with a bridge that crosses over the Brooks River. You quickly realize that the bridge is often closed when there are bears spotted near it. At the top of the trail are two decks built out overlooking Brooks Falls. During the Salmon run (early July through mid-August) the bears are in the river fishing from dawn until dusk…and they are HUGE! All of the bears are given numbers by the park service to identify them. But one bear actually has a name, Otis.
Otis is the King of Brooks Falls. When we saw him, in prime salmon run season, he easily weighed 1,000 pounds. We spent a total of about 5 hours watching the bears at and we must have seen Otis eat close to 100 fish. He’d plop his fat ass down at the end of the falls with a pool in front of him and just catch fish after fish after fish. At one point another bear tried to encroach on Otis’ pool at the end of the falls, Otis just looked at him, gave him a little head fake and the other bear moved away. The park rangers told us that Otis didn’t mate either. He spends his summer just crushing fish until it’s time to go hibernate again, what a life.
There is a lot of bear activity around the falls. At one point a sow with three cubs came to the river bank. Dangerous move by Mamma bear. Apparently male grizzlies will kill and eat grizzly cubs. It’s believed that, in addition to wanting more food, the male grizzlies kill the cubs in order to get the female to mate again as females with cubs will not mate until the cubs are fully grown and off on their own. So, Mamma bear was feeling the hunger for her and her cubs when she pulled this risky move. But Mamma was a damn ninja; she’d jump in the water, grab a fish and give it to her cubs who’d quickly consume it.
Also, a constant presence at the falls, are about one hundred seagulls. They just hang around all day eating the scraps of fish that the bears discard.
Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes:
On our second day at Brooks Camp we decided to take the tour of the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. The park service has an old school bus that they outfitted into a gnarly massive off-roader. The valley road is about 20 miles long and there are three river crossings. There are no bridges on the road, you simply drive right through these rivers in the school bus.
The road ends at an overlook with a stunning view of the valley. The whole valley is a reddish brown color. About 100 feet of ash on top of what used to be boreal forest.
The ranger leads a hike down to the Ukak river. The hike is about two miles to the river’s edge and then down to Ukak falls. I have seen my fair share of mountain rivers. I have rafted down some challenging sections of various rivers in Colorado. This was the most violent white water I have ever seen. If you slip and fall into the river above the falls, nothing short of god himself plucking you out of the water will spare your life; it is scary stuff. The river has cut through about 80 feet of pumice rock to create deep canyons in only 100 years. That gives you an idea of how much of a force of nature this river is.
Canoe trip back:
We started our journey back to King Salmon. The wind we had been warned about had picked up. For the first several miles of the paddle the wind was at our backs, giving us a nice push. After a few hours, we were facing headwinds and encountered serious, but not quite dangerous waves on the lake. We went to shore a few times to wait out some gusting winds. After paddling for about nine hours we pulled off to the shore for the night.
We found a nice beach and pulled the canoe up. We grabbed all the gear and brought it up to the flattest spot to pitch the tent. About halfway through setting up camp we heard a rustling in the woods and the snapping of branches. I grabbed my bear mace and my gun and started yelling “Hey bear.” No bear ever came into our view, however, the next morning when we set out from the shore we saw very clear bear paw prints in the sand on the beach. We definitely had a visitor the night before though thankfully he/she left us alone.
About 5 hours into our second day, we were completely exhausted and still had 1-2 hours of paddling to go. With minimal current to push us along, we were both starting to reach the end of our paddling patience.
Finally we arrive at the King Salmon docks to pull the canoe up. What a trip. The shower at the Antler’s Inn that night, needless to say, was a borderline religious experience. When you spend that much time in the wilderness, returning to modern plumbing is a miracle.
While this trip was an experience like none other, here would be my recommendations for future travelers.
- If you are not the VERY adventurous type, I would not recommend doing the canoe trip from King Salmon to Brooks Camp. Sitting on a canoe for that long is the single most mentally taxing thing I have ever experienced in my life. It drove my girlfriend to near insanity and I honestly was not far behind. My advice, take the float plane from Anchorage.
- If you are of the mind to do a canoe trip, here is my advice. There is a cabin on the north shore of Naknek lake called Fore’s Cabin. You can rent it for about $40 per night. Take the float plane into Brooks Camp, rent canoes or kayaks at Brooks camp and then paddle to Fore’s Cabin. It’s only about 20 miles which is a much more doable distance and you get to see an even more remote area of the park.
- Don’t go to King Salmon unless you are planning to spend a day or two just fishing. There is nothing to see or do in King Salmon.
- Go to Brooks Camp. Watching the bears fish at Brooks Falls, honestly made the whole trip worth it. Words do not do justice to how amazing this scene is. If you can make the time and you have the means, this is a trip that is 100% worth it.
- It’s absolutely worth spending at least one night at Brooks Camp. If you are into camping in a tent, the campground at Brooks Camp is one of the best I have ever been to.