Located in southwest Alaska, Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918 to
protect the volcanically devastated region surrounding Novarupta and the Valley
of Ten Thousand Smokes. Since then most surface geothermal features have
cooled, but protecting brown bears has become an equally compelling
charge. To protect these magnificent animals and the varied habitat, the
boundaries were extended over the years, and in 1980 the area was designated
Katmai National Park and Preserve. About 2,200 brown bears are estimated
to inhabit the park, making it the largest protected bear population in the
Getting there ...
The vast majority of Katmai visitors come to Brooks Camp, one of the only
developed areas of the park, every summer from July to September for bear
viewing. Brooks Lodge is the only
lodge offering overnight accommodations and food services at the Brooks Camp.
With only 16 rooms/cabins, it is extremely difficult to get the reservation at
the Brooks Lodge. To make a reservation, you have to enter its
lottery system 18
months in advance. For this trip in 2023 summer season, we had to submit
our application in December 2021 (in fact, this was our 2nd time to enter the
lottery as we were not lucky enough in 2020). This time we were lucky
enough to get a 3-day stay from 9/13 to 9/16. Although it is not the
"best" time to see the iconic bears catch jumping salmon at Brook Falls, it
is still considered a prime time to see bears around the Brooks River.
We flew to Anchorage on 9/12, a day before our Brooks Lodge stay at Katmai, and
had a good rest before departing for our adventure on the next day.
Day 2 (9/13) ...
- Flight to Katmai
The Brooks Camp at Katmai is only reachable by float
plane or by boat. As part of our reservation package, we had a
scheduled flight from Anchorage to King Salmon by
ACE (Alaska Central Express) in a
16-seat airplane at 11:30AM, and
then a chartered float plane
(8-seat) from King Salmon to Brooks Camp at 1:30PM. The float plane
flight was a short 20-min scenic flight and had a smooth landing on the
- Naknek Lake
At more than 150,000 acres (60,702 hectares), Naknek Lake
is Katmai’s largest and most accessible lake. In fact, it is the largest
lake entirely contained within any American national park. When we got
off the float plane at the lake shore, we already could see bears wander
around the beach.
- Brooks River Bridge & Brooks Falls
After a mandatory bear school (a
bear safety talk by a park ranger), we checked in to the Brooks Lodge, and
directly headed to the Brooks River Bridge platforms to see bears.
By late August, many salmon have already spawned and will begin to die. As
they weaken and die, bears will again migrate to the Brooks River to feed.
In September at Brooks Camp, bears are usually present in high numbers as
they search for dead and dying salmon.
We walked to the famous Brooks Falls (an easy/flat
0.6-mile one way hike). However, at this time of the year, salmon are too
weak to jump over the falls, therefore there were not many bears at the
Brooks Falls as most bears moved downstream for dying salmon.
When we walked back to the lodge, we finally got our
luggage (and my tripod and big 500mm/f4 lens) because luggage arrived with a
later flight. After a quick break in our room, we headed back to the
Brooks River Bridge (with my big
lens) for more bear viewing. When I walked back to our lodge room in
the late afternoon, we saw a mother
bear with 2 cubs just right outside our building.
Day 3 (9/14) ...
- We went for more bear viewing this morning. An interesting fact
about bears: Brown bear and grizzly bear are common names for the same
species, Ursus arctos; the difference between the two is geographic
location, which influences diet, size, and behavior. Those that live in
coastal areas of Alaska are called brown bears, while typically inland bears
that have limited or no access to marine-derived food resources are often
smaller and called grizzlies.
- Brooks River Fly-Fishing
I booked a private half-day guided
fly-fishing tour in the afternoon. Instead of taking 2 fishing poles,
we asked the guide to take only 1 pole so we could combine
fishing and photography
together. The good thing with this fishing tour was that we could walk
around the riverbed and walk into the water with the same level as bears.
It provides quite unique views of bears and much better photo opportunities
than those viewing platforms. Woanyu actually
caught a salmon (although we
were supposed to fish rainbow trout). It was our first time we really
caught something in any fishing tour!
There were so many bears around the
river. We counted 10 bears around us (either in the river or along the
riverbed on both sides) at a certain peak time. The guide would watch
out bears for us when we focused on fishing or taking pictures, and led the
way for safe route to go around (or stayed put to let bears pass).
Day 4 (9/15) ...
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Around 1 PM on June 6, 1912, the
skies darkened over Katmai and for the next 60 hours the sun disappeared.
The greatest eruption of the 20th century had begun. In total, 3.1 mi3
(13 km3) of magma exploded out of the earth at Novarupta. This is 30 times
more magma than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Ash soared to
over 100,000 ft (32 km) into the atmosphere. Kodiak Island, downwind of the
ash cloud, was plunged into a darkness that lasted nearly three full days
and the ash cloud eventually encircled the earth. The ash-filled
valley covers a 40-square-mile (100 km2) area. The ash can be up to 700 feet
(210 m) deep. Local residents of the area were forced to abandon their
homes during the eruption (luckily they were evacuated 2 days before the
eruption due to abnormal frequent earthquakes) and they never returned.
The tour departed from the south platform of the Brooks River Bridge at
8:45AM, and it took about 2 hours to drive the 23-mile road (with 2 stops at
some viewpoints and the park ranger gave us quite some information about the
park and the valley) to the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center (the Overlook
Cabin). After the lunch, the ranger took us to hike down to the valley
floor (1000 feet of elevation change and 4.2 miles round trip with a detour
to the viewpoint of the river confluence). It's quite amazing to stand
at the valley floor to look at the wall of ash carved by river.
Unfortunately the weather was terrible and the rain was pouring for most
part of the hike, and we were all wet (from head to toes) when we were back
to the bus.
Day 5 (9/16) ...
- More bears and mushrooms in the morning
- Flight back to Anchorage
Our original flight plan was to fly out of
Brooks Camp at 1PM, and from King Salmon to Anchorage at 2PM, and fly home
from Anchorage at 5:30PM. However, the weather was not good and there
was no flight at all in the morning. After lunch, we
waited in the lobby (around
a nice wood fire pit in the center) in the standby mode. Finally at
about 3:30PM, we got notified that the float planes were coming to pick us
up and we were on our way to go back to Anchorage. When we got to
Anchorage, it was already 6PM and we had missed our flight...
Going Home (9/17) ...
We rebooked our flight to 7AM on 9/17 (and stayed one extra night in
Anchorage). The unpredictable weather is always a factor for
travelling to remote areas (like our trip to
Churchill, Canada for polar bears
last year). Although there was "small" delay, it was still a very
memorable Alaska trip. The close encounters of Alaskan brown bears,
fly-fishing in pristine Brooks River (and caught a salmon), and hiking at the
Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes in miserable weather, these are truly
unforgettable Alaska experience.
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