National Park Number: 14 of 59
I think our trip—and possibly our lives—may have peaked at Katmai. It was such a mind-bogglingly cool experience that I can hardly believe it happened to us.
Possibly that seems like an overstatement. Possibly we will share these pictures of salmon-fishing bears and they will be so much like the ones you’ve seen in dentists’ offices and Cabela’s bathrooms and IMAX movie posters that my excitement here will seem totally overblown. But there was some kind of strange alchemy to our visit to Brooks Camp—a combination of abundant bears and scarce crowds and interesting people and a gorgeously peaceful beach to camp on—and I felt like I was overflowing the whole time we were there.
We were worried about this one. Brooks Camp, the major spot to visit within Katmai and site of one of the best bear-viewing opportunities in the world, is expensive to get to—it requires flying into King Salmon and then taking a float plane to Brooks Camp. It’s also unpredictable, in terms of when and how many bears will be there. Bear season peaks in July, when the sockeye run is at its height, and September, when the bears come back for leftovers, but the actual dates vary from year to year; plenty of people have booked once-in-a-lifetime trips to Brooks and seen only a handful of bears, or none at all.
Hence our nervousness, because the soonest we could get to Brooks Camp was August 1. In August, the salmon usually slow down and the bears go elsewhere to fish, and though the actual date when the bears vacate varies, it’s been known to happen the last week of July. We crossed our fingers, hoped for the best, and booked our flights anyway (this last one made possible by the wonderful Lake and Pen Air, who gave us a very happy discount in exchange for some David work.)
Lake and Pen flew us from Anchorage to King Salmon, where we got on a float plane and flew over the mountains into Brooks, landing on the lake and discovering there were five bears within a few hundred yards of our decampment.
This was the main thing about our Katmai visit: for a few days, we didn’t go more than an hour (barring sleep time) without seeing a bear. Some of those times we were actively looking for bears, but many times, we were just trying to get back to our tent, or get some lunch, or take a sign picture, or leave the visitor center. Instead, we’d get stuck, sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for several hours, in what the park rangers call “bear jams.”
This is one of the coolest parts of this park, not just the constant bear sightings, but the fact that the park prioritizes the bears, their movements and habitats, over visitor access or convenience. The bears have the right-of-way, in pretty much every situation. It was wonderful and also really, really frustrating sometimes.
We arrived late in the afternoon, went through our mandatory bear safety training at the visitor center, threw up our tent, and set out for Brooks Falls. I thought we could run over there (the falls was a few miles from our campsite), watch the bears for a few minutes, and make it back for bedtime. But as we approached the bridge that leads to the falls trail, a bear popped out of the bushes in front of us and began walking toward us on the trail. You do not have to have been through bear safety training to know that in this situation, you back up and return to where you came from. We put a good amount of distance between ourselves and the bear and waited him out for a while, but he made no signs of leaving the area, so we ditched our plans and aimed to get to the falls early the next day.
We didn’t get there early, because when you are tent camping in Alaska in the eternal sun with two small children for whom darkness is an important sleep cue, and those children take hours to go to sleep and then sleep late into the morning, you do not wake them up. Not for any reason. But eventually they did wake up and we got ready and breakfasted and made it to Brooks Falls without incident or bear jam.
At Brooks Falls, there are two bear viewing platforms that allow you to be thrillingly close to the action while also not dying. One of the platforms looks out over the actual falls and the other is a few hundred yards downstream. This is where the lack of crowds was a real perk, because the falls platform has a 40-person capacity with a 1-hour time limit for each person; during the busy season, people are rotated on and off and given, I kid you not, buzzers like the ones at Olive Garden to indicate when it is their turn to go on the platform. I’m not mocking the system here—it is super efficient and, considering that Katmai manages massive crowds during a short season and keeps everyone safe from the huge grizzlies teeming all over the place, I am crazy impressed with the Park rangers here. But it is a little discordant, having a buzzer alert you that it is your turn to go experience one of the wildest scenes on Earth.
We never had to get a buzzer because the platform never filled up, which meant we got to watch for 5 hours. The rangers told us about each bear, his or her history, fishing style, trademarks. We watched thousands of salmon attempt the jump up the falls, watched cubs learning to fish and older males diving and snorkeling and, in one bear’s case, simply standing, mouth ready to open and snatch a jumping fish out of the air. We saw several family groups, a rare occurrence since males can kill and even eat cubs when they feel threatened; but because there were so many salmon this year, the males weren’t as defensive and the little ones got to try their paws at falls fishing. At one point, there were 14 bears in our line of sight, each one more grizzled and impressive than the last.
I have to also mention that Graham and Margi were not that entertained. They thought it was cool for a while, but the novelty wore off about 30 minutes in. So while we oohed and aahed and made gaga eyes at the bears, they colored and bopped around and pestered each other (and us) for hours on end.
One thing they did not do was eat, because there is a strict prohibition in Katmai on carrying food anywhere with you. You can eat at the campground, which is surrounded by an electric fence, or in a hard-sided building. No trail snacks, no peanut butter sandwiches, nada. When we finally left the falls that day, hunger was the driving force. We hiked through the forest back to the road, walked the road back to the bridge, and landed ourselves in another bear jam.
Here’s the thing about bear jams: some of them are awesome, because you get to watch a bunch of bears hanging around in your general vicinity, and bears are why you are there in the first place. But some bear jams are decidedly Not Awesome: in this case, we were stuck on the wrong side of the bridge because on the other side, somewhere just off the trail and invisible to us, a mama was napping with her cubs. The kids were hungry and tired and bored, there were no exciting bear escapades to watch, and we had no idea when the nap would be over. The kids rolled with it, because they are the greatest, and an hour and a half later, the bridge finally reopened and we could pass (though the bears had barely cleared the 50-yard distance-from-the-bridge-and/or-path requirement, so we had to hustle lest we get stuck again.)
I thought about patience a lot that night as I was trying to wrestle Margi into sleep in our sun-filled tent at 11 p.m. Eventually everyone fell asleep, and after too few hours we were up again to catch the bus to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.
The Katmai park area was originally set aside to preserve the geological aftermath of the Novarupta eruption of 1912. The valley where the eruption occurred started as a lunar landscape covered in steaming fumaroles; in the time since, plants and animals have gradually reinhabited the area, and now there are no more fumaroles, but instead alpine forest and tundra scrub.
We took a tour out to the valley in a rocking 4x4 school bus and along the way, our ranger Kristen gave us a rundown of the awesomeness of bears, salmon, Novarupta, and Katmai in general. When we got to the valley, we hiked down to the incredibly powerful Ukak Falls, where we got to explore the ash and pumice along the valley floor. Graham hiked back up with Kristen and developed a bit of a crush—with good reason, too: she was a former professional ballerina who got into outdoors activities after a knee injury, and now spends her time as a park ranger in the summer and a dog musher in the winter. We met THE COOLEST people at Katmai.
As far as awesome people go, our top award has to go to Frank and Teo, a couple we met at dinner one night in the lodge. Frank is widely considered to be one of the best-traveled people in the world; on thebesttravelled.com he is ranked third, by other rankings, he’s at the very top. He’s not only been to every country, but has visited nearly every administrative unit of every country, as well as every UNESCO World Heritage site. But Frank and Teo go for quality; they disparage travelers who “check off” countries by simply crossing the border without actually experiencing the place. They encourage younger travelers (Frank is 75) to go slowly and systematically.
We talked to them for an hour, picking their brains about the places they’ve been, the things they’ve seen, their travel philosophy, and how they maintain a sense of wonder after years of visiting the most incredible places in the world. In short, they were the most fascinating, enchanting dinner companions we’ve ever had. Talking to them blew my mind almost as much as watching the bears.
After a long day at the Valley, most of our group headed back to the lodge or campground, but we couldn’t resist another peek at Brooks Falls before our departure the next morning, so we hiked back out to the falls and spent an hour bear-gazing.
On our way back for dinner, we were hiking down the path that leads from the platform through the woods toward the bridge back to camp. I was leading the way, carrying Margi on my back, and as we rounded a corner, I nearly stepped on a mama grizzly lounging in the grass with her three cubs.
I stopped short, she looked up lazily at me and rolled over, moving to stand up, and, lo and behold, I did not panic. We talked calmly to the bear as we backed up and she sat on the trail, eyeing us. When we were a good distance away, we stopped and then—we weren’t sure what to do. It was getting late and we had to get back to camp; we didn’t want to hike off-trail through the woods, since the brush was high and we were likely to come upon more bears out there. So we waited on the trail, inching around the corner occasionally to check the bears’ status, finding them still there, moving back again. Eventually, three other hikers came upon us and joined our little group in the waiting and the inching. At one point, we thought we might be clear and were moving slowly forward when the bears stepped out from the brush and began coming toward us. Two of our group stepped into the brush off the path while the rest of us kept moving back around the corner; before we lost visibility behind the trees, we saw two of the cubs stop where the other members of our group were standing, eyeing and sniffing them.
We were pretty certain this couple wasn’t going to get attacked. Preeeeetttty certain. But dang, those bears were inches away, curious cubs with a defensive mother nearby, and so we stood, stock still, straining our ears to hear the man still talking, “Hey bear. We don’t want any trouble here. It’s ok, bear. Let us pass.” Meanwhile I was watching our backs, searching the grass and trees around us for movement, making sure another bear didn’t surprise us from behind. Then we stopped hearing the man speaking, and we crept forward again to find out what had happened and the man and his wife were standing calmly, back on the trail, decidedly not eaten, bears having moved away. So our group continued along the trail, walking close together, speaking loud and soothing words to all the bears of the woods, and when we came out on the road we all took a deep breath and the couple asked us, “So, where you from?”
A few minutes later we got stuck in another bear jam at the bridge, and this time we could see the bears holding us hostage: a family group, a pair of subadults, some frolicking spring cubs with a swimming mama, a lone male fishing around the bridge, and another subadult napping in the grass. Up the river, we could see more males fishing, more salmon streaming, the sun getting low over the hills. We waited for nearly two hours until every bear was 50 yards or more from the path, then stumbled back to the lodge for dinner (which the employees, lovely as anything, held for us since we missed the official dinner time by a long shot), wild-eyed, hearts pounding, exhilarated and awed.
We got the kids in bed that night, faster than usual, and then we went to the beach to watch the twilight on the lake, to throw pieces of pumice into the water and watch them float, to try to process our day, our lives. “Holy cow,” we kept saying. “Holy cow.” And of course there were more bears on the beach, families swimming, subadults rolling around in the sand, and we stayed far back, watching and breathing and feeling our skin buzz.
The night before, talking to Frank and Teo, I asked how they process all the incredible things they see—these are men who are constantly seeking out the most superlative sights and places in the world and who have been doing so for years. Frank told me, “You have to have wonder. You have to have eyes open and heart open always.” Then he told me a story about a time they traveled in overland trucks for 3 days to reach a lake in the middle of the Sahara. When they finally arrived at the lake, Frank saw it and immediately began to cry and Teo leapt from the truck in tears. “You see, we still feel it all,” said Frank. “We still see all of it.”
So this is what we’re shooting for: feeling it all, really seeing everything we are seeing, eyes open, hearts open, like Frank and Teo. We’re never going to see everything in the world, or in America, or in the national parks—we’re sure as heck not going to tour Mogadishu any time soon, like Frank and Teo did a few years back—but what we do see we are determined to be present for, to take in and see and feel fully.