What's it about?
Katmai National Park is a national park in Alaska best known for its brown bears and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. If you have seen the nature specials on TV where the fish jump into the open mouths of big brown bears waiting at the edge of the waterfall, this is where it happens. It was created in 1918 specifically to protect the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a spectacular 40 square mile area created by the eruption of Novarupta in 1912. As I learned before the trip, Novarupta was the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. As it turned out, the rivers and lakes in that area were fertile breeding grounds for salmon which bears find more attractive than honey due to the high calorie count. So they started hanging out in Katmai, munching on the fresh salmon, and putting on those pounds to get ready for hibernation. Today, Katmai is home to the world's largest population of brown bears. There were over 2000 bears as per the most recent count. Some of you might also remember it from the movie, Grizzly Man which chronicled the life and death of Timothy Treadwell who lived for 13 summers with the bears in Katmai before he was killed and eaten by them.
How to get there?
If you were hoping to hop into your car and go for a nice road trip, you'll be disappointed - there are no roads to get there. That's the beauty of Alaska - the most scenic places are often the most inaccessible. Float plane is the only option to get to Katmai. You can fly from King Salmon or from Homer. From King Salmon, it's less than 30 minutes by air. Most people arrive at Brooks Camp and stay there. Brooks Camp is near Naknek Lake which is the largest lake within any unit of the National Park System. There is only one road (unpaved) in Katmai. It goes from Brooks Camp to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, about 20 miles away. The remoteness means that the wilderness is still very pristine and offers an experience of a lifetime. About 82,000 people visited Katmai in 2007 which is about the same as the number of people that visited my nearest McDonald's. (Ok, I made up that second part, but it might be close.)
What is to do there?
Watching bears is what you came here for and you will not leave disappointed. We saw our first bear within half an hour of landing. Over the next week, we saw bears every time we stepped out. The bears are quite well-fed on the big, juicy red (sockeye) salmon and the rangers are very good at keeping human food away from their reach. The end result is that these big guys (up to 1500lb) are about as interested in human beings as Muhammad Ali was interested in apiology.
There are viewing platforms at Brooks Falls from where you can watch the bears. At times, they are 15-20 feet from you but since you're up above them on the platform, you're protected. Similar to how they used to watch the gladiators in a coliseum except you are the ones with restricted freedom of movement. Depending on the season, the platforms can get crowded with people so much so that the rangers then have to impose a time limit. It's not as bad as the countdown timers in a fast-food drive through, but it is enforced. The peak season for bears is late June through July. The bears go away for August and come back in late August and stay through mid-September. Brooks Camp officially closes for the season in mid-September. The good thing is the summers in Katmai are long and you can get up to 18 hours of light. So, you can still go out in the late evening when it's less crowded.
If you're into backpacking, definitely consider taking the 20 mile bus ride to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The bus stops every now and then and everyone gets out to enjoy a breath of fresh wild air. The ranger will delve into a short but interesting talk about the history of the place, the geology, the flora and fauna, and other fascinating facts. They also show you the different types of berries that abound in Katmai and tell you about which ones are edible or not. This came in handy for us later. We took the bus and got dropped off at the end of the road from where we set out on an overnight backpacking trip. If you don't want to backpack, you return on the same bus. Essentially, it's an all-day trip. We opted to return the next day. The hike was fascinating - we got to cross rivers on foot and get our shoes/socks soaked in the process, picked and ate blackberries along the way (just like the bears), saw some fascinating gorges formed by the rivers, and got rained on heavily until we decided to stop and set up our tent. We were the only souls in thousands of acres of wilderness. For perspective, Katmai National Park is about six times larger than Yosemite National Park, California. It's a beautiful experience and very highly recommended even if you only go for an overnight hike. The next day, the bus came back, we hopped on, and made our way back to Brooks Camp.
At Brooks Camp, there is Brooks Lodge where they have hot meals and a fireplace where you can sit, relax, and chat with fellow humans. The meals are expensive but excellent. At the same location, there is a store with some very basic amenities, fish freezing station, and showers too. Also talk to the rangers to see if they have any talks lined up for the day. It's a great way to learn more about the region and its history.
One of the first things that all visitors do after landing at Katmai is to attend a "bear orientation" where the ranger talks about bear etiquette. The main thing you come away with is to respect the bears and to maintain a respectable distance from them at all times - at least 50 yards from them and if there are cubs, 100 yards. You will invariably run into bears in and around Brooks Camp and sometimes it might be a bit too close. When that happens, just turn away and back off slowly. The closest we came to a bear was about 10 feet which raised our heartbeats faster than running a six minute mile can do. My wife and I were turning around one of the buildings at Brooks Camp and see this bear pop right in front of us. Another time, I was alone walking to get to the Falls. The trees were thick and the wind was howling so that you couldn't hear any rustling in the thicket. I come upon this opening and suddenly I see this huge blob of brown rise up about 10 feet in the air and just about 10 feet away from me - a huge brown bear out for a leisurely stroll. I don't know who was more startled, but we both turned away and walked our respective ways. Usually, I don't talk to fish but this time, I thanked the salmon for keeping the bears well-fed.
Don't forget the salmon. Wherever you go the waters are teeming red with red salmon also known as sockeye salmon. Literally thousands of them packed tighter than any warehouse delivery truck could manage. I'd never seen anything like that before Alaska. You can fish in some areas with proper permits and within some specified limits.
Where to stay?
There are two options - the cabins or the tents. If you like luxury, the cabins are the way to go. The cabins are priced in the range of $200-$400 per head per night on a multiple occupancy basis, i.e., 2-4 people in one cabin on bunk beds. There is electricity inside. That's the extent of luxury. There are no showers inside the cabins and cooking is not allowed inside either. If you prefer less luxury, camping is $8 per site. No showers, no cooking, and no electricity inside tents. There is a common area nearby where you can cook if you want to. The campground is also protected by an electric fence so as to keep any adventurous bears away. I guess the NPS is not too keen on a reverse Goldilocks situation. We opted for the campsite option so that we could sleep with our ears closer to the ground in our tents and because we had never slept in an electrified area before. Campsite reservations can be made online at the National Park website. The cabins can be booked through Katmailand, the only authorized lodging concessionaire inside the park. There are about 60 campsites and they do tend to get fully booked for the summer. The campground is right on the beach of Naknek Lake which makes for some nice walks, both for humans and for bears.
What else should I know?
If watching bears is your primary objective, flexibility will greatly increase your chances. A one day trip is doable. You fly into Katmai in the morning and fly out by the evening. If for some reason, the weather doesn't cooperate, then one day is not really the best option. Keep in mind that depending on the weather, the plane ride, although only about half an hour from King Salmon, can be bumpy enough to cause nausea in some people. When we were in Katmai, the last day was very windy with steady winds of up to 40-50 mph accompanied by occasional gusts of 60mph or more. Needless to say, for those that flew in on that day, it was not a pleasant ride. We saw a couple come in and these were the first words out of the wife's mouth - "I'm not going back today." The poor hubby was left scrambling to figure out what to do. There's no way you can get a cabin on a walk-in basis and even all campsites are pretty much sold out.
It can rain anytime in Alaska. So, apart from keeping an eye on the weather before you arrive, do come prepared with at least a rain jacket and a tent (if you're camping). Then there is the mosquito repellant. If I thought the salmon in Alaska was big, I had a bigger surprise when the first group of mosquitoes said hello. If you don't want to get bitten to the point where you end up looking redder than a red salmon, do not forget your bug repellant. Bring your battery charger for your camera. You can charge them at the Lodge. However, there is no cell phone coverage in Katmai. No internet either. Though, the NPS staff has access to a satellite internet connection which, when I saw it in action, took me back to the dial-up days where 52kbps was considered to be the Lamborghini of connections. So, be prepared to be away from electronic toys (except your camera, and watch, and GPS, and MP3 player, and ...) for the duration you are there. Before you arrive in Katmai, you can check their Twitter page to get status updates about the bear sightings which can be useful in deciding your itinerary.
The NPS rangers in Katmai were the most friendly
rangers people I have ever encountered anywhere. The bus driver, Carter, was one of the coolest guys we've ever met. If you need help or advice about anything, just ask.
We were there for just under a week but it felt like double or triple that time - it is that relaxing. It was one of the most memorable vacations of my life. I'd always known that brown bears can create a permanent physical impression on you *if* they want, but on this trip, I learned they can also create a permanent mental impression, one of the good kind. Notwithstanding the bumpy ride back to King Salmon, the last thought that crossed my mind as we flew away was that I'm going to come back here again.