Exploring Alaska -

Early in the morning I rose and broke my camp on the Kenai Peninsula so that I could catch my 9 A.M. flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, on the Alaska Peninsula 290 miles southwest of Anchorage. The drive and flight were uneventful, except that the people behind the check-in counter wanted me to rinse out my fuel bottle, even though it was already empty. Arrival was followed by a short shuttle bus trip to the Katmai Air dock on the Naknek River for the 20-minute floatplane trip to Brooks Camp, the most developed part of Katmai National Park.

Brooks Camp

Upon arrival at Brooks Camp, all visitors are required to attend a briefing on bear etiquette. Bears are a major attraction at Katmai, and because of their large numbers, tight restrictions are necessary to keep them from becoming a problem. In the campground, campers may not keep or eat food in their tent or even at their campsite. The food must be stored in a special bear-proof shed, and may be cooked and eaten only at specially designated areas. Except when on one of two special wildlife viewing platforms, visitors may not approach within 50 yards of any bear or within 100 yards of a mother with cubs. Salmon fishing is popular among both humans and bears. Anglers are not permitted to fish in the vicinity of bears. If a bear approaches when a fish has been caught, the fisherman must cut the line to prevent the bear from learning that humans catch fish and can be a source of food. Photographers are urged to set up their equipment in such a way that they can pick it up and retreat at a moment's notice in case a bear approaches. Except in the campground and in the immediate vicinity of the facilities at Brook Camp, bears have the right-of-way. Visitors are encouraged to make noise while walking so that bears will learn how to identify humans. The efforts are successful; bears at Brooks Camp remain indifferent to humans, seeing them as neither a threat nor a source of food. Despite their large numbers bears are not at all the problem in Katmai as they are in so many other places where uninformed travelers do not know how to behave around bears.

Although I had attempted to make camping reservations at Brooks Camp three months in advance, they were already full. I therefore had to plan to make my accomodations in the backcountry. The first night I planned to go past Dumpling Mountain (which I wanted to climb anyway, but not as an overnight backpack), then return early the next morning in time to catch the 9 A.M. daily bus that runs out to the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes, where I planned to spend the next night. Given the poor weather, the bears, and the manatory five-mile walk each way, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the arrangement. I registered for the two separate backcountry trips, but shortly thereafter the ranger discovered that due to a cancellation at the campground there was an opening. Immediately I booked my spot and decided to climb Dumpling Mountain as a day hike, which was my original desire. The Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes remained an overnight affair because my bus trip out there and back was already booked and it was also my original desire. I was quite relieved.

Before climbing Dumpling Mountain, an 8-mile round trip with a 2400 foot elevation gain, I decided to stroll around Brooks Camp and watch the bears. A short trail led to the point where the Brooks River drains into Naknek Lake. The knee-deep water is a popular salmon fishing area and is also frequented by bears, especially mothers with cubs. A nearby floating footbridge crosses the river to one of two wildlife viewing platforms. As I waited on the bank of the river, a bear began approaching from the bridge. I, along with a ranger and a dozen or so other visitors, quietly retreated back along the trail. After waiting by the dining hall for several minutes, we gingerly headed back to the river. I thought to myself that this is the only place where animals can herd people.

When I returned to the campground, a strong wind was blowing off of Naknek Lake, whipping it up into 6-inch waves with foam, the visibility was dropping, and rain was starting to fall. I was reluctant to embark on a 4-hour hike that was supposed to have a view at its endpoint, so I huddled in one of the dining shelters to wait for an improvement. It wasn't long before I realized that it was getting late and even if I started right away, it would be at least 8:30 P.M. before I would return. I therefore nixed my ascent of Dumpling Mountain even before it started and decided to use the extra time to chill out, eat supper, and maybe go back to do some more bear watching.

After dinner I returned to the viewing platform, where I watched the bears frolic in the shallow water for a while. Then one of the rangers said he planned to go to the other platform, about a mile hike away. A total of about eight of us made the trip, chanting, "Hey, Bear!" along much of the way.
Brooks Falls
Bears feeding at Brooks Falls
We did have to pause at one point when a bear appeared, moseyed across the trail, and disappeared into thick vegetation. A few minutes later we arrived at the viewing platform, which overlooks the 1-meter high Brooks Falls. This is a place to see some real action. Millions of salmon migrate up here each year to spawn, and to get to their destination they must jump the falls. There are so many that there are usually about three fish in midair doing the jump at any one instant. It's a favorite place for the bears to feast on the very plentiful supply; often there are half a dozen bears congregated here at any one time. Some stand on the crest of the falls and grab the salmon in their jaws right out of the air during the jump. Others wade in the water below the falls and pull their salmon prey out of the water. Bears have such an enormous appetite that they normally eat anything and everything they can find that's edible, but here the salmon are so plentiful that the bears can afford to be choosy. They eat only the parts of the salmon that they like the most, usually the skin and/or the caviar; then they discard the remainder and leave it to be picked clean by the birds. The ground around Brooks Falls is sometimes littered with the remains of fish discarded by bears, occasionally giving the entire area a faint odor of dead fish.

The Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes

The next day I showed up for the bus ride to the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. The entire busload of people was delayed before boarding for a few minutes by -you guessed it- a bear loitering by the foot bridge, which we had to cross to get to where the bus was waiting. Upon arriving, we were told that we were lucky; many groups get delayed much longer at the same time and place for the same reason.

Valley of the 10,000 Smokes
Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes
The bus itself was a second-hand school bus with 4-wheel drive. The ride proceeded 23 miles out a gravel road with three stream fords. There were several stops along the way, including one at a site with many bear trails and another at a scenic spot overlooking the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. The terminus was at the top of a large hill with a sweeping view of the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes, which is a valley whose floor is covered by a barren, light salmon colored ash flow from a volcanic eruption in 1912. Several decades ago, the valley was belching hundreds, maybe thousands, of plumes of steam from the eruption, which is how the valley got its name.

At the top of the hill is a wooden structure called Overlook Cabin, where a bag lunch was served. Soon thereafter the ranger led a hike down to the valley floor. Because of the shorter than usual wait for the bears to clear the bridge at Brooks Camp, we had time to visit both of two points of interest: the falls of the Ukak river, which abounds with fossils, and the confluence of the Valley's three main rivers: Knife Creek, the River Lethe, and Windy Creek, which converge to form the Ukak River. At this point, I left the group and struck out on my own for my solitary overnight backpack in the Valley.

The texture of the valley floor is something I've never seen before. It is brittle, but because of its high porosity it has a spongy texture as well. The Valley floor is mostly flat, except where the Valley's rivers have cut canyons up to a hundred feet deep. These canyons have a strong resemblence to those in the Colorado Plateau area of southern Utah; the color, topography, and overall appearance are all similar. Another thing the Valley has in common with southern Utah is widespread cryptogamic soil, a nearly black, peat-like covering which is actually a lichens that helps to fix nitrogen and fertilize the soil for plants to grow, although the latter hasn't happened much yet because the surface is relatively young.

After just a few minutes' walk, I became trapped between the canyon through which Windy Creek runs and the hillside leading up to Overlook Cabin. With a few minutes of searching I found a scree hillside leading down to a large flat area on the shore of Windy Creek. I chose a spot to cross the creek, changed into my sneakers, and with the help of my ice axe I crossed without difficulty, despite the apparent strength of the current. A steep scree slope led up the opposite side; after carefully negotiating it, I was up on a large flat area which characterizes the majority of the Valley floor. I changed back into my hiking boots and continued along the plateau between Windy Creek the the River Lethe. After about twenty minutes the plateau which divides these two rivers narrowed and finally became a knife-edge ridge with a steep dropoff on both sides. I carefully tiptoed along the crest, using my ice axe for balance. Finally I came to a spot where the crest had a thin layer of loose dirt on the surface. I felt uncertain about all of the foot placements I tried. The dropoff was sheer on one side and steep scree ending at a buttress on the other side. Beside the buttress was a chute curving out of sight behind it, leading to God knows what- probably a sheer dropoff. The next 10 to 20 meters of the ridge crest presented more problems of similar magnitude before easing up and widening to the next section of the plateau.

I decided not to risk it. If I slipped, I would in all probability slide 10 feet and hit the buttress without sliding down the chute. The probability that anything worse would happen to me was minute, but the consequences would have been severe. I was alone, and I had no guarantee that I'd be noted missing when the next day's tour bus came to pick me up. Reluctantly I turned around. There was clearly no other way farther out into the Valley; the plateau on which I was travelling was surrounded on all sides by river canyons with sheer walls. I hadn't been going a hour, and this was going to be the full extent of my travels in the Valley.

I returned to Windy Creek at the point where I had crossed it before, crossed back uneventfully, and then set up camp on the large adjoining flat. The time was before 4 P.M. and there was little to do, but at least this was a pleasant place. The mosquitos weren't bad at all, and the probability of a bear encounter was minimal. "Dinner" wouldn't be a good description of the meal I ate later, as my only food was Pop-Tarts and cinnamon raisin bagels. In fact, I planned to survive on cold food for my entire 2½ days in Katmai for two reasons. First, I couldn't take stove fuel with me on the airplane from Anchorage and back, and I didn't know if I could buy a small enough quantity at Brooks Camp to avoid a huge waste and possibly being forced to pollute the environment. Second, because of the large numbers of bears, it is necessary to take extra precautions when cooking at a backcountry camp because cooking spreads food odors, particularly on clothing. Not cooking here simplified things greatly.

The next morning I packed up and headed back to Overlook Cabin, arriving just before the bus. I didn't care to join yet another hike down to the Valley floor, but with a tip from some people who were returning from a long backpack, I located a trail that started at the roadside and headed through "more conventional" brushy terrain for a little over a mile to a different part of Windy Creek, this section being upstream of the Valley. If I were willing to get my hiking boots wet, I would have crossed, but my sneakers were still wet from the previous day, and I would have had no dry footwear. Nevertheless, it was a delightful way to pass much of the three hours that elapsed before the bus departed for Brooks Camp. Had I known of this little secret before, I would have gone this way for the overnight trek.

Back at Brooks Camp, the unloading of the bus was delayed yet again by a mother bear with two cubs loitering around the foot bridge. When we finally did get a chance to get off, the only safe place to go was up on the viewing platform, and it had to be done immediately. It was nearly an hour before the bears finally wandered off into the woods. A few people expressed concern about being able to catch their floatplane flights out to King Salmon. But the pilots and their employers know and understand that delays for this reason are frequent, and they do their best to accomodate everyone. I, however, had no cause for concern because my flight was still 1½ hours away.

The "interesting" portion of the trip was now concluded. All that remained was a floatplane flight to King Salmon, where I camped that night, followed by a commercial flight back to San Diego the next day via Anchorage and Seattle.

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