The Brooks Falls Platform is a popular spot for photography. // © 2011 Christopher Batin
For clients who are looking for a new Alaska adventure, Katmai National Park is a destination worth considering.
In 2012, Katmai will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. The Park Service is planning to promote the anniversary with various activities, but that’s just the icing on the cake. A visit to Katmai at any time will not disappoint.
The Katmai region receives approximately 50,000 visitors per year, and access is available only by air from Anchorage to King Salmon followed by a short bushplane flight to Brooks Camp. Once there, most visitors are concentrated around the concession services of Brooks Camp, which is on the fringe of 5 million acres of what is known as Katmai Country and includes Aniakchak National Monument and the Alagnak Wild River.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Katmai Country numerous times, and each visit makes me act like a giddy schoolboy at summer camp.
This area is home to some of the best brown bear viewing in the world. The trout and salmon fishing is second to none on the nearby Alagnak River, and the kayaking is superb on indigo blue lakes. My favorite thing to do is explore the massive Aniakchak Caldera, one of the finest examples of a dry caldera in the world. At six miles wide and 2,500 feet deep, it is the result of the collapse of a 7,000-foot volcano about 3,500 years ago. Visitors can expect to discover ample explosion pits, hot springs and ground that is warm to the touch. Sockeye salmon spawn in a lake inside the caldera — they swim up a river that has worn a slot in the caldera’s wall. Brown bear and caribou frequently migrate through the area as well.
“The 1912 eruption was really the birth of Katmai National Park,” said Katmai National Park superintendent Ralph Moore. “Robert Griggs and other National Geographic Society explorers were convinced that they had found a spectacle greater than Yellowstone and lobbied for the area’s preservation. While the eruption and steaming fumaroles were the focus of their attention, the park eventually grew to encompass an incomparable landscape of lakes and rivers, high mountains and rugged coastline as well as an incredible array of wildlife.”
According to Moore, Brooks Camp is the park’s best-known destination — made famous by bears and salmon — but he encourages visitors to explore opportunities beyond that small area.
Van Hartley, owner of Branch River Air out of King Salmon, has been flying people into Katmai for decades.
“We fly a lot of wilderness kayakers, canoers and rafters into the area,” said Hartley. “We also fly out many backcountry hikers who want to explore the high country as well as remote coastal beaches. Recently, more and more adults visit Katmai and Aniakchak as part of a highly popular social trend to visit all the country’s national parks and get their official National Parks’ passport books stamped.”
For clients short on time, agents should recommend a three-day package to Brooks Camp. Clients can fly to King Salmon on either a charter flight or on Alaska Airlines and catch a connecting bushplane flight to Brooks Camp. Once there, the visitor center should be the first stop. Open June 1 through Sept. 17, all visitors must check in for a brief bear orientation.
To start the day, consider a ranger-led cultural walk, which winds along a quarter-mile trail in the Brooks River Archaeological district. The hour-long walk identifies the medicinal plants and animals used by Alaska Natives and shows how local natives lived in the region before and after the 1912 Novarupta explosion.
At midday, visitors can head to one of three bear-viewing platforms and photograph brown bears. The best months to photograph bears at the falls are July and September, when people can see as many as 50 bears at one time. Fewer bears are present in June and August, yet a number of bears are often found elsewhere within Katmai Country. Park rangers and air charter operators have more details during these months. My personal favorite location to photograph bears — trying to catch sockeyes in mid-air as the fish try to jump the falls — is from the Brooks Falls Platform. About 100 brown bears come to feed each year on the salmon in the 1½-mile-long river.
The next day, clients should take the ranger-led Natural History Tour of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The tour offers a sampling of the many wonders along the 23-mile road from Brooks Camp to the Three Forks Overlook Cabin. After lunch, visitors can opt for a three-mile, roundtrip ranger-led hike deeper into the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The combined bus and hiking portion lasts seven to eight hours.
Katmailand is the official park concessionaire that manages the tours as well as the 16-room Brooks Lodge. It also offers buffet meals as well as canoe and kayak rentals for exploring the remote lakes and rivers in the area.
Katmai is truly unique among our national parks, and is a destination your clients will be glad you recommended.