Sunday, May 13, 2007

Katmai National Park

Katmai National Park is located on the south-central coast of Alaska across from Kodiak Island, 290 miles southwest of Anchorage,and occupies 4.75 million acres of protected land. Take a look at this zoomable map. It was established in 1918 to preserve the site of what would turn out to be the century's largest volcanic eruption, but nowadays most people come here for one reason: to see grizzly bears.

The picture above, of grizzly bears fishing in a short waterfall, is probably familiar to you. Almost every book, film, TV documentary, or internet site concerning grizzlies has an image strikingly similar to the one above. The reason is that those pictures or videos were all shot at Brooks Falls, within Katmai National Park, about a half mile away from Brooks Camp -- where I will be spending my summer.

The Brooks river is the best place in the world to get a close up view of grizzly bears in their natural habitat. Every summer when the salmon start running around 200 bears descend on the area around Brooks falls. Their singular purpose is to eat as many salmon as possible, thus gaining enough fat reserves to survive the long winter hibernation. Of course this monstrous run of sockeye salmon attracts our own species as well, and so fishing joins bearviewing and geology as the main reasons why people visit Katmai.

Like the image of brown bears fishing, if you have seen the film Grizzly Man you may be indirectly familiar with Katmai without realizing it. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the documentary, spent 13 summers in Katmai National Park documenting, filming, and living with the grizzly bears. In October of 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were eaten along the southwest coast of Katmai near what we call Kaflia Bay (check the map). They are the only two deaths resulting from a bear in Katmai since the park's creation.

Brooks Camp, as you can see from the map, is only a small part of Katmai but it is the only place that is developed with things like a visitor center, campground, and lodge. I will be living and working there this summer, interpreting the parks resources for visitors (government slang for being a guide) as well as managing the movements of visitors along the trails and viewing platforms to prevent human-bear encounters. I will get into all my specific duties later (Brooks Camp opens to visitors the first of June). You can also check out the official website or the wikipedia entry for some more general information on Katmai.

Now that you are a little more acquainted with the park I'm working at, I will let you know what has been going on with me. Brooks camp is accessible by boat or floatplane only, so the vast majority of visitors fly in from a small town called King Salmon (west of Katmai on your map). Of course, there are also no roads into or out of King Salmon, so when I left you last I was flying there from Anchorage. I was in King Salmon for the past week, and it's really not that sweet. The weather was on and off, with the norm being overcast and a little cold. It snowed Wednesday night, but the snow cover had melted by noon Thursday under a bright sun that brought us the best weather we had so far. The sun returned again on Saturday with temperatures of what had to be the mid 70s and a few friends and I took advantage of the weather and played a round of frisbee golf.

In King Salmon there are a few government offices, a restaraunt, a bar, a post office, and airport, and a grocery store that sells 7-dollar gallons of milk. There is a 20-minute long road west that connects King Salmon to its sister city on the coast of Bristol Bay, Naknek. About 600 people live in both towns year-round, but that explodes to about 6,000 in the summer for commercial fishing. Bristol Bay is one of Alaska's largest commercial salmon fisheries, but as the salmon are not running yet that figure is still lacking the last zero. We visited Naknek a couple times, and walked out to the coast once for some birdwatching. I made sure to touch the waters of the Bering Sea (of which Bristol Bay is a part of). But my favorite experience from my week in King Salmon, aside from meeting the quality people I will be working with, was a trip to the Naknek community pool for something called Dunker Training.

We had been training full time the first week, mainly in a classroom type setting learning about the park and its resources, talking to the park's bear/fish/coastal biologists to learn about the environment we will be interpreting. Dunker Training was a little different. The logic behind it is that in Alaska, the fact that the closest road system is 300 miles away combined with the unpredictable weather lead to more small plane crashes than you would like. But unlike a jumbo jet crash, people most often survive a floatplane crash; the problem is when a floatplane goes down it usually does so upside down in a lake. So if you are going to be riding in a floatplane the federal government would like you to take a class to teach you how to get out of that underwater fuselage. Hence Dunker Training, where you are seatbelted into a small box made up of a frame of PVC pipes and then dumped (fully clothed) into a pool to be flipped and turned over, around, and upside down. You never know how you will end up, but the object is to calmly sit there while your plane "crashes", unbuckle your seatbelt, find the nearest "exit", swim through it and reach the surface. I explain this process in great detail mainly for my mom, who could be reading the transcript to her worst nightmare. She couldn't put her head underwater in a bathtub if a lifeguard was watching her. Anyway, I thought it was fun because I got to swim around in a heated pool for 3 hours and beat people at races.

Well I hope I haven't bored you too much. I am a little behind on my blog because I actually got into Brooks Camp Sunday, and my arrival here is what my next post will be about. Look for it soon, and thank you for your comments.


Mason said...

Oh yeah the photo I used was taken by John Castor, one of my buddies up here. He is a great photographer who has been helping me use the camera I borrowed from my dad. You can check out his blog, with some more good pictures including another of Alaska from the air, at

Anonymous said...

I can't get to your buddies blog. Check the address and let me know' Dad

Mason said...

Oops it is

Anonymous said...

I definitely would have washed out on the Dunker training. Did anyone else have trouble with it? Could I get extra credit for being the teacher's aide? Probably at least five people would have had to jump in to save me with full rescue gear. I'm a wuss in the water. Bet you did well though. Keep writing! Mom

Johnny Nov said...


First off, I hope you get eaten by A BEAR. a BIG ONE. sECONDLY, make sure you wear double layered socks and third always remember to spray extra bug spray in the woods to avoid butt bites. Mason, honesly, on a serious note, wish I could watch your life grow through your interactions with nature. Keep up your learning and keep your blogs personal yet informative. I hope your park ranger freinds are cool . Any hot chicks? Have you eaten any salmon yet?

Mason said...

John -- Salmon arent running yet, but I caught a rainbow trout today and ate it with a hot chick, so that answers both questions.

Anonymous said...

Mason, Dunker Training sounds crazy! I never new Aunt Sue didn't like the water.
Love, Chelle

Anonymous said...

Mason, where is the nearest hospital!

Mason said...

Haha Michelle, that question is just like you. The is a clinic for triage in King Salmon (30 minute plane ride). The nearest real hospital is Anchorage. I'm going to try backpacking to the site of the 1912 volcano eruption this weekend I better not get hurt!

Vivian said...

Well said.