Thursday, May 31, 2007


Brooks River is a short corridor between two vast lakes, Naknek and Brooks. Of these two glacial-fed bodies of water, Lake Brooks has the higher elevation and thus drains down Brooks River into Naknek Lake, the totality of this water eventually ending up in Bristol Bay via the Naknek River. Brooks Camp, where I am presently writing, is situated at the mouth of Brooks River along the shore of Naknek Lake. Gazing down on this hydrodynamic drama and the surrounding wilderness is Mt. Dumpling, a (relatively) short mountain next to our camp.

I hiked Dumpling this evening after work. It is hard to describe the feeling that comes from walking along the top ridge of a mountain. As you walk, the scenery of the land below passes movielike on either side, as if you had all of a sudden found yourself in the midst of a Lord of the Rings film. But the pristine lakes that stretch for miles in every direction are real. The vast forests of spruce and newly blooming birch, close enough to you as they begin their descent down the mountainside to pick out individual needles but blurring into an endless green mass by the time they reach the lake shore, are real. The snow covered mountains that you now stand eye to eye with, some well over 30 miles away but seemingly near-at-hand, are real. You suddenly and keenly pick up on the scent and feeling of the air; it seems to both separate and connect you with all that is below and away. You become acutely aware of the previously unnoticed soundscape -- the whistle of the wind, the crashing of the waves far below, the calls of nesting birds. It all feels so right, like you belong and have always belonged on this lofty perch.

Why is it that we are drawn to nature in this way? Does it give us some kind of inner peace? Peaceful would hardly be the way to describe my mood as I stood on that mountain. I felt restless and alive; the wilderness below me seemed to be pulling at me. I wanted to plunge into those dark forests to see what new sounds and smells awaited, I wanted reach those distant mountains and climb them and look back on the one I was then standing on, I wanted to ride those waters out to the sea. My thoughts were as turbulent as the windswept lakes below me. I don't know what this means, but I know nature is something more than a quiet, solitudinous respite from our tedious lives, and it is hardly ever peaceful.

I have hiked Dumpling previously and I had been waiting to post this entry until I could get my film developed and share with you some of the wondrous views, both from Dumpling and the beach our camp is on. Many thanks to Steve G for getting my pictures up on the internet but as it turns out the film I used was going bad. I am going to go ahead and post these grainy shots for now; I know they are close to worthless but check it out anyway and I will retake them and get some real ones up soon. Tomorrow or the next day I will put up a post about my hike to The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the site of the 20th century's largest volcanic eruption. For now, enjoy the view from my office:

Naknek Lake is in the foreground. On the right is Mt. Katolinat, seen up close here:

Turn to the right and you have the beach of Naknek Lake:

See Mt. Kelez in the background? Now you do:

The above pictures were all taken from right out in front of camp on the beach of Naknek Lake. For some perspective, here is Katolinat and Naknek Lake from nearby Mt. Dumpling:

That's Renae in the foreground. Wish her luck; right now she is tent camping in the backcountry taking genetic samples of fish. Right next to her elbow is where Brooks River feeds into Naknek Lake and the site of our camp:

You can see the tiny structures of our camp in the clearing below the mouth of the river. If you could zoom out and follow that river to the right, you would see where it flows from Lake Brooks:

That's Kelez again, and although you can't see it the famous Brooks Falls are located in one of the foremost turns of the river. Camp and Lake Naknek would be just to the left (see above). The body of water here is Lake Brooks, where I have had some luck fishing for Rainbow Trout. Until later,

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Finally... A Day Off

It's not a vacation up here for me; we work 40 hour weeks and I spent my last weekend doing boat training so I had my first day off in over 2 weeks on Sunday. It ended up being a productive day. In the morning I actually had to finish up boat training, which involves crossing the river to get to Lake Brooks. Of course, a bear was sleeping on the trail right next to the bridge. So after a while we went to wake Imes up, who was all too happy run off a bear. (We call it "hazing" here, so if I use that term don't imagine a grizzly doing a keg stand). The fun part of this was I got to do it with him -- the three of us marched up to this brown bear with Imes in the front clapping and making huffing noises. It turned out to be a skittish female named Amelia who is very small for her 5 years, and more than happy to get out of the way of three apparently insane men. Later, as we were launching the boat, I saw a magnificent moose crossing the mouth of Lake Brooks. This may have been the first moose sighting on the ground this year (many people saw them from the air on the way in), and it was pretty close to us -- within a couple hundred yards, which is plenty close enough to get a good look at such a huge creature. Its movement seemed surprisingly equestrian to me, kind of like an goofy horse who had drank one too many. It actually walked along the beach toward us for a bit before catching wind of us and spooking into the forest. I didn't have my camera but my roommate Matt got a great video of it, I will see if I can post it somehow. Troy, a fisheries biologist and one of our highest-ups here, was giving the boat training and though we didn't want to admit it at first, the main thing we were thinking about as we watched that moose awkwardly slink across the river was how good he would look packed into our freezer for the next 3 months.

After completing the training -- I am now officially certified to operate a Department of the Interior motorboat anywhere in the country -- I went fishing on Lake Brooks with a maintenance guy named Tom. He took me to some good spots to catch rainbow trout and we ended up catching 3, two of which were small enough to keep (they have to be 18 inches or less). I had a huge trout hooked and pulled up to the side of the boat but I wasn't in any hurry to get him in because he was clearly over 18 inches and I thought I was just going to reach over and release him. By the time Tom explained to me that it was actually a lake trout and not a rainbow, and that you could keep any size lake, he had wriggled himself free. So instead of being able to cook for the whole neighborhood, I ended up that night with a nice dinner for two of delicious rainbow trout. Something about catching, cleaning, and cooking a fish yourself makes it taste so much better.

If I seem to be mentioning food frequently, particularly meat, it is because that is quite the concern here at Brooks Camp. If you remember, I am 30 miles away from the closest town, which itself is 300 miles from the closest road system. And the Park Service doesn't pay to fly me into town and back anyway, except for my first flight in and last flight out. Most people, including myself, order their food from Fred Meyer Grocery in Anchorage and have it shipped here, but that takes a week or more and of course cannot include perishable items. So in Brooks Camp many a scheme is launched to try to get perishable foods. Some people are content to slug out the summer on ramen and peanut butter, but among most of us fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheese along with frozen meat are worth their weight in gold. You can bring out some frozen/refrigerated stuff on the way out, but once that runs out it's back to canned goods and pasta. You would be surprised, however, at how well you can eat on non-perishable stuff only. They make a kind of milk that comes in one quart boxes that is ultra-pasteurized and does not have to be refrigerated until it is opened. It tastes great to me, perhaps a little more buttery than typical 2 percent but fine to drink. And if a spanish speaking man in a sombrero would have set the Cheesy Enchilada Chicken Helper I made the other night with canned chicken in front of you on a hot plate in a mexican restaurant, you would have come back the next week for more. Seriously, Cheesy Enchilada Chicken Helper... try it. I've also got a bunch of ingredients saved up to make chili and a lot of other bean soup type recipes (including some meat in the freezer to flavor them with), and I'm working on one of those aformentioned schemes involving a girl who will soon be leaving here for King Salmon going to the grocery and boxing up some fresh stuff to be sent over to me. Between that and all the trout, pike, and (soon) salmon that I can eat I think I will be eating pretty rich for the next few months.

Still, someone has asked me if I have a mailing address so this seems as good a time as any to fulfill that request. Packages are a serious event here; it is pretty much everyone's favorite thing to get one in the mail. Strangely enough to me, candy and chocolate seem to be most desired item around here. A woman giving a presentation pulled out a bag of snickers today and it literally caused an audible gasp followed by a small commotion in a room full of grown men and women. Go figure. So anyway, if you feel like sending me some chocolate, booze, nuts or dried fruit, quilted toilet paper, naked pictures of your sister, or vicious hate mail this is my address:

Mason McLeod
P.O. Box 229
Katmai National Park - Brooks Camp Interp
King Salmon, AK 99613

Can you guess which one would elicit in me the same reaction that snickers gave most people? A hint: it should probably be mailed in a plastic bottle where it doesnt slosh, since it is technically illegal to send it in the mail (but it does work, I know from experience). And seriously... one-ply sucks.

Well that's about all for now. It doesn't get dark until midnight here, which is great because it gives you a ton of energy to do things when you get off work. Unfortunately, I couldn't go fishing today because there is a 40 mile an hour wind coming from the east; the beach of Naknek Lake looks like an angry Atlantic right now with the waves coming in. I should have my first couple of rolls of film developed soon, so my next post should have some good stuff including some spectacular pictures taken from the overlook of a mountain next to our camp. Check back soon.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Arrival at Brooks Camp was a quietly exciting experience. People talk about the feeling they get when the floatplane that brought them in turns around and departs, leaving them isolated in a small lake camp surrounded by the glacial wilderness they had just viewed from the air. I can't say I was particularly nervous or high-strung on my first day here; all the talk and thought about Brooks Camp over the previous month had created the kind of anticipation that makes you feel relieved to finally be at a place, like you have belonged there all along.

I have been here for a week now, and not a day has gone by without at least one moment - usually marked by a spontaneous and prolonged grin - when I consider with wonder and awe the fact that I somehow ended up in one of the most beautiful places on Earth this summer. It is actually, physically unbelievable at times. For example: looking down from Mt. Dumpling onto an endless expanse of crystal blue lakes surrounded by snow covered mountains and punctuated by our tiny camp, watching the mating behavior of an arctic tern and knowing that he just completed a 12,000 mile journey from Antarctica to get here, standing by as a 500 pound brown bear slowly meanders down the beach about 20 feet in front of you.

Speaking of bears, we were lucky enough to see our first one the day we arrived. It is still early in the season, before the salmon begin to run, and most bears have not yet made the Brooks River area their home yet at this time of the year. But sure enough, as we turned the corner on our orientation tour we saw a lone bear furiously digging at a gravel sandbar in the middle of the river. From 150 yards away, though, there was still something of this encounter that resembled watching a nature program on the Discovery Channel. It just didn't seem quite real from that distance.

That was not a problem on my next encounter. I happened to be standing with a 6th year Bear Technician named Imes, newly arrived from King Salmon, when we got word of a bear on the beach. So we went out to the beach to behold this beauty slowly walking toward us, ambling along the shore as if she owned the place (she does, until bigger bears show up). Imes had answered my first questions, telling me that the bear was a subadult female in about her 4th year, so possibly ready for breeding this season. I asked him how he could tell so much from 100 yards away and he said, "Because I know that bear, that's Divot." Divot is a distinctive sandy blond colored bear who, as we had unknowingly witnessed the day before, likes to dig. We walked up the beach to get out of her way and let Divot pass right in front of us, maybe 15 or 20 feet away. She was totally disinterested in us, and had it not been for the fact that she had to have seen us and be aware of our presence, you might have thought she didn't even realize we were there. She never so much as glanced out way as she walked by onto a trail through the forest. But believe me, when you can see the individual hairs on a bear's back, and the look on their face, there is no feeling of being trapped in an Animal Planet TV show. It feels real, very real, for lack of a better word.

Yesterday Divot was decidedly less popular as she decided to take a nap on the side of the trail that leads to the bridge across the river. When this happens, whoever is trying to cross the bridge gets stuck and has to wait -- in this case myself and the rest of the people who had just finished boat training on the far lake. Many people had to wait to get back to camp for over an hour. This is a common occurrence during the summer, and apparently this becomes a big deal once visitors arrive and they have multiple hour waits to get to their lunch, or a bathroom, or their flight out of Brooks Camp. A primary part of my job will be closing trails when they are blocked by bears, and explaining to visitors (who are often not happy) why we allow the bears to live, fish, and sleep naturally instead of moving them for the enjoyment of people. In any case we ended up having to do that after I was there for about 15 minutes, and so from across the river I watched Imes storm up to sleeping Divot, clapping his hands and yelling, forcing her to flee the trail. She didn't go far, and I wanted to stay and watch her more after we crossed the bridge, but we decided that it was best for us all to leave and let her use the river and trail for whatever somnolent purpose she pleased.

Well I still have to tell you about what life here in Brooks Camp is like and what I have been up to for the past week, but that will have to wait. Coming up: pictures from my climb up Mt. Dumpling (as soon as I can mail the film to someone to get developed and put on the internet). For now, meet Divot:

* thanks again to my coworker John Castor for this picture of Divot and the previous picture bears fishing (from last year). John is a semi-professional photographer who has been nice enough to let me use some of his pictures while I try to figure out a way to get my anachronistic rolls of film developed. You can check out his blog, with lots more good photos, at

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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Welcome To My Weblog

For those of you who don't know, I will be working in Katmai National Park in Alaska this summer as an Interpretive Park Ranger. Thanks for coming to my blog, I am going to try to keep it updated pretty frequently. Some posts will be diary-type stories of what is going on with me, and many posts will be more educational narratives where I try to share all of the fascinating things I am learning with the rest of you.

A couple rules: first of all, if you do come here and read something, please comment. I do not have phone access, so the only way I can communicate with people back home is through the internet. So please take the time to leave a comment even if it is only "cool I read this" or "that was lame ginger". You don't even have to create an account with the site just remember to put your name at the end if you don't. Most importantly, I would love to answer any questions you have so please ask me anything and everything that comes to your mind when reading. That way I will know someone is actually reading this and be encouraged to keep writing. The second rule is keep it clean, we might have some kids reading this so if you want to get wild hit me up at myspace (which I can't access until next week).

My first post will be a somewhat saucy account of my feelings about arriving in Alaska, but if you're not sure what is going on don't worry; my next post will be general information about where I am (Katmai National Park), what I am going to be doing and why it is so cool.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

From Anchorage to King Salmon

I woke up on a bench in the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport at 5:30 AM Alaskan time, about 24 hours after I set out from Jacksonville. I had flown in the night before and could not see the landscape coming in due to the darkness. Even a day of airports and flights could not keep a huge grin off my face when I saw, in the sunlight, the massive snow-capped mountain range that surrounded me. It was my first view of Alaska this summer, and as I stood looking out the glass wall I contemplated what a stud I am for setting myself up with this opportunity. No doubt similar thoughts currently run through your own head.

I wish you could have seen the view from as I flew out of Anchorage towards King Salmon. The largest city in Alaska, Anchorage is a flat city on a grid as many towns are, but that is where the similarities end. It is on the coast of a beautiful deep blue bay that extends for miles in every direction until it is met by towering mountains on all sides. There is something intimidating about mountains that your airplane has to fly around and not over. As we climbed I could look out past the first ridge of mountains I saw to the peaks of another range of mountains directly behind it. And behind those collossal peaks, another range of mountaintops right behind them. And had the curvature of the earth's surface not prevented me from seeing further, I would have observed more mountains past those.

I chose to open this weblog by introducing you to Alaska from the air on purpose. You cannot truly understand Alaska until you look down on it from the sky. Only then does the scale of what you are dealing with become apparent. To say that it is pure wilderness does not do it justice. The cities in Alaska are tiny specks surrounded my thousands of miles of untouched wilderness. Even from an altitude the eye can see nothing, in any direction, but mountains, snow, the evergreen trees of the taiga, rivers, inlets, and bays. And then you keep going and still, after an hour of flight, there have been no sign of humans or anything other than unkept nature. The vastness of the landcape and its seeming neverendedness gives me the impression of seeing the earth as it truly is - a living thing that is beautiful, fragile, and terrifying all at once. That thought shifts to the idea that I am looking into the deep past, into ancient prehistory, and maybe mastodons or even dinosaurs could be walking the desolate land below. Though geology and plate tectonics have changed the exact positions of the mountains, forests, and rivers, the scene I witness could very well be a scene from millions and millions of years ago. The word "insignificant" has popped into my mind in various forms multiple times at this point.

As we continue flying the mountains get taller and eventually I look down and see one of the most awesome and formidable sights of nature, a glacier. Like a vast sea of ice that buries endless mountains so only their tops protrude, a glacier winds in and out of a mountain range to my left for miles, and I can see neither the beginning or end of it. Glaciers in Alaska literally run for hundreds of miles. All glaciers are moving, either expanding or receding, at a rate that in geological time is strikingly fast -- we measure it in feet per year. I speculate that if time could be sped up, the glacier would look just like the waves of an ocean spilling into and drawing out of giant mountains, and appear as fluid and swift as water, as stop-motion photography has shown clouds to move. I wonder if this is not how Nature and Earth perceive the glaciers anyway.