The second post in our guest series by The Traveling Ranger, Gary Bremen discusses his tips for visiting the expansive Katmai NP&P.
Katmai National Park and Preserve had been at the top of my national parks bucket list for a VERY long time...like 30 or 40 years. Like most people who go there, I wanted to go not for the reason the park was established in 1918 (the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century at Novarupta), and I had zero interest in fishing, which is another big reason people come here. I wanted to come for the annual spectacle of Alaskan brown bears gorging themselves on salmon at Brooks Falls. I did lots of research and planning to make sure I saw what I wanted to see when I was there. For instance, the bears are in the falls for a pretty short period of time...basically the month of July. Before and after that, they are out eating berries and sedges and clams and stuff. They come back again in September, but that’s when the dying salmon have already spawned and are washing downstream...not nearly as dramatic, I hear. So...
PRO-TIP #1: Don’t show up early or late...you’ll miss the party. You will still likely see bears, but the expense to get to the areas of the park where they feed at other times will be higher, and it will be unlikely that you’ll see 20-30 bears at a time.
Rangers at Katmai are pretty serious about bear safety, so everyone has to go to “Bear School” when they arrive at Brooks Camp. You’ll watch a 20-minute video, and then a ranger will come in and talk a bit more. My favorite part of Bear School was the ranger’s opening line: “today, you will be stupidly close to bears.” That sentence was just awesome to me; I got very excited at what I knew was coming, but it also emphasized what a rare, potentially dangerous and amazing opportunity I was going to be privileged to experience. She ran through a few scenarios with us, emphasizing that we should not hike alone, should make noise when hiking to avoid startling bears, should stay a minimum of 50 yards away from bears, and should never run from a bear because it might trigger the predatory chase instinct. While she was talking, she pointed to a life-sized wooden bear cut out outside to demonstrate how far away 50 yards was. As she spoke, a sub-adult bear walked by. OMG! He was 50 yards away! This was getting real, and I was CRAZY excited. Before we left, we were quizzed, and were graduated from Bear School. Our “diploma” was a beautiful hat pin that we were to display proudly and prominently during our visit. Bear School pins are different every year, and the 2018 pin celebrated the park’s Centennial with a classy “100” design made up of salmon and a bear.
Before leaving the Visitor Center area, we had to put all of our food and excess gear into a locked storage building. “Food” includes ANYTHING that is not water...even flavored beverages. They are really serious, and with good cause...we were going to be “stupidly close to bears!”
PRO-TIP #2: Bring what you need, but don’t overpack.
Bring your lunch if you are on a day trip and want to save money by not eating at the Brooks Lodge buffet (which by all counts was good and plentiful, but pricey). There is a small picnic area near the food storage building, surrounded by an electric fence...but it does not keep out the red squirrels!
It is about a 1 1/2 mile walk from the visitor center to the actual bear viewing platforms at Brooks Falls. Near the beginning of that walk is a floating bridge. If bears are within 50 yards of this bridge, the bridge gets shut down; sometimes, these “bear jams” can last HOURS. Park staff and volunteers (where would the National Parks be without all those AMAZING volunteers?!?!) constantly monitor the bridge for safety, and will let you know when it is safe to cross. No stopping on the bridge either...you WILL get hollered at (politely, of course!) This whole bridge situation may be resolved soon, as plans call for the construction of a permanently elevated boardwalk starting in October of 2018.
PRO-TIP #3: arrive as early as possible and stay as late as possible if you are on a day trip. Not only will this allow you to spend more time in this amazing place, but it will allow for the invariable problems that arise with bear jams and over-full seaplane flights.
Speaking of seaplane flights, pretty much everybody arrives at Brooks Camp via seaplane from the little community of King Salmon. At that point, you can either stay at Brooks Lodge (the “Papa Bear” experience for me in that it was too expensive and needs to be booked a year in advance on a lottery system), or camp at Brooks Camp (the “Mama Bear” experience because we were not prepared to haul camping equipment up to Alaska, and I did not want to be cold and wet if the weather was uncooperative). For us, the “Baby Bear” option was just right. We stayed in King Salmon and flew out to Brooks for each of our two days there. Lodging and food in King Salmon were insanely expensive, like more than I would pay to stay at a decent hotel in New York City, but it was less than half the price of staying at Brooks Lodge, so even with the seaplane flights, it was a money saver for us.
Most people fly in on Katmai Air. They have a number of different seaplanes, both little Beaver and larger Otter models. The staff in the “terminal” were pleasant and accommodating, but it is important to realize that just because you have a 5:00 flight does not mean you will be flying at 5. We were able to leave on earlier flights than booked both days there, and we were delayed by over an hour leaving Brooks one day because other people had missed their flight due to a bear jam, and needed to bump us. They took us into the lodge and bought us each a beer, which was great, but I would have much preferred having more time out with the bears.
PRO-TIP #4: be patient and flexible. I live in South Florida, so I get the whole “Miami Time” concept, but Alaska is even more laid back and nebulous than that. Chill out, give yourself at least two days, and enjoy the ride!
OK. That’s a lot on logistics. Is it worth it? I can’t say yes more emphatically. We had a foggy, cloudy day for our trip out to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, and still had a terrific time. Our day at Brooks Falls was, as one ranger-friend who helped me plan the trip called it, “one of those rare, blue sky Alaska days where you just do as much as you possibly can and not worry about sleeping or eating or anything.” Yeah...it was that good.
So we’re walking the 1 1/2 miles to the bear platforms. We are talking to one another while occasionally saying weird things like “hey bear” like we were taught in Bear School. We left our food and excess gear in the building by the visitor center, like we were taught in Bear School. We constantly scanned around us, like we were taught in Bear School. We had this Bear School thing DOWN! But in all that remembering of what to do if we encountered a bear, I wasn’t paying attention to the signs to get to Brooks Falls. I was convinced I had missed a sign and gone the wrong way. We turned to walk back to make sure, and 15 feet (FIFTEEN FEET!!!) away from us...
(Outta space. See you next time!)
About The Traveling Ranger
Gary Bremen decided to become a ranger when he was just 7 years old, after his parents took him on a 6-week road trip to places like Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. Thirty years into that career, he still finds enormous satisfaction in discovering new places, people, and things in the world around him...especially in national parks....with his husband and best friend, Roger.
His blog posts represent his views, and not those of any other person, agency or organization.
You can follow his adventures on IG: @thetravelingranger or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.