When travelers researching a trip to Katmai National Park, Alaska, learn how close bears get to humans, they often wonder, “is it safe?” A valid concern since most visitors to the park stay at Brooks Camp, which is surrounded by very large brown bears. Although visitors are required to stay 50 yards/45.72 meters or more away from the bears, the bears don’t read this rule. On my trip to Katmai, I had a large brown bear come out of the bushes and saunter by just 10 feet/3.4 meters away! Obviously, I survived to tell the tale.
It's good to get some schooling
Like everyone else who comes to this park ruled by the bears, humans attend Bear School shortly after arriving. This valuable training has saved both bears and humans bodily harm since the park’s inception in 1918 with a few exceptions. The exceptions are the well-known story of Timothy Treadwell who went too far studying bears. Timothy and his friend Amie Huguenard were killed on October 5, 2003. After twelve years of being in close proximity with brown bears, Tim’s luck ran out.
The other exception is the bear named Sister. It seems Sister was getting into tents, backpacks, and other human owned property while increasing her appetite for human sourced foods. Sister was killed on June 14th,1983 when park rangers decided she was getting dangerous. Most of the time when bears are sufficiently fed on salmon, and humans are properly trained to be diligent around bears, the two species do quite well together. Humans snap hundreds of photos of bears fishing, eating, sleeping, and playing undisturbed in this bear paradise; the bears fish, eat, sleep, and play while pretty much ignoring humans.
Bear watching tips
Most visitors will get the closest to the bears by standing on one of the bear viewing platforms. These safe viewing platforms allow bears to pass by very close while tourists’ cameras click furiously trying to get a perfect close up. The viewing platforms allow tourists with a good zoom lens multiple opportunities of great bear-catching-fish shots. The best time to come is late June into July for Brooks Camp bear viewing. With about 2,200 bears in the park, your chances of seeing a brown bear up close, safely, are good.
Many of these bears have names. One of the most famous bears was Diver, named for his diving and fish catching skill. While Diver has gone off to bear fishing heaven, others try to carry on. Bring your fishing rod for some great trout and salmon fishing, but you will need to buy a fishing license and read the special fly-fishing only regulations for this area.
A tortured landscape
Originally created to protect an area devastated by the Novarupta volcano on June 6, 1912, the Katmai National Park and Preserve holds treasures other than bears. Novarupta was the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, spewing an estimated 15 cubic kilometers/3.6 cubic miles of ash over Alaska. Residents of Juneau, Alaska heard the explosion an hour later even though they were more than 750 miles/1,207 kilometers away!
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes no longer has the thousands of smoking fumaroles. However, when a team of scientists arrived in 1918 to study the devastated landscape, they were greeted by a smoking, almost lifeless scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Although the 10,000 Smokes have faded, the area has a lunar-like landscape still fascinating to visit. Streams have cut through the deep layer of ash in parts of the park to give visitors a timeline of the massive eruption. You can look up at a wall of ash from the pyroclastic flow and see how the ash and debris accumulated until it covered the land up to 200 meters/656 feet deep.
FYI: they got bugs here
Here you have a park with bears that might eat you and a volcano that might bury you. Why do tourists visit this place? It must be because we need an element of not being in control. In our busy modern life, we need parks like the Katmai to remind us of the power of nature and this park reminds us as well as any. We seem to need that excitement of raw danger and a thousand pound brown bear just 20 feet/6.09 meters away can provide that rush. Like most of the national parks, Katmai offers an escape to see nature in action.
Bugs can be a nuisance and you must be prepared as they are no laughing matter. The notorious white sox, (a small fly-like bug) can be thick in summer and fall. Their bites draw blood and leave a lump for one to four months as a reminder of your visit. A bug spray high in DEET is usually what works best to keep them away. A head-net is a good way to keep the bugs off your face and neck and can be purchased online or in sporting goods stores throughout Alaska. With a good head-net, you don’t need to apply bug spray to your face and neck.
Katmai National Park and Preserve is remote and not an easy park to get to. Most visitors fly to Anchorage, Alaska to begin the process; then a flight to King Salmon, Kodiak, or Homer in a regional aircraft holding about thirty passengers. The next step is to board a floatplane for the final leg of the journey. If you are lucky, it might be a clear day and you can see much of Katmai National Park from the air on approach to Brooks Camp, the most visited part of the park. It is also possible to arrive by boat from the villages of Naknek or King Salmon.
Lodging options vary depending on how much you want to spend and how comfortable you want to be. Some visitors choose to visit for a day trip, arriving in the morning then flying back out in the evening. The Brooks Lodge is the most popular overnight choice where visitors can rent a cabin or tent space. Reservations are necessary and may be made by contacting Katmailand. Other lodging options are on the National Park Service website listed below.
Risk or reward
So ask yourself, “Do I want to come to this wild and risky place?” If the answer is yes, you are in for a trip of a lifetime where bears still roam as nature intended, rivers run wild, and mountains stand watch over this ancient tortured landscape. When you get home and share photos and stories, it will be obvious you made the right choice to visit Katmai, home of the bears and land of volcanoes.