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Katmai by Kayak

By John Locke - Posted on 09 July 1996

Travel story about a kayak trip on Lake Naknek, in Southwest Alaska, Katmai National Park. Appears in Paddler, October 1997 issue.

Across the river, the bear standing in the little pool splashed. She lifted her head out of the water. A ten or twelve pound sockeye salmon, hanging by the tail, dangled from the bear's jaws.

The fish jerked, trying to escape. The bear held on to its tail, trying to get a better grip. She tossed the fish up, and just when she was about to catch it, the fish flexed again, missing her teeth by inches, and dropping back into the river.

The sun flickered. The bald eagle that had been circling the falls wasted no time. He dove for the injured fish, claws extended, and managed to get a better grip than the bear had.

So the natural drama began, and we had front row seats, up on the wooden platform that served as an observation deck at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. Unlike others in the audience, my companion and I had arrived under our own power, paddling a folding sea kayak from King Salmon, Alaska. Everybody else had arrived by bush float-plane.

Katmai National Park, in the Southwestern corner of Alaska, spans the Alaska Peninsula from Shelikof Strait almost to Bristol Bay. More sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay than anywhere in the world, and the Naknek river gets about a million salmon every summer. This concentration of fish attracts brown (grizzly) bears and eagles in great numbers, and several other mammals live in the area, including moose, caribou, wolves, foxes, porcupines, and otters. Trophy-sized rainbow trout inhabit the drainage. It is also the site of the second largest volcanic eruption of historical times, Novarupta in 1912.

The show continued. The fish was so heavy, the eagle couldn't quite get it out of the water, couldn't get fully airborne. With powerful wing strokes, he dragged it to a boulder downstream in the middle of the river, and, with a better footing, pulled it out of the water. Meanwhile, the bear was still smelling for her lost prey. She ambled downstream, nose in the air, focusing finally on the rock with the eagle and lunch.

Most people visit Katmai to fish, hunt, watch the bears, or hike in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, which was formed by the 1912 eruption. But if you want to escape the crowds, it is hard to beat a boat trip. Naknek Lake, over 45 miles long, is the largest of a dozen large lakes in the park. "About 75 people a year kayak on the Naknek Lake system," says Mark Wagner, Brooks Camp Manager for Katmai National Park. "Most people do the Savonoski loop or paddle in the Bay of Islands." Another popular trip is to raft the Alagnak River. Almost all trips require flying to the put-in by float-plane.

Instead of taking a float-plane, we took a taxi from the King Salmon airport twenty miles down a gravel road to Lake Camp. At the outlet of Lake Naknek, we put together our folding kayak and paddled 2 1/2 days, 32 miles along the shore to Brooks Camp.

Wherever you choose to go, you are in bear country, and must take precautions. On the western half of Lake Naknek, there are no trees tall enough to hang food out of reach of bears. The Park Service requires keeping all food in bear-resistant containers.

The first night, we pitched our tent in a field of Forget-me Nots and Chocolate Lilies, a hundred feet away from the beach. We cooked next to the lake. I was roused in the morning by my companion yelling "I'm not cooking breakfast out there by myself!" She had seen fresh bear prints, about 14 inches long, on top of our tracks from the night before.

In spite of the nasty thought of becoming a bear's dinner, chances are bears will leave you alone. Bears and humans have not had many problems in Katmai. Perhaps it is because of the abundance of food; whatever the reason, there have been no deaths from bears in the history of the Park. According to Wagner, bear encounters are common, but injuries are very rare. "In 1991 there was a small incident involving a park ranger who got bit in the hand. The last incident was in 1966 when a camper fell asleep next to a pan he was frying salmon in. . . . That's not to mention false charges and other encounters--there are plenty of them. And [in summer of 1995], eleven tents were destroyed in Brooks Camp."

The second day we hugged the south shore of the lake. Lakes on the Alaska Peninsula are notorious for sudden windstorms that can kick up three to four foot seas in the matter of an hour. These storms can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. If you encounter one, get off the water quickly and wait it out. Don't get caught in the middle of the lake. An east wind has a 30 mile fetch before the waves crash up on the west shore. While we could have stopped nearly anywhere and hauled our kayak up a grassy bluff to get out of the lake, there was only one peninsula that provided any shelter from the waves for the whole 20 miles of south shore, and few beaches. It is like crossing an eight-lane freeway on foot; there is no place to hide.

We brought plenty of extra food, and built a couple of extra days into our schedule. Fortunately, the third day we had a mild tailwind, and we sailed most of the way into Brooks Camp, the only developed campground in the Park.

After two days of solitude, the only sign of human life a few airplanes passing overhead, Brooks Camp seemed crowded and hectic. The tent sites were only a few yards apart, the cooking shelters always in use, and the constant noise was irritating after the silence of the backcountry.

But you can't miss Brooks Camp, because the bear-watching, along with the much more restricted McNeill River Sanctuary, is the best in Alaska, thanks to nearby Brooks Falls, where salmon must leap a three-foot drop. Bears have discovered that they're easier to catch when they are in the air. I saw two distinct strategies: wait at the bottom of the drop for a fish to leap and fall back so the bear can grab it on the rebound, or stand on top of the falls, paw extended, and wait for a fish to jump into it. Both strategies seemed to yield about a fish every half-hour.

Brooks Camp is the central jumping-off point of the Park. It's at the mouth of the Brooks River, in a bay that is sheltered enough from the wind for float-planes to be able to land most of the time. A road leads 23 miles to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, where ash from the Novarupta volcano filled a lush valley to depths of 700 feet. The Valley is a mind-blowing place--a chunk of miniature desert canyons from Utah surrounded by green vegetation on the hill sides.

With our arms accustomed to extended paddling and a tailwind blowing us home, we returned to Lake Camp in less than two days. We finished the trip by floating down the Naknek river to King Salmon, a casual six miles or so of class I followed by another ten miles of river that changes with the tides. It was a two-hundred yard walk from the take-out to the airport counter.

Alaska is full of remote rivers and lakes which make excellent wilderness float trips. Most require extensive planning and expensive bush airplane charters. Naknek Lake is one of the only places you can reach by scheduled jet and a taxi, and spend two thirds of the trip without seeing another person. But the best reason to go to Katmai is to see bears.

Back at Brooks falls, the show continued. When the bear was about 10 feet away from the rock with the eagle and the now-mangled fish, the eagle flapped its wings a couple of times and launched. Straining against gravity, the fish skidding across the surface of the water, the eagle finally got airborne. It spiraled up and landed on top of a tree, tearing into the fish's flesh. The bewildered bear sniffed the rock and looked around, as if she were thinking "where did my dinner go?" Eventually she gave up and returned to her fishing spot below the falls.

A magpie harassed the eagle, trying to win a few scraps for itself, but the eagle ignored it. Suddenly a second eagle appeared out of nowhere, diving for the eagle with the half-eaten fish. The first eagle launched from the tree, the torn-apart fish hanging from its talons, dragging it back down nearly to the river again before it had enough speed to fly again. The second eagle chased the first one down the river, around a couple of bends, and out of sight.

For further information, contact:

Katmai National Park & Preserve
Post Office Box 7
King Salmon, Alaska 99613
(907) 246-3305
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Alaska Time (10-5 Pacific)

King Salmon Visitors Center
PO Box 298
King Salmon, Alaska 99613
Phone: (907) 246-4250 Fax: (907) 246-8550

Kayak Rentals and Guiding:
Lifetime Adventures
PO Box 241553
Anchorage, Alaska 99524
Phone: (800) 9KATMAI Fax: (907) 746-4644
Rents Necky and Hydra kayaks from King Salmon to Naknek Lake. Guides custom trips. Maximum 8 people.

Doug Olsen
PO Box 286
Naknek, Alaska 99633
Phone: (907) 246-8585 Cell: (907) 439-4959
Has two Aquaterra kayaks available for rental or guided trip from King Salmon. Will arrange transportation for boats when renting.

Brooks Lodge Canoe Rentals
Phone: (907) 246-3079
Rents Grumman Canoes and one Current Designs double sea kayak in Brooks Camp. No reservations.


To King Salmon:
Alaska Airlines: 1-800-426-0333. 1996 Best Fare: $332 RT from Anchorage
Peninsula Airways: 1-800-448-4226. 1996 Best Fare: $322 RT from Anchorage
Reeve Aleutian Airways: 1-800-544-2248. 1996 Best Fare: $322 RT
Taxi to Lake Camp:
Redline Taxi: (907) 246-8294. 1996: $15 per person.
Fireweed Taxi: (907) 246-8888. 1996: $12 per person.
Water Taxi:
Bristol Bay Charter Adventure: (907) 262-2750 Oct-May, (907) 246-3750 June-Sept.
Quinnat Hotel: (907) 246-3000.
Air Taxi & Scheduled Flights to Brooks Camp:
Branch River Air Service: (907) 245-3437. "Beaver" on floats--$350/hr.
C-Air: (907) 246-6138. "Beaver"--$230/hr.
Egli Air Haul: (907) 246-6119. $280/hr.
Katmai Air Service: (907) 246-3079. $120/person round trip.