Thursday, September 2, 2010

Random Thoughts On A Summer At Katmai

When I was living in Nashville in the mid-1990’s there was a fabulous radio station I listened to. It was called “The Flame” or something like that. Their music selection was incredibly varied - every so often a woman would come on and, with the coolest of cool British accents, announce their slogan: “Everything – in no particular order.” Except she pronounced order “awe-dah.” They would play Herman’s Hermits then Robert Cray then Frank Sinatra then would throw in some opera or a Vivaldi concerto then Queen then Etta James then Glenn Miller then John Lennon then Clapton then the Shirelles or Elvis and then whatever else the dj felt like playing. Plus they took requests.

Fast forward to late summer of 2010. I have been pondering (not ponderously, though, but lightly) the aspects I like and those of which I am less fond here at Katmai NP and Brooks Camp. This is a random listing – in no particular order – of what I have enjoyed about my summer here and what I could forever be content to live without. The “likes” by far outweigh the “live withouts.” Included are my favorite things about the job, my least favorite thing about camp, and whatever else pops into my head. If you would like to know my thoughts on something, shoot me a comment. I take requests.

Of course there is the geology. At the eleventh hour I will make my third attempt to reach Novarupta. My hiking buddy Jeanette Meleen (aka Salma Hayak in the movie) and I are planning a 3-day hike over the second-to-last weekend (September 11-12-13) of our summer employment here at Katmai. She was out to the VTTS two weeks ago and wants to return, and asked me if I was interested in going. My saying to her that I had “Things left unfinished” after not getting out there twice had stuck in her mind and she didn’t want me to leave with going out to the site of the world’s largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. It is 9 miles to the US Geological Survey research hut on Baked Mountain – we will hike there the first day and stay two nights. It is another 2-3 miles to the Novarupta vent which we will explore on the second day. On the third day we’ll hike out. We will hike in the rain if need be. We’ll bring my tent, just in case. We are prepared.

What I learned about and from the Bears: I have enjoyed learning about and experiencing brown bear behavior. Although at first I was scared shirtless thinking what I would do when I came across a bear or two on a trail, I eventually realized that many Katmai bears do not see humans as a threat as long as we act predictably. That mainly entails keeping a minimum 50-yard distance from them (100 yards for a sow and cubs. Many of the bears here are habituated to human presence. They know we exist, and as long as we do what they think we should do while keeping a respectful distance, they do not feel threatened. When a bear feels threatened, that’s reason enough for humans to back away and get out of their space. Bears are solitary creatures. For them to congregate at Brooks River in the presence of humans and other bears says a lot about the importance to them of the concentrated salmon food resource.

The scene (not of bear behavior but of human) that will stay with me the longest is one I witnessed one day in July while I was working at the Falls platform. There is a lengthy elevated walkway that leads to the viewing platform through the spruce forest, and that day it was kind of quiet with a misting rain, with only one bear fishing below the Falls. There may have been at the most eight or ten other people on the platform. Soon a thirty-ish woman appeared. I watched her as she slowly approached the railing of the platform from the walkway, all the while her eyes glued to this lone bear. She then just stood there at the railing, almost reverently whispering “Wow” over and over again. She had no camera, but stood there for maybe thirty minutes or so, in awe, watching that bear. And then she departed, smiling.

A lot of people come to Brooks River with monster cameras and lenses and tripods that take up a lot of space on the viewing platform, to get that perfect picture of 20 or 30 bears fishing and salmon jumping the Falls. For them, it might appear to be only about “the picture” and not what is occurring right before their eyes. I don’t know what their motivations are. But it wasn’t that way for this one woman, and that’s what will stay in my mind. There are also quite a few visitors who come to Brooks River who become disillusioned about not seeing as many bears as they thought they would or as many as they were promised by their travel agent. But then… there are those who, like the woman at the platform, are content to see what they see and embrace what Katmai and the bears simply have to offer them.
It is not cheap to get or stay here – I personally would never have been able to afford to come if I hadn’t had a ranger job. It often narrows down to people’s expectations and whether these expectations are met or not. I have had this conversation with quite a few visitors over the course of the summer. It is gratifying to find out that most people do come here with open minds, ready to appreciate whatever experiences are presented to them. July and September are the months of highest bear activity, so when someone comes in June or August it is the luck of the draw how many bears they will actually see. If they are happy with one bear instead of thirty and are not disappointed, and they can call it good, then their time and money has not been wasted and their lives are richer for that experience.

I nearly come to tears when I see a sow and her cubs, knowing that if there are four cubs, at least one or two of them will most likely not make it through the winter. Reports are coming in that a sow with four spring cubs (who were all around camp in July) has returned to Brooks River after their August hiatus to Margot Creek. I will hopefully be able to see them again before I leave.

Heading into September the bears have been feeding all summer and are magnificently HUGE. They ponderously lumber down the beach at glacial speeds. Spawning salmon are more easily caught in the lower river than upstream at the Falls these days, and the bears will eat and eat and eat, then nap, then eat and eat some more, day after day, to ready themselves for the coming winter. Kind of like Thanksgiving, except without football.

I do not enjoy riding the bus to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: Because the road is so twisty and I am prone to motion sickness, I stay pretty nauseated during the entire 23-mile drive to the Three Forks visitor center. We make 3 stops along the way and at each stop I just basically catapult myself out the bus door in search of fresh air. For some reason the ride back isn’t as bad but I still feel better if I have some hard candy to suck on (park rangers aren’t permitted to chew gum on the job). I could totally live without this bus ride but if it gets me to the VTTS then I can hang.

What is my favorite all-time treat of the summer? The winner is (winners are?) all the care packages (19 total so far with a couple of additional envelopes) from MY FAVORITE TRAVEL AGENT/EARTHQUAKE ADVISORY COMMITTEE OF ONE and MY FAVORITE CRAFTS AND RECIPE GURU/PERSONAL THRIFT STORE SHOPPER. This award ties in with Best use of a US Postal Service Program: “If it fits, it ships.” There was one early-season package that you couldn’t slip even a piece of paper into; it was so tightly packed with goodies. Also related to this category is the craziest item received in a care package: First prize goes to the frozen orange juice. Second prize goes to the two boxes of Junior Mints. From Utah in July.


I have a favorite Katmai dabbling duck, and it is the merganser. There are common and red-breasted mergansers here on Brooks River. Living in the desert southwest I don’t get to see many ducks but at Katmai I get to watch them every day. Earlier in the season some chicks had just hatched and I often watched as seven little balls of fluff followed the mother around, swimming one after another in a line behind her through the grasses of the lower river. They would climb up on her back and fall off, and climb back up and fall off, and climb back up and fall off. It was beautiful and also hilarious and I never tired of watching. One or two would manage to stay up until another came along to claim a spot, and then somebody would of course fall off. Mother was unfazed by the commotion. Every so often she would briefly dive for food – the chicks at this time didn’t know how to dive yet, so when she disappeared underwater they’d frantically look around as if to say “WHERE DID SHE GO? ACK!!! WHAT DO WE DO NOW???” Soon she would surface ten or so feet away, where they’d spot her with relief. “ACK!!! THERE SHE IS!!!” And every chick would immediately zzzzzzzzzzzip!!! speedily across that short stretch of water to get to the safety she offered and arrange themselves smartly back in line behind her, and off they all would paddle with their little duck feet propelling them onward.
Sometimes a chick can get separated from its mother. It can then take up residency with another type of duck family as the opportunity arises. So occasionally there might be a brood (clutch? gaggle?) of, say, mallard or gadwall or widgeon chicks and their mother with one or two merganser chicks toodling along with the group. The mother has no problem with taking another kind of chick under her wing.

The Best Things That I Brought From Home are, without a single doubt in my mind, the polka-dotted flannel sheets given to me (ok, loaned to me) by my sister. What a great idea those were!!! Flannel sheets in Alaska – what a concept!!! The sheets are queen-size; our bear-den beds are twin – so that means I have been three times as cozy all summer!

I have met so many fantastic people here at Katmai. In particular were the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes-hiking, card-playing, Budweiser-in-a-can-swilling (poor souls, for sure, but they preferred not to drink the Alaskan Ale on tap at the lodge) awfully nice fellows from The Netherlands. Sebastian in particular asked a lot of questions about the geology so of course he wins first prize! Earlier in the season I talked about geology with Graeme from Glasgow, Scotland – he used to write for Lonely Planet and whenever I get ready to visit Scotland (on my way to or from Iceland, whenever that might be) I will buy his book “101 Best Hill Walks in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.” He said there is a bit about the geology of most each hike so of course it’s on my list. And last but not least is Linda from near London. Before her trip she had been researching Katmai on the internet and came upon my blog. She left me a comment a while back saying when she would be at Katmai and hoped we could meet. I hunted her down one evening and found her at the lodge where I enjoyed a beer and conversation with her, her husband, and her brother-in-law.

So now my blog is plastered all over the computers of the USA and Europe. Woo Hoo!!!

I do not enjoy the bugs. They really suck. If I were to hate anything about Katmai, it would definitely be the mosquitoes, white socks, and no-see-ums. I want them to leave me alone.

I could totally live without having to share one loo and one shower (not at the same time, luckily) with up to 12 other women. I did that in a former life and haven’t lived this long to endure it again.

The weather? It is Alaska, after all. I’ll get back to the interminable Utah sunshine eventually. The weather on the Alaska Peninsula has actually improved slightly of late. At least it hasn’t rained every day. There was a gorgeous double rainbow late yesterday afternoon (my first of the season), a mirror image reflection glowing on Naknek Lake.

We all grieve the four souls who are still lost with the downed plane. With each passing day we know the chance of their rescue diminishes, but the light of hope still burns in each and every one of us here at Katmai.





  2. Nina, I have enjoyed your blogs. Please continue to keep us informed of your travels even after you depart Alaska. Love and blessings, Wanda Magleby

  3. It is so great to get comments - it must mean that someone out there is reading this blog!

    I would like to take a creative writing class this winter, so as to be able to paint a more beautiful picture with words in addition to those pictures I take with my camera.