The weekend has arrived – and with it, the end of the 3rd week of my summer season with Katmai National Park and Preserve. On Tuesday, the day the interpretive staff was to fly out of King Salmon, I was walking down to the dock from the dorms with Phil, another interpreter. Just taking it easy and slow, enjoying the rare crisp-blue-sky southwestern Alaska morning – we had a bit of time before Alan, the Park pilot, brought the floatplane back from its first run of the day to Brooks Camp. I was scheduled to go on the second run. As we moseyed down the path to the river, Phil commented that “This summer is going to just fly by.” Yes, indeed.
Moving everyone’s STUFF was poetry in motion. People who had never worked at Katmai before were not really sure how it was all going to play out. In the end it became like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gathering momentum and energy as it traveled its path in space and time. Or maybe we were all pushing the snowball UP hill, 19 or so people cooperating and in tandem anticipation, to make it to the top, to the peak, to get us and our STUFF to Brooks Camp. Everything was moving steadily and surely towards its own destination – people along with their treasures, whether it was a laptop computer, 5 boxes of wine, 9 pairs of socks, a caseload of Rock Star, or 13 frozen pizzas to last through September.
We helped as Alan arranged our STUFF into both the floats and the baggage compartment, passing boxes yet again one to another until each box was in its correct weight-balanced position, ready for the ride.
Once again I climbed into a plane, this time a DeHavilland Beaver fitted with floats for water landings, larger than the Cessna 185 but still cozy since we were all required to wear life jackets that were packed with survival gear (which pocket are those flares in???). This time I was able to score the front passenger seat! There was a light wind moving downlake as we lifted up off the waters of the Naknek River, eastward and into the wind, bound for Brooks Camp 40 or so miles away where the Brooks River flows into Naknek Lake. We were doing it! One week later than originally planned, we were at last on our way.
When we arrived at Brooks the ballet came together again, this time in reverse as the plane was unloaded by the three passengers and one pilot along with the three interp staff members who had flown out first. We had come in low over Dumpling Mountain and banked steeply, mere inches it seemed over the Brooks River, the falls, the bridge, the bear-viewing platform overlooks, the cabins, and the lodge. There it was! It was honestly a thrill for me to see the others waiting for us on the beach as we made our final approach to a landing on the lake.
After unloading the plane on the beach and watching it take off empty across the water for its return journey to King Salmon, we had time to start unpacking our own boxes and arranging our own cabins until once more Alan and his float plane returned with its precious cargo of Katmai interpreters and all their STUFF. This went on throughout the rest of the afternoon until eventually all who were supposed to leave King Salmon that day did so, and all who were supposed to get to Brooks that day had gotten there. Soon it was time to thank Alan, to say farewell for now, and then off he flew once again across the lake and back to King Salmon, disappearing into the sky around the low curve of Dumpling Mountain.
I couldn’t believe it, but after all that work and being so fatigued and dirty, everyone still wanted to go for a walk to see the hoopla that is Brooks Falls! No, we didn’t see any bears but we did see some fresh prints on the beach and some of last years’ prints along the bank of the river at the falls – jeeez those paws are huge!!! We also closely examined quite a few old piles of bear poop (Well, of course we did – we’re interpreters! We have to interpret the poop for the public! Lots of tiny salmon bones, btw. No surprise there, eh?).
We were kept pretty busy for the rest of the week. I get up around 6 a.m. and have the morning to myself until around 7:30, often walking down to the beach to say good morning! to my day. I am really jonesin’ to take a cup of coffee with me but we aren’t allowed to take any food or drink except water (and not flavored, either!) out of our cabins – visitors can’t take sodas or granola bars or anything out on the trails – because in order for Katmai to work, the bears can’t be allowed to make any sort of connection to humans as a food source. This is pounded into us in orientation, and we will do our bleeping best to pound it into the visitors when they come.
Our day during orientation is from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. with a nice hour for lunch. We did a walk-about back to Brooks Falls on Wednesday and then continued on to Lake Brooks, where planes may have to land if there is too strong an east wind such that planes can’t land at Brooks Camp. We soon found ourselves at the turn-off for the road to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and then stopped to visit the lunch shack in the middle of the white spruce forest where the trees have been infested with their own specific beetle and are as dead as the engelmann spruce found on Cedar Mountain in southwest Utah. We stopped to watch as a lynx tried patiently and stealthily but unsuccessfully to make a squawking ground squirrel its dinner. We identified various landmarks that we will use to tell each other where the bears are located during the course of our working day come late June (the point, spit road, lower platform, the bridge, lodge trail, generator trail, beach trail, fish-freezing shack). We have also been given quite a bit of research time to work on our illustrated programs that each of us will give every couple of weeks over the course of the summer.
A few bears are here but thin from their winter hibernation – I have already seen a male, and a sow with a cub on the beach, and then a sub-adult near the oxbow in the river – but the salmon have not yet arrived and won’t start to do so until around mid-June. But they are on their way. As sure as the sun will rise in the morning they have already begun the journey back from the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean to the glacier-fed rivers of their birth. I have been told that it will take the sockeye salmon 3-5 days to swim upstream from Bristol Bay to Brooks River, a distance of about 64 miles. Meanwhile, until the salmon come, the bears will feed on the grasses. Then one day – BOOM!!! There will be sockeye salmon and bears everywhere. Males will be competing for whatever they think is worth competing for, cubs will be following sows, and sub-adults will be trying to find their way in the world without their mommas.
Friday night we held a potluck dinner in our cabin. My cabin mate Christina fixed veggie lasagna and everyone brought a dish. There was everything from sushi to 2 kinds of instant mashed potatoes. I contributed chips and salsa, always a favorite.
Then my Saturday arrived as a cold drizzly later morning, with its doing of laundry, leisurely drinking of coffee, and perusing of the internet to catch up with emails and bills. Around 1:30 in the afternoon I took a hike up Dumpling Mountain for a couple of hours with a few fellow interps. Be forewarned! You will be seeing a lot of pictures this summer from the overlook on Dumpling – it is a mile and a half hike of good exercise, up from Brooks (800 ft elevation gain), through shrubby alder and tall cottonwood to an outcrop of the Talkeetna Formation which is perhaps 200 million years old and with a view at which I can sit and look out at forever.
The rocks of the Talkeetna Fm. were eroded from earlier-formed volcanic island arcs similar to the Aleutian Islands we know today. These eroded rocks were subsequently weathered down and then deposited in their new reincarnation as volcaniclastic (big geology word!) sedimentary rocks. HEY! You have just had a lesson in the rock cycle and you didn’t even flinch.