Recently in Katmai National Park Category

Our weekend trip to Honolulu in 2005 for $299/person for airfare and hotel set the benchmark for great weekend trips.  Brother/sister/friend fared even better on that trip at $99/person.  But we've got a new winner to someplace more out of the way…southwest Alaska.

  • 20K Alaska miles each sent us to King Salmon, Alaska for a three-day weekend—that's a $900+ ticket making it excellent award value.
  • We worked an overnight stopover in Anchorage into the award and spent the night at the Sheraton Anchorage.  Instead of $300+, Starwood Cash & Points are excellent value—2,800 points + $30.
  • $176 / person for the float plane from King Salmon to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park via KatmaiAir
  • $8 / person / night for camping at Brooks Camp booked through recreation.gov.
  • $6.50 / pint of Alaskan Amber at Brooks Camp.

Point being that the guts of this trip provided ridiculous bang for the buck (save for the beer prices, of course).  Brooks Camp does require some advanced planning—July is the peak salmon run so we booked the campground back in January when the reservations opened up, and the place was totally booked within three days.

I've heard that to stay at the $700+/night lodge you need to book at least 18-months out.  But if you're comfortable camping, the campground is quite nice, so have no worries about it and save your money.

So the itinerary was:

  • Friday night: Alaska to Anchorage; pizza/beer at Moose's Tooth; overnight at Sheraton Anchorage
  • Saturday: 9am flight to King Salmon on PenAir; noon KatmaiAir to Brooks Camp on an Otter; chasing bears
  • Sunday: Valley of 10,000 Smokes tour; chasing bears
  • Monday: chasing bears; 5pm Otter back to King Salmon; 6:10pm PenAir to ANC; 8:30pm Alaska Airlines to SEA; back at home at 2am.

In no way at all are our vacations relaxing—but who needs that?  Our friends Keith and Eliza of desertminute.com fame were suckered into joining us on this—hopefully we're still friends.

The full photo galleries can be found over at http://photos.klugusamy.com, but the highlights will be in the following posts.  And if you're not hip to the geography, marker A is King Salmon and C is Brooks Camp:


View Larger Map

 

Another fun link to keep track of is a Twitter page updated by a ranger at Brooks Camp.

First day at Brooks Camp

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That's the Otter we rode in…next to the larger Beaver. 

 

The first thing on arrival is to go through the mandatory "bear etiquette" talk with the Park Service.  An hour later, after setting up camp we were walking down the road and saw this heading our way…

 

Absolutely ridiculous!  We quickly backtracked to the conveniently located viewing deck just a few yards behind us.  We spent some time at the viewing deck and during this time saw:

 

When you look in the water you can see the swarms of salmon, and these guys were all on the hunt.  This photo looks like a bunch of guys in bear suits—many of them here are employing the "dive and grab" hunting approach.  It's quite comical watching this technique…and it also seemed extremely ineffective.  The guy in the front is using the more reasonable "snorkeling" technique.

 

And that's just a taste of the first hour bear-watching.  Ridiculous.

So now it was time to brave the road/trail we were previously thwarted on to get to the upper falls where all the big boys hang out eating fish.  Walking down the trail we encounter this…

 

Oh my.  There was a whole lotta head-scratching at this point trying to decide what the next step would be (turning around was of course not an option).  Eventually, we did an end around—the main rule is to keep 50-yards away at all times.  Success.

So the upper falls are what you always see in photos and the telly.  The photo conditions were way too advanced for my skills, so these are highly mediocre shots. 

First glimpse of fishing at the falls:

 

Next thing you know, there's a wolf making a cameo appearance.  He stuck around for all of 30-seconds and we were told this was a quite rare sighting.

 

How's this one for a mug shot?

 

A sub-adult stretching out (or perhaps just walking)…

 

A pretty good start to the trip.

On the walk back to camp, we saw our one bird of the trip—the three-toed woodpecker—and they were a treat to watch.  There are actually two in the photo; the yellow crown on the bird in the back identifies the male.  They'd peck away until they'd find something tasty.  Then they'd give a little "tweet tweet" and share with their mate/kid. 

 

Dinner was dehydrated beef stroganoff.  Not bad.  Not bad, at all.

Valley of 10,000 Smokes

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Valley of 10,000 Smokes is home of the largest volcanic eruption (by volume) in the 20th century.  It's a 7-hour trip that takes you 23 miles down the road with a couple of interpretive stops along the way, another chat when you arrive, and a short hike into the valley.  It'll set you back $96 including a sandwich/chips/cookie—this is way overpriced, but when in Katmai…

I'll add that the mosquitoes were wicked—most wicked I'd ever encountered (for whatever that's worth). 

The tour bus is jacked up (off the ground).  You cross a few small rivers/streams along the way, and the bus driver claimed he could go through 5.5 feet of water no problem.  Not sold on that claim, but we'll take his word.

 

The view of the ash-filled valley from afar…

 

It's a shortish (1.5 mile?) hike downhill into the valley…

 

Our lone group shot with a self-timer…at the confluence of the Knife, Lethe, and Windy which then form the Ukak.  Don't forget that.

Late Night at Brooks Falls

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After some Hawaiian style chicken teriyaki for dinner, we left the campground at 8pm to check out some more bears--sunset is around 11:45pm.

The first obstacle every time you go out is to cross this bridge...


Bears like to hang out in this water, so anytime there is a bear within 50-yards, the bridge is closed.  And when you're on the bridge, "walk with purpose" is the motto.

Upon arrival, and after I saved a fisherman from being eaten by a bear, the bridge was closed.  No big deal.  It gave us a chance to catch this long-distance view of a momma with her three spring cubs (number three is behind mom).

 


Adorable.  We saw this crew again the next day, but mom was smart enough to keep her cubs a good distance from the annoying tourists at all times.

So at 9pm we had arrived at the upper falls--it closes at 10pm.  There were just a handful of others there at this time, and the viewing was absolutely brilliant.  At one point, we counted 22 bears in sight!  And they were feasting on salmon like we hadn't seen before.

This guy was eating fish non-stop--he had a prime spot in the "jacuzzi" where it's all foamy and the salmon like to hang out before attempting to the leap up the falls.  Check out the sad face on the salmon...

 

A mom and two yearlings then posted up right below the viewing deck.  One of them was quite the momma's boy--constantly snuggling up right on top of him mom.  Adorable, again.

 

The sad part was when a male chased the two cubs up a tree.  But the little guys survived and scurried off with mom.  Hopefully they can stay out of trouble and get some salmon in them to survive the season...

Males can be pretty mean and like to exert their dominance whenever they can.  And it's really interesting to watch this play out.  It is usually really subtle gestures and an occasional growl that will set apart theirs levels of dominance.  More rare, they might swat at each other--we were lucky to catch a 5-second exchange just like this.  Terribly sad was that I didn't have my zoom lens on at the time and couldn't get a close-up.

Two adult males on their hind legs angry is quite the sight...

 

This one is out of focus, but shows how there's sometimes a bully trying to steal what's yours...

 

There are oodles of tripods set up on the deck all looking for the classic "salmon in the mouth" shot.  While I had a tripod and shutter release cable with me, it's much too obsessive for my tastes.  So with low effort, this was the closest I got...


The salmon really do just jump into the bear's mouths, and the bear are quite patient in waiting.  Finally, this shot will give you an idea of how you're out of harm's way while watching all of this...

 

That photo was taken at 10pm--what a night.

Final day at Brooks Camp

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Pretty leisurely day, for the most part since a foggy morning kept us from a climb up to see the views.  The only logistical issue was that we had to be out of the campsite with our big backpacks delivered to the KatmaiAir office by 9am.  Since these little planes frequently head back to King Salmon empty throughout the day, they haul all the luggage over the course of the day and you meet back up with it on the other side.

Breakfast in the lodge is $15 and was the only meal we did there.  While a bit pricey, we found it worthwhile to be able to load up on eggs, bacon, and potatoes for the day.

Then it was back to the bears.

I'm not sure if Keith intended to chop of my head, or what...

 

But this is skill...

 

The highlight of the day was watching two yearling cubs down at the lower platform.

 

First they wrestled...

 

Then one of them found this little leather pouch thing on the ground and was having the time of his life with it.  Memories of Zizou with a plush toy immediately came to mind.

 

 

And our final bear sighting of the trip...mom and her three spring cubs, again!

 

We closed the day back at the lodge with beer and bloody marys--which the bartender mixes up himself and are quite spicy and delicious for $6.50.  Then we were back on an Otter for the first leg home to Seattle.

 

Amazing trip.  Hopefully Mackinac Island, Michigan next month keeps the streak alive...