When I showed this picture to my friends, a lot of them immediately went “oh, this place is really famous!”, and then immediately “but really expensive, isn’t it?”. True, if you’ve ever seen pictures of a dozen bears fishing on top of a waterfall, catching salmon right in the air as they jump upstream or simply waiting for one to land in its mouth, that’s most likely from Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park. Also true, that the most popular and almost the only way to get there is on a float plane or tour package with Katmailand, the company that monopolizes air and lodging services at the park, which costs a fortune. But why settle for an experience like every other tourist?
We wanted an adventure in the wilderness that’s not just about seeing bears, so when we planned for our summer trip to Katmai, we searched the internet inside out trying to find an alternative route. Brooks Falls is over 30 miles away from the nearest town King Salmon, with no road access. With some 5000 bears living in the area, hiking was certainly not an option either. We thought about kayaking — after all, there is no better way to experience the pristine nature than paddling through lake Naknek — but it takes days and couldn’t fit into our tight travel schedule. So what about a fishing boat then? There should be plenty of travelers inspired by the bears to try fishing for a day or two nearby right?
Well, it would be so nice if that is the case. The boat rental business in King Salmon certainly looked like it could use some more boost. There are only two rental places in town with mere phone numbers and email addresses online, both of which took quite some work to reach. After a few dozen calls and emails, we finally got in touch with Dave’s World (RG Boat Rental). Dave was a very nice guy and quickly helped us figured out which boat we should get. He was quite surprised that we were trying to make a reservation months in advance — most of his clients, if any, were locals walking past by that decided to go catch some dinner. I wonder how many travelers might’ve had the same idea of renting a boat, but couldn’t actually make it happen because of the lack of information and communication. They are missing out on the true wild side of Katmai!
When we got to Dave’s shop in King Salmon, it became clear to us why it took so much effort to execute our plan. Dave had all kinds of equipment in his workshop: metal crafts, gold panning… And he worked at the weather station. The boating and fishing market he was originally in was shrinking so much that it had to become his side business. But you still know you are talking to a seasoned boatman. Dave gave us lots of helpful tips on the boat and the route: which side of the lake gets more wind, which islands on the way are covered with spiders, where the rapids are, and where the salmon gather. He even knew the Katmai campgrounds inside out. So here we are getting ready to sail!
Getting a boat for Katmai was probably the coolest decision we made on this trip. Lake Naknek was vast, and wild. Miles of islands stretched along our way, with green forests, lush meadows, and waves breaking on the rocks. It was a slightly rainy day, so visibility wasn’t perfect but salmon were jumping out of water everywhere. Too bad none of them landed in our boat. It took about three hours to get to Brooks Falls. One thing I learned during the trip: driving a boat is not easy! Just because there is no license doesn’t mean that it’s all common sense, and I was so glad that my boyfriend had such a talent in operating machines. Changing directions without changing speed was hard for me, since both controls were on one single stick. Two feet waves rocking the boat thirty degrees back and forth also left me screaming half of the way. Do make sure you know what you are doing before getting in a boat! Also bring a good map. There are no street signs or GPS maps telling people where to go, and tides change the way everything looks from hour to hour. On our way back to King Salmon we ended up at a random lodge on the river, walking around in life jackets dripping water, and asking a woman with a baby in her arms “could you tell us where we are?” Not the proudest story to tell… but not the main story anyway.
We pulled onto the beach at Brooks Falls near all the float planes, and started our short routine as regular tourists. It was funny when the ranger checking us in at the visitor center asked if “the rest of our group would be joining us soon”, and what time our flight was back to King Salmon. I never liked streamlined tourism and that was probably the only thing that disappointed me at Katmai. It was also very strange to hear the rangers say that everyone gets “one hour of bear viewing” if the platform gets crowded. As if “bear viewing” is an official activity there, like hiking or camping.
Nonetheless, Brooks Falls definitely lived up to its name of the place to see bears fishing. The rainy day made it a perfect time to catch fish, and there were around ten bears gathered around the waterfalls. It was really cool to see some of them standing on top of the stream catching jumping salmon in the air, something that definitely requires a lot of effort and skills. Maybe the salmon that can make it over the waterfall are the healthier ones, and the bears know it too? Most bears eat their trophy right where they caught it, but one walked onto the shore right below the viewing platform. Nowhere else can you see a bear this close in the wild without fearing for your life:
Or see how sashimi should be properly consumed!
Bears were virtually everywhere in the park. We walked around for a couple of hours, saw a big one rubbing its back against a tree, and some cute cubs following their mother fishing. It was too easy to get within the 50 feet safety distance at times, but with rangers and safety talks all over the place, it almost felt like a zoo and everything seemed quite safe. Things were a bit different where we camped at Fure’s Cabin though. With almost zero visibility through the thick grass and trees covering the entire island, and no other people around, I had to constantly make chicken sounds to make sure the next thing I saw was not a bear standing right in front of me.
Fure’s Cabin was our backup plan for the campground at Brooks Falls, which filled almost half a year in advance. It’s a quaint little house built in the 1920’s, on an island twenty miles away from Brooks Falls, the closest place to it that can be considered civilization. I wonder what kind of person Fure was, to have built such a remote cabin overlooking the lake, surrounded by five feet tall wild flowers and bushes, and be accompanied by no one but wild animals. It felt like out of this world.
There was another couple staying there, flown in on their own float plane and got delay by the weather on their way back. They live in California and fly to Fure’s Cabin quite often, with every equipment to make it feel like home: gas stove, quilts, fishing rods, and all kinds of real food. In the morning when I was chewing on my energy bar, the cabin was filled with aroma from deliciously browned spam, and the couple was lamenting that they ran out of provisions because of the delay and had to resort to their backup camp food. They even have a storage room in Anchorage just for vacations. A lifestyle worth considering when we retire.
I wish we had more time to stay at the cabin and just let the day slowly go by. When was the last time I simply sat for a few minutes and listened to the sound of wind and water splashing on the beach? Lonely Planet mentioned an earthquake in this area in 1912, caused by the second largest volcano eruption in documented history:
If the eruption had happened in New York City, people living in Chicago would have heard the explosion; the force of the eruption was 10 times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens, in the state of Washington. For two days, people in Kodiak could not see a lantern held at arm’s length, and the pumice, which reached half the world, lowered the average temperature in the northern hemisphere that year by 2°F. In history books, 1912 is remembered as the year without a summer, but the most amazing aspect of this eruption, the most dramatic natural event in the 20th century, was that no one was killed. Katmai is that remote.
Maybe not as much any more, but still on that day when I looked over the cabin, the lake and the forests, there was no one else for miles and miles. This is the true Katmai that we came all the way to see. Not your average view, is it?