Updated: Aug 30
9 August 2023, Crosswinds Lake, Katmai NP
As I sit in my camp chair, pen in hand, musing on how to begin this post, it began to write itself. "Bear!" called out Colleen, pointing to a hillside a hundred yards away.
We all sprung up. Sure enough, a well-fed grizzly ambled by our camp compound, not paying us a scintilla of attention.
That's what Katmai is all about - bears! Salmon are running in Moraine Creek, and the bears come for the feast. This afternoon we watch them from the safety of our tent grounds, ringed by a portable electric fence. (All the outfitters follow that safety protocol.) Over the next couple of days, we'll hike to see them in their native habitat.
Today started wet - and the forecast predicted rain or showers for several more days. If that wasn't enough to convince myself I was truly in Alaska, then the 'moose crossing' sign on the highway erased any other doubts. I showed up first at the office of Alaska Alpine Adventures (AAA), where Dan (the owner) and Colleen (one of our guides) greeted me warmly. Soon Mike and Karen rolled in, followed by Mei, a Taiwanese immigrant who was seeing Alaska for the first time. When Tim (a high-school friend of Mike's from decades ago) and Lisa arrived, we had our contingent assembled.
After introductions, Colleen handed us each a gear bag/compression sack for the trip. As we extracted our goods from our suitcases, she came around to sport-check each of us, making sure we'd all packed the essentials we'd need for camping on the tundra. I'd followed their checklist to a T, even packing a few items Colleen said we wouldn't need after all. Once I got everything loaded, I helped Mei, showing her how to close and seal the compression bag.
A short van ride later, we arrived at Merrill Field and the Lake Clark Air terminal. For check-in, the agent weighed each of our gear bags, tallying up the total weight. Next, he weighed each of our day packs - no carry-on bags allowed! We could only carry on a water bottle and a camera. Done now? Not quite - the agent then directed each of us in turn to step on the scale, so they could get a complete weight for the flight. Maybe I shouldn't have eaten that extra bowl of oatmeal this morning...
With the cloud spitting on-and-off rain, we filed onto the nine-seater airplane -
every seat a window seat! From Merrill Field, the plane headed southwest, crossing Cook Inlet and flying low over a flat, treeless plain. Slowly we gained altitude, eventually passing into the clouds.
For a while, we saw little but shades of white. We passed time in a cocoon of nothingness, with a soundtrack provided by the droning of the engine. At times the clouds below would part for a moment, teasing us with views of mountainous scenery we could not see to appreciate.
As we approached Lake Clark, we dropped below the cloud ceiling. Suddenly the fifth-largest lake in Alaska spread out below us - shorelines, islands, forests.
No wonder this lake appears on lists of the world's most beautiful!
My eyes drank in the scenery as we followed the lake lower, lower. Suddenly we were sinking below the level of the trees I could see from my window - touchdown on a gravel runway! Another first for me.
We had an hour free time there to look around the Farm Lodge (where I looked forward to staying for two nights after our Katmai stint)
and eat our sack lunches. Soon enough, the ground crew took our bags and loaded them into two floatplanes. Cool!
Our group split up, four passengers in each plane. (This time they were six-seaters - even smaller than our last flight!) I walked across a plank leading from the shore to the pontoon, then walked on the pontoon to reach the three-step ladder
to take me inside. The plane taxied over the water for a few minutes before the pilot gunned the engines and sent us into the sky.
Much more scenery this time, since we stayed below the cloud ceiling. Forests rolled by beneath us as we crossed one small pass and flew over Lake Iliamna. For
an hour we flew above a landscape that must've been incredible on a clear day.
As we neared Crosswinds Lake in Katmai NP, we kept an eye out for bears. Finally, I saw one, almost out of sight beneath our plane. I looked around, pleased at my sighting, then looked as we flew over Moraine Creek. OMG, there's at least a half-dozen grizzlies there! I didn't get my camera out fast enough.
We landed on the lake, then eased over to the shore. As the pilot stepped out of his door - he was wearing waders - he warned us, "Take your boots off, you're about to get wet!"
I could see why. From the pontoon, we had to step into 2'-deep water and then wade a dozen yards over slippery rocks to reach the safety of the shore. On land, we were greeted by a group of ptarmigans, Alaska's official state bird.
The pilots in their waders ferried our bags to shore, and we then carried them a short distance to AAA's favored camp site. While the guides rolled out the portable electric fence to establish a perimeter, us customers dove into setting up our tents. Recognizing that four hands work better than two, I help Mei to construct her vinyl home first, then she pitched in on getting mine up.
Fun fact: As Ashley (our other guide, who joined us in Lake Clark) explained, bears possess a sense of smell many times greater than our (pathetic) version. It is sensitive enough that it can 'smell' the electricity in the portable fence, and it encourages them to steer clear.
With my tent up, I threw my gear inside, arranging the 'furniture' of my bed and sleeping pad and organizing my clothing and rain gear. As I placed things within easy reach, I realized I was missing one of my gloves. Anxious not to lose that essential item, I retraced my steps to the landing site and then back again, only to find that it had fallen from my pocket right next to the tent's door.
Misplacing a glove would become a regular issue with me on this part of the trip.
As I mused on the day, I realized how our luck really came through. Yes, we missed out on a sunlit scenic extravaganza on our flights in, but we suffered no rain as we settled our camp. To have done that in a drizzle would have put a literal damper on our day.
"And we could have been like those hapless souls from over there," stated Colleen, pointing across a pond from our site. I looked, and noticed a bush plane lying upside down, with its wheels in the air.
"When they tried to land, they hit a bump, causing the propellor to dig into the tundra. Their momentum then caused the tail to go ass over teakettle, landing on its back. Luckily, all four people escaped with no injuries. Who knows how long it'll take to get the insurance company to come out here and take care of it."
After our initial bear encounter, we wandered about camp with a deeper respect for the land. Our fence stayed open until we retired for the night - after all, our portable privy would sit behind the bushes outside the fence until night-time came. As Mei, Mike and I wandered about, looking for photo ops,
we kept our eyes and ears out for Ursula and Yogi.
Later, after Colleen and Ashley had skillfully reconstituted dehydrated glop and turned it into a gourmet pasta dinner, we sat around swapping stories, hearing of each other's adventures. Another bear sighting - two bears this time - put the talk on hold as we again watched the ursines wander by.
A bit of Katmai class.
As on both my dogsled and Cataract Canyon trips, spending several days with others gave me chances to learn more about my fellow travelers and guides. To aid in this, I conducted short interviews with them, and will roll them out for several days. Today: Tim and Lisa.
Q: Imagine for a moment that Dan, the owner of AAA, has informed you that he will offer an all-expenses paid Katmai trip to someone that one of us nominates. That nominee can't be someone on this trip. Who will you nominate?
Tim: Good question! I have a limited number of friends that I'd consider for this. I'd have to say Ed - he loves the outdoors, and has never done anything like this. He would really appreciate it.
Lisa: I have a friend Susan, who's a graphic artist. She's my only friend who could handle the hiking we're doing. She's backpacked in Peru, so I know she could manage it.
Q: What would you be doing right now if you weren't here?
Lisa: I'd be playing my harp.
Tim: I'd be on the computer, designing some 3-D image tiles. And listening to harp music coming from the other room.
Q: Tim, you've mentioned that you do a lot of writing on factual matters, but you struggle with writing about your emotions. I'll challenge you here: What emotions does this place (Katmai) bring out in you?
Tim: I'd say awe and a sense of wonder. Looking at the tundra, it's so vast, but walking through it reveals intricate details. Nature is so healthy here; it displays so much diversity.
Lisa: I would describe how absolutely beautiful this land is. I'd tell them to think about how the bears relate to each other and how they relate to us humans. They're managed so well here - instead of suppressing them, trying to keep them out of the way in parks like Yellowstone or Glacier, here the bears can live as they have for eons, and we are the ones who must avoid them.
Q: Imagine that you're a bear living here, and you're on your bear phone talking to your bear cousins down in Yellowstone. What will you tell them about Katmai?
Lisa: Hey guys, you're missing out! This place is amazing. Great salmon, all you can eat!
Q: Describe your dream job.
Tim: Being a competitive math coach! I was asked to coach the math team at a local school. I had no experience in anything like that, but I signed up anyway. Connecting with the students felt incredible, helping them learn the concepts, prepping them for competition. I know I had an impact, because one student used what I taught him to study Romanesco broccoli, then he applied it in another class!
Lisa: I'd do something like Robert Fuller. He makes birdhouses by hand to shelter endangered birds. They are truly beautiful! He shares his work through photography and by telling stories of the birds he's helped. I would love to work alongside him.
Q: If you had a magic genie that could grant you a wish to spend a full day in any National Park, at any given time of year, what would you choose?
Lisa: I'd spend an August day in Denali. It'd have to be a clear day, so I could see the mountain!
Q: What drives you to visit National Park sites?
Tim: When I'm outside and moving around, I'm always looking for photo ops. It doesn't matter if I'm in the city or out in nature - but National Parks offer so many more opportunities. The parks also recharge me, places I can go off to alone and reconnect with myself.
Q: Name a place you would really like to travel to.
Tim: That would have to be Norway. I've seen pictures of these rocks that jut out into the middle of nowhere, with the ground thousands of feet below. I want to know what it would be like to stand on one of those.
Lisa: That's so appropriate for Tim to say that. Back when we were dating, we did our best to insulate each other from our parents. However, on one trip to see my parents, my father made up some excuse that he and Tim had to go for a ride. When they came back later, neither one said much. I finally had to corner Dad and ask him if he had a good talk with Tim. He responded laconically, "He's a good man, Lisa. He's a Norwegian man. He'll be good for you."