Home to Grosvenor Lodge, Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918 to preserve the living laboratory of its cataclysmic 1912 volcanic eruption, particularly the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Since then, most surface geothermal features have cooled, but protecting the native fish and wildlife that call Katmai home has become an equally compelling charge. To protect these magnificent creatures and varied habitat, the boundaries were extended over the years, and in 1980 the area was designated a national park and preserve.
Katmai looms so vast that the bulk of it eludes all but a few persistent visitors. Most lodges, rivers, and streams are accessible only by float plane and offer a glimpse of the unseen Katmai, beyond that experienced by most.
The park’s natural powers confront us most visibly in its brown bears. In summer, North America’s largest land predators gather along streams to feast on salmon, building weight from this wealth of protein and fat to prepare for the long winter ahead.
Contrary to popular belief, Alaska’s brown bears and grizzlies are now considered one species. In other parts of the world, grizzlies are considered to be those that live 100 miles and more inland. Thus brown bears are often considered to be ‘coastal’ bears and are therefore generally larger than grizzlies thanks to their rich diet of fish. However, Kodiak brown bears are actually considered to be a different subspecies that is geographically isolated on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
Mature male bears in Katmai can weigh up to 900 pounds. Mating occurs from May to mid-July and cubs are born in their respective dens in mid-winter. Up to four cubs may be born at a time, at a mere one pound each. Cubs typically stay with their mother for two years, during which time she does not reproduce. The interval between litters typically lasts at least three years. Brown bears dig a new den each year, entering it in November and emerging in April. Believe it or not, approximately half of their lifetime is spent in their dens!
These awe-inspiring bears symbolize the wildness of Katmai today. However, because each bear is an individual, its important to note that no one can predict exactly how a bear will act in a given situation. Thus, it is important to exercise caution at all times in bear country.
Besides brown bear, Katmai National Park provides a protected home to moose, caribou, red fox, wolf, lynx, wolverine, river otter, mink, marten, weasel, porcupine, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, beaver, and numerous birds of prey.
Marine mammals include; sea lions, sea otters, and hair seals. Beluga, killer, and gray whales can also be seen along the coast of the park as well.
A predictable eruption occurs each year as salmon burst into park waters from the northern Pacific Ocean.
Sockeye (also known as red) salmon return from the ocean, where they have spent two to three years. Navigating first across the open ocean, and then up rivers, lakes, and streams, they return to the headwaters of their natal stream to spawn before dying shortly thereafter. Their size, averaging 5 to 7 pounds, varies proportionally to how long they spend feeding at sea.
The sockeye run begins here in mid to late June. By the end of July, its not uncommon for over a million fish to have moved from Bristol Bay into the Naknek system of lakes and rivers. Salmon stop feeding upon entering freshwater, and physiological changes lead to the distinctive red color, humped back, and elongated jaw they develop during spawning.
In our region, sockeye typically spawn during August, September, and October. By the following spring, the next generation of salmon, called ‘fry’ or ‘juveniles,’ emerge from the gravel and migrate into the larger lakes, where they remain for up to two years. The salmon then migrate to sea, returning in two or three years to spawn and begin the cycle once again.
Salmon provide nutrients to nearly all of their surrounding life in the Katmai area. Brown bears, bald eagles, resident fish (rainbow trout, grayling, dolly varden, etc.), and many other flora and fauna rely heavily on the nutrients provided by each year’s salmon run. They also have been important to Katmai people for several thousand years and remains a mainstay of today’s local economy.
Interested in experiencing a piece of Katmai unlike any other? Drop us a line to start planning your adventure today.