When we planned the trip to Katmai National Park, we were thinking brown bears, brown bears and more brown bears. As we did prior to our visit, many people are fascinated by the bear cams located at Brooks Falls – http://explore.org/live-cams/player/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls. Little did we know that not only are the brown bears amazing but there is so much else to make Katmai unique. Our visit there was truly special.
Katmai, located on the Alaska Peninsula and nearly 5 million acres in size, includes 15 volcanoes, magnificent scenery, and is home to North America’s largest population of protected brown bears – about 2,000 of them. It is one of the least-visited of our national parks, with only 37,818 visitors in 2015, ranking 53rd in visitation out of the 59 national parks.
Initially, we assumed we would stay at Brooks Camp, but we quickly found out that lodging there is booked up well over a year in advance. The person I spoke with suggested Kulik Lodge as our base. She said we might be happier there as it is smaller, with fewer people, and without the day-trippers from Anchorage and we could still make a day trip to Brooks for bear-viewing. This proved to be brilliant. We were very happy we were at Kulik. It’s truly a first class wilderness lodge. Manager Chaad McBride and his outstanding staff do everything possible to make a stay memorable and exactly what you’d like.
Kulik Lodge is a remote fishing lodge on Nonvianuk Lake and the Kulik River in the northern part of the park. At 6:30 a.m. we boarded a seven-passenger plane at Katmailand Air in Anchorage for the flight to Kulik. The 90-minute flight took us over breath-taking mountains and a brown bear ambled out alongside the gravel runway when we landed at Kulik.
Kulik Lodge is composed of the lodge building, individual cabins, and numerous outbuildings. It’s located in a prime fishing location with Nonvianuk Lake and Kulik Lake connected by the 1 ½ mile long Kulik River.
We were greeted by the wonderful staff at Kulik, treated to a great breakfast (which was only a sample of the excellent meals at Kulik) and introduced to our guide for the day, Grey. Tom and I are not fishermen so going to a fishing camp in the first place was a unique experience but we were game to try fly fishing. Grey was a good teacher and very patient as we learned a bit about casting from the lake shore.
We then went out in a boat to the Kulik River where we got into the river and started fishing. Yes, actually clambering in and out of the boat into the river. Getting back in was much more of a challenge than getting out. Throughout the day, we each managed to catch several rainbow trout, which are catch and release. Personally, I had always seen people standing in a cold river in waders and thought they were slightly crazy but I found out just how much fun it actually is and why you could really get “hooked” on it. We, of course, never made the “fish board” but we had a great time.
While we were fishing, a bear swam across the river, leaving her cubs on the other side. They were very noisy and obviously not very happy about it but it seemed as if she was telling them – “just be quiet and wait, I’ll be back for you” – much like any mother might.
Meals at Kulik are served family-style and were incredible. The chef there is outstanding. Lunch was served at noon and included homemade soups, salads and a variety of sandwich makings. The complimentary bar is open from 4 to 11, with appetizers at 6 and dinner at 7. The first evening we were there we had fried chicken, salmon, pulled pork, cole slaw, green salad, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, bread, jam and either lemon meringue pie or blueberry ice cream for dessert. Every meal was just as amazing as the first.
Mealtimes provided a time to get to know some of the other guests and discuss everyone’s activities for the day. There were only 23 guests at Kulik so it was a rather intimate group and we met interesting people. The fireplace in the lodge also served as a gathering and visiting place.
Since it never gets truly dark during the summer, some guests chose to go night fishing while we decided to walk around the property and just enjoy the peace and serenity and turn in a bit early. We had had a very full day.
Coffee on the front stoop at 5:30 a.m. provided a good start to the day which began with a hearty breakfast and a 6:45 boarding of float planes to Brooks Camp for bear-viewing.
The first stop at Brooks Camp is the ranger station for the required bear orientation. Bears have free range and the right-of-way and there are very specific guidelines for visitors. We saw a bear in the midst of the camp very shortly after our arrival. On our walk to the bear-viewing at the falls, we came around a corner of the trail and saw a sow and two cubs about thirty yards away coming toward us. Everyone scrambled to get off the path and out of her way. They are a bit intimidating and you definitely don’t want to get too close!
In Katmai, abundant salmon means abundant brown bear populations. Daily fish catch for most bears runs to 10 to 20 salmon a day and, nourished with such high-fat fare, male brown bears can grow to 1500 pounds or more than three times the size of interior grizzlies. Coastal brown bears and interior grizzlies are both members of the Ursus arcto species. The difference in size is attributable in part to the abundance of salmon in coastal and near-coastal areas.
We saw a sow and three cubs on the river bank as we approached the Brooks Falls viewing platform and then watched a number of bears fishing for salmon. It’s rather astounding how quickly these giant animals can move in order to catch salmon. The Park service has a pretty efficient system for allowing a certain number of people on the platform at once and rotating them after an hour to give someone else a chance.
Walking back toward the river viewing area, we came across a juvenile male coming down a path toward us. Once again it was a scramble to get out of his way – believe me, I was well back when I snapped this photo.
We spent quite a lot of time at the Brooks River viewing area watching bears fishing and what appeared at times to be playing with each other in the river. They were fascinating to watch.
Another possible day trip from Kulik is to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. On June 6, 1912, residents of the northern Alaska Peninsula experienced one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The Novarupta volcano eruption sent ash over 100,000 feet in the air and released 30 times the volume of magma as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. When Robert Griggs in 1916 gazed into the former Ukak River valley and saw the transformation from the eruption, he saw tens of thousands of smokes curling up from its fissured floor and dubbed it “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.” Even though those fumaroles have since died, the valley is still a unique and otherworldly landscape.
On our last day at Kulik, Bryce was our guide and we went fishing again but the weather turned on us a bit making a hot shower welcome after standing in the rain in the cold river. It cleared off later in the afternoon so Bryce took us on a tundra hike. Treeline in Katmai is less than 1000 feet so most of the park is above treeline and exposed to extreme weather. Plants that survive best hug the ground but moose, caribou, red fox, wolves, lynx and a number of other animals make this their home.
Our last evening at Kulik we were treated to a presentation by Sonny Petersen on the history of the lodge and Katmai. Sonny’s father, aviation pioneer Ray Petersen, in 1947 founded his Northern Consolidated Airlines. Petersen was committed to fishing conservation and was granted a permit to build and operate five “Angler’s Paradise” camps, making him the park’s first concessioner. Thus, he provided both the places to stay and, with his airline, the way to get there. Petersen was an avid southwest Alaska promoter wanting to attract the tourist “who goes places just to be amazed.”
Katmai National Park is a special place and Kulik Lodge was the perfect place for us. On the last evening, a young woman, Annie, from Beijing took this photo of us and later emailed it to me. It captures the bittersweet of our last evening at Kulik. We created great memories.
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