We woke up at 7:00 am to catch our 9:00 am flight out of Lake Clark. We packed our bags and we were ready to begin our next adventure to Katmai National Park. However, the weather was poor (extreme fog and light rain) and our flight was delayed. Therefore, we took advantage of the time together by playing a friendly game of Scrabble. Winston won! He got a huge lead with a second round bingo of 85 points.
We took off around 11:00 am on our single engine plane. It was just the four of us and the pilot. We flew low to avoid the turbulence. It was a little scary because the weather was not optimal, but we could still view the landscape. Our flight from Port Alsworth to King Salmon was only about 140 miles with nothing but the extreme wilderness below us. It was an Alaskan scenery undisturbed that you could truly appreciate.
When we landed the King Salmon Lodge shuttle picked us up and took us to our amazing hotel. We had two separate rooms. The boys has two twin beds in their room. Luke was thrilled and happy because he did not have to sleep with his younger brother. The owner of King Salmon Lodge, Matt Norman, was a delight to meet. Matt and staff were wonderful to deal with and we would highly recommend his establishment.
Once we got settled in, we went to town for groceries (sardines, Wheat Thins, Triscuits, ham, bread, beef jerky, a hard salami stick and a few other sustenance items). We were shocked that we could not purchase any salmon. The locals told us that everyone catches their own salmon so no one buys it at the grocery store.
It was early afternoon and we continued playing games. Alisa won in Monopoly bankrupting all of the guys one by one. She was so focused that for a few moments the fake money seemed real. Her happiness of beating the men and winning the game was delightful to see. She never wins at Monopoly. It was unfortunate that the money was not real, because we would have used it for a delicious dinner at the lodge restaurant. Lastly, we played the board game of Risk with Winston winning again.
Before going to sleep, Matt introduced us the award-winning filmmaker, musician, and photographer Mark Emery. Mark is best known for his work with national geographic. He just completed filming in Katmai earlier that day and enjoyed our story of 59 before 18.
We woke up at 5:00 am and ate a complimentary continental breakfast. KatmaiLand picked us up at our lodge and took us to their small office along the Naknek River. We verified our weight and soon boarded their float plane. It was our first experience being on a float plane and the less than 40 mile journey did not disappoint us. Taking off and landing on water was a fun and surprisingly smooth event. Finally, we were in Katmai National Park at Brooks Camp.
Since the town of King Salmon is located just outside of the national park, when we stepped foot onto land at Brooks Camp we were full of joy. This was our 54th American national park visited successfully together as a family. Nevertheless, this park was different. We had to go to the visitor center and watch a bear safety video and put all of our food in a bear proof food cache. No food is allowed anywhere within the park except in designated and secured areas.
After getting our pins that we understood the rules of Katmai, we hiked the Brooks Falls Trail. At the end of the trail is the famous Brooks Falls Platform. Before getting onto the regulated platform with one hour time limits, we entered through two protected gates. The Falls Platform is one of the best places in the world to view grizzly bears as well as watch them eat salmon. It’s also a very safe place for the bears as well as us humans. The salmon on the other hand are usually not so fortunate.
It did not take long for us to see our first big brown bear. We sometimes call the North American brown bear a grizzly. The word “grizzly” means “grizzled”, that is, golden and grey tips on the hair. In other words, the grizzly and the brown bear are one species on two continents (North America and Asia… specifically Siberian and northeast Asia). Most adult grizzlies usually weigh between 290 – 790 lbs (females “sows” average between 290 – 440 lbs and males “boars” 400 – 790 lbs).
The grizzly boar was huge! He was standing on the falls trying to catch his breakfast. Usually it’s a big brown bear buffet here at Brooks Falls. The falls are only about eight feet high and located about half way along the Brooks River which connects the Naknek Lake and Brooks Lake. The largest sockeye salmon run in the world swim from from the Bering Sea to Bristol Bay to Kvichak Bay to the Naknek River to the Naknek Lake to the Brooks River and hopefully into the mouths of a grizzly. However, the first bear we saw was not catching any fish. In the Brooks River area, the successful sockeye salmon not eaten by a bear will spawn in Naknek Lake, Lake Brooks, and throughout the length of the Brooks River from mid August to early November.
After about two hours of bear viewing we hiked back toward the visitor center to eat an early lunch. There are park rangers strategically located in several areas throughout the park. One such area is the Lower River Platform which is located about half way between the visitor center and Brooks Falls. The park rangers are constantly communicating with each other watching out for roaming bears and protecting their space from human interference. We got stopped at the Lower Falls and had the pleasure of seeing a couple more grizzlies.
Our picnic area was in a gated area surround by an electric fence. After lunch we decided to hike on the Dumpling Mountain Trail. Alisa adjusted her knee brace and we began hiking up the steep incline. It took us an hour to hike about 1,500 feet in elevation gain. We preferred not to go to the top (2,440 ft.) because we wanted to see a grizzly eat a sockeye. The stunning view and gorgeous scenery was worth the effort.
As we hiked in this wilderness full of wildlife we were always mindful of our environment. We were prepared and aware that if we did encounter a bear that we would act intelligently. The correct thing to do is not run, but to stand tall and put your hands up. Also, talk pleasantly to the bear and slowly back away. Being mindful of your surroundings and aware of the animals that live in the area will not only protect you and your family, but won’t disturb the natural lifestyle of the wildlife. Moreover, the best was to ensure your safety is to make sounds while hiking. We like saying “hey bear” as we hike, especially in places where we can not see around a turn. A startled bear could create a unwanted attack. In summary, no encounter is the best form of protection.
After we hiked down the mountain we walked along the Naknek Lake. The boys picked up some rocks and tossed them into the water. The rocks were buoyant. We were amazed that the rocks were floating on the water. It was like we were in a magical natural wonderland. When we got to the Lower Platform we saw more bears. This time one of them caught a sockeye. We were very excited and presume the bear was as well.
When we arrived at the Falls Platform there were no bears, yet we could see hundreds of salmon swimming upstream towards the falls. Many of them were jumping up the waterfall. Some salmon made it over the falls and continued swimming while others jumped and fell back down. A few even banged their heads on the rocks.
Eventually a boar brown bear walked toward the falls and began trying to stomp a sockeye with his front paws. It did not take long before he caught one. He picked it up and secured the salmon in his mouth. Then he readjusted the fish by biting tightly on it’s head. The bear ate the sockeye in about ten minutes and gradually went back for more. It only took about twenty minutes for him to catch his second salmon. The grizzly was very calm and patient. He acted like we do when we eat at a Chinese buffet. We don’t rush. We slowly choose and eat what we want.
The bear left and shortly thereafter another marvelous sow bear entered the area to feast. She was anxious to eat. She jumped several times in the water to capture her meal with her front paws. She missed many times. It was terrific to watch her hunt for salmon. It seemed like she was very hungry. Finally, she caught her sockeye and ate it bit-by-bit. Although a sockeye salmon contains about 4,500 calories, she only ate the brains, eggs and skin for the most nutrients and highest protein.
After the sow bear ate her first fish, she relaxed in a bubbly area of the water. It looked like she was in a jacuzzi. As she was placid, the other bear came back and entered into the water. The two did not mind sharing the area together. There were plenty of salmon jumping as the two bears were patiently waited to eat their next meal. A few minutes later the female caught her sockeye. This time she walked around with her head under water and snatched her meal.
She came very close to the platform as she began eating. The fish was still alive as she pealed away the skin with her teeth. Luke loved watching the grotesque site as the bear devoured her delicious delicacy. The close proximity of bear viewing was extraordinary and a once in a lifetime experience.
We hiked back to the visitor center and awaited for our float plane to take us back to King Salmon. The boys officially stamped their national park passports and canceled Katmai. Alisa became a junior ranger. That evening we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the lodge. We all went to sleep with a full stomach.
The next morning we had scheduled a half-day guided fishing trip with Alaska Sportsman’s Lodges. To save some money only Winston and Luke fished. Alisa and Bill rode along in the boat as the boys tried to catch a King Salmon. Although it was July 26th and the sun was shinning, the Alaskan air was bitter cold. Fishing for King Salmon is a strategic game. Our knowledgeable guide had everything set up as he drove to a favorable place on the Naknek River.
It only took about 30 minutes until Winston’s lure attracted a fish. He was energetic as he slowly began reeling in the fish. About a minute later, to our wondrous surprise, the King Salmon jumped out of the water. It was still hooked, but the enormous size shocked Winston. His smile quickly became epic.
Now catching this fish was truly large-than-life. It was our food for the next few days. We cheered Winston as he worked very hard not to lose his monumental prize. It took about 15 minutes until Winston achieved his heroic quest of catching a gargantuan King Salmon. It was one of the happiest moments of his life.
During the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon, the boys caught nothing else. We went to the Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge to fillet the fish. Next we went back to the King Salmon Lodge to professionally cook it. We ate an early dinner of fresh salmon and packaged the rest to take with us to our next American national park. Our Saturday evening flight departed to Anchorage at about 6:00 pm.