by Diana Proemm
The National Park Service is celebrating it’s 100 year anniversary today. In lieu, I wanted to share a short story about a place I fell in love with many years ago.
There is a place in a remote area of western Alaska that holds magic. It has special powers that still takes my breath away, like stagnant cancer that won’t go away. Katmai National Park hosts less than 100,000 people every year and I had the opportunity to work and live in Katmai many years ago in 1997, 98 and 99. I was still just a kid with an enormous amount of energy and this landscape proved true to test me in every sense. I distinctly remember being flown out to Brooks Lodge my first day in a Cessna 206 with a few other lodge staff. The aventure started in Anchorage where I had resided, and then flew to King Salmon, where I hopped aboard the Cessna flight departed for Brooks Camp. I remember exiting the plane and looking around the 360 view of the mountains and Naknek lake with nothing else such as a Walmart, or gas station, only nature in sight. Some people might cringe at the thought, but not this girl. I did a happy dance, and shouted with joy, I was literally in the middle of nowhere and it was a slice of heaven for me.
Brooks Lodge was the first remote fishing lodge in the “bush” of Alaska started by Ray Peterson. I was due to work there for approximately three and half months. Wide eyed and bushy tailed, I went to work on helping set up the lodge and cabins for guests arrival. My roommate in Anchorage had encouraged me to apply, but I really had no idea how magical this place would turn out to be. It wasn’t long before the fisherman started coming, along with long time favorites the “Hairy Dogs” named after their own unique fly. One member of the Hairy Dogs would play the bagpipe every morning starting the day and fishing season with a blessed tune to encourage the fish to bite.
Soon after the fisherman arrived, another mammal arrived. The almighty brown bear or bears for that matter. They swarm the area starting in late June searching for spawning salmon making their way up the local streams and rivers. Of course, with the bears came the ‘bear viewers;’ the tourists coming to find a glimpse of the allusive brown bear on Brooks Falls. Many planes would arrive in the morning, drop off guests and then depart in the late afternoon. This was the cycle of the days throughout July when the salmon were spawning. In August, the tourists and bears faded away, the fisherman returned, and there was quiet throughout the area for a few weeks.
During these down times, or the precious one day off I had during the week, meant I went on exploration of the area. I explored Brooks Lake by kayak and fishing boat, hiked the ‘big 5’ mountains and toured the Valley of 10,000 smokes. I learned how to navigate the wilderness with a compass as there were no trails beyond camp and I had become a fearless adventurer flying solo or roping anyone in who would go beyond the camp limits with me, especially my fellow adventurer, guide and forest ranger, Tom Ferguson, who taught me most of my backcountry skills I carry with me today.
The Valley of 10,000 Smokes was created in 1912 when Mt Katmai collapsed and erupted out of the Novarupta plug. The Valley was 23 miles along a one lane dirt road, and we offered daily tours throughout the summer for the tourists.
On June 6, 1912, a new volcano emerged on the Katmai landscape and forever altered this region. For 60 hours, a volcano later named Novarupta sent ash into the sky as high as 20 miles (30 km). Ash and pumice from the eruption also rushed down the Ukak River valley as pyroclastic flows and surges moving at more than 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour). The Ukak River valley was transformed into 40 square miles (64 square kilometers) of barren ash. Heat trapped in the ash took decades to cool. Any water buried by the ash or that percolated into it flashed into steam. The vents where the superheated steam emerged became the fumaroles that inspired the name Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
I had the opportunity to camp and hike out here on occasion, but this place was your best friend or your worst enemy. I had both experiences, and during my last camping trip out there, I was hit with what seemed like 100 mile an hour winds, no trees for shelter, sand and pumice pummeling my tent, breaking a tent stake, leaving me curled up in a ball in my sleeping bag for 11 hours through the night until the wind broke. I had a buddy camped next to me that I came across by chance that day, and both our tents were damaged, and the only dry things we had were the clothes we had on, we were approximately 11 miles away from shelter, and 33 miles from camp (and any communication) at that point. We took the break in winds to pack up our belongings and hike out to the shelter where the day tours are dropped off. Thankfully we had this spot to sleep because just as we settled in, the winds picked up and it was another wicked weather night. Greg, the bus driver came for us the next morning to pick us up, and close up the shelter for the last day of year. He came with a big shit eating grin, packing Irish Cream and coffee! He intuitively knew what we had endured.
In late August and early September, after the salmon have spawned and start to die off, the bears return to the lower river to feast on their final meals before hibernation. The bears fill their bellies to the brim and soon they are dragging those bellies along the beach leaving snail like trails along the lake beach. The chill comes in the air, and then it’s time to say goodbye to the crew. Only you know that the Katmai call will bring you back.
Throughout my three summers at Brooks, the people I worked with became family, and friendships were forged for a lifetime. Katmai grabs a hold of you, takes you in like the wind, gets you into some BIG fish, and wildlife a plenty from bears, moose, wolves, and the sneaky Lynx. The part that really gets you is natures silence as I call it. When you can be in the forest, and hear only the sounds of nature or the sound of literally, nothing. In today’s digital age, this place will force you to disconnect, pay attention and you won’t be disappointed because the connection out there is better than anywhere in the city. If this place intrigues you, I’d be happy to immerse you in the sweet magic that is Katmai.
Diana is a non-traditionalist who seeks adventures adventure in nature, traveling and exploring wildernesses and forests whenever and wherever she can.