Alaska: Katmai National Park and Preserve

The natural beauty of Katmai National Park and Preserve
The natural beauty of Katmai National Park and Preserve

Courtesy of Dawna Raven, Flickr's Creative Commons

A raw energy penetrates Katmai National Park and Preserve, which covers roughly four million acres of the Alaskan peninsula. This energy occasionally explodes as it did in a massive volcanic eruption in 1912, but it is also part of a calmer natural rhythm. The vastness of Katmai includes a wide diversity of natural habitats and culturally significant areas. Brooks Camp at Brooks River on the western side of Katmai, for example, offers visitors the opportunity to learn about Eskimo culture by taking one of the daily ranger walks and touring a reconstructed pithouse.

While Katmai might appear today as a primarily wild, uninhabited space, the earliest occupations of the area around the park date from approximately 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, though they occupied areas outside the boundaries of Katmai National Park and Preserve. These Paleoarctic peoples are likely to have come to the continent either by walking across the land bridge that is today the Bering Strait, or by sailing a similar route.

Within the park, the Brooks River area appears to have been settled approximately 5,000 years ago in 3,000 BCE. The earliest populations around Brooks River are known to reflect a number of ancestral groups—some with Asian roots. Eruptions of the active volcanoes at Katmai must have played important roles in isolating or forcing movement of populations, although how they influenced Eskimo culture is poorly understood. What is known is that the Brooks Camp area has many layers of cultural settlement.

The earliest residents were probably very mobile, setting up temporary living quarters that permitted them to follow the game they hunted. Documented by the arrowheads they left behind, these mobile hunters crossed the region 5,000 to 3,850 years ago. Later peoples began to be more sedentary and constructed the first pithouses within Katmai between 3,850 and 3,000 years ago. The next cultural group occupied the lands within this part of Katmai beginning around 2,250 years ago. This group and the last historic grouping (from 900 years ago) were markedly different from their ancestors in that they began producing ceramics and constructing more advanced pithouses.

Today, most visitors gather at Brooks River to observe bears who come to the river for salmon. A short, 1.5-mile long stream, Brooks River supported early native populations who seasonally consumed the great abundance of the salmon that school there in the spring, summer, and fall. Caribou first drew the earliest settlers to the area. Caribou used the Brooks Camp area to cross Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake. At the time, the Brooks Camp area was a narrow point joining the two lakes, funneling the caribou into an easy-to-hunt mass. Salmon came only as glaciers retreated, causing a river and waterfalls to develop.

To overcome a challenging natural environment, the First Alaskans in this region constructed pithouses. Temporary dwellings, like the one reconstructed at Brooks Camp, these houses required considerable effort to build and were probably occupied seasonally year after year beginning around 900 years ago. Seal hunting expeditions to the coast temporarily relocated populations who would then return to camps like Brooks River once the hunting season was over. To help survive the cold winter months, the Eskimos placed entrances to the pithouses within a cold trap. They positioned the entryway to the pithouse off a trough below the semi-submerged house structure so that outside cold air fell to the bottom of the trough. Visitors or residents entered the house without bringing in as much cold air as they would have had the entryway been built into the top or side of the structure. On the inside of the home, mats or animal skins might have been hung to provide an additional layer of protection against the intrusion of cold air. Lamps burning oil, perhaps seal oil from coastal hunting trips, provided light and warmth. The reconstructed pithouse at Brooks Camp illustrates the type built roughly millennia ago. Archeological evidence at the site suggests occupation of the site where the house sits as early as 4,500 years ago, as numerous other native populations crisscrossed the Alaska Peninsula. 

Contact with Russian fur traders, particularly those looking for sea otter, changed Eskimo culture. Beginning in the mid-1700s, Russian traders began using established trails to reach into the park area to trade with native populations. Centered on Kodiak and the Sheikh of Strait at the eastern border of the park today, Russian trading upended native traditions by the 1780s. Trade that the Russian American Company directed particularly subsumed native life ways. In the park, the today abandoned Katmai Village was the hub of commercial activity from 1799 until the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867. Following this purchase, trade shifted from sea otter to salmon. Though prospectors tried to settle the area, the creation of the park in 1918 and its considerable later expansions prevented large-scale well-established settlement and use of the area as a hunting ground. Native populations hold the rights to some lands within the park, however, and traditional uses of the land continue.

Other First Alaskan settlement camp sites throughout the park are not well documented. They are difficult for visitors to reach and do not offer the interpretive exhibits that Brooks Camp provides. These sites include the Savonoski River Archeological District, the Kaguyak Village Site, the Kukak Village Site, and the Takli Island Archeological District. Some, like the Kaguyak Village Site, reflect more contemporary settlement, including Russian contact in the 1950s. Others, like Takli Island, contain very old artifacts from between 4,000 and 1,000 BC.

Katmai offers hiking, camping, fishing, boating, and touring the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which is a remnant of the 1912 volcano eruption. Several lodges provide opportunities to stay in the park. A bus runs daily from Brooks Camp to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Organized bear watching is available at Brooks Camp where rangers lead walks and other programs in the summer. Private entities operate other guide and tour services within the park, including sightseeing by air. Camping facilities and food service are available at Brooks Camp.

Katmai National Park and Preserve, a unit of the National Park System, is located along the Alaska Peninsula, approximately 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, AK.  The park headquarters is in King Salmon, AK next to the airport.  Within Katmai, the Brooks River Archeological District has been designated a National Historic Landmark. A number of sites within Katmai have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

Katmai may only be visited by air or boat.  Commercial air service or air taxi service connects to the visitor center at King Salmon.  From there, visitors wishing to travel into the park must take an air taxi or boat.  The visitor center at King Salmon maintains seasonal hours, and the food and lodging facilities at Brooks Camp are offered between June and September.  The park and preserve are open year-round.  For more information, visit the National Park Service Katmai National Park and Preserve website or call 907-246-3305.

Last updated: August 23, 2017