Last updated: September 21, 2017
Katmai is an embarrassment of riches.
This was perfectly clear when I flew over 100 bears. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s the lowest conceivable estimate. There were mothers with cubs. There were crowds of titanic boars collecting fish at waterfalls out in far-flung corners of the park. We’d sail over a dozen, and there would be another dozen a minute later. There were salmon, thousands of them, enormous clouds of scarlet fish moving as one in undulating rivers of shimmering teal. The water: there were lakes smooth as glass, reflecting the sky above. There were lakes of an almost impossible hue of blue. There were lakes that curved around the feet of enormous horizon-cutting spires. Those peaks, many of them carrying no official name, heaved the land in immense waves of twisted stone.
NPS Photo/C. Augustson: The waters of Battle Lake are some of the bluest and clearest in the park.
Every single direction yielded scenes of staggering abundance. There were fields erupting in fireweed, great paint blotches of purple only beginning to bloom. There were indescribably vast stretches of green tundra pockmarked with ponds, slung with streams that bend and wove like great snarls of twine. There were waterfalls: almost Icelandic waterfalls, towering sheets of water that burst over cliffs and tumbled around sheets of stone playfully into deep canyons and valleys below. Some were hundreds of feet tall. I would believe it if you told me some had not been approached on foot in years.
These moments registered in flashes or in wide graceful arcs, because we were bolting across the sky in a 185: a tiny bolt of red and white that Lead Wilderness Ranger Wendy refers to as “The sports car of planes.” It only holds four people. It bobs and threads through the sky like a young horse joyous to be out of the corral. I have flown before, but this really FEELS like flying. Here your stomach drops as you twist in the wind, your heart rises to your throat as the plane tilts towards its side. You shift speeds on the fly: first you are exploding across the sky, then with a sudden lift, you are gently cruising, the better to witness life unfolding below. And there is almost always something to see. This is Katmai, after all. It does not trade in subtlety but unravels panorama after panorama with thunderous majesty. You do not see it from above with out being absolutely wonderstruck.
NPS Photo/C. Augustson: The rivers in the northern reaches of the park were laced with clouds of sockeye salmon.
The job that prompted this trip is one that occurs regularly here: we were checking up on bears and salmon and the groups of people that follow both into the northern reaches of the preserve. Fishing season in Bristol Bay to the west was finished, and it was a bumper crop year, from the sounds of it, one for the books. Now the millions of salmon that made it past the nets are threading their way through hundreds of streams. Some of the ones we witnessed had to travel dozens of miles: across multiple lakes, some heavy with glacial silt, over many rivers, some wild and rapid, and into the deep interior of the park, all to spawn in the exact stream in which they were born. Rangers scout out schools of fish to understand how these populations change in movement, number, and health over time (this was a good year for the sockeye salmon, to say the least) They also count the bears to understand where they travel and how they behave throughout the season. Halfway through the flight, Wendy cheerfully noted that we had sighted well over 100 just by checking on two streams. Finally, they count people: looking to see which areas are most popular, which areas draw sport fishers and bear watchers and floatplane flightseers. Each of these points of data aid management in forming a clearer picture of the resource. Each survey plays a role in preserving the park for future generations.
These flights occur throughout the summer season, as salmon spawn and bears follow the bounty. More than just numbers, these counts show managers patterns of movement over time and which streams are most heavily used, whether by fish or bear or person. This data suggests which environments are in excellent shape, and which ones may need further study and increased conservation efforts. It can reveal change over time. Variance in number or timing from year to year is normal, but long-term trends are important to identify and understand. It also shows which human activities are most popular, and which areas are seeing most use. We flew above many boats shining in the sunlight, anglers reveling in the catch. We also spotted small groups of guided bear watchers, seeking out the perfect photograph in the wild northern stretches. All of these notes made from the air form one of the clearest snapshots of the park: capturing hundreds of stories playing out at once in rapid succession.
NPS Photo/C. Augustson: Rarely seen waterfalls dot the northern preserve.
As we floated above a cornucopia of cascades and carnivores, I was utterly enthralled by each scene that unfolded. I felt like a twelve-year old boy living a dream, feeling utterly and astonishingly free as we coursed above a thousand wonders. These experiences are astonishing. They are also normal parts of the job of members of the Katmai team, who use every tool and study available to ensure that we have the information and resources we need to protect a place that is genuinely precious for future generations. Pilots, resource managers, wilderness experts, and wildlife biologists all work together on these projects to plot out a special legacy of preservation and recreation. I am reminded again and again that it is a remarkable privilege to be a part of a team so devoted, diverse, and talented. I am also reminded that what we do here is really quite cool.
The skies of Katmai are forever etched into my imagination.