Living and working in Brooks Camp, my commute to work encompasses a mile-long walk through bear-country. A far-cry from the average American’s commute - I worry instead about ‘bear jams,’ instead of traffic jams making me late to work. Equipped with nothing but a backpack, bear spray, and a radio - I make this perilous trek at least twice a day.
Today, another factor has come into play: the East winds. Since the month I have been at Brooks camp, the winds are the strongest I have seen. According to forecasts, Brooks will face persistent winds up to 54mph. Our anemometer gives us readings of gusts as high as 42 mph from the bridge crossing Brooks river. I had been foretold about how vicious the winds of Katmai can get by rangers - but hadn’t yet had the chance to experience it first-hand.
And oh, what an experience it has been. My commute to Brooks Camp was now filled with the creaking of dead spruce trees that have been killed off by Spruce Bark Beetles. For once, bears were among the least of my worries - I was now at the mercy of the beetle-ravaged spruce trees, and the onslaught of wind that threatened to topple them.
At the bridge, the wind funnels into the mouth of the river with a gusto of strength without the trees to break it’s progress. Walking across the bridge was a trial in itself, the wind pushing so hard against your side you had to walk at a slant. One visitor remarked it was reminiscent of the storm reporters seen on TV, bracing against the gusts of a hurricane.
On East Wind days, especially ones as intense as this one, all wildlife seems to hole away - including the bears that make Katmai so famous. Bears have the keenest sense of smell of all terrestrial animals, and with the winds blowing as they are, it impedes their primary sense. As a bear tech described it to me, it is akin to humans having to walk around in the dark (sight being our main sense.) This makes the bears much more scarce, and when they do make an appearance, they are much more skittish.
All day, there is a steady stream of visitors coming through the visitor center: seeking weather updates, souvenirs, or some entertainment through conversation or a park movie. Anything to get out of the wind - especially when Dumpling and the Falls trail are inaccessible between the weather and fallen trees. The visitor center, set so close to the beach of Naknek lake, receives the brunt of the wind, with only a handful of spruce trees and a few alders to between the lake and the building to provide a barrier. Being stationed at the visitor center provides the opportunity to witness in sight and sound, the whitecaps on Naknek and the pounding of the waves against the shore.
On East Wind days, guests typically land on the shores of Lake Brooks instead of Naknek lake. The park coordinates to have a park ranger stationed out at the Lake Brooks picnic area, to intercept visitors and provide Bear Orientations. On one of my previous shifts where I was stationed at Lake Brooks, I gave 15 Bear Orientations to around 150 people. In previous years, the total number of Lake Brooks Orientations reached over 800, which was the case in 2017 and 2018. On this particular day; however, winds are so strong that planes are not landing on either of the two lakes.
Though inconveniencing, the East winds certainly made for a varied and thrilling day. Gusts had wracked Brooks Camp all throughout the day, but by the end of the day, the wind had relented and the sun shone through - making my afternoon commute much more pleasant then my morning one.
The reality of weather conditions in Katmai is that they are often not as predictable as we would like. All visitors and staff can do is be prepared and willing to adapt the best we can to the ever changing conditions. Whether that means taking a walk to the Cultural Site in lieu of bear viewing; or if the winds are particularly intense, maybe opting for watching a movie in the Visitor Center or working on a Junior Ranger booklet indoors. Many visitors are coming either for bear viewing or fishing, so when East wind effects that, we all need to get a little creative and figure out how to weather it out in Brooks together.