Isolated Paradise:
An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units
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Chapter 1:
An Overview of the Katmai Country

Katmai National Park and Preserve is located between Shelikof Strait and Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. Within this reservation is found some of the most spectacular scenery in the state. The thrusting peaks of the Aleutian Range dominate the eastern half of the unit. To the west, the land broadens out into countryside dominated by low mountains and rolling hills punctuated by long, narrow lakes.

Katmai NP and Preserve map
Map 2. Katmai National Park and Preserve. Source: NPS, Environmental Assessment, Draft Development Concept Plan, Brooks Camp and Grosvenor Camp for Katmai, January 1982, 2. (click image for an enlargement in a new window)

As might be expected, such a large area as Katmai sports a wide variety of plant and animal life. Tundra carpets much of the area, while the valleys and lake shores are dominated by various forms of forest and brush. Caribou, moose and brown bear are all found in Katmai, along with a wide variety of birds, insects and other fauna. The lakes, particularly those at the lower elevations, teem with salmon, trout and other fish species.

Both the topography and biotic diversity of the Katmai country are undeniably beautiful. Neither, however, are singlehandedly responsible for creating the present NPS unit. Katmai was thrust into prominence because of one catastrophic event: the eruption of Novarupta, near Mount Katmai, in June 1912. Based on the publicity and scientific curiosity surrounding that event, Katmai National Monument was created to protect the geological wonderland which encircled Mount Katmai. [1] In the years since the monument was established, Katmai has been expanded four times, but the rationale behind all four expansions has borne no resemblance to that which created the original monument. As the Katmai country became better known and the number of visitors began to increase, the area became increasingly valuable as a storehouse of biological diversity. In recent years it has become well known for its wilderness values as well as a world-class destination for fishing and for game observation.

Those who would hope to appreciate Katmai need to recognize that the park has developed into its present form because of a variety of pressures. Katmai has represented different values to different people. Some, among which are included a number of Alaskans, have seen Katmai as a place of little worth; as a result, several people have sought to reduce its boundaries or eliminate the unit entirely. Others, in the name of biological or topographical consistency, have sought to change the existing straight-line boundaries into borders which followed river courses, ridge tops, or other natural demarcations. And still others have sought to expand the park.

This study is an attempt to document how National Park Service officials have managed the area within the boundaries of present-day Katmai National Park and Preserve. In order to manage it effectively, the NPS has had to be sensitive to the changing expectations which people have had for that area, and has attempted to reconcile those expectations with broad mandates, issued from Washington, regarding how all national park units should be maintained. The job, to be sure, has not been easy; and there were certainly times, particularly in the first several decades after the monument was established, in which park resources were entirely ignored. The upcoming chapters will outline what the agency did to protect and manage the resources with which it was entrusted, and some of the reasons why Katmai was managed the way it was.

A Land of Topographic and Biotic Diversity

The combined park and preserve is located at the base of the Alaska Peninsula, a volcano-studded protrusion which stretches over 400 miles to the southwest before it terminates at False Pass. A huge area (see Map 2) is enclosed within the park. [2] The lands and waters within its boundaries--3,674,541 acres in Katmai National Park and another 418,699 acres in Katmai National Preserve--span almost the width of the peninsula, and its boundaries extend along the base of the peninsula for more than 100 miles. The present park and preserve is only the fifth largest National Park Service unit in Alaska. Even so, their combined area is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island put together, and is almost twice as large as the largest national park in the Lower 48 states. [3] Katmai, large as it is, is only one small part of an enormous federal land block which stretches, in an almost unbroken line, some 400 miles from Kamishak Bay to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

Two physiographic provinces lie within the park: the Aleutian Range and the Nushagak-Bristol Bay Lowlands. [4] The broadly-defined Aleutian Range province constitutes over 90 percent of the park, and is composed of three zones. The Shelikof Strait seacoast zone, which is a band roughly 10 miles wide along the eastern coast, is a rugged, diversified area of bays, beaches, cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls. The Aleutian Mountain zone, which ranges in width from ten to 40 miles, is located inland from the coastal zone. It is an area of volcanic peaks and glaciers; summits within the zone range from the 3000 foot level to Mount Denison which, at 7606 feet (2318 meters) is the highest point in the park. The last zone in the Aleutian province is the lake region--the so-called Hudsonian zone--which is dominated by lakes, ponds and other hydrographic features. In the eastern portion of the zone, these features are separated by low mountains and hills, while in the western part the terrain opens up and the hills diminish. [5]

The Nushagak-Bristol Bay Lowlands, which are separated from the Aleutian Range physiographic province by the Bruin Bay earthquake fault, is located in the southwestern corner of the park and constitutes only a small part of it. The terrain in this province is relatively flat, with many poorly drained lakes. A number of low ridges, sand dunes and meandering streams break the uniformity of this area. [6]

Nature is effusive and diverse in much of the Katmai country. Tundra carpets much of the area; a barren and sparse dry tundra is found in many of the higher elevations, while moist tundra dominates the lowland areas in the western third of the park. The boreal forest vegetation complex predominates in more climatically advantageous, lower elevation areas, primarily in river valleys and along lake shores. Dominant species within the complex include white spruce, birch and balsam poplar. In places where trees cannot survive, high brush predominates; primary species include alder and willow. Temperate, spruce-dominated coastal forests cover a few drainages in the northeastern part of the park, while snow fields and bare rock, are found at the highest elevations in the Aleutian Range. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, along with some adjacent areas, is also largely unvegetated, it being overlain with volcanic ash and rock. [7]

Because of the diversity of habitats found in Katmai, the park supports an abundance of animal life. Biologists have recorded at least six species of marine mammals, 29 species of land mammals, 137 bird species, 24 species of freshwater fishes and four anadromous fish species. Of chief interest to the visitor and park manager are the large mammals and game fishes. Caribou, for instance, inhabit portions of the western end of the park, and moose and brown bear have been found in many sections of the park. Bear roam even onto the mountain slopes. The lakes, particularly those at the lower elevations, teem with sockeye salmon, rainbow and lake trout, Dolly Varden trout, grayling, steelhead, northern pike and other fishes. Chum salmon are found in streams draining into Shelikof Strait. [8]

The weather, not surprisingly, differs dramatically in the various parts of the park. In the western portion, temperatures are relatively mild; at Brooks Camp, for instance, summer high temperatures average 63° F., while lows average 44° F. The weather is predominantly cloudy or partly cloudy. In the wintertime, average high temperatures drop to 18.5° F., while winter lows drop to an average of -2.8° F. Winds are generally moderate; in the Brooks Camp area, however, summer winds are often sufficiently strong as to prevent airplane landings.

No long-term weather stations have been established at other points in the park. Park managers, concessioners, and others familiar with Katmai, however, unanimously agree that the weather on Shelikof Strait is poorer than that on the lee side of the Aleutian Range. Precipitation levels and winds along the coast are consistently higher, and the number of cloudy days are greater than at Brooks Camp. Summer temperatures are probably cooler along the coast than at Brooks Camp, and although winter temperatures are probably warmer, winds may make wind-chill readings there more severe. Conditions at points in the Aleutian Range zone are even worse than along Shelikof Strait. Cool temperatures, wind, clouds and precipitation are the rule rather than the exception. [9]

A Prehistoric Cultural Crossroads

Because of the harsh conditions that predominate throughout much of the park, there are relatively few locations known to have supported human habitation. As various historians and archeologists have noted, humans have been living in Katmai country for thousands of years. Flaked stone has been found on Takli Island, near the old village of Katmai, which indicates human occupation beginning as early as 6000 years ago. Other artifacts found on the island have indicated that humans also lived on the island from 4200 to 2800 BP and from 1800 to 1300 BP. Archeological finds have also been made at other points along the shoreline of Shelikof Strait, including (from north to south) Cape Chiniak, Kukak Bay, Kaflia Bay, and Dakavak Bay. Evidence at each location points to occupation dates more recently than 1000 BP. Although corroborating evidence has not yet been discovered, it is likely that early humans lived along most or all of the bays and inlets along the park's eastern boundary, and that they used much of the interconnecting coastline for fishing, hunting, or for purposes of temporary shelter. [10]

Excavations along the Brooks River have shown that humans lived on the Bristol Bay side of the peninsula as long ago as 4500 BP. Archeologists have determined that the artifacts uncovered there constituted an extensive village which has been inhabited almost continuously since that time. As such, the Brooks Camp area is considered a world-class archeological site. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and in 1993 it was listed as a National Historic Landmark. [11]

Other sites on the western side of the Aleutians point to human activity during the prehistoric period. The remnants of a village near the confluence of the Grosvenor and Savonoski rivers dates from about 1800 BP; this village, like that along the Brooks River, is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Other habitation sites have been found near the mouth of the Savonoski River and on the narrow neck of land between lakes Coville and Grosvenor. Both sites date back less than 500 years. [12]

Native and European Interaction, 1741-1867

Vitus Bering, a Dane sailing in the service of the Russian czar, headed east to present-day Alaska in 1741 and claimed the land for Russia. During the decades which followed, the territory attracted sailors from England, Spain, and France. Russians, however, settled and began to harvest the area's enormous sea otter population.

The first Europeans arrived in the Katmai country in the late eighteenth century, when Russian fur traders appeared on the Shelikof Strait. By the time of their arrival, the Koniag Eskimo were probably established in a number of villages along the coast; they were located (from north to south) at Cape Douglas, Swikshak Lagoon, Kaguyak, Hallo Bay, Devil's Cove, Kaflia, Missak Bay, Amalik Bay/Takli Island, Dakavak Bay, Katmai, and Kashvik Bay. On the Bristol Bay side of the Aleutian Range, the Aglegmiut Eskimo were living in scattered sites within the present park. These locations--along the Brooks River, the mouth of the Savonoski River, the confluence of the Savonoski and Grosvenor rivers, and between Lake Coville and Lake Grosvenor--are the same ones which were noted earlier for their prehistoric occupation. [13]

During the period of Russian influence, most of the area within the park was ignored by Europeans. Although Russians, operating out of Kodiak, held economic dominance over the Native sea otter harvest, few ever lived on the Alaska Peninsula side of Shelikof Strait. Katmai village, near the south end of the park's coastal strip, was a trading post of the Russian American Company from 1799 to 1867, and was the only location known where European-based peoples resided. [14]

In order to trade with the coastal settlements, the Eskimo of the Bristol Bay country made annual trips that wound through the Aleutian range. One of the routes used crossed from the Savonoski River drainage to the Ninagiak River, then on to Hallo Bay. Another, the so-called Douglas Pass route, may have followed Hardscrabble Creek to its headwaters, then crossed over into the upper Kamishak River valley. A third followed the Naknek Lake system to the mouth of the Ukak River, then followed the drainage to its headwaters at Katmai Pass; it then descended through the cliffs and canyons of the Katmai River to Katmai village. As late as the 1780s, Natives were still using several routes through the mountains. [15]

Because one of those routes began at the Katmai trading station, nineteenth century travelers through the mountains began to increasingly rely on the Native route over Katmai Pass. Russians knew about the pass by 1818, perhaps earlier; by 1845, traders and hunting parties headed into the interior of the peninsula were using the Katmai trading post as a base camp. They also used, but to a lesser extent, the old portage which wound up the Savonoski River and down to Hallo Bay. [16] In order to supply their depots along the shores of Bristol Bay, Russians occasionally crossed the Alaska Peninsula. But they used neither of the above trails for those purposes; instead, they relied on routes which traversed either Iliamna or Becharof lakes, both of which are outside the boundaries of the park. More often, they supplied them by ship via Unalaska, or from the north via the Yukon River drainage. [17]

During the early and mid-nineteenth century, Russians considered Katmai village to be the most significant post on the upper Alaska Peninsula. By 1863, 457 people were living there. The fur trade carried on through the post had been consistently productive; during the half-century which ended in 1867, informed observers have estimated that 2000 to 3000 sea otter pelts passed through each year. But few Russians ever lived there. In 1819, a census counted four Russian men at the post. Forty-four years later, post operations may have been passed into Native hands. [18]

Many of the Native sites that had been occupied at the time of contact continued to be active during the Russian period. These included a settlement near the entrance to Swikshak Lagoon, at or near Kaguyak, and on the shore of Kukak Bay. There may have also been intermittent sites at Kaflia Bay, Dakavak Bay, and Takli Island during the Russian period. But overall, the number of sites along the coast is considered to be rather sparse. This was caused by the village depopulations which had been instigated at the hands of the Russian American Company. [19] Away from the coastal areas, the Russian influence was less pervasive. Therefore, it is likely that population levels at the four Aglegmiut sites in the parks--at Savonoski, along the Savonoski River, between lakes Grosvenor and Coville, and along the Brooks River--would have been less affected by Russian activities along Shelikof Strait. The economy of both coastal and inland Natives was altered in order to cater to the Russians' demand for furs.

A Perspective on the Early American Period, 1867-1912

Russian America was transferred to the United States in October 1867. In the waning months of that year, Hayward M. Hutchinson purchased the remaining assets of the Russian American Company. Soon afterward, he helped establish Hutchinson, Kohl and Company which, a year later, was purchased by the newly-founded Alaska Commercial Company (ACC). Although the Russian American Company had been active wherever the Empire had shown a presence, both Hutchinson, Kohl and Company and its successor concentrated their operations in areas outside of southeastern Alaska. Both companies, as noted below, operated within the boundaries of present-day Katmai National Park and Preserve. [20]

On the upper Alaska Peninsula, one major effect of the transfer was a change of ownership in the trading companies. By the summer of 1868 Hutchinson, Kohl representatives were active in the waters off Kodiak Island; that October, the company was operating the Katmai trading post. It was their only post within the boundaries of the present-day park. It was not until 1872 that the Alaska Commercial Company flag began flying over the Katmai post. [21]

During the early period of American rule, trading relationships were similar to those that had been laid out during the Russian period. During the late 1860s and early 1870s, for example, the Katmai post continued to exert much the same degree of influence over the Natives as it had for decades. Post officials traded with various coastal villages to the north and south as well as with Eskimos in the area surrounding Naknek Lake. (The American merchants, by and large, did not venture inland from their posts; Native traders traversed the Katmai Pass trail which connected Katmai with the remote villages in the interior.) The inland villages were under the political control of Fort Alexander, located at the mouth of the Nushagak River. But the fort's trade hinterland was relatively small, and did not reach as far east as the present park boundaries.

During the late 1870s, the ACC brought new trading methods to the area. It laid out a series of incentives designed to increase the sea otter catch. [22] Perhaps as a result of these incentives, the yield on the southern portion of the Katmai coast was in decline by 1880. To increase its yield elsewhere, the company opened a second coastal trading station near Cape Douglas. That trend became accentuated in 1880 when officials at the ACC post in Nushagak organized their first expedition to Kamishak Bay. For the next decade, local Natives were directed to cross the peninsula and hunt furs for the summer season. Their "numerous camps" were scattered from Augustine Island to Cape Douglas. [23]

Sea otter harvesting boomed in the late 1870s through the middle 1880s; the peak harvest year was 1885. Coincident with the increased economic pace taking place in the area was the spread of Russian Orthodoxy to the more lightly populated, remote areas of southwestern Alaska. On the Bristol Bay side of the Aleutian Range, the priest at the Nushagak church established a church at "Severnosky Village," at the east end of the Iliuk Arm portion of Naknek Lake. The chapel remained active from the late 1870s until the 1912 volcanic eruptions forced Savonoski's residents to abandon the village. Along Shelikof Strait, Orthodox officials in Kodiak had established chapels at Katmai and Douglas by 1880. Those chapels also remained active until 1912. At Kukak, a third chapel was probably built between 1890 and 1905. Little information on its operations has surfaced, however, and no trace of a chapel has been encountered during recent archeological surveys. [24]

During the first four and one-half decades of American rule, church authorities felt that Katmai, Douglas and Kukak were the most significant villages along the western side of Shelikof Strait, while Savonoski was relatively prominent among the villages of the Bristol Bay watershed. Other occupation sites along the coast included Old Kukak, Amalik Bay, Hallo Bay, Kaflia Bay, Swikshak Lagoon, Dakavak Bay, and various islands bordering the south shore of Kamishak Bay. Closer to Bristol Bay, other occupation sites were situated along the Savonoski and Ukak rivers, at the west end of Lake Grosvenor, and on the north side of Brooks River. [25]

In the late 1880s, the fortunes of the Alaska Commercial Company began to drop because of a rapid decline in sea otter yields. The dropoff in the harvest was noted in many coastal areas. By 1890, the census agent visiting Katmai noted that "The number of skins brought home grows smaller and smaller every year." He made similar observations at Kukak and near Cape Douglas. Contributing to the otter's decimation was their killing by whites, who outfitted a "mosquito fleet" of 20-30 schooners and, quite illegally, hunted all summer long and well into the winter season as well. [26] By the turn of the century, the sea otter trade had dwindled to economic insignificance. A more critical blow to the company as a whole came in 1890 when its Pribilof Islands fur seal harvesting contract was not renewed. The twin blows were devastating, but the company survived by diversifying into other areas of economic activity. Prospects brightened during the wild (if brief) Klondike gold rush period, but settled down soon afterwards. [27]

In 1906, the Alaska Commercial Company decided to sell its trading posts on both sides of the Alaska Peninsula to Omar J. Humphrey. The transaction was to include the trading post at Katmai, where a single structure was given an assessment value of $150, and the post at Douglas, with a building valued at $25. But in 1907 the ACC canceled the sale. During 1911 and 1912 it sold selected assets--in Kodiak, Afognak, and elsewhere--to a variety of interested parties. The Katmai and Douglas properties, apparently valueless by this time, were left unsold and were effectively abandoned. [28]

The depletion of the fur resource along the coast might have left the local Natives in economic straits had it not been for the simultaneous establishment of the commercial salmon fishing industry. As early as 1880 two "fishing establishments" had been founded on the Karluk River on nearby Kodiak Island, and during the early 1890s a number of canneries were established at various points on the island, several of which used workers from the Katmai coast. Natives were by no means the chief work force at the canneries--gangs of Chinese or Japanese laborers usually outnumbered them--but many Natives were provided a reliable means of support.

No canneries were ever established along the Katmai coast, but in 1912, a seasonal fishing station was established at Kaflia, just south of Kukak Bay. The coast around Kukak Bay was so plentiful with salmon that the steam tenders operating from the Kodiak Island canneries made an occasional visit, but no facilities resulted. Most of the Natives who lived in Katmai, Kukak, and Douglas (Kaguyak) had, by this time, adopted a lifestyle which included summer work in the fishing industry, either at a fishing station or cannery. Regarding the Eskimos on the Bristol Bay side of the peninsula, there is little documentary evidence to suggest that Katmai Natives were working for the canneries at Naknek, South Naknek or elsewhere in the area. Reminiscences of former residents bring forth widely divergent opinions; some recalled that during the 1910-1912 period the inland villages were almost depopulated during the summertime, while others remember large numbers of Natives living in the villages all year long. [29]

The travel across the Aleutian Range which had characterized the late Russian period continued unabated during the first few decades of American hegemony. The later years of the Russian period witnessed an increasing concentration of use over Katmai Pass. This trend continued during the American period. A few travelers, during the first decade or two of the American period, may have traversed the Aleutians via the well-worn route which crossed the Savonoski and Ninagiak River watersheds. The vast majority, however, used the Katmai Pass route. [30]

Some of those who crossed the peninsula via Katmai Pass did so to trade furs. By 1871, however, trade over the trail was rapidly declining, and when Ivan Petroff visited Katmai in 1880 he noted that "The transit business [across the Aleutians] has long been a thing of the past." The census taker crossed over the pass that year; ironically, his vivid description of the trail crossing, taken during a rare period of calm, clear weather, helped publicize the recently abandoned route. [31]

Scattered travelers used the route during the coming years. In early 1889, the Earl of Lonsdale visited the area as part of a fourteen-month exploring expedition. The following year, a member of the Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper expedition crossed over, and several miners heading from Saint Michael to Kodiak probably did so as well. Two other members of the newspaper party, accompanied by eleven others, followed early in 1891. [32]

Few travelers were known to use the trail for the next several years, but from 1898 to 1901 the area witnessed a flurry of activity. In March 1898 George Fred Tilton, accompanied by two Siberian Eskimos, trekked over the route in conjunction with the rescue of a whaling fleet marooned in the Arctic sea ice near Barrow. Seven months later, an explorer with the U.S. Geological Survey, Josiah Spurr, mapped the area as he crossed the pass. He gave the world its best description of the area, and he also took the only known photo of the pass taken before the 1912 eruption. [33]

More numerous were prospectors going to and from Nome, where gold had been discovered in September 1898. Rather than sail around the Alaska Peninsula, some miners opted to make a land crossing. Most chose the route during the wintertime, as part of a route that went by land all the way to Nome. But prospectors apparently used Katmai Pass during the summertime, too. The flow of miners over the pass had dwindled to a trickle by 1901. One of the few to cross that year, however, was a young prospector named Rex Beach, who later became a well-known author. In 1909, he published The Silver Horde, a best-selling novel which described the rigors of crossing Katmai Pass. [34]

In addition to the explorers and gold-rush miners who were primarily interested in passing through the Katmai country, others arrived in search of local mineral wealth. Several expeditions during the 1860s and 1870s brought back rumors that oil existed near Katmai Bay, but reports later in the century were less enthusiastic. [35] Oil also attracted outsiders. Oil seepages had been spotted in several locations surrounding Puale Bay, and during the 1902-1904 period the bay played host to an enthusiastic (if brief) oil boom. [36] George Curtis Martin, a government geologist, surveyed along the shore in the Katmai area at that time. But nothing of commercial importance was found anywhere in the area, and by 1906 the boom had fizzled. Martin noted oil seepages along the shores of Kamishak Bay, especially at Douglas River, but he cautioned against further exploration. "The geology of the coast ... between Douglas and Katmai," he wrote, "does not warrant in the slightest degree any petroleum prospecting. Along much of this coast are only volcanic and other crystalline rocks, in which the occurrence of petroleum is an absolute impossibility." [37]

Other resources were sought as well. An 1895 expedition sent to search for gold and coal cruised the coast of Shelikof Strait; it found no gold, but it did find minor coal deposits near Cape Douglas, and three seams of "a pretty good coal" on the shore of Amalik Bay. Josiah Spurr, who crossed Katmai Pass in 1898, was not impressed by the gold potential of that part of the Alaska Peninsula, and R. W. Stone, who visited the Katmai coast in 1904, had no better luck finding coal than had earlier explorers. [38]

By the spring of 1912, therefore, the Katmai area was wallowing in the economic doldrums, primarily because area resources had either been extirpated or were lacking in commercial importance. As has been noted above, the local sea otter population had been largely exterminated by the turn of the century. The salmon fishery, while relatively healthy, was being gathered from ships based well away from the Katmai coastline. Investigators had discovered no gold, and had found only an inferior quality coal and oil resource. The area held little or no potential as an agricultural area, and because of its untimbered state held little interest to commercial lumbering interests. For a brief time, people had been attracted to the area because it was a viable route to more distant points, but that period had ceased more than a decade before.

None but the most foolhardy during that spring of 1912 could have predicted that the Katmai area was on the verge of becoming an area of world famed interest. But as the next chapter elaborates, that is precisely what was about to take place.

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2000