Isolated Paradise:
An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units
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Chapter 7:
The Katmai Interpretive Program

Today, Katmai has a multifaceted interpretive program. Several educational activities are offered to park tourists. An excellent park brochure is available, a visitor contact station and auditorium await the inquiring visitor, and various books, maps and other information pertinent to Katmai can be purchased. A permanent employee and several seasonal staff are assigned to interpretive functions. Interpreters greet visitors upon arrival at Brooks Camp, rove through the area providing advice and information, and counsel anglers, bear-watchers and campers about the area's brown bear population.

The interpretive program, however, did not develop overnight. By necessity, each facet of the program had to await the development of a sufficient budget, visitor facilities and visitor volume. As shall be seen, the NPS made many plans, as part of its recurrent master planning process, on how the interpretive program ought to be developed. As previous chapters have shown, however, many of the facilities envisioned in Katmai's various master plans have never been constructed. In other cases, interpretive facilities planned for existing developments were never installed. It appears, when seen retrospectively, that most of the present interpretive program has developed because of a series of ad hoc actions taken in response to real or perceived problems, or because of the extra effort of individual employees. Relatively few interpretive facilities or activities, by contrast, were manifested as a direct result of long range planning efforts.

Early Interpretation

Before 1950, when the Katmai fishing camps were constructed, the monument had no interpretive program. That summer, as part of the Alaska Recreation Survey, NPS personnel included interpretation as a marginal aspect of the unfolding plans. George Collins suggested that "museums and the interpretive program should be implemented in the near future." To that end, Regional Chief of Interpretation Dorr Yeager spent several days in mid-July in and around Brooks Camp. [1]

The NPS established its first seasonal ranger at Brooks Camp that summer. For the next five years, Katmai was served by a single ranger, and the duties of that position were such that there was little time for interpretation. Even so, the demands for interpretation were light. The annual visitor total during the first five years of camp operation probably did not exceed five hundred, and the overwhelming majority were lodge guests who loved to fish and had little knowledge or interest in the other monument resources. Campers and other independent tourists were rare; the 1951 ranger was moved to note that "There are several parties that camped here this summer, one of which remained for a week." [2]

Evidence that the NPS was concerned about interpreting Katmai's resources came in 1952 when it published the monument's first brochure. Herbert Evison, chief of the agency's Information Division, began planning for the three-fold brochure that February; by June, 5000 copies had been printed and were ready for distribution. [3] The brochure turned out to be the first of several which have been produced for the monument. The 1952 version was revised slightly and reprinted in 1955, 1958, and 1959. In 1963 and 1968 the agency produced new brochures; the latter version was reprinted in 1972. The following year the NPS produced its fourth edition of a Katmai brochure; it was reprinted in 1975 and 1983. The present, black-bordered brochure was produced in 1984. This fifth edition was reprinted in 1988 and 1990; in 1992, it was reproduced again with a slightly modified text and map. [4]

In 1955, the agency began to show an slightly increased interest in developing interpretation at the monument. That summer Dorr G. Yeager, the Regional Chief of Interpretation, made a second visit. [5] The following April, the first semblance of an interpretive plan was released as part of the monument's Mission 66 prospectus. Recognizing the lack of a program, the plan hoped to begin one in 1959. That program, based on visitor nodes planned for Valley Junction (ten miles up the Ukak River from Naknek Lake), called for evening programs to be given at Brooks Camp, nature walks to the Brooks Lake Fish and Wildlife Service facility, an interpretive display to be located either in the concessioner's dining hall or in the NPS ranger station, and a visitor center at Valley Junction containing displays on ecology and volcanism. In order to further interpret the local resources, a "pumice flow" trail was to be built at Valley Junction and a nature trail at Savonoski. [6]

Almost none of what was called for in Katmai's Mission 66 program was actually built, and the budget during the mid-to-late 1950s remained low. Therefore, few of the interpretive developments called for in the prospectus came to pass. The prospectus did, however, identify some of the major interpretive themes, and the general ideas laid out served as the basis for later developments.

The first on-site interpretation began in the summer of 1956. The completion of the Brooks Camp ranger station provided a site where information about the monument could be dispensed. Richard Riegelhuth, the camp's only ranger, had numerous other duties, so the station could not be continuously staffed; during its open hours, however, visitors often dropped by. In addition, Riegelhuth installed 29 temporary signs and markers, most of which pertained to fishing regulations. In September, he gave two ranger talks in the concessioner's dining hall. They were the first interpretive programs to be presented at Katmai. In 1957, evening programs were given "when the number of visitors warranted it." [7]

Although the interpretive program, by this time, appeared to be growing, the rangers were often frustrated because most visitors showed little interest in learning about monument resources. As a result, Mount McKinley's park naturalist, Neil Reid, visited Katmai in June 1958 to attempt a diversification of existing activities. [8]

Reid soon recognized that developing a widely accepted interpretive program would be a challenging task. In speaking about the predominant monument visitor, he wrote that

Fishermen are a recognized special interest group, and require specialized contact techniques. They are not interested in interpretation, per se, but are to a limited extent desirous of information, i.e., They are not concerned with the glacial origin of the Monument lakes, but in the good fishing areas of the lakes; they care little about the ecology and natural history of the rainbow trout, but demand to know what the fish are biting on.

He therefore challenged rangers to conduct their interpretation in ways that would prove interesting to their audience. Along those lines, he recommended that "a good interpretive display on native fishing and drying techniques would probably be of interest to even the most ardent fisherman." [9]

Perhaps as a result of that trip, the interpretive program grew even more that summer. The evening programs continued, with 62 visitors in attendance; in addition, rangers conducted a number of short guided hikes to points of interest near Brooks Camp. Fifty-two people took advantage of the hikes; another 174 visited the ranger station. [10]

Thereafter, however, efforts at interpretation declined. In 1959, Brooks Camp guests were offered a slide program, nothing more; the following year, not even that was offered until July. Agency officials knew that a successful interpretive program demanded the preparation of a standard slide talk, the appointment of a ranger naturalist, the completion of a broader range of research projects, and some form of interpretation for the ongoing camp archeological investigations. The lack of funding, however, prevented the realization of those goals. [11]

In September 1960, as part of the ongoing master plan process, NPS staff prepared the first document which specifically addressed the Katmai interpretive program. Neil Reid, who prepared the overview, bemoaned that

No interpretive facilities exist, nor are interpretive personnel stationed within the monument. It is essential, therefore, that interpretive services be presented by the ranger-in-charge on an informal basis. Evening talks are given about once a week under the most adverse conditions. Talks are presented in the concession mess hall, adjacent to a diesel generator, to an audience whose sole interest is fishing. This will be alleviated to some extent by the completion of a new concessioner lodge next summer [1961], but the inability to schedule diversified interpretive services in the monument will still be the most obvious shortcoming of the program.

Reid bewailed the fact that Katmai's rangers had little research information upon which they could base an interpretation program, and he was similarly perturbed by the difficulties he had in trying to organize an interpretive program while residing over 400 miles away from Brooks Camp. In order to strengthen the program, he urged that a ranger-naturalist be added to the staff, and also urged the completion of new popular publications and audio-visual materials relating to the monument. Despite all the difficulties, however, Reid felt that "the present interpretive program in the monument is probably sufficient to meet the needs of the fisherman-visitor." [12]

During the early 1960s the sole interpretive activity continued to be the evening program. Because of low visitor levels and other demands on the ranger's time, the talks were still given intermittently. Their location, however, changed. The new Panabode-style Brooks Lodge was completed in 1961, and talks--whose subject matter was the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and other remote sites in the monument--were given there all that summer. But the lodge, which served a variety of functions, was sometimes a poor site for programs. By 1963 the agency was giving slide shows again, a format particularly ill-suited to the lodge. Officials therefore decided to hold programs in the boathouse that year. By the following summer, however, programs were once again being held in the lodge, and continued to be shown there until the mid-1970s. [13]

Effects of Valley Road Construction

The largest construction project during that period, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road, had a strong influence on the monument's interpretive program. The agency decided to build the 22 mile road in February 1961; before long, Katmai officials began planning for the interpretive opportunities that the road would bring. In April 1961 Robert L. Peterson, the monument's Ranger-in-Charge, urged Superintendent Samuel King to "construct a modest visitor center adequate for the interpretation of the monument's geological history." King evidently accepted Peterson's suggestion, and by the time the road was opened to tourist traffic in 1963, the agency had erected a small visitors' reception center. At first, interpretive displays in the overlook cabin were limited to a plastic relief map of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and a world map on which the location of the great volcanic eruptions had been superimposed. Four years later a new exhibit, consisting of historical photographs from the early National Geographic Society expeditions, was added. [14]

The NPS and the monument concessioner, Northern Consolidated Airlines, collaborated in creating a new visitor activity related to the new road. NCA brought in two tour vehicles, a 16-passenger GMC bus and an 8-passenger Chevrolet Carryall, and began providing tours in the summer of 1963. The NPS, for its part, agreed to provide interpretive services. The agency was able to assign new seasonal naturalists to Brooks Camp, and one was assigned to each Valley tour. While riding along on the tour vehicle, the NPS naturalists, most of whom were women, gave a running commentary about the local plant life, wildlife and geology. [15] After arriving at the road terminus, they then conducted visitors on a three-mile hike across the volcanic landscape to the Ukak River crossing. A total of 56 bus tours were given that first summer for 262 people. [16]

The remainder of the decade witnessed modest growth in the number of Katmai visitors (see Appendix D). From 1963 to 1969, the number of Brooks Camp visitors more than doubled, from 693 to 1,407. Most of those visitors were guests at Brooks Lodge, who were part of an NCA three- or seven-day package tour; an increasing number of them, however, stayed at the campground or were day visitors. Visitors' reasons for going to Katmai also changed during the decade. Prior to 1963, most visitors were still fishermen. By 1965, however, an observer remarked that "already enough tourists get to Brooks that the diehard fishermen are going to Grosvenor," and by 1971, the head of the concessions operation stated that "The bulk of the tourists are middle age or elderly people, many of them retired, or school teachers who are making the trip of a lifetime. The sports-fishermen among them are a distinct minority." [17]

Tourists were far more interested than anglers in learning about Katmai, and the NPS knew that they needed to accommodate the needs of the non-fishing visitors. As the number of tourists grew, the number of bus tours and evening programs similarly increased. By the end of the decade, both the tours and programs were being held more than 75 times each summer. In 1966, in order to further develop the interpretive program, rangers revived the afternoon walk to Brooks Falls, an activity which had been offered since 1958. The NPS added a new seasonal naturalist in the late 1960s, and by 1969 naturalists were able to conduct 52 such trips. Approximately one-third of all Brooks Camp visitors attended them. [18]

Other key elements of the interpretive program were also begun in the late 1960s. One was the opening of the so-called "Eskimo pit house" (more accurately known as an ena or semi-subterranean house). Archeologists who had been working in the Brooks Camp area since the early 1950s had excavated several well-preserved houses, popularly known as barabaras, as part of their investigations. In late 1966 a proposal was advanced, "the direct and practical aim" of which was "the excavation of aboriginal dwellings ... that would be suitable for consolidation of tourist displays." The proposal was accepted, and during the next two summers dwelling number BR20-3-A was excavated and preserved. Dr. Don Dumond, the archeologist in charge of the Brooks Camp investigations, built the roof himself in July and August 1968. The display was open for public inspection by the end of that summer; by 1970, metal photo signs to interpret the exhibit were being prepared. [19]

At the same time the ena was being completed, NPS staff began the practice of giving orientation talks to new Brooks Camp visitors. NPS staff had been aware of the dangers of having bears in camp for years, and a 1966 bear attack in the campground heightened their concern. Soon afterwards, therefore, Brooks Camp naturalists began giving informal presentations to new visitors. They met them on the beach when they got off the airplane, oriented them to the area, and told them about area activities, fishing regulations, and how to avoid encounters with bears. [20]

Evolution of Interpretive Themes

During the 1960s, the first efforts were made to fashion a set of interpretive themes that would guide the information received by Katmai's visitors. In 1963, for instance, NPS biologist Lowell Sumner penned a master planning field study which emphasized the protection of Katmai's resources. Sumner, not surprisingly, noted that the monument's interpretive themes should be geared to its sense of wilderness. [21] Two years later, the monument's Master Plan Brief noted that its major "communications objectives" were "to interpret the Monument's resources, with the main interpretive theme focused on the volcanology and geology of the area. ... Only slightly less important is the interpretation of the primitive wilderness." The plan called for developments at Brooks River, Windy Creek Overlook, and the Bay of Islands. Based on that plan, the broad park story would be interpreted at Brooks Camp, the volcanology and geology was to be presented at Three Forks, and the wilderness theme--more specifically defined as biological interpretation--would be presented at Bay of Islands. [22]

As noted in Chapter 5, a major planning effort was launched on behalf of Katmai (and other existing and proposed Alaskan parklands) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The primary Katmai planning documents were the December 1973 master plan and the 1974 Final Environmental Statement for a proposed, expanded Katmai National Park. The work most relevant to interpretation, however, was the interpretive prospectus. This document, which was written in conjunction with the master plan effort, was proposed by the agency's Alaska Group Office in January 1971. The final interpretive prospectus was completed in May 1973, just before the final master plan. [23]

The master plan, on which interpretive efforts were based, provided a specific interpretive theme. "The park interpretive program," it noted, "aims to cultivate in the visitor an awareness that Katmai is a large, diverse natural area essentially unaffected by modern man and that this pristine area can serve as a guide and reference point in man's exploration and use of his environment." It recommended five subthemes which would be used as springboards to an understanding of the major theme. They included 1) volcanology, with an emphasis on the creation of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, 2) wildlife, using the brown bear as a major example of a naturally regulated animal population, 3) vegetational dynamics, relating ecological factors to present-day plant cover, 4) human use of the area, and 5) wilderness use as a form of recreation. [24]

The interpretive prospectus provided specific direction on how to carry out the theme expostulated in the master plan. It praised many aspects of the existing interpretive program, particularly the bus tours. It showed, however, that further improvements were needed. Regarding Brooks Camp, it noted that the agency needed to "come out of the woods [where the existing ranger station was located] and build a place that will be identified with the Park Service--a small building that can serve as a ranger station-information center, and locate it near the lodge for high visibility and easy access." It also recommended that the Windy Creek overlook cabin be replaced with "more suitable facilities" and an improved series of exhibits. At the King Salmon Airport, it recommended that "an attractive portable exhibit" be located in the baggage unloading area. The prospectus assumed that the primary visitor facility would be relocated from Brooks Camp to the west end of Naknek Lake; it therefore called for introductory exhibits at the new site, as well as one which would pertain to Native use of the monument. [25]

Growth in Backcountry Use

In January 1969, President Lyndon Johnson added more than 94,000 acres to the western end of the monument. The Lake Camp area, a popular boat launching area for local residents, became part of the monument; as a result, monument visitation multiplied to a figure five times what it had been before Johnson's proclamation. During the 1970s, total visitation to Katmai remained fairly stable. Visitation to Brooks Camp, however, enjoyed a fairly healthy growth, and significant number of visitors began to enjoy Katmai's backcountry.

Before 1965, few had ventured into Katmai's backcountry for recreational purposes. World War II had brought the first few adventurous souls, most via floatplane, to the monument's lakes and rivers in search of fishing opportunities. The handful who used Katmai's backcountry increased slightly in 1950, when Northern Consolidated Airlines opened its five fishing camps. Some Katmai visitors left camp for the day by renting fishing boats, and others chartered planes to take them to more distant fishing holes or to view scenic areas such as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes or the Shelikof Strait coastline. But only a smattering of Katmai's early visitors, be they lodge guests or independent travelers, overnighted outside any of the established camp areas.

The construction of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road in 1962 gave visitors easier access to that area. It did little, however, to lure people into the wilderness which extended beyond the road corridor. Park Service brochures from the 1950s and 1960s, and a smattering of travel publications, encouraged the traveler to seek out Katmai's backcountry. [26] The two most advertised ways to enjoy the backcountry were a canoe trip over the so-called Savonoski Loop and a hike from the road terminus into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Before 1965, however, a mere handful of outdoor enthusiasts had travelled over either route. [27]

Backcountry use grew during the late 1960s, although the lack of reliable statistics makes it difficult to ascertain its popularity. In 1968, monument staff estimated that 240 visitors had penetrated Katmai's backcountry that summer, most of whom had taken hiking trips into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. [28] A year later, however, an NPS planner noted that "less than a couple of hundred persons each year penetrate beyond Brooks Camp," [29] and in the early 1970s monument staff recorded less than 100 backcountry visits per year. [30] It is unlikely that backcountry use witnessed a dramatic decline between 1968 and 1973; more likely, the number of users probably fluctuated between 100 and 150 during that period.

The number of backcountry users in recent years is difficult to discern because park staff have inconsistently defined the term "backcountry." [31] Despite the variation in the available statistics, it appears that the number of people who have overnighted in the backcountry rose slowly between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s. In both 1984 and 1985, for instance, park staff tallied between 350 and 400 people who overnighted in Katmai's backcountry. Since that time the number of campers has probably continued to rise. [32]

Many types of visitors have overnighted in Katmai's backcountry over the years. Backpackers have been the primary users. A sizable number of those attracted to the sport fishing resource also use the park, and Katmai has also attracted scattered numbers of canoeists, ocean touring enthusiasts and mountain climbers. Among backpackers, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes has remained the area of choice, and Novarupta, the most popular destination, attracts over a hundred campers per year. The Savonoski Loop has remained a well-advertised attraction for canoeists, but fewer than a score per season attempt to traverse it. [33]

Many recreational users, primarily sport fishing and float trip enthusiasts, visit Katmai's backcountry but do not overnight there. Although, as noted above, some day-trippers had visited the backcountry in the 1940s and 1950s, the number of day users remained low until the monument was expanded in 1978. The expansion of acreage coincided with a boom in fly-in fishing, and ever since, both fishing and float-trip activity have become increasingly popular. In 1981, the 18 licensed guiding companies took fewer than 1,300 fishers out into the Katmai backcountry. Four years later, however, the numbers had risen to 32 guide outfits and almost 3,800 fishermen, and in 1989, 42 licensed guiding companies took over 5,600 fishers into the remote areas of the park. [34]

A Cooperating Association is Established

Most of those who had stayed at Brooks Lodge over the years paid for their trip on the American Plan. That pricing arrangement combined the cost of lodging and meals, and freed guests from paying for anything except for liquor and incidental supplies. In order to provide for those incidental needs--film, curios, cigarettes, fishing flies, and similar items--the concessioner had operated a small store ever since the camp opened in 1950.

During the 1960s, NPS personnel became increasingly aware that the growing population of tourists demanded books, maps, and other educational materials related to park resources. NPS staff, as noted above, had long decried the lack of suitable materials related to the monument. In order to meet the demand, therefore, NPS staff began selling materials under the auspices of the Mount McKinley National Park Association. By the early 1970s, sufficient materials were available to consider the opening of a more independent NPS sales outlet. In 1971, therefore, the Alaska National Parks and Monuments Association, a quasi-governmental educational organization, opened a Katmai branch at the Brooks Camp ranger station. Seasonal staff sold $285 worth of books and maps that summer.

The history of Katmai's cooperating association has been one of almost continuous growth. From its modest beginnings in 1971, its revenues grew quickly; by 1974 its sales topped $1,000, by 1979 it exceeded $3,000, and three years later it topped the $6,000 mark. Its sales have continued to grow since then; in 1990 it earned almost $9,000, and in 1994, sales topped $27,000. The Katmai branch of the Alaska Natural History Association (the name by which it has been known since 1978) has also grown geographically. The Brooks Camp operation remains, and continues to be its primary revenue producer, but in 1980 a new King Salmon branch sold $447 of goods and in 1984 an outlet for map sales was begun at the Nonvianuk Lake ranger station. (The Nonvianuk outlet lasted only briefly.) ANHA's primary Katmai sales items continue to be books and maps, but it recent years it has begun selling note cards and videos. [35]

ANHA's Katmai branch has been able to sponsor the publication of two books and a newspaper. In 1985, Carolyn Elder and the Katmai staff collaborated on a pamphlet entitled The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. By the early 1990s, both visitors and staff had become aware that the park needed a thorough, up-to-date guidebook, and in response the association sponsored the Jean Bodeau book, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska, which was published in 1992. Both publications have sold well; Bodeau's book was been largely responsible for the high 1992 sales figure for ANHA's Katmai branch. [36]

The early 1990s also witnessed the publication of an ANHA-sponsored newspaper, called The Bear Facts. The eight-page black-and-white newspaper, packed with tips on park resources, what to see and do, and how to enjoy the park in safety, was first published in 1990. The following year it was published in color. In recent years, it has become increasingly detailed; in 1992 the newspaper grew to twelve pages in length, and the 1995 edition was 40 pages long. A new paper, called The Alagnak and pertaining to activities in that wild and scenic river corridor, was printed for the first time in 1995. [37]

Interpretive Activities Since 1970

The major Katmai interpretive activities have remained fairly stable since 1970. Three primary activities have been the evening program, the afternoon nature walk to Brooks Falls, and the day-long bus ride.

These activities, all operated out of Brooks Camp, have changed in several ways during the last twenty years. The evening program, for example, has primarily been a slide show, but various movies have also been shown. Two alternatives have also been tried. In the late 1970s programs were held out on the beach as well as in the visitor center, and in 1985 an afternoon movie was shown in addition to the evening program. [38]

The primary destination for Brooks Camp nature walks has always been Brooks Falls. In the 1960s and 1970s visitors accessed the falls by following a trail which wound along the south bank of Brooks River. Confrontations with bears, however, became increasingly frequent. To eliminate the hazard, a bear viewing platform was erected in 1982, and the following year visitors to Brooks Falls followed a new route which avoided the riverbank. [39] By 1989, the bear platform had become a victim of its own popularity; it was cancelled because crowds grew too large for the viewing platform. The agency began stationing a naturalist there, both to provide information and to allow everyone an opportunity to spend time on the platform; it posted additional staff at the trailhead to prevent overcrowding near the falls.

During the 1970s and 1980s, seasonal staff tried to diversify the interpretive program by offering walks to the Beaver Pond, Dumpling Mountain, or the so-called "Eskimo pit house." Visitors, however, expressed little interest for any of these walks, and each activity was discontinued after a season or two. In the 1990s, however, the increasing popularity of Brooks Camp revived interest in the hiking program. Since 1991, hikes on the Dumpling Mountain trail have become increasingly popular, and since 1992 the interpretive staff has offered a daily walk to the "Eskimo pit house." [40]

The bus tour has been a constant fixture of the Brooks Camp scene since 1963, but the type of vehicle used and the party responsible for interpretation have both changed. Nine different vehicles have been used over the years: a 16-passenger bus (a converted military ammunition carrier built on a cab-over 1961 GMC frame), an 8-passenger Chevrolet carryall, a 1960-vintage 40-passenger bus, two 1974 Dodge vans, three 1982 Chevrolet Suburban vans, and a 29-passenger school bus. [41] NPS naturalists provided interpretation on the buses for over twenty years, but in the spring of 1986, due to budget cutbacks, they had to abandon the service. The concessioner, informed of the move just a month before the season began, was understandably upset and railed, without success, to have the service restored. But the Service had no alternatives. To smooth the transition, NPS personnel agreed to train the concessioner's drivers as tour guides. [42] The concessioner provided tour guiding services until 1994, when an NPS interpreter, on a five-day-per-week basis, again began riding out to Three Forks Overlook.

The agency has also tried to institute interpretive programs outside of Brooks Camp. In 1977, rangers moved into the old National Marine Fisheries Service cabins near Grosvenor Camp, and presented interpretive programs to camp guests for each of the next three years. [43] In 1981, a ranger was stationed at Kulik Camp to present interpretive programs, and from 1983 through 1985 park rangers from Nonvianuk Ranger Station gave informal programs to guests at nearby Cry of the Loon Lodge. [44]

At Brooks Camp, the increasing number of visitors caused rangers to become more wary than ever of bear-human confrontations. The orientation speeches on the beach, which had been begun in the late 1960s, continued, and in 1977 park personnel began giving the talks to passengers arriving in private as well as commercial planes. [45] By 1979 staff were distributing a booklet on bear safety to all visitors, and three years later they instituted a roving interpretive patrol, intended to keep bears and people apart and to instruct fishermen on the catch and release regulations. [46] The roving patrol continues; the beach speeches were moved to the Visitor Contact Station in 1992, and in 1995 they were replaced by a ten-minute video.

Many activities and presentations have also been provided to inform local residents about Katmai's resources. Beginning in the early 1970s park staff presented programs, some to adult groups and others to school children, in Naknek, King Salmon, Egegik, Dillingham, and other local communities. Similar park outreach activities have taken place ever since. In 1973, the park augmented its environmental education program by inviting the Bristol Bay School sixth-grade class (from Naknek) to Brooks Camp for a three-day stay. That school was involved in the program until 1983, and again in the early 1990s. Students from Igiugig, Dillingham, and Barter Island also visited Brooks Camp during the 1970s and early 1980s, and an Elderhostel program began in 1993. [47]

As a result of the increasing level of visitation, the park hired its first permanent Interpretive Specialist, Mark Wagner, in 1991. He remains the park's only full-time interpreter.

Interpretive Improvements

For the first twenty-five years in which the NPS had a presence at Brooks Camp, no facilities had been constructed to accommodate the monument's interpretive program. Katmai, unlike many NPS units, had no visitor center. So long as visitor levels remained low and the concessioner was the primary party responsible for attracting visitors to the monument, there was little need for one. During the 1960s and early 1970s an increasing number of independent tourists brought on new demands for a visitor center. As noted above, the need for an NPS "ranger station-information center" had first been voiced in the 1973 Interpretive Prospectus. The low Brooks Camp visitation, however--less than 1,500 visitors per year in those days--made construction of such a structure a low priority.

As luck would have it, construction activities at Brooks Camp gave park service officials the golden opportunity to gain a visitor center without the expense of constructing one. In 1974 and 1975, the R. D. Peterson Company installed the Brooks Camp utility system, and in order to house their workers they built a 20' x 40' bunkhouse for the work crews. NPS officials, who retained custody of the building after the completion of the utility project, decided to convert the bunkhouse into a visitor center and activity hall. The renovated facility was opened to visitors in June 1977, and slide shows and movies have been shown there ever since. [48] The new visitor center, open only for specific programs, projected a functional, bare-bones appearance at first. But in 1979 two exhibit shelves and a wood stove were installed, and in 1987 a new display on bear behavior was added. [49]

Interpretive needs also played a role in the replacement of the cabin at Three Forks Overlook. The cabin, built in 1963, was remodelled and enlarged in May 1979 much as had been suggested in the 1973 Interpretive Prospectus. NPS staff from its Harpers Ferry facility installed several color photo panels as well as a geological display case and scrap book. (Conditions in the shelter mandated the removal of the photographs the following year.) The photo panels were replaced in 1981 and were removed in 1993. The display case was also removed; only the scrap book remains today. [50]

In 1987, officials from the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game pooled their resources and installed an interpretive kiosk in King Salmon's MarkAir Terminal. The kiosk featured interpretive displays on Katmai, Aniakchak, and the various local wildlife refuges. Superintendent David Morris, in a recent interview, noted that the kiosk filled a critical need; with its construction, visitors finally "had some idea of what was going on, instead of just being tossed out in thirty knot winds not knowing where to go." The kiosk is still there, but in 1989 airport terminal expansion demanded that it be moved to the south side of the Alaska Peninsula Highway, the official name of King Salmon's main street. The kiosk is little used today, and the information contained on it is not always accurate. [51]

More interpretive signs are on the way. In 1986, Harpers Ferry Center (NPS) officials began preparing a wayside exhibit plan, and in 1991 they issued their report. They recognized that Brooks Camp and other visitor nodes had few signs, and with mushrooming visitor levels there was a corresponding increase in the need to inform visitors about park resources and regulations. The plan, which gained final approval in 1992, called for the removal of all existing signage throughout the park and their replacement by 21 wayside exhibits. Over two-thirds will be installed in the Brooks Camp area; the remainder will be at Three Forks Overlook, Lake Camp, and the outlet of Kukaklek Lake. Installation had been scheduled for the summer of 1994, but it has been delayed pending the outcome of the Brooks Camp Development Concept Plan. [52]

Some success has been achieved in recent years in the acquisition of new visitor interpretation facilities. In King Salmon, as a result of continued cooperation between the NPS and the F&WS, a new visitor center was opened in the airport terminal in May 1992. The center, which features displays, brochures, and an Alaska Natural History Association outlet, is staffed all summer and is opened for more limited operations throughout the winter months. In 1995 it was rededicated with all new exhibits. It is now supported by the Bristol Bay Borough and the Lake and Peninsula Borough as well as by the NPS and the F&WS. [53]

Intermittent pressure has been applied in recent years to replace the Brooks Camp visitor center. The center, built in 1974, was adequate for the presentation of most evening programs. It was too small, however, to double as a visitor information center. The decade of the 1980s, however, exacerbated the need for an adequate visitor facility. The decade witnessed strong visitor growth; Brooks Camp visitation mushroomed from 2,200 in 1980 to 5,800 a decade later. The increasing number of visitors, furthermore, overtaxed the limited confines of the visitor center and the small ranger station, the only two NPS structures available for public use.

Some within the agency felt that the best way to meet deal with the space crunch was to construct a new visitor center. By 1987, considerable work had already been done on the siting, design, and conceptual planning for such a structure, but the budget limitations which Katmai had to endure during the mid-1980s made construction of such a facility impossible. [54] The late 1980s brought more favorable budgets, but by that time the park's new emphasis on a Brooks Camp Development Concept Plan, with the possibility that the camp would be de-emphasized as a visitor node, put the construction of a new visitor center on indefinite hold.

Recognizing that an increasing number of visitors would require more facility space, the NPS decided, in 1989, to convert the old (1956) ranger station into a visitor contact station. The following year it converted the old boathouse, which had been serving as a VIP guest cabin, into the new ranger station. The former visitor center was renamed the auditorium that year. It continues to serve much the same function as when it opened in 1977.


In retrospect, it appears that the success (or lack of success) of Katmai's interpretive program has been a function of visitor levels, budgets, and staff availability. During the earliest years of NPS's presence at Brooks Camp, rangers were fully occupied at other tasks. In 1956, however, the addition of new staff allowed time for the presentation of the first evening programs. In 1963, construction of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road brought a bus tour to Katmai; the visibility of the tour brought new staff who interpreted the monument's biological diversity and volcanic landscape. In the late 1960s, the addition of new staff brought forth a third Brooks Camp interpretive activity, the Brooks Falls nature walk.

Since that time, the increasing complexity of bear-human interactions have been the driving force behind most new aspects of Katmai's interpretive program. The beach speeches and roving patrols have been instituted to ensure that visitors have a safe experience at Brooks Camp; the bear platform talks, and many of the evening programs, have provided information about the habits and habitat of Ursus arctos. Many other activities besides the evening program, bus tour, and nature walk have been tried, but none have enjoyed more than short-term success.

For many years, Katmai was one of the least visited units in the National Park Service system. The lack of visitation, combined with planners' long-held notions that Brooks Camp's role as a visitor node should be de-emphasized, prevented the development of visitor facilities. Until 1977, the small Brooks Camp ranger station served as the only NPS visitor facility, although evening programs were presented, courtesy of the concessioner, in Brooks Lodge. The completion of the Brooks Camp utilities project gave the agency the opportunity to convert a bunkhouse into a makeshift visitor center. Evening programs have been presented there ever since. In recent years, pressure has intermittently surfaced to construct a new Brooks Camp visitor center, but pressure to move the camp has prevented the realization of those plans. The NPS nevertheless recognizes that Brooks Camp is the primary visitor node; therefore, it has installed few interpretive facilities elsewhere in the park.

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2000