Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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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. An undeniable immense area is enclosed within the park. [1] 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 in a north-south orientation for more than 100 miles. The present park and preserve is the fifth largest National Park Service unit in Alaska. Even so, the combined area of the two units is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island put together; that area is far more expansive than the largest national park in the Lower 48 states and almost twice as large as Yellowstone. [2] Katmai, as sizeable as it is, is only one small part of an enormous federal land block that 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. [3] 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 3,000-foot level to Mount Denison which, at 7,606 feet (2,318 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. [4]

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. [5]

ascent of Katmai Crater
National Geographic Society members descending the Katmai Crater, August 1919. Photographed by Emery C. Kolb. Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Anchorage, Archives and Manuscripts Department, National Geographic Society Katmai Expedition Collection, Box 5, 5080

Biotic Resources

Nature is effusive and diverse in much of the Katmai country. Tundra carpets much of the area; 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. [6]

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. [7]

Climate and Weather

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. [8]

Cultural Diversity

A variety of phenomena attract tourists to the area. For more than 50 years, sport fishers have been attracted to the streams adjacent to the various large lakes in the western portion of the park, where trout and salmon abound; more recently, the area's reputation as a sport fishing Mecca has become even more widely established, and fly-in fishers now visit lakes and streams throughout the park. Another major attraction is the park's remarkable brown bear population. Several hundred coastal brown bears inhabit the park, and visitors flock to Brooks Camp and other sites in hopes of seeing and photographing these magnificent beasts. Thousands of tourists each year are attracted to the devastated landscape associated with the Novarupta volcanic eruption; this cataclysmic event, which took place in June 1912, initiated geological interest in the area and resulted in President Woodrow Wilson proclaiming the area as Katmai National Monument in September 1918. The Brooks Camp area is becoming increasingly well known for its remarkable archeological resources; recent investigations have revealed that a village of substantial proportions has existed, perhaps continuously, for more than six thousand years, and the NPS, in recognition of that importance, has carefully reconstructed and exhibited a nearby semi-subterranean house. Finally, the Katmai country's sheer size and sweep has made it increasingly attractive to those who love wilderness, because few other areas, in Alaska or elsewhere, can promise such scenic and biotic diversity in an area that seems so apparently pristine. (Almost 3.5 million acres of the 4.1 million-acre park and preserve is a Congressionally-designated wilderness. The NPS, after an exhaustive public process, has recommended that almost 300,000 additional acres be declared wilderness, and most of the remaining acreage in the park is a de facto wilderness.)

Despite the region's appeal as a wilderness preserve, cultural resource specialists recognize that Katmai has a long, complex cultural history. The Brooks Camp area, as noted above, has been a major locus of human activity for thousands of years, and archeologists have discovered scores if not hundreds of additional sites along Katmai's rivers, lakeshores, and coastline that reveal evidence of prehistoric occupation. Oral traditions and historical journals indicate that several prehistoric trade routes crisscrossed the area; in more recent times, those trails were followed by Russian priests, Nome-bound gold miners, U.S. government geologists, and other travelers. Those who followed in their wake spread out across the Katmai country building fisheries facilities, trapping cabins and traplines, fox farms, tourist camps, and other improvements. These historic properties, to be sure, occupy only a minuscule portion of the park. These sites, structures, and buildings, however, tell a poignant story about the area's people, their activities, their lifestyle, and their culture.

Katmai Properties Listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Currently, there are nine properties located within Katmai National Park and Preserve that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Several of these listings have prehistoric significance. Five of these sites are also important for their use as settlements or smaller occupation sites during the early historic time period which ended in 1912. Fure's Cabin is listed for its historic significance as related to a trapping lifestyle.

Northwest of the Aleutian Range:

Brooks River Archaeological District (AHRS Site No. XMK-051). [9] Listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1993. Important for both prehistoric and historic time periods.

Old Savonoski (XMK-001). Important for both prehistoric and historic time periods.

Savonoski River Archaeological District (XMK-053). Prehistoric significance.

Fure's Cabin (XMK-050). Historic significance.

Along the Coast:

Archaeological Site 49 MK 10 (XMK-049), near Dakavak Bay. Prehistoric significance.

Takli Island Archaeological District (XMK-052). Prehistoric significance.

Kukak Village (XMK-006). Important for both prehistoric and historic time periods.

Archaeological Site 49 AF 3 (AFG-001), near Cape Chiniak. Prehistoric significance.

Kaguyak Village (AFG-043). Important for both prehistoric and historic time periods.


1 Unless otherwise specified, the term "park" will refer to all of the area within both Katmai National Park and Katmai National Preserve.

2 NPS, The National Parks: Index 1997-1999 (Washington, GPO), 1997. By way of contrast, the two largest national parks in the Lower 48 states are Death Valley (3,367,628 acres) and Yellowstone (2,219,791 acres).

3 For a brief description of natural resources in the old (pre-1978) Katmai National Monument, see John A. Hussey, Embattled Katmai (San Francisco, NPS, August 1971), 1-13; for a more lengthy description, see Victor Cahalane, A Biological Survey of Katmai National Monument (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution), 1959.

4 Alaska Planning Group, Final Environmental Statement (FES), Proposed Katmai National Park, Alaska, 1974, 37; Hussey, Embattled Katmai, 6.

5 APG, FES, Katmai, 37.

6 Ibid., 48-49.

7 Louis R. Huber, "Flight to Katmai," Alaska Sportsman 16 (April, 1951), 40; Frank Dufresne, "Katmai Adventure," Field and Stream 56 (February 1952), 42; APG, FES, Katmai, 53, 57, 61.

8 APG, FES, Katmai, 32.

9 These letters and numbers are from the Alaska Heritage Resources Survey, which is part of the state inventory system that is maintained by the State Historic Preservation Office, Office of History and Archaeology.

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002