Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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TRAVELING IN AND AROUND the Katmai region has long been a formidable task. Weather in the Shelikof Strait, notoriously stormy, has made transportation along the park's eastern coastline difficult both to past and present travelers. Just inland from the coast lies the rugged Aleutian Range, which is broken only occasionally with traversable passes. To the west, the various large lakes ease transportation somewhat; between the lakes and the Bristol Bay coastline, however, most of the major waterways have rapids and other impediments.

Despite all of those obstacles, Katmai's Native peoples used natural geographic corridors to travel across and along the Alaska Peninsula coast. The best known of these routes was the trail that surmounted Katmai Pass; it ran from Katmai Village, on Shelikof Strait, northwest to Iliuk Arm on Naknek Lake. Using kayaks and baidarkas, Native people traveled great distances along the Katmai coast or across the 26-mile Shelikof Strait to travel to Kodiak or Afognak islands.

In later years, Euroamericans patterned their travel with methods similar to those of the Native Americans. Russian fur traders, priests, and explorers sometimes traveled in Native watercraft, while other Euroamericans arrived in ships associated with exploration, fur hunting, and trading activities. Schooners, steamers, fishery tenders, and mailboats all plied the coastal waters. The violent winds and high seas of Shelikof Strait made crossing dangerous and caused numerous shipwrecks and accidents.

More recently, the advent of airplanes has resulted in an increased access to the area and has provided a significant boost to tourism development. Air transportation continues to be critically important today. This dependence on air access is in large part due to the lack of road mileage; the only significant road in the present park, in fact, is a sightseeing road that connects Brooks Camp with the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Properties associated with transportation within Katmai National Park and Preserve include overland trails, a road, one or more shipwrecks, and an airfield.

Katmai Pass route
Sketch by Norman Dawn showing the Katmai Pass route into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Part of a 1925 motion picture expedition, following in the footsteps of National Geographic Society's Katmai expeditions. Seward Gateway, December 5, 1925.


Katmai's Native inhabitants used natural overland corridors to traverse the Alaska Peninsula. Groups along the Shelikof Strait traveled inland for seasonal subsistence purposes as well as to trade with the Bristol Bay Natives from whom they obtained walrus tusks for creating fishing hooks and spearheads. The two best known routes were the Hallo Bay and Katmai Pass trails. [1]

The Hallo Bay trail, also referred to as the Douglas Pass trail, led from Naknek Lake eastward up the Savonoski River through the Aleutian Range, then down the Ninagiak River to Hallo Bay. The trail was used throughout the Russian and early American periods. [2] According to Wilbur Davis, who interviewed former Savonoski residents in the early 1950s, the Savonoski people used the Hallo Bay trail to get to the coast:

The people who lived in the lakes area used to go across to the Shelikof Strait coast to hunt sea otter and gather shellfish. They went across the Hallo Bay pass or Douglas pass, but not the Katmai pass, keeping their kayaks and gear on the coast side. One of their camps was on the north shore of Hallo Bay. They used both the umiak and kayak and one and two-bladed paddles. [3]

There is one other reference to the Douglas Pass. In 1880, Ivan Petroff, the U.S. census taker, reported that "Douglas [listed as Kaguyak on modern maps], being the primary sea otter hunting center on the coast at this time, was located at the terminus of a portage to Bristol Bay." [4] It is not clear, however, what route constituted the Douglas Pass trail, although it may have used portions of the Hallo Bay trail.

The Katmai Pass trail, beginning just south of the Hallo Bay trail, followed the Naknek Lake system to the mouth of the Ukak River. It then ascended the drainage to its headwaters at Katmai Pass before descending through the cliffs and canyons of the Katmai River to Katmai village.

During the Russian and early American time periods, the Sugpiat/Alutiiq and Savonoski people continued using these established routes for fur trading and hunting as well as for their own subsistence activities. By the late 1790s, the Russians had learned about the pass as well; in response, the Russian-American Company capitalized on the trading ties between the interior and coastal Native peoples by establishing a trading store at Katmai. Two decades later, in 1818, the Russians established the Nushagak trading post. Russian traders at Katmai reacted to the action by employing some of the local villagers to portage goods westward to Nushagak and furs from there back to Katmai. [5]

By 1845, traders and hunting parties routinely headed into the interior of the peninsula and used the Katmai trading post as a base camp. To a lesser extent, they also used the old Hallo Bay portage. But neither trail was a heavily used trade route. To supply their depots along the shores of Bristol Bay, Kodiak-based Russian traders avoided the area. Some sailed around the Alaska Peninsula, while others traversed the peninsula on trails that crossed either Iliamna or Becharof lakes. The trails, both of which were easier than the Hallo Bay or Katmai Pass trails, were located outside of today's park boundaries. [6]

Well into the early American period, the Katmai Pass trail continued to be used for subsistence and trading activities. Following in the footsteps of the Russian American Company, the Alaska Commercial Company maintained similar fur trading activities with its store at Katmai. In 1871, Alphonse Louis Pinart visited Katmai and noted "quite a large business" in furs was being carried on with villages in the interior and on Bristol Bay by way of a portage up the Katmai River, past "Lake Naknik," and down Naknek River to the sea. [7] Former Katmai resident Harry Kaiakokonok remembered his dad, who was born in Savonoski, telling him that the Savonoski people used to travel to Katmai by dog teams. [8]

The mountainous Katmai Pass route was strenuous and dangerous. The fact that the Savonoski people preferred to take the arduous mountain route to trade at Katmai as opposed to taking the easier water route to the Bristol Bay stores is a testament to how strongly they preferred trading with people at Katmai.

By the 1870s, the number of trade goods traversing Katmai Pass was declining. But the route gained new popularity when census taker Ivan Petroff published an account of his crossing in 1881. He characterized his voyage, taken from west to east during a four-day period in October 1880, as "tedious and difficult." His progress, for example, was slowed by the "crossing of eight turbulent streams, each from knee to waist deep and of considerable width," and the day he crossed Katmai Pass "was employed entirely in crossing glaciers and passing through rocky defiles at the summit of the range." He even bemoaned the "exceedingly rapid and precipitous" descent to the wooded lower valley of the Katmai River, in which he was forced to cross "innumerable" branches of the stream and carve a path through seemingly interminable thickets. [9]

A decade later, an expedition sponsored by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper scrambled over the pass. In a remarkable wintertime trip, a party headed by E. H. Wells headed southeast from Nushagak in early 1891. That February, the party reached what was most certainly the mouth of the Ukak River. From there, Wells noted their progress as follows:

The way at first led up through a dreary, rock-bound cañon, narrow and half-filled with snow and ice. Over the treacherous surface we passed in safety, and curving upward among the peaks, snow-robed and desolate, reached at length a small frozen lake which marked the summit of the "divide." All about us was a wild array of peaks bare of any semblance of vegetation and wearing a wild, Arctic aspect. The roar of water could be heard in several cañons, and in one place the torrent had washed away its heavy coverlet of snow leaving a thirty-foot cliff of that material on either bank. In the strata we noticed several red streaks, indicating that at some time or other the red snow of the Arctic regions had fallen upon these mountains. [10]

A month later, the remainder of the Frank Leslie party followed a similar route, and as expedition leader A. B. Schanz described it, the party started "on a veritable stampede over the dangerous Katmai pass" on March 7. Prior to leaving Savonoski village, the party had spent two days waiting out a blizzard. The weather that day turned out to be no better than before; despite that obstacle, Schanz wrote, the men and dogs

maintained so great a speed that it was all Stepan and I could do to keep out of their way. When we got over the hot sulphur pools on the top of the "divide," and the descent began with a gradual slope over a snow-covered glacier, the dash assumed a semblance of recklessness which shook one's nerves. The descent might eventually have ended disastrously, had not several bald spots of ground, where the Pacific sun had already driven away the snow, intervened and acted as brakes. Then Stepan and I started the grandest coasting experience in the history of sled-traveling . We got down without an accident, and camped at sea-level, about eight miles from Katmai, at half-past four in the afternoon. We had made a trip, which has taken days, in five and a half hours." [ 11] [12]

Charlie Carter
Above: Charlie Carter, shown here in 1917, formerly carried the mail through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and crossed Katmai Pass on a dog sled. UAA, Consortium Library, Archives and Manuscripts Department, National Geographic Society Katmai expeditions collection, Box 2, 1019.

Use of the Katmai Pass increased with goldseekers headed for Nome on the Seward Peninsula. It is not clear how many prospectors crossed through Katmai Pass, although a bunkhouse was built at Katmai to accommodate the travelers. [13] The trail was used especially in the wintertime when the Bering Sea route to Nome was inaccessible.

Rex Beach's book The Silver Horde detailed crossing the pass when strong winds tossed rocks about. In his February 1901 visit to Katmai, Beach noted the Alaska Commercial Company trader's comments about the pass:

Petellin admitted that the place was too windy for him. "It would never become popular," he said. Katmai Pass had a reputation as a "man-killer." About forty lives had been lost on the Katmai trail, the trader said, and at that moment the settlement was in mourning for two natives who about a week earlier had been caught in the open by a storm while crossing from the north. One had died, and the other "never would be much good to his family." Once when he had been over-taken by a storm in the pass, Petellin related, the wind had picked up a heavy cast-iron kettle and whisked it away "with the speed of a cannon ball." [14]

In 1900 the Postmaster General sent an expedition to investigate the possibility of using the Katmai route for its overland service to western Alaska. As a result, the U.S. Post Office Department began using the route during the winter of 1900-1901. It is not clear how long the Katmai Pass route was used. [15] Charlie Carter carried the mail from Nome to Katmai one winter. Dr. Griggs interviewed Carter about the country prior to the volcanic eruption and was told that

on the upper part of Naknek Lake the ice was very treacherous, sometimes thawing out when the air temperature had not risen above 15 degrees F., which clearly indicated to him the presence of hot springs somewhere in the vicinity. [16]

The geologist J. E. Spurr's United States Geological Survey exploration and subsequent report of 1898 provided the best source of information on the condition of the Katmai Pass trail prior to the 1912 volcanic eruption. Spurr's expedition provided the only known detailed map of the route and photograph of the pass prior to 1912. [17] Spurr's account is as follows:

The trip from the lake to the seacoast occupied three and one-half days, an average of nearly 20 miles a day, all of which we made on foot, largely through swamps and deep moss. On the 16th of October [1898] we crossed the mountain pass and descended to the other side.

This pass lies between two extinct volcanoes and is high, snowy, and rocky, and has no definite trail. The wind is often so cold and violent here, even in summer, that the natives do not dare to cross except in calm weather, for the gusts are so powerful that stones of considerable size are carried along by them.

On the sea side of the pass we came to a considerable stream of hot water which emerged from the side of one of the volcanoes and flowed down, steaming, to reach the cooler water of the other mountain drainage. On the 17th of October we arrived at the Aleut village of Katmai, where we found a Russian trader. [18]

The June 1912 eruption had a major impact on the trail; it buried most or all of the route between Iliuk Arm and Katmai village in volcanic ash, in places several feet deep. But because the pre-1912 trail had never been a specific, identifiable pathway, the overall route remained as before.

Reuse of portions of the trail began with the National Geographic Society expeditions. In 1916, after his third expedition effort, Robert F. Griggs, explorer and botanist for the Society, finally reached the summit of Katmai Pass. From the summit, Griggs saw the fumaroles in the valley below for the first time.

The sight that flashed into view as we surmounted the hillock was one of the most amazing visions ever beheld by mortal eye. The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally, tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor. [19]

This discovery led to the establishment, two years later, of Katmai National Monument.

A few tourist trips followed in the footsteps of NGS expeditions. Most tourists sailed from Kodiak to Katmai Bay and followed on foot the route leading up to Katmai Pass, although other adventurers, such as Naknek schoolteacher Alyce Anderson, approached the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes via Savonoski and the Ukak River valley.

After the 1920s, the trail was ignored for the next several decades, but in the 1960s, recreational hikers rediscovered the route. For those beginning their journey at the Three Forks Overlook, the summit of Katmai Pass has been, in the words of one guidebook, a "destination for most hikers in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes." Few, however, seek out the east or west ends of the Katmai Pass trail. The Hallo Bay trail has seen little twentieth century use, save for Savonoski-area Natives who, as late as the 1930s, returned to the Savonoski River valley on annual bear hunts. [20]

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002