Katmai National Park - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip
Extended Trip Report
Kodiak, Kodiak Island, AK
Mary C. Wilding
On a sunny mid-August day, two of our three sons and one of their significant others joined my husband and I in Anchorage to share ten days of our three month tour of northern Canada and Alaska. A portion of those days were spent kayaking in Katmai National Park and Preserve near Kodiak Island, Alaska. Memories of those days will always be treasured and a highlight of our lifetime travels.
Tuesday - August 15, 2000
Our adventure begins as we come around a bend in the road and see Homer Spit, a thin, curved hook of land stretching 3 miles out into the bay. The spit is a kick off spot for commercial and sport fishermen, sight-seeing and bear watching trips, bush pilot flights and ferry services. After making arrangements to leave our camper and jeep, we board the ferry, Tustemena for the 7:30 PM to 9:30 AM trip to Kodiak Island. After the cars trucks and other commercial vehicles are loaded, the ferry makes its way out into the channel between the snow-covered mountains, headed southwest toward Kodiak Island. We could have flown to Kodiak Island from Anchorage, however the ferry is much more interesting and economical. There is quite a conglomeration of folks on board. Campers have staked out floor space for their bedrolls or tents and secured them to the deck with duct tape. A large group of Russian women wearing gossamer dresses, thin scarves or babushkas on their heads, men in belted tunics that button at the neck and across the shoulder sit in the front indoor lounge with their many small children, along with older retired folks in white sneakers. Fishermen traveling to distant ports on the Aleutian chain are out on the upper decks. One gentleman rolls his animal skin and puts all his belongings upon it. I love watching all the different groups of people much as they watch me I guess. We sit on the upper deck and watch the moon as it beings to slide up just above a low bench between two mountains. Soon it is covered with a light cloud cover or perhaps it is fog and we sit peering into the darkness. Finally lulled into a sleepy state, we crawl into the bunk beds of our reserved stateroom. Sometime around 3 AM I am rolled over into the wall with gusto but otherwise sleep peacefully until 6:30 A.M. when our ferry pulls into Port Lions - a dock with three homes visible.
Wednesday - 8/16
The dark, lush green islands across the water look so lovely in the early morning light. We pass a buoy marking passage to the town of Kodiak and in the distance we see a humpback whale and her calf surface several times. As we approach the familiar coastline I have a warm feeling of very positive familiarity and especially so when we pass the area where Jan and Dave Kubiak live who are the wonderful folks who took us out on their boat, the Mythos, two years ago. We pull into port where the bush pilot's representative meets us and drives us to the inlet where the floatplane, Seahawk, waits. We are loaded aboard and off we go bumping along into the wild blue yonder in a blare of engine noise. My fear of heights kicks in and each little bump has me clutching the upholstery as I proceed to count every screw, every stitch in the upholstery….anything to divert my thoughts from the LONG way down to the ocean below. Thankfully the flight is a smooth one and in an hour's time we cross over Kodiak Island, the Shelikof Straits, and approach Katmai National Park and Preserve, which lies at the northern end of the peninsula which begins the Aleutian Islands chain.
According to Katmai National Park literature and other sources, Katmai is a rich archeological area where prehistoric semi-subterranean houses used by the Sugpiat and Alutiiq Native peoples have been found along with cabins of Russian fur traders of the l700's and US trappers and traders of the l800 and l900's. In 1912 volcanic activity forced folks out and buried existing settlements in ash. This area encompasses more land than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined with its rugged, diversified stretch of beaches, bays, cliffs, canyons and waterfalls. Inland there are glaciers and volcanic peaks with mountains ranging in height from 3000 ft to 7606 feet. Katmai is sometimes called the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Portions of the Park and Preserve are comprised of lakes and ponds and other areas are vast open spaces. The sheer size and sweep of this pristine wilderness is truly amazing. It lies at 58 degrees l5 minutes north and 154 degrees and 55 minutes east. Below us in this unbelievable place of snow and ash and in a large, coastal cove of emerald colored water known as Geographic Bay a tiny boat, the Mythos, is anchored. We descend and taxi across the smooth water toward it. It is great to see Dave and Jan again.
In addition to commercial fishing, the Kubiaks also entertain up to six guests fishing, kayaking and enjoying the spectacular surroundings. The cargo hold where fish are stored has been transformed to a delightful little cabin with bunk beds and a bench and is primarily below the waterline. As you lie in the top bunk hearing and feeling the water lap against the side of the boat in the gentle wave action, you can see the water three feet below you and the shoreline beyond. When the boat is used for fishing, the cube that is this comfortable cabin is removed with a winch and the space is used to hold halibut, salmon or whatever the catch may be.
Looking out from our anchorage, tall cone shaped peaks surround us on three sides with ash spilling down the hillsides toward the green tree carpet at the bottom. Further behind the ash-covered mountains rise taller snowcapped peaks. The water is a luminescent teal blue-green and so very clear that jellyfish and kelp far below are easily visible. At the foot of the hills in some areas there are smooth gray sand beaches, with cobblestones bordered by tall yellowish grasses. Silence. …beautiful blue skies…so much beauty all about us. Before long we have Dave's kayaks in the water and are gliding close to the shoreline through this incredible scene. We are treated to pigeon guillemots, bald eagles and marbled murrelets. Birding here is wonderful. Late in the day three cinnamon colored Kodiak bears emerge on the beach across the bay. They run and tussle with each other, rolling about in the grass. A dark brown bear ambles in a stream in search of salmon. There are LOTS of bears in this area. We are alone in this wonderful wilderness in the middle of the vast bay as the sun begins to slowly sink behind the surrounding mountains.
Thursday - 8/17
Hurray, another sunny day! We are going to leave early today but the Kodiak brown bears begin coming down to the shoreline as the tide continues to go out. It is positively wonderful seeing them in their own environment and we get into the kayaks for a closer look. At one point there are 10 - count them - 10 bears of various sizes on the beach and in the streambeds. They romp, they chase each other, they forage about on the banks and they fish, catching the salmon we have seen in abundance from our kayaks. What an amazing congregation. These bears are twice the size of those we saw earlier in our trip in Denali National Park. The Denali grizzlies primarily eat berries and some ground squirrel and weigh up to 600 lbs., but these bears' diet is largely protein from the fish and they bulk to up to 1200 lbs. That's a lot of bear.
Finally we drag ourselves away and paddle to a small island where the beach is heavily cobbled and we see some of the most interesting knobby stones. Of particular interest are the opal-like, clear and milky ones with beautiful pastel colors shining through the translucent surfaces. . After a delicious lunch, we explore the many channels between the mainland and a multitude of little islands. It is a wonderful, silent way to travel and enables one to feel so close to the magnificence around us. Everything is very heavily forested. The spruce bark beetle devastating the Sitka spruce trees of much of the interior of Alaska and the Yukon has not affected the Sitkas here. The trees are stately, lush giants and are flourishing. As we paddle close to shore, a young but large bear is grazing on berries along the shoreline. At this spot there is no beach and the tall grasses come to the edge of a low bluff just above the waterline. The bear continues walking along the bluff and sometimes disappears behind the grasses only to reappear a little further down. We sit in our kayaks and wait. Sure enough, up comes the bear's head as he is peering at us peering at him. We continue gliding along in 8 to 12" of water for about 30 minutes until the bear comes right to the water's edge. On the firm sliver of sand along the shoreline, he looks at us, stands up on his hind legs (he is a BIG bear) drops back down and pounds the ground with his huge paws, conveying a clear message. Definitely it is time to move on as we have outstayed our welcome.
We see 5 red headed merganser ducks and many large flocks of gulls. Periodically a seal pops up, glances at us quizzically before moving on a bit further and then checking us out again. The abundance of wildlife is awesome. As we move forward through a series of channels, a wide beach lies ahead where the biggest bear we've seen yet is strolling along. This is one chunky bear with an enormous belly. He knows how to fish. He doesn't stay long and I am sorry to see him leave so quickly. I am thinking of that bear, as Dave Kubiak, Jon, our son, and I walk up a creek bed to where Dave expected a little lake to be - instead there is a large circular pond bed filled with ash and bordered most of the way with the logs and branches of an enormous beaver dam. The diameter of the pond must be 300 ft. and a very large lodge sits like a wooden hill in one corner. In the absence of water, this master builder has moved on. Only mosquitoes remain and we head back. En route we see gynormous moose tracks and very large bear prints Once on board, Dave and Jon go in the skiff to retrieve Dave's trap, holding the stinkiest halibut carcass and 10 large succulent Dungeness crabs. What a feast we have for dinner. The crab bodies are at least two large fists wide. What a perfect ending for a perfect day.
Friday - 8/18
It is an overcast day as we cruise out of the bay along the coastline looking for bears interested in fishing. Three cinnamon-colored and one very dark bear are on the shore. Two go out into the water up to their chins and peer at us and then get out and begin wrestling on the beach, while the third bear paces back and forth…she must be mama. We watch them having a great time before they move on. We pass a cove where at least 50 redheaded merganser ducks bob up and down slowly on the surface of the water. They are so graceful in their movements and stand out in sharp relief against the base of the sheer black cliff wall behind them. Another flock of about 25 ducks glide into sight. Rafts of scoters string out, forming long, dark, single bird lines across open bodies of water. Sea and land animals are so profuse here in this amazing land. The light gray ash on the mountains and the patches of ash further down near the sea are all the more dramatic in this diffuse light. We glide by one mountain whose entire side has sheered off and disappeared into the water and on that treeless area orangey sand forms concentric circles of vivid color.
After motoring out into a bay, we anchor and the gals leave the Mythos to explore in the kayaks. Paddling between many small islands, we come ashore where there are no footprints in the sand. Assuming there are no bears in the area for the moment, we climb up a hill and find wonderful salmon berries growing in profusion. The berries are either deep red or tangerine in color but whichever the color of these 1 ½ to 2" berries, they are all delicious. After grazing just as the bears do, we fill a bag to bring back to the guys on board fishing. Matted down places among the berry bushes remind us a bear has undoubtedly been sitting while he or she ate to their hearts' content. We also see bear scat on the animal trail we use to get back down to our kayaks. As we head out, the water is SO very clean and clear you can easily see bottom in the shallower places. The clamshells and starfish are easily visible as are the different varieties of green, orange, tan and brown sea plants My favorite is the kelp with a large round rooted bulb on the end and its long tubular stalk with its large, flat leaves, growing up dozens of feet toward the surface. The texture is rubbery and the plant material is very tough. It looks and feels exactly like plastic. The water seems to be so thick as we paddle, as if we are paddling through oil. It is the most beautiful shade of jade green when the sun shines directly above. Ahead in one particularly long cove that terminates in a long curved beach are most unusual gray rock formations. Columns grow up with 75 or 100 layers of gray mud piled up upon one another. The columns are upright for the most part with some leaning slightly and others are toppled over to one side or another. We head back out across a choppy bay and have a greater understanding of what it must have been like for the native peoples who fished these waters in tiny sealskin kayaks. The guys are still fishing and have landed a big, brightly colored orange yellow-eyed rockfish, which Dave tells us has to be 65 years old. One small fish bit the bait and before the line could be reeled all the way up this l0 lb. fish bit onto the little fish. He makes a delicious dinner, but I feel sorry we could not throw him back to live on, but he would not have survived. We take one final kayak trip to shore. It is close to l0 PM and the daylight is fading as we walk along the shore among the boulders. Low tide is approaching exposing more of the gray mud flats. As we stroll along Dave on board gives a yell "BEAR". I think we all have an adrenalin rush. The bear is a VERY large bear and he is quite a distance away on the opposite shore but it makes us aware of our vulnerablity here in his domain.
Saturday - Aug. 19
We wake to an overcast sky, which slowly clears as turquoise patches appear above. As we pack up I wish we were just arriving in this marvelous, marvelous place. The love of the area is expressed in Dave and Jan's enthusiasm. They have been the consummate host and hostess and share in the excitement of our discovery of every seal, porpoise, and bear sighting. Dave has such a hearty, contagious laugh and he is THE best storyteller and has a million of them. Jan is so cordial, warm and wonderful. They are terrific folks and it feels as if we are seeing old friends although we only have had very limited contact in our two trips together. I take a long gaze trying to memorize the massive mountains. surrounding the bay - the tall Sitka spruce which have been working their way north since the Ice Age - the sheer black stone columns reaching vertically down toward the water - the brilliant green grasses - the orange heaps of seaweed piled on the boulders and the gray mud flats exposed by the falling tide. The sun is now hitting the tops of the ash covered mountains making them shine against the dark stone surfaces. A large flock of seagulls interrupt the silence as they nosily take to the wing as an eagle comes swooping down. Many different jellyfish drift past the side of the boat. Some are totally clear with thin lines forming a square within their body, others are tiny circles with small dotted lines marking the outer perimeter of their bodies and still others are huge tan-maroon colored Methuselah jellyfish so named because of the heavy, tangled strands of tentacles drifting backward out of their bodies. In the clear, dark green water they stand out in sharp relief as they drift below .at different depths. A harbor seal pokes his head up to peer at us and a graceful harbor porpoise, a small species of porpoise rarely larger than 36 to 48", rolls up and down as it swims in slow circles out in the bay.
All too soon we hear the Seahawk and we are loaded aboard and take off. It has been such a fantastic interlude and being able to share it with the kids has made it extra special. Soon Rolan, our pilot, takes us skimming across the bay and upward. The Mythos looks so tiny far below us. I manage to venture a few glances at the wonderful views of the mountains and the many lakes and ponds below. Atop one mountain lies Emerald Lake, a perfect orange-rimmed circle filled with the most amazing color of green water. It is well named. After the hour flight across the Shelikof Straits, we land in Kodiak just in time to board the Tustemena ferry for a delightful, sunny trip back to Homer. On board I meet a Port Lions resident who speaks about his life for the past 17 years as a teacher in Alaska. He and his family love Port Lions, where he is one of the teachers to the 60 in this community of 200 people. He describes Port Lions, surrounded by towering mountains and water, as "a suburb of Kodiak as it takes only 15 minutes by float plane to reach the town of Kodiak." He, like the vast majority of people we speak to are so joyful - maybe there is something hormonal about l8 or more hours of sunshine, the unbelievable majesty of the country, the abundance of wildlife, the magnificence of the sea, but whatever it is, I love it too. This land and its people make an indelible mark upon the memory and the spirit creating a driving desire to return.
Alaska Marine Highway Homer Ferry l-800-382-9229 - ferry to Kodiak Island. David Kubiak, Mythos Expeditions Kodiak - firstname.lastname@example.org - arranged for float plane and all aspects of trip while at Katmai National Park.
2 man sea kayaks and l man sea kayaks also available.
Ferry from Homer to Kodiak Island and float plane to Katmai or plane flight from Anchorage to Kodiak Island and float plane to Katmai.
Resources: Frommer's Alaska
by Charles P. Wohlforth
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