Saturday 7 December 2013

Archive: Lonely Wonders of Katmai

From National Geographic, June, 1963. A small excerpt of the original article, written by Ernest Gruening (that tells of his visit to Katmai National Monument in Alaska, one of the largest national parks in the USA), that relates to fishing for salmon, with some editing to help with flow.

A floatplane circled overhead, then skimmed to a landing on the river. We walked back to the delta's point as the plane taxied to shore. John Walatka, Katmai veteran and longtime bush pilot, had come to fly us back to Brooks River Lodge.

John supervises the camps at Brooks River and Lake Grosvenor, in the national monument, and three others just outside. Before John would take us to Brooks River Lodge, he had something to show us. He pointed to the river's far shore.

"Alaska brown bear," he said.

These beasts are the largest carnivorous land animals, weighing up to 1,600 pounds. This one looked every bit that large to us.

"Relax," our calm friend told us. "That bear doesn't want any part of you, either."

True. He detected us almost immediately - bears have an acute sense of smell but poor eyesight - and padded off into a thicket.

"There are plenty of red salmon in the river now," John said. "He'll be back."

As summer wore on, the bears would become sated with salmon, scooping them from the water and taking only one or two bites out of each fish before discarding it. Then wolves, foxes, coyotes, otters, eagles, and ravens would feast.

The salmon run was growing heavier each day. The beautiful silver sockeye were reddening as they returned from the sea to spawn in their native waters. Soon they would die, completing a four- to five-year life span.

We dined that night on salmon at Brooks River Lodge.

                                                                Photograph: Winfield Parks

Some of the world's finest fishing lies but seconds from one's cabin, whether at Brooks River or Lake Grosvenor, which I visited next morning.

Rainbow, Dolly Varden, lake trout and grayling are commonplace on Cook Charles Blue's menu. Twenty feet from his cook tent the water rushes through the narrows between Lakes Grosvenor and Coville.

Young Chuck Petersen was casting in the swift water. A deft flick of his rod, and the fly arched far out into the current.

"I'm usually a three-cast man," Chuck said. "Three casts, no fish, I quit. I'm spoiled!"

On his second cast the barbed fly hooked a 3.5 pound trout.

I began to understand why so many fishermen return to Katmai's waters. Ray Petersen told me that since 1950, when the camps opened, some 7,500 guests have been accommodated, many of them repeaters.

Over the years, sturdy cedar cabins with running water and bunk beds have been replacing the original canvas-covered frame cabins. Their construction is a major task, as all equipment, building material, and furnishings must be flown from Anchorage. Cargo planes must land in winter on the frozen surface of the lake.

Back at Brooks River Lodge that afternoon, I chatted with fishermen who were so busy landing salmon that they complained of being arm-weary.

That night a dozen or so of us sat around the fire talking of the superlative fishing that so small a group of us had all to ourselves. Even if the lodge had been filled to its 50-visitor capacity, we would still have been a small island of people surrounded by the vast solitude of Katmai.

Here was the greatest national park unit of all, and I doubt if there were at that moment 100 human beings in all its length and breadth.

Bearing a biologist's red tag, a sockeye vaults a cascade
more than six feet high. Photograph: Winfield Parks