Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Katmai, Alaska Photo.

July, 2009

— The Valley of 10,000 Smokes

In June, 1912, Katmai mountain erupted. It was the second largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, discharging about 3 cubic miles of rock. By comparison, the recent Mount St. Helens eruption discharged only 0.1 cubic mile of rock. As a result of the eruption, an immense lahar was formed, covering 40 square miles (see photo #1, at left). Water and ice trapped under the hot volcanic ash of the lahar was turned to steam, which poured out of the ground in great fumaroles. These steam vents, called "smokes" at the time, continued for years, giving the valley its name. The heat of the ash has disapated and the smokes have stopped, but the valley is still amazing.

The lahar is as much as 700 feet thick, and is easily eroded. Jim took a hike into the valley to get a better view of the landscape. He was not able to get all the way down to the valley floor, as he wasn't sure he could make the hike back up from the bottom. Here are a few of his photos:

the lahar   |   a closer view   |   near the bottom

It was this fantastic eruption, and the amazing landscape it left behind, that was the justification for the creation of Katmai National Park. It is fascinating that few people outside of Alaska have ever heard of this immense eruption. The fact that it occurred in a remote area with no known human deaths has probably caused this lack of awareness. Had this volcano erupted on the US east coast, large numbers of people would have been killed and it would be a major event in our history.

— Brooks Lodge

The highlight of our trip was a visit to Brooks Lodge. The only way to get there is by float plane. We left the floatplane dock at King Salmon for the short 20-minute ride, landing on the lake in front of Brooks Lodge (see photo #2). Float planes are widely used in Alaska, providing the only access to many remote areas. One of their big advantages is not needing an established runway. They can land anywhere there is a suitable body of water.

Brooks Lodge is notable for its grizzly bears. This is one of the few places in Alaska where the bears have become used to having people around. They mostly seemed to ignore us. The bears are, however, powerful wild animals. They are extremely dangerous to people who get too close or who do something to frighten or challenge the bears. The first thing we did after landing was to attend "bear school". A Park Ranger taught us the basic rules of interacting with the bears, how close we could get, when to play dead, never run away, etc. There are over a hundred bears that frequent the area. Of course, the bear cubs are the most appealing.

One point of frequent interaction was the bridge across the Brooks River. The bears frequently walk up the river banks or wade in the river, and they have the right-of-way. The bridge was often closed when bears were closer than 50 yards. We sometimes waited for an hour or more while the bears wandered through the area. Our first afternoon, there were a dozen or more bears around the bridge while we waited to cross. Once across, we ran into a bear on the path to the lodge, and a Ranger sent us through the woods to the lake beach. There we ran into another bear coming down to the beach and had to turn back. Finally, yet another bear seemed to take an interest in our group, and we retreated back into the woods. It was all very exciting, though we were probably in little actual danger.

Once across the bridge, we would walk for about a mile on a path through the woods to reach Brooks Falls, where the most interesting bear behaviour could be seen. On our way back to the lodge the first time, we were strung out along the trail with Jim and Paree, another member of our tour, in the lead. Suddenly, two grizzly bears came running up the trail. We didn't see the bears, and they didn't see us, until they came around a bend in the trail about 30 feet from Jim. Everything happened at once. Jim stepped off the trail and started yelling "BEAR" while the first bear ran off the trail to the right. The second bear stopped and looked at us for a few seconds, and then disappeared off the trail to our left. We then continued on our way down the trail, with grizzly bears, now unseen, on each side of us. As we walked along, we could see scratches in the trail where the bear's claws had cut into the soil. They had run along the trail for several hundred yards. It was all very exciting.

— Grizzly Bears and Salmon

The salmon come to the Brooks River to spawn. The grizzly bears (photo #3) and humans come for the salmon. Today, many tourists, like us, just come to watch the grizzlies, but there are still many people who come to fish for salmon, in competition with the bears who fish in the same river. That seems rather dangerous.

The bears use several techniques for fishing. Some "snorkel", keeping their heads underwater while they look for passing salmon, others dive onto passing fish. The most successful method seems to be to stand on the falls and wait for the salmon to attempt to leap over the falls. There seemed to be one particular spot on the falls that was most productive, and the highest ranking males took those spots. Here they are, trying to catch a salmon as it leaps for the top of the falls. The bears were frequently successful and would take their salmon to a quiet spot to eat it. Here, another fishing technique was seen as another bear would attempt to steal part of the catch. Even the sea birds will compete to get a bit of fish. We also saw a bald eagle pearched in the trees, watching the action around the falls. Only once did it swoop down and attempt to grab a fish from one of the bears. It was not successful.

— return to the 2009 Journal Archive.