May 29, 2021
Seasonal training wrapped up on Friday, and next week the park opens to visitors. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even after nearly four weeks of training, I don’t feel ready. Theoretically I know what I’m doing, but the thought of managing the needs of hundreds of visitors mingling among large predators, while delivering quality interpretive programs and supporting my fellow team members feels like… a lot.
On top of that, it’s been (predictably) difficult to get internet access, so simple personal needs, like following up on food and supply orders that didn’t arrive, or checking my bank account, or touching base with my loved ones, has been challenging.
For the most part, I’m able to let most of this roll off my back and just take it one day at a time. I knew what I was getting myself into. And in most ways, I’m enjoying the reality and challenges of being here. It’s actually really nice to get home after work and not check my phone for notifications every day. Instead, I’m socializing a lot more, reading more, watching downloaded movies and shows, writing letters, painting, and going through my photos from the day.
Each day of training for the past two weeks, we would spend some time discussing bear encounter scenarios, learning our responsibilities in different areas of the park, formal and informal visitor interactions, and program development. We spent a few hours most days getting buildings ready to open, re-stocking the visitor center bookstore, and getting familiar with camp. It all feels like a bit of a jumble in my head at the moment, but I imagine next week things will start to fall into place.
This past week, we went from seeing a bear once every couple days or so, to seeing multiple bears daily. Each one is unique and exciting, and absolutely surreal.
I’ve seen a couple sows with yearlings (one-year-old cubs), a courting couple, some solitary adults, and a couple subadults so far. The yearlings and subadults are feisty. They are bold and troublesome, and like to push the boundaries with humans. A few days ago, two yearlings got into one of the lodge boats on the lakeshore and were trying to chew on things before they got hazed away (hazing is the term for when a bear technician basically spooks a bear away). It’s tricky to haze a cub, though, because if you anger the mom, she can be aggressive and protective.
From what I’ve learned, adult bears are usually the most chill because they’ve grown up around Brooks Camp and are used to people. They mostly only become aggressive if their space is invaded, if they’re surprised, if they’re courting, or protecting cubs. Just like people, each bear has its own personality; some have larger personal space bubbles than others, some want nothing to do with people, and some will use the presence of people to protect their cubs and avoid other bears. They seem to know that we will give them the right-of-way here, and some will decide to nap on a trail, or under the bridge, and then all human traffic is held up until said nap is over and the bear decides to move on (I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s a common scenario that came up in training).
The term “Katmai Flexibility” is often used here to refer to the need to scrap plans at a moment’s notice and be able to adapt to any situation as it comes up, usually as a result of bears or sudden weather changes.
Yesterday, for our final day of training, we took a trip out to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes—the part of the park I have been most looking forward to seeing. The 23-mile, one-lane road out to the valley is treacherous in parts. First, we had to carefully drive across a 2,000-foot stretch of road that was flooded from a beaver dam. Next, we had three river crossings within a few miles of each other, where we bumped through fast-moving rivers of snowmelt and rolling river rocks. It reminded me of theme park rides from my childhood where your safari vehicle would get to a river and attach to some tracks to suddenly get swept away “out of control” down the waterway. Except this is real life and there are no tracks to safely guide the van to an exit point. Instead, we were instructed to remove our seatbelts in case the van flooded, and be ready to jump out if needed.
Of course, we didn’t get swept away, and our driver expertly navigated through the water and got us out to the valley.
From the dense green spruce forest, the valley opened up to a barren landscape of hardened ash stretching from mountain to mountain. A palette of tan, beige, grey, rose, browns, blues, and greens was painted across the land all the way up to the snow-covered peaks in the distance. I’ve never seen anything like it. The closest thing is maybe the Badlands in South Dakota, but it’s still vastly different even from that.
Three creeks, the Knife, Lethe, and Windy, have cut deep canyons hundreds of feet down into the ash over the last 100 years, and converge together to form the Ukak River. These icy cold, turbid waterways gush through valley with incredible power. Underneath all the ash is the Naknek Formation, a bedrock layer from the Jurassic period that is laden with Bucchia fossils. At Ukak Falls, you can get down to see some of this layer by river, and find giant rocks full of prehistoric shell imprints.
I could have spent days down there exploring the riverbed, but unfortunately we only had a few hours before we had to head back, and the trail was somewhat arduous on the way back up. In addition to being hotter at the bottom of the valley, the mosquitoes and white socks were beginning to emerge and took great pleasure swarming us on the steep uphill back to the top.
I will say though, although the insects here are worse than anywhere else I’ve worked in Alaska, I’ve hardly gotten any bites. Every year I try to resist using bug spray for as long as possible, and although I’ve been using some here, and a head net in areas where it’s really bad, they don’t seem to bother me as much as they do other people. I wonder if it could have something to do with my diet or blood type? Any theories? Who knows… I’ll enjoy it while it lasts!
And so seasonal training comes to a close. On Tuesday, float planes and boats will begin arriving. Visitors will funnel in from the lakeshore and gather in groups to receive bear orientations before spreading out into the park to look for bears, to go fishing, to check into the campground or lodge, and take in the magnificent views.
Here we go.