Katmai’s Bridge to Nowhere
Each summer Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park attracts thousands of visitors, most to view brown bears that gather on Brooks River. A bear atop Brooks Falls poised to snag a leaping salmon is one of Alaska’s iconic images.
Bear viewing at Brooks has boomed in recent years. A steady increase in visitor numbers and a surge in 2016 reflect the overall increase in Alaska travel. An up-close look at a wild bear has become a hallmark of almost every Alaska vacation
This summer the National Park Service will begin construction of a new bridge across Brooks River to allay the bottleneck of bear viewers at one of the world’s most famous bear viewing locations.
Over-crowding has been a problem at Katmai for years, mainly in July, the peak season for activity at Brooks Falls. Other than limits on the campground, the park does not currently limit visitation. Day trippers and lodge guests vie with campers for access to the falls viewing platform.
Bears fish the entire length of the river, a favored spot near the existing seasonal bridge. The park enforces a distance regulation to separate people from bears which often creates a traffic jam at the bridge. Crowds form as visitors wait for bears to move away. Once across the river long lines again develop at the Brooks Falls trailhead as visitors await their turn to access the viewing platform at the falls. Visitors in past seasons sometimes were limited to as little as 20-minutes at the platform; currently the limit in peak season is one hour. Imagine, spending thousands of dollars to access a jewel in the National Park system and be allowed 20-minutes at the prime location. Consequently, some knowledgeable travelers, namely Alaskans, are dissuaded from visiting the park. Yet, the new park concessioner, operator of Brooks Lodge, reportedly plans this summer to increase the number of fly-in day visitors exacerbating the problem.
The multimillion dollar bridge, and approach ramps, across the river mouth will be 14-feet-high and over 1,550-feet-long. Park Service states that the purpose of the new bridge is to “enhance visitor experience and safety.” To facilitate construction the park will also construct a new boat landing and short access road.
The new bridge will likely alleviate the visitor jams at either side of the current floating bridge but do absolutely nothing to reduce or eliminate the lines at the falls’ trailhead. The bridge only will serve to funnel ever higher numbers of visitors across the river with the foreseeable result that platform time will be further reduced to accommodate the larger demand.
Brooks Camp, for all its flaws, maintains a sense of the rustic and a sense of the wild. Small log cabins and the floating bridge maintain the wild feel many visitors expect in remote Alaska. A freeway overpass-like structure is totally inappropriate for this area, given its short one-month-long peak season. One of the most beautiful locations within the entire park will be permanently scarred by this intrusive project. A 13 million dollar bridge to solve a problem that exists for a few weeks a year makes little economic sense.
The vast majority of visitors to Brooks come to see bears in world class bear habitat and in a world class scenic location, relatively unspoiled by infrastructure. I’ve never heard any visitor suggest their experience would be heightened by a mega-bridge. Most want less crowding, and longer viewing times at the falls, not reduced or tightly-limited viewing times. The bridge will do little other than facilitate easy movement of ever larger numbers of people. It is hard to imagine many visitors suggesting that a mega-bridge in such a beautiful location is worth trading for easier access, or fewer hassles at the floating bridge. We go as visitors to Katmai to view these bears on their terms. I think it’s reasonable to expect to wait while a bear rests or saunters by. It’s an inconvenience, but convenience shouldn’t be the reason we’re there.
The real issue at Katmai is the Park Service’s long-standing inability or unwillingness to limit visitation. Many wildlife habitats can be quickly degraded and wildlife displaced by too many people. We see this same problem developing on the Katmai coast where fly-in day trippers are negatively impacting the wildlife resource and so far the park service has done nothing to curtail this growing problem. Nearby McNeil River State Game Sanctuary offers a model for Katmai and other natural areas. Instead of funneling ever larger numbers of people into the sanctuary, visitation is tightly controlled, consequently McNeil’s world-class viewer experience has remained undiminished over the decades.
Katmai’s bridge to nowhere will only degrade the park and park experience when what is really needed is limits on visitation.
Denali Hiking Tips—For Geezers
This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide for hiking in Denali National Park but rather a few tips for Seniors (the author is happy to be a geezer) who would like to experience hiking or walking in the park’s front country. Although there are plenty of park hiking guides, very few offer insights for older people. For details about each trail mentioned here, see the park newspaper, The Alpenglow.
TRIPLE LAKES TRAIL. At 9.5 miles, this is the longest developed trail in the park. The trail passes through spruce forest and stands of aspen. Open areas allow brilliant views of the Nenana River valley and of the three small lakes that give the trail its name. Although hikers often see grouse, or beaver activity at the lakes, this trail does not offer prime wildlife viewing. Grizzles may be seen anywhere in the park but I wouldn’t consider this a high-density zone. (Take the standard, advised precaution.) This is not a terribly strenuous hike but may challenge older, unconditioned hikers.
This trail is NOT a loop. You can begin at either end of the trail, either from the Visitor Center or Mile 231.5, Parks Highway, at McKinley Village. To complete the trail, and avoid backtracking, a highway shuttle is needed for return to the starting point. (Shuttles are easy to arrange.)
The prime question for geezers: where to begin? The answer: depends on your knees. If you have cranky or stiff knees, begin at the Visitor Center. From there, the first hour or so of the hike is mostly uphill, with switchbacks, but from the summit, a long, gentle downslope. If you begin at Mile 231.5, you face a long but rather easy incline but the final portion of the hike down to Riley Creek may challenge balky knees.
ROCK CREEK-ROADSIDE TRAIL LOOP. This loop can be as long as five miles or less than half that length. (See Alpenglow for details.) A relatively moderate route through forest on a gravel improved surface. Not a great trail for wildlife viewing but be alert for moose, especially in calving season, and both black bears and grizzlies. Common sense is to talk, or otherwise make nose, while hiking in areas of limited visibility.
This, my favorite loop hike for daily exercise, is not at all challenging even for old, achy knees. Begin at the Visitor Center and follow the Taiga Trail to the Rock Creek Trail to its eventual junction with the Roadside Trail, then continue on the Roadside Trail back to the Visitor Center, in all about five miles round trip. For a much shorter loop, take the Meadow View Trail, a cut-off that connects the two longer trails. Spectacular colors in autumn.
SAVAGE ALPINE TRAIL. Four miles one way, elevation gain 1500 feet. Park service considers the hike “strenuous.” (No, the trail is not “Savage” but takes its name from the nearby Savage River which is named for a pioneer.) This improved trail is accessible at both ends by a scheduled, free shuttle. This is a good trail for wildlife viewing. Moose, caribou, sheep, and grizzlies, are often seen from this trail, and, uncommonly, wolf, lynx, or golden eagle. (Be sure to make noise when traversing brush areas.) The views from the alpine are spectacular and worth the work. It can be very windy and cold in the alpine so carry extra layers. You can start the hike from Savage River parking area (Mile 14.7 Park Road) or from the Mountain Vista Trail head (Mile 12.8 Park Road.) The free shuttle will take you back to your vehicle or to the Visitor Center.
The key question for seniors: where to begin? Savage River or Mountain Vista? The trail from Savage River rises precipitously with steep inclines and switchbacks, posing a real challenge to older people who are out of condition, or with heart conditions. Once on top however, the downslope to Mountain Vista is relatively mild. The trail from Mountain Vista passes through spruce forest and willow thickets to the alpine, rising almost 1500 feet from the trailhead. This direction is not that difficult or hard on old knees but BE WARNED the downhill from the top into Savage River can inflame even the best of knees, especially so if you are carrying any weight. For those with questionable knees, the first choice is to begin from Savage River. One last concern, regardless of age, if you suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights) the Savage River end of the trial may test you. Just last summer I met a person on the trail almost paralyzed with fear of the view down. (It is NOT a perilous trail, or akin to rock climbing, in my view anyway, but it definitely affected that hiker.) The hike is definitely worth the effort but can be challenging for geezers. Happy to say I am one geezer who enjoys it.
Day Hike Resources: http://go.usa.gov/j2xj
These early reports cast a new light on “habituation.” And the current behavior and reaction of wolves and other park wildlife to people:
1902, “There was no sport in hunting such innocently tame creatures, and we never molested them except when we needed meat,” Brooks said, providing the first description of the region’s animals. (Brooks, A.H., Blazing Alaska's Trails, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks 1953; Baker, Marcus, Geographic Dictionary of Alaska, 1902)
1903, a bold wolf visited Doctor Frederick Cook’s climbing camp and left unmolested.
1904, “Sheep are born with a tame nature...(but) the nature of the Yukon mountain sheep is wild. The ewes are much tamer than the rams, and it is a strange that the watchful animals can be approached the most easily.”
1922, “A shame to shoot such tame creatures.” Adolph Murie in Wood River:
Nov 27, 1925 “Fox are getting very tame and in some cases almost friendly.”
December 1925. “Armstrong on patrol, followed by a wolf for 11 miles. Once approached within 100’.”
1925, “The great amount of blasting and noise along the Park Road has not affected (the sheep)," Harry Karstens reported. "If anything, they are more tame than ever, for a very large band of sheep ranges all the summer close to where the road crews were working." Lambing seemed unaffected with a "50% increase in the Dall sheep" expected in the spring of 1927.
1925, “ARC saw two big wolves near the park highway at about mile 8, they were probably about 200’ away and never moved while the men passed by.”
1926, “Ranger Nyberg reports innumerable bands on all the hills in the western and northwestern section of the park. In all instances the mountain sheep were very tame and did not seem to mind the presence of dogs nor man in their presence.”
1926, One tour driver complained in 1926 that “if they (Dall sheep) get any tamer, they will be butting our cars off the road.”
1927, In contrast to earlier visitors to the central part of the park, Dixon and Wright found that sheep in this vicinity were difficult to approach and wary of people. Both commercial and private meat hunters had worked this area until just three year previously and poaching was not unknown. “We found the sheep tamer around Double Mountain than over by Muldrow Glacier,” Dixon wrote Sheldon. “Sheep are being shot right along by prospectors at Copper Mountain. In the east end of the park they are well protected and are doing well.”
1928, noticed a steady increase in bears, perhaps because poisoning finally had been reigned in, and they had been seen near the office and within 150 feet of tourists. “They displayed no alarm...but loped off at an easy gate after getting the scent.
1928, “The best way to get close to the sheep is simply walk towards them in an innocent manner, In this way one can get within 50 or 100 feet of one of their herds quite easily.”
1946, General dale Gaffney "He also said that wolves "chase people into their automobiles" and denounced the "growing arrogance of Alaskan wolves."
2017 marks the 100th Anniversary of Denali (Formerly Mount McKinley) National Park. I have photographed and lived near the park for almost 50 years, half its existence. My tavels have taken me around the world and to parks all over the US and western Canada. It is my opinion that Denali is one of the most difficult of all the national parks for a nature photographer, if not THE most difficult place to work of any park. The reason: access. Access to Denali is controlled with almost all visitation by bus, either tour or by what is called the VTS (Visitor Transportation System.) With such a scheduled and heavily-used system in place it is very diffcult to access prime landscape locations with any reasonable expectation of arriving early or late, as dictated by the light, or staying for an extended period on location as the situation requires. Wildlife photography is a particular challenge. Under current park policy there are no LEGAL wildlife photography tours within the park.
Back in the 1970's and 1980's it was not uncommon to shoot as much as 300 rolls of film in two weeks, subjects including caribou, moose, bears, birds, landscapes, and the iconic images of Wonder Lake. Sadly wildlife subjects just aren't as commonplace as they once were and it rare to get many great opporuntities, except fleeting moments. The best photographs come after hard hikes and long days waiting for the best situation to develop. The best autumn moose area was, and remains, the first part of the Park Road from Mile 6 to Mile 13, which is open to private vehicles. However, a dozen or so years ago the Park Service closed access to off-road areas, all photography limited to and from the road only. Needless to say, many fine photo opportunities are missed by animals being too far from the road. The Park Service disingenuously justifies the closure as "Critical Moose Rutting Habitat." Nonsense. Because some moose wear radio collars, the location of the rutting cells are precisely known and the cells move about yet large areas are kept closed that do not have rutting groups present. This is one those "public safety issues" that the agency comes up with to justify, right or wrong, any questionable action. I don't doubt there may be a need for a closure around a group of moose, given some actions by the general public, but call a spade a spade. Safety not resource policy.
The best way to get good photos at Denali, short of a special permit, is by camping at either the Teklanika River and riding the bus daily, or camping at Wonder Lake at the end of the Park Road. Wildlife can be found near Wonder Lake and the views are iconic when the weather is good. Often, however, the Wonder Lake Campground is reserved months in advance and difficult to get. For those riding the bus in and out of Teklanika Campground, it is best not to venture beyond Eielson Visitor Center. The prime viewing locations, especially for bears are between Eielson and Toklat River. Igloo canyon is sometimes good for Dall sheep and hikers can often find animals that in the feeder drainages. Nature photography at Denali requires patience and perseverance but even so the result can be frustration.
The May 2014 issue of Alaska Magazine boasted a wonderful cover image of harbor seals on ice taken by a well-known photographer. The photographer, whom I count as a friend, is well-known for his unique trips, workshops, and high regard and concern for wildlife and involvement in conservation issues. Instead of a moment to savor, the moment faded quickly when letters to the editor arrived critical of the image and declaring that the photographer must have harassed the seals to get the shot and broken the Marine Mammal Protection Act. How? According to the letter writers the seals were looking at the photographer! And furthermore the bow of his kayak was visible in the picture, “a clear violation.” Oh, my. (As many of us know, and for the record, there is no regulatory approach distance established for seals.)
First, no animal – unless dead or somehow severely impaired – would fail to look up if it heard or sensed something or someone approaching. Robin, ram, bird, bear, seal or elephant, all creatures will look if something is approaching them and then make a decision as to what to do. Bird watchers, photographers, wildlife watchers, all have had animals stop feeding or whatever, look up, assess the situation, and either leave or go back to whatever it was they were doing in the first place. In the situation depicted in the now controversial photo I personally detect no distress and suspect that the seals just flopped back down to rest after they assessed the situation. I base my judgment on nearly 50 years of wildlife photography in Alaska. I will say however, that absolutely no one knows what happened after the shutter clicked besides the photographer and his companions, if any. I take him at his word that the whole event did not result in harm to the animals.
The magazine editor apparently contacted the NOAA Fisheries Services for comment. (NOAA is responsible for enforcement for the Marine Mammal Protection Act.) Spokesman Jon Kurland in Juneau was quoted as saying it was difficult to assess from the photo if “harassment had occurred” but that the animal’s “heads up posture reflected vigilant behavior,” which can be a sign of alertness to an impending threat. Harassment is illegal as we all know Kurland reiterated the basic rules. (However, this cover photo shows nothing other than animals looking up with the tip of a kayak extending somewhat into the foreground. It would be a huge stretch to label this proof of harassment.) After explaining that there are no federal distance rules established for seals Kurland went on to be quoted as saying that “humans and animals should keep a respectful distance.”
Much of the criticism levelled by the letter writers seems to be based on a false understanding of the law, as well as an unrealistic understanding of animal behavior. The photographer has 20-years of experience in Alaska and when he says he moves away from wildlife at the first sign of distress or discontent I, again, believe him. This whole incident is a good reminder to review the rules for approaching animals and be careful around wildlife so that our actions can not be misconstrued. To paraphrase the Bard, this event seems to have been a “tempest in a teapot.”