BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: An epic adventure none of us will ever forget – The Bemidji Pioneer | Gmx Pharm

Seven of us recently spent 11 days and 10 nights canoeing, camping and fishing deep in the wilderness of southwest Alaska’s nearly 6,000 square mile Katmai National Park and Preserve. It was an epic adventure that none of us will ever forget.

The logistics of the trip were tricky, made possible by boarding smaller and smaller planes in smaller towns to eventually reach the park’s Brooks Camp.

First, a flight from Minneapolis to Anchorage and from Anchorage to King Salmon on Alaska Airlines, followed by a short flight on Katmai Air aboard a turbocharged, twin-prop Otter seaplane to the park.

Arriving at Katmai’s Brooks Camp, we rented three canoes and a one-person kayak, paddles, life jackets and bear vaults. We also bought pepper/bear spray and propane/isobutane fuel for our backpack stoves.

Katmai National Park and Preserve is known for hosting one of the highest population densities of brown bears on the planet. It is estimated that 2,200 to 2,500 coastal brown bears live in the park.

These giant bears thrive in this environment primarily because of the yearly abundance of salmon, but also because of the abundance of bear habitats filled with other natural foods.

In fact, before our 100+ mile paddling ended deep in the wilderness, we had encountered and observed over 70 brown bears – some of them roaming just a few feet from our tents.

We began our journey on July 6th on the 235 square mile Naknek Lake. The Brooks River joins the lake near Brooks Camp and Brooks Lodge where we rented the canoes. At the world famous Brooks Falls, about half a mile upstream from Brooks Lodge, people can watch brown bears congregate at the falls and fish for salmon.

Weather permitting, seaplanes and tour boats bring crowds of wildlife enthusiasts to Brooks Camp for either overnight stays at various campground facilities or for day trips to view and photograph wild bears from the secure viewing deck.

But in the wilderness where we were, it was a very different story. Bears there are not as used to humans as bears found near Brooks Camp, Brooks River and Brooks Falls.

The beauty of Alaska and its almost limitless splendor can hardly be described. And although our journey was long, it wasn’t long enough in the end. This country, the land of the midnight sun, did not disappoint in any way.

We fished, we canoed great distances, and we battled insects, wind, and rain, but nothing the Alaskan wilderness had to offer could dampen our joy and gratitude.

Our journey in Katmai started at about 90 feet above sea level (ASL). Rugged, snow-capped mountain peaks over 7,000 feet ASL, volcanoes and glaciers surrounded us as we paddled through the wilderness. The park is located on the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaska Peninsula, which is across from Kodiak Island in the Shelikof Strait.

Aside from the notable brown bear population, Katmai is also known as the valley of ten thousand smokers. This valley was so named after the largest volcanic eruption (in volume) of the 20th century (1912).

Evidence of this event, which occurred 110 years ago, was ubiquitous wherever we canoeed, explored, and camped—pumice, some the size of volleyball balls, floated on the lakes and rivers near which we canoed and camped. The sight of floating rocks was surreal.

Flora and fauna, although mostly familiar to me, offered surprises. For example, some wild bird species I had never observed prior to this trip – arctic tern, northern and pink-footed gull and white-winged duck to name a few, while others were recognizable Minnesota birders – American robin, hermit thrush, greater yellowlegs and others.

The tree species surprised me, especially that there weren’t more conifers, especially pines. In fact, I didn’t observe any pines. The dominant deciduous trees and shrubs in the part of Katmai we explored were balsam poplar, paper birch and alder.

White spruce trees were scattered along the mostly deciduous wooded hillsides and ridges. Balsam poplar, also called Balsam of Gilead, was a phenotype here at home that was alien to me. Some specimens looked cottony and grew to great height and girth with thick, wavy bark.

In the coming columns I will write more about our Alaskan adventure. I will address some of the challenges and excellent fishing and write more about bears and other wildlife species.

Additionally, you can count on reading a little about the humor that came with seven men living in close quarters on a wilderness hike. This and more as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a DNR wildlife manager in Minnesota. He can be reached at

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