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True Alaska

Katmai National Park has it all, unless you're looking for people.

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We had planned to hike for two weeks: up the valley, over the mountains, and down to the coast. We had made it up the valley and into the mountains, and we were now looking at a stream about 15 feet wide. Trouble was, it was about four feet deep, and one of the people in our party was just over five feet tall. And we knew that of the three waterways we'd have to cross, this was the smallest.

This is how it goes in the wilderness. There are things you can't plan for. Our five-footer, Joanne, happens to be a geophysicist with the University of Alaska, and she had been looking at satellite images of our route. The images had resolution down to three feet she had actually updated our 1950-something maps to show a lava flow from the 1960s but there was more water in the park this year than in most, so what was generally a trickle was now a dangerous torrent.

We wouldn't be hiking to the coast after all. But we still had time and supplies, so we had options. We could explore the mountains, try to climb the volcano, go back into the valley and look around or, this being Alaska, go back to park headquarters and call for an airplane to take us to the coast. While most of Alaska is wilderness, it is generally more accessible wilderness than anywhere else in America, because in Alaska the taxis have wings.

We were in Katmai National Park, and we had come to see all that the place has to offer. We arrived in lush, deeply forested land filled with fish and bears. We hiked into the barren path of a fairly recent volcanic eruption. We came face-to-face with grizzlies. When our progress was stopped, we hired a plane. And then we settled on the coast to fish for salmon, explore beaches, meet more bears, and wait for our plane ride back. Katmai is all of this, yet it is virtually without people. It's true Alaska.

Before 1912, the valley below Mt. Katmai was as green and filled with life as any around it. But in June of that year a massive eruption occurred, 10 times more powerful than that of Mount St. Helens. When it was over, Mount Katmai was basically gone, and the valley was buried in ash 700 feet deep in some places. Three years later, the National Geographic Society managed to cross from the coast into the valley the reverse of what we had planned and found thousands of steam vents littering the valley. Some of them rose more than 1,000 feet. They gave the place one of the great names on earth: The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

Today the valley is a 400-square-mile moonscape of ash (the steam vents are long gone), but the rivers have cut gorges through. One is about four feet wide and, depending on the water level, as deep as 100 feet. I'm told it makes for a fascinating leap; we crossed higher up, though, where the only impediment was the temperature: In a few hours, we could have hiked to the glacier the river sprang from.

Most people come to Katmai for the fishing and the bears. Those are concentrated down at Brooks Camp, the only place in the park inhabited by humans and one of a few park entrances in Alaska that can only be reached by airplane.

There are some 2,000 grizzlies in Katmai, and a bear couldn't ask for a better place to live. The world's largest run of sockeye salmon comes through every summer, and along the coast bears eat clams, crabs, and whale carcasses. At the peak of the salmon run, you might see 50 bears at a time catching salmon at a waterfall near Brooks Camp. During our 10-day trip out of Brooks, we encountered four people and four bears.

The plane took us over the mountains and down to the coast. In another classic Alaska moment, the pilot told us that if it was too cloudy at our destination, Geographic Harbor, he'd just drop us at Nunivak Lake. Same thing, right? But the harbor was clear, and he said he'd be back in four days to get us. We camped a few yards off a beach where a school of salmon was plainly visible, a tiny stream supplied fresh water, eagles soared overhead, and we had our closest encounter with a bear.

I had just caught and cleaned a salmon on the beach, and when we walked back to camp there was a grizzly and her cub standing next to the tent. We stared at each other, and then they walked off, simple as that. The cub, curious, kept looking back at us. I counted it off later; they had been 17 of my steps away from us.

When you're on a wilderness shoreline at the base of a volcano, you just saw a grizzly, and you're about to have fresh-caught salmon for dinner, you're in the true Alaska.

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