Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918 to preserve the living laboratory of its cataclysmic 1912 volcanic eruption, particularly the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The intervening years have seen most of the surface geothermal features cool. But the protection of brown bears has become an equally compelling charge for Katmai. To protect this magnificent animal and its varied habitat, the boundaries were extended over the years, and in 1980 the area was designated a national park and preserve.
Katmai looms so vast that the bulk of it must elude all but a very few persistent visitors. To boat its enormous lakes and their island-studded bays, to float its rushing waterways, to hike the wind-whipped passes of its imposing mountains, or to explore its Shelikof Strait coastline require great effort and logistical planning. This unseen Katmai lies beyond our usual experiences here of fishing from Brooks Camp, walking up to Brooks Falls, and riding the bus out to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. We come to Katmai to sample but an edge of this enormity of raw natural forces, a sampling that itself constitutes a rare and endangered opportunity.
Katmai's awe-inspiring natural powers confront us most visibly in its volcanics and its brown bears: in summer North America's largest land predators gather along streams to feast on salmon runs, building weight from this wealth of protein and fat, preparing for the long winter ahead. Alaska's brown bears and grizzlies are now considered one species. People commonly consider grizzlies to be those that live 100 miles and more inland. Browns are bigger than grizzlies thanks to their rich diet of fish. Kodiak brown bears are a different subspecies that is geographically isolated on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Mature male bears in Katmai may weigh up to 900 pounds. Mating occurs from May to mid-July, with the cubs born in dens in mid-winter. Up to four cubs may be born, at a mere pound each. Cubs stay with the mother for two years, during which time she does not reproduce. The interval between litters is usually at least three years. Brown bears dig a new den each year, entering it in November and emerging in April. About half of their lifetimes is spent in their dens. Because each bear is an individual, no one can predict exactly how a given bear will act in a given situation. These awe-inspiring bears symbolize the wildness of Katmai today.