Late last July, after watching bearcam for a month, I got the itch to visit Brooks Camp where I had worked and lived for many summers. During an extended break from work recently, I spent a couple of nights camping there to binge watch bears. I had originally planned to spend three nights at Brooks Camp, but weather conditions conspired to alter my plans.
On September 3, during the final approach on my flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, I felt pangs of excitement and eagerness as I caught glimpses of Naknek Lake, Dumpling Mountain and much of the rest of western Katmai National Park.
I arrived in King Salmon to mostly cloudy skies and a strong northeasterly wind. Situated at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, King Salmon and Katmai National Park often experience windy conditions, so I didn’t think much of it.
After checking in with Katmai Air, I patiently waited to board one of their small floatplanes, which would take me the final thirty miles to Brooks Camp. The wind increased in strength as I waited for my flight. Travelling via plane, rail, or bus usually stimulates mild anxiety in me, not because I fear a crash but because I don’t want to deal with delays. After the first Katmai Air flight left, I sat patiently for the plane to return so I could head to Brooks Camp. As it turned out, I would have to wait for nearly 24 more hours.
About 45 minutes after it left, the Katmai Air Otter returned with the same passengers. When I saw them exit the plane, I knew the chances of reaching Brooks Camp were slim that day.
Katmai lies at the head of the Alaska Peninsula, a northeast-southwest trending arc of land jutting into the North Pacific. The peninsula’s location and orientation expose it to the vast majority of storms bred from the Aleutian Low, a semi-permanent low-pressure system originating near the outer Aleutian Islands. The peninsula’s mountains represent a major topographical barrier to these northeast-tracking storms. When winds funnel through mountain valleys along the Aleutian Range, they often come with great force. Through Katmai Pass, winds are strong enough to hurl large pieces of pumice through the air, scouring the upper Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. (In Chapter XVII of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Robert Griggs describes weathering a violent wind storm that destroyed his camp near Katmai Pass in 1919.)
Although Brooks Camp and Brooks River lie at a much lower elevation than Katmai Pass, the area remains exposed to easterly winds driven through the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. On my travel day, while conditions were never too windy to keep planes grounded in King Salmon, Brooks Camp was experiencing a gale.
Around noon, two hours after I was supposed to reach Brooks Camp, Katmai Air cancelled all day trips to Brooks River due to unsafe landing conditions and a lack of time. The faces of those on day trips expressed genuine disappointment. They left dejected. Knowing just how amazing Brooks River is, I don’t blame them. I felt my own bit of disappointment through the afternoon and evening. I would not reach Brooks Camp that day.
I had two more nights planned, thankfully, so I could wait out the storm and reach Brooks Camp (I’ll chronicle my experience there in forthcoming post). While flights to and from Brooks Camp are occasionally delayed, it’s rare for them to be canceled due to weather. Every few years though, a strong windstorm prevents safe landings and departures on Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. In 2009, 60 people, who had only planned to spend one day at Brooks Camp, were stranded due to strong winds. No one who knows the area well would ever say the weather there is benign.