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Located west across Shelikof Strait from Kodiak Island in Alaska’s southwest region on the Alaskan Peninsula, Katmai National Park and Preserve was first declared a National Monument in 1918 to preserve the unique volcanic features of the area.  The park also protects 10,000 years of Native Alaskan cultural sites, the abundant natural resources that feed the descendants of those earliest inhabitants, and the world’s largest population of brown bears.

The 15 active volcanoes that line Shelikof Strait make Katmai one of the world›s most active volcanic centers. These Aleutian Range volcanoes are pipelines into the fiery cauldron that underlies Alaska›s southern coast and extends down both Pacific Ocean shores, forming the Pacific Ring of Fire. The most violent Alaskan eruption recorded occurred in June 1912 from Novarupta Volcano, releasing ten times the volume of magma as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and three times more than Mount Pinatubo in 1991. When the eruption was finally over, more than 40 square miles of once lush, green land were buried under volcanic deposits as deep as 700 feet.  The landscape was riddled by thousands of steam vents, and named by explorer Robert Griggs "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes." Today, the steam vents are gone and the valley continues to recover. Visitors to the area can still see evidence of the eruption and are reminded of the awesome power and destruction volcanoes can unleash. Many of the bear viewing operators fly over Katmai’s volcanoes on their way back to home base and flightseeing excursions can be arranged.

Another much more predictable type of eruption occurs annually in Katmai: Sockeye salmon burst into park waters from the northern Pacific Ocean where they have spent 2 to 3 years growing fat, returning to the headwater gravel beds of their birth to deposit their spawn before dying. The salmon run begins in late June and by the end of July a million fish may have moved from Bristol Bay into the Naknek system of lakes and rivers. Sockeye spawn during August, September and October, when they cease feeding upon entering freshwater and exhibit the physiological changes that lead to the distinctive red color, humped back and elongated jaw they develop during spawning.  Stream bottoms must have the correct texture of loose gravel for the eggs to develop and water must flow freely through winter to aerate the eggs. By spring the young fish that have just hatched emerge from the gravel beds migrate into the larger lakes, living there two years before beginning the cycle once again. Salmon provide food for the bears, bald eagles, rainbow trout and other creatures that forage along these streams. 

Katmai is also known as one of the premier brown bear viewing areas in the world. About 2,200 brown bears are estimated to inhabit the park, with more bears than people living on the Alaskan Peninsula.  As many bear populations around the world decline, Katmai provides some of the few remaining unaltered habitats for these amazing creatures. At Katmai, scientists are able to study bears in their natural habitat, visitors enjoy unparalleled viewing opportunities, and the bears are able to continue their life cycle largely undisturbed. Maintaining this fragile balance between people and bears is the key to Katmai’s success as a bear-viewing destination. It is important that all who visit Katmai respect bears and are armed with the knowledge to stay safe in Bear Country.  In recognizing the needs of the bears and giving them space, each of us plays a role in keeping them wild and safe as well.


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