Colorful ash at the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park and Preserve. Photo Credit: NPS.
In southern Alaska, at the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park and Preserve is home to thousands of Alaskan brown bears, spawning salmon and a landscape of active volcanoes. In 1918, the site was declared a national monument to protect Mount Katmai and its surrounding area. In 1980, it was then expanded to become a park and preserve that furthered protections and allowed native Alaskan communities to continue to practice subsistence hunting.
Helping to the tell the story of this public land while celebrating 100 years since its monument designation is the nonprofit Friends Group, Katmai Conservancy.
The Founding of a Friends Group
Katmai Conservancy was founded in 2016 as a philanthropic partner for the park and preserve.
After first meeting at the Public Lands Alliance’s 2016 Convention and Trade Show in Spokane, WA, a small group of volunteers went to work over several months to create the nonprofit, finalize a partnership agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) and establish a functioning Board of Directors.
Barbara Muhlbeier, president of the Conservancy’s Board of Directors, said she has found a deep appreciation for Katmai over the past two years:
“Katmai is a truly special place,” she said. “There are so few areas in the world that have such an abundance of wildlife and unique cultural history.”
Barbara also said that while many people have heard of Katmai, few visit because the site is so remote and there are limited resources for visitors. The closest town of King Salmon is 290 miles southwest of Anchorage and the park itself is only accessible by plane or boat.
“While this means there are incredible opportunities for conservation and wilderness experiences, it also means that we need to be creative when we promote this place to the public,” she said.
Barbara along with Ellis Bacon, treasurer for the nonprofit, both explained that the conservancy has relied on partners to help share the value of Katmai and that Katmai’s Centennial has been an opportunity to strengthen those partnerships.
Katmai Conservancy Board of Directors and Katmai Superintendent Mark Sturm pose for a photo at Brooks Camp.
Friends Group Celebrates Katmai’s Centennial through Partnership
In 1912, Mount Katmai produced NovaErupta, the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. The event generated a large volume of pyroclastic flows and, for several years, the area was covered in steam vents and fumaroles. In the years that followed, a group of National Geographic Society explorers surveyed the area and witnessed a stunning landscape that was later named the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Their exploration led to lobbying efforts and ultimately the site’s protection as a national monument in 1918.
In celebration of Katmai’s Centennial, the National Geographic Society is recreating the original expedition to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and Katmai Conservancy is helping fund it.
“We’re excited to partner with the National Geographic Society for this project because it will help us tell the story of this unique time in history and help us understand what else there is to discover about this place,” Ellis said.
The society’s retracing of the original route will examine the still-existing camps occupied by the original explorers and will help document how the landscape has changed over the past century.
Katmai Conservancy is also creating a virtual story map tour of the route, new media displays for Katmai and a short film for the park that highlights the trip.
Jasper Sayer, a member of the 1918 National Geographic Expedition, descending into the steaming hot
cavern to record the fumarole’s temperatures at the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
In addition, Katmai Conservancy is hosting a range of activities and events with partners to honor Katmai’s 100 years.
This past April, they kicked off the Centennial with presentations on the geology and cultural history of Katmai with traditional dances performed by Sugpiaq people at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
In partnership with the NPS, the Conservancy also designed a Centennial logo that depicts core features of Katmai: the volcano, the Alaskan brown bear and the salmon.
Throughout the year, they are promoting the logo and inviting people to share Katmai stories on social media with the hashtag #katmai100.
Promoting Appreciation for Katmai through Bearcam
In recent years, Katmai has gained popularity as Bearcam has become an internet sensation. In partnership with Katmai, Explore.org streams video of Alaskan brown bears catching salmon at Brooks Falls and provides a unique opportunity for people to see bears up-close in the wild.
Brooks Falls is a natural salmon run between Lake Brooks and Naknek Lake in the heart of Katmai. In late June and throughout the summer, there is an abundance of swimming and jumping salmon. Because of this ample food supply, Katmai also has the largest protected population of Alaskan brown bears in the world.
“The Bearcam is why so many people know about us today,” Barbara said. “It is a very visible opportunity for us to share why this place needs to be protected and supported for future generations."
Barbara also praised Explore.org as a valued partner in providing the web cameras, funding ongoing maintenance and hiring two employees to manage Bearcam’s online presence and active online community.
“Explore.org is bringing the wonders of this remote park to the world and to the millions of people who would not otherwise know about Katmai or be able to visit it,” she said.
Alaskan Brown Bears at Brooks Falls. Photo Credit: Dave Cary.
Friends Group Looks to the Next 100 Years
With enthusiasm from the Centennial and worldwide appreciation for Katmai through Bearcam, the Friends Group is excited to further enhance programs that support the park. After the Centennial, the Friends Group plans to increase outreach to local native Alaskan communities by bringing education programs to the local schools and by bringing youth into Katmai to experience the park.
They also plan to fund research projects that advance understanding of the brown bear population and hope to share the wonders of Katmai through webinars, virtual reality experiences and digital media projects.
“We see our nonprofit’s primary role as two-fold: helping to preserve what makes Katmai so special and sharing that value with people, even if they can never visit here themselves," Barbara said.