Thursday, August 4, 2016

July 27 2016: At Katmai and back

It took us 1 1/2 hours to get to Brooks Lodge and about 8 gallons of gas. It was as if we knew where we were going. And it was really nice to have the map along, so we could look at it and ask each other, "Does that look like this bunch of islands here?"

We were surprised when we arrived that there was almost no beach. The rangers told us that the lake level was extra high because of early snow melt. Uh oh. I don't know what that means, but it probably means something people will have to adapt to.

There are some requirements when visiting a bear preserve. We have done this before, so we knew the drill: all food stuff goes into the food cache and we have to go through a bear orientation before they will let us out traipsing about on the same trails as the bears. It's really pretty remarkable that it is even possible to do this, so I don't have any trouble going along with the precautions. I believe in taking bears seriously.

These first three photos were taken at the same time. They show a few things: 1) way more fish jumping up the falls than I've ever seen before. I don't know if that's because we were actually here way earlier in the day than we've ever managed to arrive before or because there were lots more fish, period, or what; 2) no bears standing up on the falls to capture these fish as they finally make it over the falls. It seems almost cruel - we watched what seemed like the same fish take 10 tries before making it. It's sort of heart-breaking to finally make it on the 11th try, only to be caught by a bear; 3) at the very top of the photo, there is a bear sitting in the water, catching the fish as they approach or fall back from the falls. It's kind of hard to see and I've put a yellow arrow next to it.

Here is a close up of the same bear, with a snack in its mouth.

Zooming back out again, I got lucky with a shot and caught a whole bunch of fish jumping all at once. With the same bear in the background.

Here is Matt's head in front of a new bear that just came out to fish.

And Inku, in front of the same bear.

Here is a little more detail on that bear. It had just been successful and was walking to calmer waters to eat. They take a similar approach to the seals (called "sea bears"). They first strip off the skin and eat that. Makes me think there is something extra yummy or nutritious about the skin.

We came back from the falls and went into the lodge for refreshments -- and saw some of our beach gang friends from AGS! We rested there for a while, trying to decide whether we should rush and try to head back so Davey could go with us and catch his flight, or have him try to get a seat on a float plane. Actually, I don't know whether he actually ever had that option. They may just sell round trip tickets and the trip may need to start in King Salmon. But we never found out because we decided to rush out now.

The building wind (sigh) had pushed the skiff further up on the beach and the sand bar was kind of holding it there. I got into my waders to push it off. The crew noticed a bear down the beach, just on the other side of the float plane. Push harder! The guys from AGS were about to jump into the lake (brrr!) and took a detour to help us get to boat off - a familiar bit of assistance, just no Gehl to do it with.

There was a lot of splash with the building winds... and we were hungry. So we all got into our raingear and we pulled out the propane stove. Austin, the grilling king, took over the task of cooking the polish sausage hot dogs, something that was quite a bit more challenging (in the moving boat, the wind, and the splash) than he expected when he said he needed a grilling challenge. Jeff piloted slowly and carefully to minimize the splash. Sarah Y led the organization of the dogs and sauerkraut, handing around much needed lunch to all of us.

Inku didn't bring rainpants and I had already given mine to Matt (since I was in my waders). So Inku went with the traditional garbage bag rainpant substitute.

It always seems like a long and grueling trip back. We started to have mechanical problems with the outboard. It was acting like it had bad gas and going slowly accordingly. But the gas was all new, we used a filtering funnel to fill it, the fuel system had both an external filter and an internal filter. What was going on? I peered into the tank and saw a puddle of dirty water under the clean gas. Hmm, maybe that would do it. When we emptied the tank this time, we dumped everything into a bailing bucket, including the dirty puddle of water. I'll be darned - it ran better. Somehow, it's exhausting and just like a long car ride, everyone who can, sleeps.

We were watching the map, making sure we were following the same path we took toward Brooks Lodge and we were watching the time, worried about Davey's flight, especially since the gas problem slowed us down so much. But still, we thought that if we didn't make any mistakes, we should get him there on time. OK, just keep on taking left turns around islands and the dock at Lake Camp. It should be... there! Oh. Where is it? There's no opening? We must be one island over. Ok, go around this one and... there! Oh. Not there either. Where are we? The clock is ticking. We're still OK, but we need to figure out where we are and how to get to where we need to be.

We decided to double back between these two islands when suddenly something lifted up the Ambi on the port side with a terrible scraping noise and then dropped us again. I immediately looked behind us and saw the tip of either a huge rock or an island. My blood went a little cold as I realized that just a few inches more and it would have been the end of the Ambi's outboard. Aieee! Then what would we have done? We were in the process of accepting that we had somehow wandered into the North Arm of the lake.
This map shows Lake Camp over to the left. To the left of that is the Alaska Peninsula Highway (the shortest highway in the U.S. and the road between Naknek and King Salmon.) You might be able to make out the trail between the Visitor Center in King Salmon and Lake Camp. I stopped to ask directions at the Visitor Center because I remember us taking the wrong turn once before. Answer: always turn to the left. The black line shows the route we think we took in the skiff from Lake Camp to Brooks Camp. The red line with arrows going the other direction shows the route we must have taken to get lost heading back. We really couldn't believe that we had wandered that far north, but I think that's what getting lost is all about. You end up somewhere you can't figure out how you got there. Austin and Jeff navigated us out and to Lake Camp (thankfully, it was still light - hurrah for an early start!). As soon as we were within range, Davey called Pen Air (yep, they had already given away his seat, but they put him on standby for the next flight). We then contacted Amanda at Nakeen Home Pack where Davey had his fish processed and stored to see if they could meet us at the airport with Davey's fish. We made a plan to dock and Austin, Davey, Jeff, and I would run for the truck, disconnect the trailer and race Davey to the airport so he could get in line to check in.

We were in ongoing communication with Amanda. She was willing to bring the fish up, but as soon as we dropped off Davey, we raced to her place, thinking we could meet her halfway and speed up the process. As it turned out, we got there just as they were pulling the fish from the freezer. We threw it into the back of the truck and raced back to the airport... in time!

Davey got checked in and once we saw that the fish had crossed the threshold into their checked baggage pile, we headed back to get the rest of the crew and the Ambi. Again, Austin and Jeff were the heroes of the trailering process. We tied it down, really weighted the bow (because it was sitting even farther back on the trailer now so the tongue was even lighter), and headed back to AGS. It was with a great feeling of relief that we unhooked the trailer for the last time this season and headed back down the beach, having received Davey's message that he made the standby flight and later caught up with his original itinerary.

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