Clouds as sticky as cotton candy clung to the edge of jagged mountain peaks. Silver lakes pocketed a bumpy green carpet of trees. Rivers braided and twisted in the sun.
The two-and-half-hour flight to Katmai National Park showcased parts of Alaska I had never seen before and yet I couldn’t stop worrying about a friend’s warning: “Don’t tell the kids where you are going. I still remember when my parents left me at home.”
By the time my brother died at age eighteen of the same disease that would claim my mother, my parents had taken us rafting, horseback riding, and caving in nearly all the national parks in the United States except for the ones in Alaska. I remember a mother who carried me out of my bed and into the backseat of her car padded with pillows and blankets. She never left home without me, a legacy I wanted to leave my kids.
After I became a parent, I started to realize how difficult this tradition was. Inevitably, Alaska presented opportunities like fishing on the ocean or snowmachining that Thomas and I would rather enjoy together than leave one of us at home with the kids.
This summer, a relative of mine gifted me a thousand dollars towards fulfilling my mother’s request that I visit Alaska’s national parks for her. Ten years ago, Thomas proposed to me in Denali. We cruised Kenai Fjords on that trip. When we moved to Eagle River seven years ago, we drove through Wrangell-St. Elias.
Since then, we’ve revisited these parks with the kids (See Peaks, Glaciers, and Kids) but gave up on seeing the parks off the road system due to cost and logistics. Owners of lodges in these parks regretfully admit that their price point is high (some visitors spend up to $40,000) because their business only runs 90 days a year.
Fortunately, companies like Rust’s Flying Service offer one day trips to Katmai or Lake Clark from Anchorage. Rust’s Flying Service has been operating since 1963 and yet none of my local friends knew that they could leave Anchorage at 8am, spend four hours at Katmai, then return to Anchorage by 6pm.
The first question our pilot, Virgil, asked us was, “Where are you from?” He took a step back when he heard our answer. “Wow, locals! Yeah, we don’t see many of you.”
While there is no age restriction on these trips, I was surprised to learn that young kids usually don’t accompany parents to Katmai. As soon as we stepped off our floatplane onto the banks of Naknek Lake in Katmai, we were sandwiched by two brown bears, approaching us from opposite directions. The park ranger that welcomed our party instructed us to be quiet and never run, two behaviors my kids would’ve had a hard time with.
Interpretive Park Ranger Jacqi Terry who manned the bear-viewing platform with her boyfriend said that in three years working at Katmai, she’s only seen about 2% children. She said that the young kids usually can’t endure the long wait for a spot on the platform, which only accommodates 40 visitors at a time.
The week I weighed whether to take the kids, a black bear visited our front yard every evening. Kyra and Ethan jumped up and down on our deck and made so much noise that the bear usually scampered off. If the bear ignored us, then the kids paid attention to it for only a few seconds.
Even though the kids seemed more excited about having a play date with their babysitter, I didn’t stop feeling like I had broken my mom’s legacy until I stood a few feet above a 1,000 pound brown bear, which ripped apart a salmon in seconds. A shower of guts pelted my skin as the salmon stubbornly flopped its tail even though only bits of flesh hung onto its bones.
For an hour, we enjoyed seven of the largest bears we’ve ever seen fishing at Brooks Falls. Battle scars rippled over knotted muscles. Sharp claws scratched their bellies. Pink tongues flicked across their moist noses. Deep throated growls earthquaked the platform that allowed us to taste this raw power of nature.
Walking hand-in-hand on Falls Trail back to our floatplane, Thomas and I noted how we hadn’t seen any kids and how grateful we were that Rust’s Flying Service had encouraged us not to bring ours.
That evening after I paraphrased parts of Brown Bears of Brooks River by Ronald Squibb and Tamara Olson, Kyra pretended to be the brave yearling that dared to swat at Conan’s muzzle, halting the cub killer’s charge just long enough for Old Mom to intervene. It was her favorite story because according to Kyra the Mommee bear saved the baby bear.
The kids counted fifteen bears in the photos and videos that we shared with them. They rolled on the floor, held their stomachs, and laughed hysterically over the bear that scratched its armpit.
Ethan fell asleep beneath the bear stuffed animal we brought home from Katmai, which Kyra proudly named “Diver,” one of the oldest and most dominant of all the male bears at Brooks Falls.
So far, the kids have not complained that we didn’t bring them along.