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  • Writer's pictureLibby Bushell

How and Why We Leave No Trace In Katmai NAtional Park

Updated: Feb 26

Brown Bear strolling down a path at Brooks Falls
Brown Bear in Katmai National Park

Picture this: There’s a slight salt breeze blowing through the sedge grass. That bright solstice sun is so high in the sky it’s more north than above, and seagulls are shrieking over a salmon carcass nearby when along come a big ‘ol brown bear, ursus arctos sauntering straight towards you.

Calmly, you say hello and step off the path. She passes with a sniff of acknowledgment in your direction. Her fur ripples, her eyes glisten. She is close enough for you to smell the fish she ate for breakfast. It’s July in Katmai and you are a part of this wilderness.

With thousands of annual visitors to Katmai National Park, the bears are habituated to the presence of humans, which means that they recognize people as part of their ecosystem. However, unlike other bears in other places, the Coastal Brown Bear of Alaska is not food-conditioned. A food-conditioned bear sees humans as a source of food, whether from intentional

feeding or from sloppiness. A food-conditioned bear is dangerous.

The Coastal Brown Bears of Katmai are not food-conditioned, even though they are habituated to humans. This is why we can exist amidst them. We do it by practicing the principles of Leave No Trace.

Leave No Trace (LNT) is an organization whose mission is to ensure a sustainable future for the outdoors and the planet. Leave No Trace is not meant to be a rigid set of rules, but rather to be flexible guidelines that help the wilderness visitor be conscious of their environment and exist as a part of it. When we leave no trace, we are not merely bear-viewing, but interacting with the environment of Katmai in a way that is respectful to the bears, to the terrain, to the flora and fauna, to its history and to its inhabitants and visitors in the future.

In Katmai, the pilots, guides and guests of Emerald Air Service practice the 7 principles of Leave No Trace like this:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare:

Before we fly, we make sure that we are prepared for the weather that may arise. We

bring appropriate clothing layers and foot gear. (See our recommended packing list

here). We bring extra medication and survival gear in case of weather delays. We bring

food that isn’t going to leave a trace. We bring gear to pack out our bathroom trash. We

bring extra batteries for our cameras so we can take only photos and leave only

footprints. We learn about bear behavior so that when we’re out there, we can be as

predictable and as respectful as possible. Our bear viewing trip starts before we leave

Beluga Lake when we plan and we prepare.

2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces:

In Katmai, we typically stay on established trails, whether made by humans at Brooks

Camp, or made by bears out in the bush. Durable surfaces include: trails, rock, gravel,

sand, dirt and snow. In the presence of the Coastal Brown Bear, however, it becomes

more important that we travel and camp out in the open, visible to the bears and yielding to their right-of-way. Sometimes that means carefully stepping off the trail and onto lichen or sedge grass and in this situation, that’s okay.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly:

We always pack out what we pack in. All trash, down to the poppy seeds of our bagels, is packed out in our backpacks. When we prepared for our bear-viewing trip, we decided on lunches and snacks that were not excessively messy or fishy. When we eat, we eat over our backpacks, so that the crumbs and drips get packed out with us. We never leave our gear unattended and we never leave anything behind that would make the bears interested in sniffing around us next time. In high-density areas like Moraine Creek, we pack out our toilet paper and our No. 2s, but don’t worry—we’ve got systems to make your wilderness bathroom as tidy as (and more scenic than) your bathroom back home.

4. Leave What You Find:

In Katmai National Park, taking rocks, antlers, artifacts and fossils is prohibited. As

operators within the National Park, we abide by the rules and regulations set by the

Rangers. And although it is not expressly forbidden, we do not generally collect the flora, even though we’ll learn about it while we’re out there. We tread lightly upon the area and take home only memories and photographs, ensuring that the landscape stays as wild for the next visitor as it was for us.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts:

In Alaska, where the weather is often cold and wet, fire-building is a quintessential

survival skill. Our guides are all trained in wilderness survival, however, on a bear-

viewing day trip with Emerald Air Service, our guests are out there to view bears, not to

deter them with smoke and flames. We bring warm layers and rain gear and if the weather is so bad that we might need to build a fire to survive, we stay home. If your travels take you to Katmai without a guide, be sure to review the Katmai Leave No Trace principles and observe any fire bans or warnings.

6. Respect Wildlife:

This is our raison d’etre. A day trip with Emerald Air Service is not merely a chance to

see bears, but an opportunity to learn about and learn from the bears. We are a part of the wilderness we visit, but we are also just visitors. At the end of the day, we’ll go home but the bears will continue fishing and fighting and mating and nursing and sleeping and playing and living their lives. We get to witness their wildness because we respect them and we respect them by practicing good bear safety and etiquette and Leave No Trace.

7. Be Considerate of Others:

Just as we respect the bears, we respect all other entities of the Katmai ecosystem by

practicing the principles of Leave No Trace. There might be other bear-viewing groups

nearby when we’re in the bush (and certainly at Brooks Camp), and so we move slowly,

quietly and predictably, allowing their bear-viewing experience to be as wild as ours.

As the bear passes, the smell of sun-soaked fur lingers behind her. You’ve greeted her with a confident “Hello Bear” as you’ve stepped aside and she’s lumbered off to more important activities. Your presence here does not harm nor bother her; she recognizes you as another apex predator, but one with whom she’ll never need to compete. She’s taught you a lesson in her indifferent passing, and when you’ve gone back to your regular life you are changed. You have left no trace amongst the Coastal Brown Bears of Alaska, but the bears have left their mark on you.

If you would like to learn more about LNT, and how to apply the principles to different

ecosystems, check out the Leave No Trace website. Katmai National Park has its own guidelines for applying the LNT principles, so if you’re going to see the bears without a guide, be sure to plan ahead and prepare by reviewing the LNT page of the Katmai website.

The author of this post, Libby B Bushell is a naturalist guide for Emerald Air Service. She is a certified LNT trainer and the founder of HoWL, Homer Wilderness Leaders. Libby lives in Homer, Alaska year-round, except when she’s visiting friends and family or reveling at Mardi Gras in New Orleans like she’s doing right now. She saw an alligator in the wild yesterday.

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