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  • Writer's pictureEmerald Air Service

Katmai National Park and Preserve: a Brief History

One of the most wonderful things about flying over Katmai, watching its landscape scroll below you, is the realization that it is all wilderness. This realization is true and worth thinking about, even basking in, for much of your flight. But another realization to grapple with is the question of who was here before us and what where their lives like.

1. Katmai's First Peoples (~3000 BC)

Tools and pottery from Alaskan Natives have been found in the area dating back thousands of years. The Native Alaskans that lived in the area are two distinct but closely related people groups, the Inuits and the Yupiks. A related third group is the Aleuts, which inhabit the Aleutian islands that stretch out after the Alaska Peninsula ends. Archeological evidence suggests that the people of the Brooks River region traded with Katmai Coastal people around 300 BC (Katmai, Jean Bodeau, 64).

1.1 Hunting and Gathering

The people of the Brooks River area fished during the summers and stockpiled dried salmon to help carry them through the winters. In addition to salmon, they hunted caribou and bears, trapped fox, beaver, and lynx, and gathered and dried Katmai's abundant wild berries. Because Alaskan natives believe that people's spirits passed into animals upon death, they would don ornate ritual hunting hats to symbolize their respect and gratitude for the life of the animal. Hunting the brown bear was a notable test of great courage and endurance.

2. The Russians Arrive in Alaska (1721)

Seeking more furs, Peter the Great ordered Vitus Bering to explore the North Pacific in 1725 (fur sources in Siberia had been exhausted due to over hunting). Although thick fog and ice caused Bering to turn back during his first voyage, his second voyage successfully passed through what is known today as the Bering Strait and he made sight of Alaska in 1741 when he arrived in the Gulf of Alaska and established Russian sovereignty. Russia's fur trade proved to be a lucrative but bloody period in Alaskan history.

The Bering Strait, the channel of water between Russian and Alaska.

2.1 The Bloody Fur Trade Enterprise

The stunning, waterproof coat of the sea otter proved wildly profitable and sought after. The natives proved more deft otter hunters, and the Russians enslaved the natives and forced them to hunt in large parties for otter furs. Rampant hunting nearly wiped out the sea otter population, and the fur traders pushed east to Kodiak Island in 1763. Two Siberian merchants, Shelikhov and Golikov, were intent on controlling the entire North American fur trade, and founded the Shelikhov-Golikov Company post at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. In order to monopolize the industry, Shelikhov then formed a consortium by the name of Russian American Company, to which the Czar of Imperial Russia granted exclusive dominion over Alaska in 1799 (Katmai, Jean Bodeau, 74).

2.2 The Russian American Company Arrives in Katmai

The Russian American Company crossed the Shelikof Straight from Kodiak Island to Katmai, and established a trading post in Katmai village in 1799. During this time (1750–1800), it's also worth noting that Russian Empress Catherine the Great granted native Alaskans Russian citizenship, protecting them from Russian trader abuses and enslavement. The Russian Orthodox Church was also sending missionaries to Russian Alaska, evangelizing thousands of Native Americans. The Russian Orthodox Church remains the most visible influence today among Native Americans through the many Russian Orthodox parishes with a membership of almost exclusively Native Americans.

3. Alaska Purchased by America (1867)

By the mid-nineteenth century, the sources for Russian American furs had been exhausted, and the sea otter had been brought to the brink of extinction due to competition with the British Hudson's Bay Company. Additional threats from possible Native American revolts, financial losses from the Crimean War defeat, and the overall expense that Alaska was as a colony moved Russia to sell Alaska before lest they lose it without financial compensation.

Following the Union's victory in the American Civil War, Russia entered into negotiations with United States Secretary of State William Seward in March of 1867. At Seward's recommendation, the U.S. Senate approved the Alaska Purchase at 2 cents an acre, which came to $7.2 million USD on April 9th, 1867 (equivalent to ~$140 million in 2021).

The U.S. check used to pay for Alaska, originally located in the National Archives.

4. America Explores Alaska

Following the purchase, a small party of scientists sailed north to survey the natural resources of Alaska. While most Americans seemed in favor of the purchase, some opposed it, calling it "Seward's Folly." The report returned from Alaska noted "oil seeps, oil floating on lakes, and coal in Katmai and other areas of the Alaska peninsula" (Katmai, Jean Bodeau, 75). Further reports from the Katmai area left the United States Geological Survey unimpressed, which led them to leave the area undeveloped. While thousands rushed to Alaska in hopes of finding riches, it was soon discovered that Alaska's resources were not easily obtainable without capital and resources of their own, and most left. It was not until the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896 that Alaska came to be seen as a valuable addition to America.

5. The Largest Eruption of the 20th Century (1912)

The eruption of Novarupta (this eruption also involved Mount Katmai, another volcano six miles east whose peak collapsed and formed a crater lake as a result) is Alaska's largest in history and rocked the Alaskan Peninsula and Katmai for 60 hours, producing 14 earthquakes of magnitude 6.0-7.0, releasing 30 times the volume of magma of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption, and darkening the sky for 3 days. "The sound of the explosion would be heard in Atlanta and St. Louis, and the fumes observed as far away as Denver, San Antonio, and Jamaica" (Robert F. Griggs, National Geographic Magazine, 1917, v. 81 no. 1, p. 50). Conflicting reports tell that up to 10 people died as a result of this eruption, but largely the natives and all others living in Katmai were able to escape safely by sea where they permanently relocated after the blast.

Mount Katmai's Crater Lake, 1980

6. The EXPANSION AND PRESERVATION of Katmai (1916-2022)

After the expedition returned from exploring the aftermath of the Novarupta eruption, they together with the National Park Service recommended the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes be made a national monument (the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was formed as a result of the magma flow from Novarupta), which President Woodrow Wilson signed off on in 1918. Katmai's 1,700 square miles were expanded to the north by Herbert Hoover in 1931, increasing Katmai's size to 4,214 square miles. Despite attempts to abolish the monument due to the dying out of the smokes, Franklin D. Roosevelt added all islands within five miles of the Katmai coast to the monument area in 1942. During World War II, the U.S. military established bases in nearby King Salmon. In 1950, Ray Petersen of North Consolidated Airlines established Brooks Camp (aka Brooks Falls) due to its tourism potential (Katmai, Jean Bodeau, 109). In 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed boundary adjustments that included another 100,000 acres north and west. President Jimmy Carter expanded Katmai by 1.37 million acres in 1978, primarily on the north side of the monument. Finally, Katmai National Park and Preserve was established through ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act). An additional 1 million acres were added to Katmai, bringing it to its current total of 3.67 million acres.

Many attempts were made to abolish the Katmai monument by whomever wanted to exploit the resources and animals of Katmai. In 1987, the Pebble Deposit was discovered north of Illiamna Lake, which though not a part of Katmai, would nonetheless detrimentally affect Katmai, its salmon, its brown bears, and the entire ecological neighborhood that thrives there. The Katmai monument, now a National Park and Preserve, continues to be a thriving wild space for more than 100 years. May there be many more to come.

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