BROOKS CAMP -- About seven hours after leaving my desk at work, I found myself fumbling with the door handle of an empty pickup truck near Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park and Preserve . I was hoping the door was unlocked, so that I could escape the two very large brown bears walking down a dirt road toward me, about 50 yards away and closing.
I’d flown into the park a few hours earlier on a float plane, for a hiking trip with four of my friends to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes , a spectacular volcanic area created in a massive eruption a century ago.
When I’d reserved our tent spot at Brooks Camp — where we’d stay before a bus trip out to the valley the next day — I’d been vaguely aware of bears in the area, given that the campsite’s brochure boasted about its “bear-resistant” electric fence. (Per the comforting description: “The fence is not bear proof, but once shocked, bears tend to avoid any further contact with electric fences.”)
What I did not know, however, is that Brooks Camp is literally crawling with bears, and that I would be nearly face-to-snout with one within a couple of hours of touching down.
The pickup door was unlocked. Fortunately, I didn’t even have to climb in, as the two bruins ambled past toward something more interesting — or, more likely, toward something tastier, such as the sockeye salmon rushing up the nearby Brooks River.
That was my group’s welcome to Katmai, a 6,500-square-mile expanse on the Alaska Peninsula so thick with wilderness features that it feels almost contrived, as if the bears and the mountains were planted for the filming of an adventure reality television show.
The five of us — myself, three roommates, and one more like-minded 20-something outdoor enthusiast — had settled on the trip to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes a couple of months earlier, after considering and discarding other options that included packrafting out of a volcanic caldera in another Alaska park (too complicated), and hiking in Southeast Alaska (too wet, too much time required).
Watching bears chow down
The Valley of 10,000 Smokes’ selling points?
• Reasonably cheap: From Anchorage, we got to Brooks Camp and back for $200, thanks to mileage tickets. We booked from Ted Stevens International Airport to King Salmon, the jumping off point for most Katmai trips.
• Different: Volcanoes aren’t accessible, say, from Anchorage’s popular Glen Alps trail head.
• Not hugely technical: All of the people in my group were young and fit, but some of us, especially myself, had minimal climbing or mountaineering experience. We brought crampons, but they didn’t leave my backpack during our trip.
Our group arrived at Brooks Camp on a floatplane from King Salmon late on a Friday afternoon. We started with a quick mandatory bear safety lesson from a park ranger, which is probably valuable for many Outside tourists, though I think most Alaskans would know to stay at least 50 yards away from bears, and recognize that foaming at the mouth is a warning sign.
Then, we set up our tents, made a quick dinner, and took the 15-minute walk to Brooks Falls, where we spent the rest of our evening standing at a platform with a handful of tourists, watching as bears gorged on salmon, including at least one that jumped directly into a bear’s open jaws.
The next day we woke early to head out on our hiking trip, which started with a 23-mile drive to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes on a jacked-up school bus operated by Katmailand, the company that also runs a lodge for tourists at Brooks Camp as a U.S. National Park Service concessionaire. The price is steep -- $100 for a round trip of 46 miles -- but there are no other options.
Hut on Baked Mountain
The bus dropped us off at an unmarked trail head, with a faint path leading the 10 miles across sand and rock to our destination: the Baked Mountain hut.
Getting there required us to descend through alders and cross the Lethe River, which in its lower reaches becomes a treacherous (though spectacular) 50-foot-deep slot canyon, carved into the ash deposited in the massive volcanic eruption of 1912. That eruption was the largest of the 20th century and sent dust all the way to Europe and Africa.
We instead crossed the river higher up, where the water was hip-deep.
As we walked deeper into the valley, views of the mountains hemming it in on either side grew more and more impressive -- the glittering snowfields and glaciers of 7,100-foot Mount Mageik  on one side, and the rugged slopes of 7,600-foot Mount Griggs  on the other.
We were flagging, tired from pushing our feet into the valley’s soft sand, as we finally approached the hut, perched on a sandy shoulder of Baked Mountain, which is more of a tall ridge than a true peak.
But our moods improved when we arrived to find the hut unoccupied.
The hut is not luxurious, lacking such amenities as a sink or a stove. Rather, it is a shack, with a few plywood bunks, a plywood counter, walls, and a plastic tarp that appeared to be designed to shunt leaking water into a corner.
But it was free, open to the public and more than adequate for our purposes of sleeping, cooking noodles, and serving as a launch pad for day hikes. So we were happy.
There was an outhouse too, which even had a functioning door handle. (We dubbed another listing cabin attached to the hut as the “slanty shanty,” and allowed a pair of Fairbanks women who showed up a day after us to use it.)
The hut was base camp for our next three days in the valley. First, we tried walking up 6,700-foot Mount Katmai , which partially collapsed during the volcanic eruption and left a crater lake behind. We got close to the lake before we got wet and cold, and had to turn around. Or maybe not that close, but it was foggy and hard to tell, and we gave it our best shot.
Steaming pile of rocks
The second day, we walked with our Fairbanks friends to Novarupta, the spot where the 1912 volcanic eruption blasted out of the ground. Today, it’s a gnarly, steaming pile of rocks.
And on our third day, we beelined toward a pair of lakes at the base of Mount Mageik, where we took a quick dip, posed for a group photo, and stared up at the gigantic glaciers and geologic formations high above us. From there, we hiked halfway out with our gear for one last night in the valley, camped at the edge of the Lethe River.
The next day we met the bus, rode it back to Brooks Camp and spent our last night watching bears before catching our flight to King Salmon the next day.
If you go
A few suggestions to help maximize your Katmai visit without spending too much. Our trip cost about $350 for six days.
• Meals at Brooks Camp are absurdly expensive, but the beer is cheap enough.
• There’s excellent fishing there, though as park rangers will warn you, be prepared to cut your line or fight a brown bear for your meal.
• We had good weather for our trip in late June, but be prepared for cold rain and high winds that can even whip pumice rocks around.
• There’s no better match for the valley’s endless swaths than a bocce set, and split among four people, it’s not that heavy.
• The passengers on your flight back to Anchorage from King Salmon will be grateful if you remember to apply deodorant before boarding. If you don’t, your seatmate will not hesitate to inform you, as mine did, “That’s sour, bro.” Though if you get lucky, your seatmate will then hand over a can of Axe Essence body spray. I put some on under my t-shirt and leaned back for the hour-long ride back to civilization.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News.