TRANSCRIPT: Katmai: Alaska's Wild Peninsula

Aerials of clouds cloaking snowy peaks

When we think of Alaska, we are all on a journey together, an Odyssean voyage of outward adventure and inner reflection, reaching toward the world's edge; to that shadowy sea where the sun is hidden and the clouds are born;

Steaming volcano, banded Aniakchak cloud, hiker

Where the earth's subterranean heart beats; where living creatures flow like clouds from age to age; where the land sets the terms and humankind conforms.

Aniakchak cloud niagara

And so to the Alaska Peninsula we come, seeking the limits of the known world at the ends of the Earth.


Bush plane in Aniakchak over map

A narrow frontier between warm and cold latitudes extends 500 miles from the Alaskan mainland, separating the tempestuous Bering Sea from the Pacific.

Clouds & volcanoes, Aleutian Range

A cloud-cloaked landscape, the Alaska Peninsula is accessible only by air or water.

Weather: wind, clouds
Mudflat bear in rain

The mostly treeless peninsula endures a maritime climate described as "notoriously miserable": long winters, cool summers, frequent storms . . . and sudden bursts of wind called williwaws -- so fierce, bush pilots say, they can rip the numbers off a plane.

Steaming volcanoes

The Aleutian Range, part of the Ring of Fire, comprises the spine of the Peninsula, with 20 active volcanoes rising above the glacier-carved fjords of the Pacific Coast.

Katmai landscape scenics

Near the base of the Alaska Peninsula, a national park stretches from the Bristol Bay lowlands across to the Shelikof Strait. Lightly visited and little known outside Alaska, Katmai is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite -- combined.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

This is the volcanic heartland of the Aleutian Range.

White screen, Ash Cloud

In June 1912, a cataclysmic explosion sent a cloud of ash 20 miles into the sky. Darkness fell on the Alaska Peninsula for three days. Bears were blinded by falling ash and starved to death, plants and small animals were smothered, birds coated by ash fell to the ground and died, the salmon run was wiped out for five years, even the region's prolific mosquitoes were exterminated.

Within three days, acid rain disintegrated clothes hanging out to dry in Vancouver. The next day, the ash cloud passed over Virginia. A week later the veil of dust reached the skies over the Mediterranean.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes scenics

A century later, the ash-covered Valley floor has cooled. But the magma chamber still lies unquietly beneath the cluster of Katmai volcanoes. Even after a landscape has been blasted and reshaped by volcanism, life somehow finds a way to emerge again, and evolve.

Ukak River & Falls with hiker
Underwaters of salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka, the sockeye salmon, is a creature ruled by instinct rather than memory. And its instinct is to kill itself.

ECU eggs
Slow motion salmon leaping in falls

Sockeye salmon are anadromous: hatching in freshwater, but spending most of their lives in the salty sea. Most eggs never hatch: heat and drought kill them, predators eat them, sedimentation cloaks them, the current pulls some eggs away. Of the 10% that hatch, only 10% of those fish ever make it to the sea. Birds feed on them, as do other fish, some even starve. After 3-4 years in the ocean, preyed upon by seals, sea lions, orcas and salmon sharks, only 10% survive to return to the streams whence they came.

Brooks Falls bears
Sedge meadows - grazing

More than 2000 brown bears live in Katmai National Park. An estimated 10,000 populate the Peninsula, making them more numerous than people. These are coastal brown bears, largest predatory land mammal that yet roams the earth. Brown bears are larger than interior grizzlies, the same species, because of the abundance of food sources near the coast.

Big Hallo males - threat displays

The big bears use threat displays and signals to avoid fights and establish dominance, like a peculiar vocalizing known as jaw popping, and an exaggerated swagger called cowboy walking. Though much of their diet is vegetarian, the great concentration of giant bears on the Peninsula is due to one food source.

Brooks Falls with bears
Photographers on platform

The bears are so focused on the abundance of salmon that they tolerate close proximity - even ours.

Sow & four cubs

Despite the attentive care of sows, only about one out of three cubs will survive their first year.

Aerial Aniakchak, scenics

Farther down the peninsula, a giant caldera emerges from the horizon -- an ancient stratovolcano that exploded 3500 years ago, then collapsed upon itself. It is so remote that more people climb Everest than visit Aniakchak.

Cloud Niagara sequence

The walls of Aniakchak even influence the weather, transforming the miserable to the marvelous. Clouds moving in from Bristol Bay are captured and spill over the rim of the caldera, creating a phenomenon called "cloud niagaras".

Bush plane sequence

The Aniakchak River exits the caldera through a breach in the walls called The Gates. A crater lake once burst through and drained the equivalent of the entire Mississippi River in only six hours. Today's river has a steep gradient in its short run to the Pacific, dropping a thousand feet in only 15 miles.

Bears in river, wildlife, aerial of bear on beach

In the fall when the salmon runs end, bears gather to forage for salmon carcasses...less nutritious but still a food source. On the coast, the bears return to their more solitary existence.

TU mudflat, to green bluff
Alutiiq kayak photo
Set net fishing
Russian Orthodox cemetery
Ruined cannery

Humankind has been a part of this landscape for more than 9000 years. Where the anthroposphere is concerned, nature is not as natural as it looks. Even this distant land has felt the touch of industrial society.

Bear clamming

Lingering oil from the Exxon Valdez can still be found in the beaches of the Katmai coast, more than 450 miles away from the 1989 spill.

Glacier sequence

Dissolved fall-out from burned fossil fuels is preserved in glaciers, which are flushing into the ocean in a colossal meltdown.

Creeping tides

Climate change is accelerating. Alaska and the Arctic are warming far faster than the rest of the world.

Photographer and bear

The camera's eye can beguile us into imagining that any human impacts would be insignificant on so massive a landscape, and on such magnificent wildlife.

Salmon in Funnel Creek

But what effect will the dramatic climate transformations have on the salmon run, on the bears, on us?

Fly fisherman, geese in flight, coastal aerial
Raven, tundra river, salmon underwaters
Aerial cloud niagara, salmon fry, Aleutian Range

The limits of the known world are veiled, but we are not at the ends of the Earth. Nature is still busy with experiments.

We see but dimly when we contemplate the wilderness of Katmai and the Alaska Peninsula.

There is a wilderness for each of us, should we decide to seek it. The journey through it is filled with complexity, ambiguity and delight.

Sow and cub, tundra swans, Mt. Katmai, bear portrait

The magic that gleams an instant between us and the wild things is both the recognition of diversity and the need for connection across the illusions of form. It is nature's cry to far-wandering, insatiable humankind: "Do not forget your brethren, nor the green woods and grasslands whence you sprang."

Coastal mountains, bend in river, oystercatcher dance
Hiker climbing ash field
Aesthetic bear admiring sunrise

The hope of Life is that new things come, new senses try the unfamiliar air. We are only one of many appearances of Life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image except Life itself, and life is exuberant and emergent in the stream of time.