Extreme Camping on the Kamishak

September 14, 2014 Posted by: Perri Spreiser

Kamishak River valley seen from the air

Kamishak is a long, winding river which empties into Kamishak Bay at the very top of Katmai National Park and Preserve. It has little visitation...by people. I had the opportunity to go for work and spend four nights, five days on this river doing what was later explained to me as "extreme camping." Every person that my partner, Bob Peterson, and I contacted was shocked and amazed as to what we were doing. Kamishak is not a good place to camp. The river is long and winding, visibility is poor and the forest and bears are extremely thick. The few places that are available to camp on are often covered by water during the many floods this area sees.

People visit Kamishak River on day trips primarily for the river's sport fishing opportunities. The 14 mile long river is full of Dolly Varden with beautifully silver, sleek bodies and bright pink spots. Lately coho, or silver, salmon have been the main attraction. Earlier in the season, pink salmon, also called humpies, were abundant in Kamishak. Salmon are the keystone species in Katmai National Park.

Silver salmon and bear tracks, Kamishak River
This is a silver salmon that I caught. A few inches out of the water the mud was covered in bear tracts. This salmon was over two feet long, weighing approximately 10 pounds (NPS/P. Spreiser).

Salmon leave the Pacific Ocean, enter Kamishak Bay, and migrate into Kamishak River. Salmon of all species are incredible animals, they posses homing instincts that lead them back to the exact tributary where they were born. Salmon are able to do this by combining a few different techniques. The main tool they use to navigate a freshwater maze of streams is their olfactory sense. Each stream smells differently from others. Salmon smell their way to their spawning grounds. 

Having spent two years in the ocean, silver salmon are strong, large fish. They do not feed as they enter the fresh water but they are still very aggressive and will attack a brightly colored fly. Needless to say, they are very fun to fish. Visitors are allowed to keep three silver salmon per day on the river.

Bears on the Kamishak RiverBears on the Kamishak River
Two adult male bears were often seen together playing near our campsite (NPS/P. Spreiser).

Katmai's most famous bear viewing destination is Brooks Camp. It has lots of people, lots of bears, and lots of activity happening all the time. Kamishak was different, it was quiet, it was remote. Seeing a bear there was magical, it was almost an eerie experience. The bears we saw were all very large, very dark males who were not what we call human-habituated. These bears preferred to keep their distance from the people. Bob and I picked a campsite that was large and open with few trees. We wanted to make sure our sounds, smells and the sight of us would be known and a bear would not stumble upon us. Our camp was surrounded with a bear fence and we were armed with an array of tools—bear spray, marine flares, air horn and in a worst case scenario, a shotgun.

Campsite on the Kamishak River

Our campsite was located on the highest gravel bar we could find, the top layer was mud which offered a little relief from the rocks below. Water ran behind our tents as well with many dead fish and bear trails (NPS/P. Spreiser).

The bears knew when people were around and when they left for the day. On the first day of the trip, within thirty minutes of the boats leaving three different bears wandered near our camp. Bob and I were glad these bears were not human-habituated and would not come too close. A few nights were spent laying awake in our tents listening to bears splash in the water on both sides of camp as they caught fish. We could hear a noise I know all too well—the sounds of salmon vertebrae popping in the bears mouth. This was truly extreme camping.

Pink salmon mandible along Kamishak River

This pink salmon skeleton was found next to our campsite. Evidence of well fed bears was everywhere (NPS/P. Spreiser).

Everything about Kamishak is extreme, even navigating the river. Bob is, in my opinion, an expert jet boat driver and he was a critical component to this mission. This river was prone to flooding, which it did while we were there. Massive deciduous trees were tossed all over the river, many of which still had green leaves attached. Bob had to maneuver around these hidden beasts while avoiding the multiple shoals and gravel bars—joys of a braided river. Bears would pop out of behind these down trees with no warning and just as we were about to pass them and Bob would have to practice some evasive driving skills to avoid a bear and boat collision. One trip up the river we encountered nine different bears in about a one mile stretch.

Flooding in the Kamishak River
There was evidence of the swollen river all around. The main sign was the dirty water which came from this tributary. It took a few miles for the mud to completely mix into the Kamishak River (NPS/P. Spreiser).

Being so remote on the Katmai coast was an amazing experience, but parts still reminded me of my summer home at Brooks Camp. Besides salmon and bears there were other signs we were still in Katmai. Katmai National Park and Preserve in its 4.3 million acres has 21 different volcanoes with evidence of them every where you go. There were cut banks with the most brilliant layers showing impressive amounts of ash. There were also signs of glaciers everywhere. There were braided streams surrounding Kamishak, hundreds of waterfalls can be seen as you fly in, and all of the surrounding mountains had that classic glacial curvature to them. And, there were insects. There will always be biting insects. Millions and millions of biting flies. Sometimes our only relief from the insects was when we were driving the boat. There were more than enough flies to drive a person crazy.

Cut bank on Kamishak River with ash layer from 1912 eruption
This was just one of the many cut banks in which you could see the ash remains of a previous volcanic eruption. This ash layer was around three feet thick (NPS/P. Spreiser).

In my two short years of working for Katmai National Park I am proud to say I am one of the few that has made it to the Kamishak River and would be honored to visit again. It was unlike any experience I have ever had and I hope that everyone of you can have an adventure like this one (except maybe less insects).

Kamishak River, salmon, bears, fishing, camping, Katmai

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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