We spent several morning hours steaming west across Shelikof Strait to Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park, and landed the skiff on a rocky ledge at one end of a long bite of black beach backed spectacularly by the snow-peaked Alaska Range and Hallo Glacier. The highest peaks, piled in snows, leap from sea level to 7,000 feet in a single bound. The dune is piled deep in drifted logs and backed by meadows fed by the Ninagiak River, Hook Creek, Hallo Creek, and various unnamed streams that in lesser regions would be rivers of note, but here in this enormous landscape are mere anonymous givers of waters and bringers of salmon and quenchers of bears.
On the 5-mile beach, bear tracks braid with the tracks of wolves. And the tracks of rangers such as Carissa Turner and her colleagues, who await us on the beach along with several piles of collected washed-up trash and junk totaling fully four thousand pounds. It’s taken half a dozen rangers a week—camped here the whole while—to collect it.
“It was hard—and fun,” says Carissa, who is the sort of person who is always smiling. We will take all 2 tons of it.
Park superintendent Diane Chung welcomes us officially to this 5-million-acre piece of public real estate. Her job is to lovingly care for it on behalf of us all. In some ways, the United States remains a great nation, and, arguably, our national parks are the thing that best shows our best side.
Our skiff and inflatable work down the beach as we walk to each pile of huge trash. We load bags and giant buoys and rope piles onto the mobile landing craft. The small craft take them to our mothership.
Why remove trash from remote beaches? That question again.
“This is a national park, a public wilderness, and garbage really detracts from visitor experience,” offers ranger Tahzay Jones. “Guides have told me they’ve had people cancel reservations when they heard there was a lot of trash.”
Three seals pop their heads as we talk on the bank of a stream mouth. They’re looking for the first salmon. This might be our “property,” but it’s their necessary place.
This place was hit by oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez more than two decades ago. Under some of the logs, you can still smell oil. If you poke in some places—you can find oil itself. Still.
Four of the park’s 2,200 grizzly bears are in the meadow, munching sedges. Two walk to the shore about half a mile from us, and lie down on the damp sand. A bald eagle helicopters in slow motion to the water’s surface, rises astonishingly with a fish, and flies determinedly into a thicket. Right on its tail is another eagle who dives into the thicket too, and they tussle for possession of the fish behind a screen of brush.
We’ve been here for one hour.
The beach looks great now. We thank the rangers.
“Thank you for taking it all away,” replies Jones. “This is the public’s land, and having trash on it lowers the value of public property—your property, our property.”
I pause on the idea of “away.” We have it. Now it has to go somewhere else.