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Local man to fulfill lifetime dream of living, working in Alaska wilds

Jherek Christy, who is completing an internship in a remote national park in Alaska, is an avid fisherman. Submitted photo

Everyone has seen the photos of the huge and hungry brown bears atop shallow waterfalls in Alaska, catching a jumping salmon midair with its teeth.

“Those photos are all taken at Katmai National Park and Preserve,” said Jherek Christy, of Donegal Township.

Christy, 40, finally is fulfilling his lifelong dream of working at the 4,000,000-acre park on a peninsula in southern Alaska.

The immense park is completely wild, and includes tundra, forests, lakes and mountains. Katmai is famous for its impressive brown bear population that is drawn to the abundant salmon in Brooks Falls.

Christy, a lifelong outdoorsman, always hoped to gain employment in a position that would keep him outside.

While he worked for the state Game Commission for a time, he eventually found himself working in information technology for a local utility company.

“I decided, hey, it’s time for a change,” Christy said. “I’m not really happy with what I’m doing.”

Part of SRU internship

So with the support of his wife, April, and two sons, he decided to enroll in Slippery Rock University’s park and resource management program.

“The program is really accommodating,” Christy said. “The professors really key in on the individual's success and using that individual’s strengths to accomplish their academic goals.”

The summer-long post as an interpretive park ranger in Katmai is an internship for that program, from which he will graduate in absentia in August with a bachelor’s degree.

Christy embarked on the grueling 15-hour, multiple-layover flight to Katmai at the beginning of the month.

“Katmai is notoriously difficult to get to,” he said. “You have to fly out of Anchorage into King Salmon, then from King Salmon, you can take a boat or bush plane to the main camp at Katmai, which is Brooks Camp.”

First up for Christy will be a week of training in King Salmon, where he will learn how to keep himself and Katmai’s visitors safe from the approximately 2,000 brown bears in the park.

He said those camping in the back country also must take bear training, which is mostly on how to avoid encountering a brown bear.

That involves hoisting food into a tree that is away from the campsite or using a bear barrel for food storage, ensuring no food scraps at the campsite will tempt a bear to visit, and carrying bear spray.

Christy said a female brown bear can weigh up to 500 pounds, and a male from 700 to 1,200 pounds.

He said while they are much larger than the black bears in Western Pennsylvania, they are not more aggressive than other bear species.

And in the salmon-rich waterways of Katmai, bears have their fill of delicious fresh salmon when they come out of hibernation.

“Brooks Camp is unique because attacks are very rare,” he said.

He said those staying at the camp can see bears feeding in Brooks River from three platforms set up just for that purpose.

“The number-one reason people come to Katmai is bear viewing and photography,” Christy said.

Due to the lack of any stores at Katmai, where his wife and son will visit for 10 days this summer, Christy hopes to subsist mainly on salmon when they start running upstream in mid to late June.

Christy packed the essentials that will not be available in the remote Alaskan location, such as clothing, a toothbrush and other items.

Fishing for salmon

He also packed his fly-fishing gear, which he hopes to use as often as possible while in Katmai to catch salmon and rainbow trout.

Christy explained that salmon eggs are laid and hatch in freshwater, then the young fish head for the saltwater in the Pacific Ocean, where they mature.

When they reach spawning age, salmon return to where they were born to lay their eggs.

“They’ll go hundreds of miles upstream,” Christy said. “They lay their eggs within feet of where they were born, for the most part.”

After they lay their eggs, salmon hang around in freshwater for a short time before heading back to the ocean while the baby salmon that hatched under the ice head for saltwater in May.

While all five species of Pacific salmon call Katmai home, the largest and most sought after commercially is the sockeye, Christy said.

He said he talked with officials about working in Denali National Park and Reserve, which is one of Alaska’s most popular tourist destinations.

“But the uniqueness of Katmai really spoke to me,” Christy said.

Family support

He said he appreciates the support his wife and 13-year-old son, Saxon, have shown him in chasing his dream to work in the wilds of Alaska. His other son is grown, but also supports his dad’s trip to Katmai.

“My wife is completely on board with this, and my 13-year-old son is excited to have the opportunity to come up and visit and experience Katmai,” Christy said. “Of course, I’ll miss my wife and our partnership, and my son is going to get 5.5 months of growing in while I’m gone.”

Joel Christy is one year older than his outdoorsy brother, of whom he is extremely proud for following his dreams.

“He was always an outdoor kid,” Joel said. “He still pushes me to be more outdoorsy.”

He said his family’s annual vacation always was a camping trip, and they took a canoe trip down the Allegheny River once a month in the summers.

Joel said ever since the boys were young, Jherek has yearned to work in Alaska.

“It’s pretty awesome, him going to work at a place that is on many people’s bucket list,” he said.

Joel has pledged to help his sister-in-law and nephew with anything they need while his brother is pursuing his internship.

“He’s fulfilling a dream that he’s always wanted to do,” he said.

A brown bear walks to a sandbar to eat a salmon it had just caught at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The National Park Service has completed a project to relieve an Alaska traffic jam. A new elevated bridge and boardwalk across the Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve is expected to halt heart-stopping encounters between human pedestrians and brown bears both using the old bridge. Associated Press File Photo

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