The First Day
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
On a night in June we sat in Brett and Chelsea’s home surrounded by a sprawl of mountain and gear wondering over the details of the next day and weeks that would follow. Had we brought enough food? Would the packraft Paxson was patching hold air and float when the time came? Had we remembered everything?
It was a late night and really the first moment the trip began to feel real. We had all of the food, gear, and clothing our sponsors had generously provided amassed around us and were all running through the house trying to get it all into four backpacks. The next morning we would hop on a plane, a Beaver something, to be dropped off in Dakavak Lake, the path from there was ours for the making. So began Cinders to Sea, a journey through Katmai National Park, one of the most remote National Parks in North America.
The First Day
A bleary-eyed drive through the night brought us to the jetty town of Homer, AK. As the moon was setting and the sun rose, we gathered our things and piled into the plane for the first leg of the trip. We boarded our plane and, after a stunning hour-long flight along the southern coast of the Aleutian Peninsula, we touched down in Dakavak Lake. The lakeshore proved to be the first example of stunning landscapes and environs that we would travel through on our journey. The stark blue water stood out against the tans and reds of pumice, sand, and ash that made up the hills and mountain surrounding us. The topography was punctuated with swaths of green which we soon learned were vigorous stands of alder and devil’s club reclaiming the scarred slopes following the last eruptions of the nearby volcanoes within the last few decades.
We quickly learned the challenges of travelling through this type of terrain. The slope of the mountains would slough underfoot with each step as though ascending a rough, scrabbled dune whose grains were comprised of shards of pumice, volcanic glass, and fine ash. We struggled to gain elevation fighting through the devil’s club which left welts on our arms and feet. Still, after hours of climbing we stood atop the nearest mountainside. We were then able to see the surrounding ranges and valleys unfold before us. The hill and valley sides were traced all over with furrows from the traverses of any number of brown bears that ruled over this land. It gave a real sense that we were visitors in a very foreign land.
Our plans of traversing in a rough straight shot towards Mount Katmai, our first main objective, quickly altered after the challenges of travelling through this active volcanic landscape became apparent to us. Instead, we studied the maps further and found we could hike along the drainages and hike upstream once we reached the Katmai outwash plain. So, with a renewed vision we descended into the Soluka Creek drainage and set up camp.
We started the following day with a greater sense of the challenges ahead and feeling accomplished. After hiking downstream under the Alaskan sun, we broke out the two Kokopelli packrafts we had carried along for the first portion of our trip and prepared them for launching into the creek. In a self-satisfied moment of brilliance, we had decided the take advantage of Soluka Creek to carry us and our laden packs closer to our goal. Each boat was rigged with two of our backpacks and we took turns being carried down the wave trains and rapids of the creek and hiking alongside with a lightness in our steps.
To our surprise, and a first sign of wilderness in this quiet, rugged terrain, just before rigging and launching the packrafts, a small brown creature came ambling up the drainage. At first we weren’t sure what we saw. Was it a baby bear? If so, were we about to get into some unwanted altercation with a bear? But, upon further inspection it's lean figure, agile gait, and tan and brown face made us realize we were 50 feet or so from a now startled, and curious, wolverine. Even so, not a moment later it bounded up the slope and into the undergrowth and folded into memory as quickly as it appeared. If nothing else, it seemed to show that this strange and rugged terrain proved transient for human and animal alike.
Our packrafts served well to help us navigate down and through this unknown land. In passing, Paxson wondered if any other party had ever paddled down Soluka Creek. From 1914 to 1919, numerous explorers and scientists flocked to the Katmai region to study the effects of the Novarupta eruption including the Soluka Creek drainage approximately 10 miles downwind of the crater. Still, now in 2015, could we be the first, or one of the first parties, to ever paddle down to where it coalesces into the Katmai delta plain? Did Robert Griggs cross this part of the Katmai Peninsula when he can to explore the region following the 1912 eruption of Novarupta? Regardless, we felt we were making good progress and pioneering through the Katmai landscape in our own right.
We next turned back upriver and began hiking across the Katmai River plain towards Mt. Katmai and Mt. Trident. It took us most of the day and numerous river crossings to cross the expanse and reach the foot of the mountains. We settled down for a late lunch as winds began to kick up from up the river canyon. Thinking we could find safety over the pass we pushed on up the mountainside that coalesced between Mount Katmai and Mount Trident.
As the winds picked up we soon found ourselves walking on densely packed snow, angling our faces away from freezing rain and ice whipped up by the storm. The conditions worsened as we made it over the gap in the mountains and the skies darkened. The situation turned more desperate when we reached the far side of the pass only to see the crevassed glaciers extending from the high flanks of Mt. Katmai all the way down valley and out of sight.
We later learned that this same storm hit across the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and other intrepid campers also experienced similar harrowing conditions. In Brooks Camp some 40 miles away, the winds were strong enough to bat down a float plane as it was landing on Naknek Lake. A few days later when we hiked into the camp we saw the up-turned belly of the plane protruding from the water surface. Luckily, the pilot and passengers were able to escape and were rescued.
After weathering the intense windstorm on the flanks of Mt. Katmai, we descended onto the Knife Creek Glacier, a great expanse of ice and snow that acts as one of two main sources of water in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The strong winds that come off the mountains pick up ash, sand, and pumice and cover the surface of the glaciers beneath. We were careful to travel upon the moraines whenever possible and avoid crevasses and moulins, potentially dangerous glacial features.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes got it’s name from Robert Griggs, a naturalist and explorer who was drawn to the region following the eruption of Novarupta in the early 20th century. It is a landscape unlike any other with deep cut creek and river canyons and arid, sparsely vegetated valleys stretching from the Knife Creek glacier and the mountainsides of the surrounding volcanic peaks. Mt Griggs stands out above this setting as the tallest mountain in the range at 7,600 feet.
Unfortunately, when we stepped off of the glacier and made our way across the valleys to the Baked Mountain Hut, our first and only sanctuary after our grizzling bivy on the flanks of Mt. Katmai, the clouds and rainstorms obscured the peaks and kept our focus on making it to the shelter. Although our Outdoor Research Foray jackets and pants did an admirable job keeping us warm and dry throughout the trip, making it to the hut was a welcome change from our bivy and previous nights in our tents being batted around by the windstorms passing through the region.
The Baked Mountain Hut was built in 1965 as a USGS research base. Every year, groups of geology students hike into the hut and spend time studying the dacite dome that has been growing from the Novarupta since its eruption about 100 years ago. But, when class is not in session at Baked Mountain, the hut is open to the few hikers and intrepid travelers that enter this remote region of Katmai National Park. We were some of the lucky few to spend a couple of nights at the hut and, while it has not weathered the last 50 years of its existence very well, it still stands as a bastion against the elements eroding away the young mountains and volcanic features. Overlooking the holes in the ceiling and mold covered walls and plastic sheet repairs to funnel rainwater, we regrouped in the hut over the course of two nights. We repaired gear, ate well from our store of dehydrated meals, and took a few day hikes up Baked Mountain. The only water to be found was in remnants of snow hidden beneath windblown ash that had insulated it on the north side of Baked Mountain.
After two days of forays from the hut, we were ready to set on down the valley and head towards Brooks Camp. Travel along the flat valley floor was swift. Our footsteps traversed colorful ignimbrites, earthen scars from previous eruption cycles, and our steps were light with after our stay in the Hut and a few solid meals. The next challenge to come was in crossing the River Lethe.
The River Lethe, named after the mythical river in Hades known to cause forgetfulness or oblivion, was a fast-moving torrent heavy with mud, ash, and sediment. Certainly one could easily forget or be forgotten if swept away into its turbid waters. The water alternated between wide sections and deep, in-cut canyons tracing its path into the tuffs, ignimbrites, and lava flows that floor the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Once over the river, the feeling over the journey changed. We had overcome the mountains built of episodes of volcanism. Tuffs, ignimbrites, dacites, andesites; violence and eruptions from the past hundreds and thousands of years; the stuff of the earth. We marched down valley with renewed optimism and as with each step the canyons of the Lethe cut deeper in the sediments that floored the Valley.
We hiked along a well traveled gravel road for about 20 miles to exit the Valley and reach Brooks Camp. The progress was swift at first as we were carried along on the thought of reaching our halfway point and relishing the amenities the camp would provide. Still after a number of river and stream crossings over wet feet began to take a toll from the hard packed earth underfoot. The road was used daily to bring groups of tourists from Brooks Camp up to the base of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to take in the views and hike among some of the more distal extents of the in-cut, volcanic river valley.
This was also my first experience of the incessancy of attention the mosquitoes paid you in the north. And, to my great luck I had managed to forget to pack a headnet! Yet, by some stroke of ingenuity I was able to fashion a half-decent headnet out of the cheesecloth which had been wrapped over the cheese ration for the past week.
Finally, on sore and blistered feet we arrived at Brooks Camp midday on our eighth day. We’d hiked somewhere between 75 to 85 miles through some stunning and extreme environs and were thrilled to see the camp abuzz with rangers, tourists, and bears! We spent the afternoon gathering intel about the lake, rinsing off, sorting out our rations and joining the other guests to observe the tens of grizzly bears feeding along the mouth of the Brooks River. The way the camp is laid out, the humans observe the bears from elevated platforms that allow the bears to romp through the river and surrounding areas without coming into direct contact with us. However, portions of the camp such as the bridge across the mouth of the river are still at ground level and make for often scurried and frantic motions and calls from the rangers to clear the paths for the bears. This year, we were in greater luck too as a sow was in attendance with her four spring cubs! To see the size and power of the adult mother contrast by the yips and growls of her cubs as they tried to navigate the river crossing was a striking moment. The rangers informed us that she would be lucky if two of them made it through the year. Between the everyday challenges of living in this area and avoiding the other male grizzlies who oftentimes preyed on cubs, the dangers are many for young in the wild.
This brings us to Naknek Lake. Our packrafting journey began at the unlikely hour of midnight after more time than expected was spent sharing stories and gathering beta from the locals and rangers at the watering hole in Brooks Camp. We stuck around later in the day playing the odds that a campsite might open up in the campground; however, we had no such luck. So, with beers in our bellies we paddled out from Brooks Camp and headed west along the shoreline. After an hour of paddling we tucked into a bay where, it turned out, the Park Service moored a barge which they use for shuttling large equipment and stores to Brooks Camp. So, as the modern-day packraft pirates we were, we stormed the barge in a hilarious manner and pitched our sleeping bags on the deck. A short night’s sleep and we rose early to begin again paddling along the shoreline.
We made swift progress along the lake after that covering about 15 miles each day. The weather stayed generally calm with winds picking up in the evening. After the advice of some of the rangers at Brooks Camp we were sure to stay close in to the shoreline. If a storm whipped up you could easily be blown off into the middle of the lake with miles of water in every direction and waves breaking overhead! After 3 days of persistent paddling, we arrived at the entrance to the Naknek River that drains the lake.
With the current carrying us along the wide channels of the Naknek River, and patches of salmon swimming steadily upstream beneath us, we cruised downriver knowing the final days of our journey were now here. After nearly two weeks of travelling through remote areas, seeing little evidence of civilization as we hiked and paddled across the Katmai, we suddenly saw many fishing boats, float planes, and lodges along the sides of the river. All true signs we were nearing the mouth of the Naknek and Bristol Bay.
In the final stretches of the Naknek, as the canning factories and set-net operations appeared more often, we caught a glimpse of a final grizzly bear foraging along the river’s northern edge. Here on Alaska’s western shore, the division between nature and man is a faint line at best. Between the weather-worn houses and shops that punctuated the sparse tundra landscape and the few roads that scar the land, it seemed more that we people are the more transient creatures at the edge of the world. So, we ended our journey from the extreme volcanic deserts downwind of the volcanoes that jut up against the sky across a great expanse of water bearing thousands upon thousands of fish and wildlife and back to the Pacific Ocean.
We celebrated that night in a local bar with beers and whiskey before seeking out the nearest coin-op showers (we were a ripe crew by then!). The next morning some generous locals ferried us up the Alaska Peninsula Highway to the airport and we were off back to Anchorage and left to reflect on the miles we’d traveled and the rare and magnificent things we’d seen.