THE LONGEST YARD
We were up fairly early the next morning, as we needed to be on the far side of the Brooks River bridge for the 9am bus to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes overlook. There is only 1 tour bus per day, and missing it would ruin our backpacking trip before it began. The last thing we wanted was a 23 mile walk, uphill, just to get to the trailhead.
The tour bus is also operated by the park concessionaire, Katmailand. We had made our reservations and prepaid back when we made our other travel arrangements. The cost was about $100 per person, but we had cut that in half by using a buy one get one free coupon from the Great Alaskan Toursaver book.
For the average tourist, the bus to the overlook provides an opportunity to briefly experience the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The trip is narrated by a Park Service ranger, who provides information on the flora, fauna, and history of the area. It takes nearly two hours to cover the 23 miles, as the road is primitive and there are several stops along the way. At the end of the road is a small National Park Service Visitors Center, featuring interpretive displays and views of the valley and the surrounding volcanoes. Lunch is included in the tour (although we missed out on that), and an optional short hike down into the valley to Ukak Falls is offered in the afternoon.
I got up first that morning. As soon as I emerged from the tent, I startled a mama grizzly and two cubs that were just on the other side of the electric fence. They ran off, but it was quite an exciting way to start the morning. We broke camp and had a breakfast of cold granola cereal. After yesterday’s unusually warm and sunny greeting to Katmai, the weather had returned to “normal”. The morning was chilly and overcast, and the dark, heavy clouds hanging over Naknek Lake threatened rain. We hoisted our packs and walked back towards the lodge, hoping that the weather would hold off for us. On the way, we had to make a brief detour to avoid a grizzly bear sleeping on the lakeshore. It must’ve been quite the party, if he’d passed out there on the beach!
We were passing the lodge when one of the Katmailand employees hailed us. He had noticed our packs, and inquired about our plans. We told him that we were planning on 4 days of backpacking in the valley, and that we hoped to reach the Baked Mountain huts that night.
The huts on Baked Mountain were built by the U.S. Geological Survey. Years ago the huts were staffed so that the volcanoes surrounding the valley could be monitored. These days, most monitoring is performed by sophisticated equipment. The huts are no longer staffed, but they are open to the public. After reading about the frequently horrific weather in the valley, I thought they would be a wise destination. After all, there is no other shelter in the valley from the frequent downpours and wind storms. Plus, the huts are located near the upper end of the valley. From there, dayhikes to some of the more interesting features in the area would be feasible.
The employee asked if we were familiar with the location of the huts. As it turns out, their location on the Trails Illustrated Map is way off target. The map shows the huts near the base of the west side of the mountain, uphill from the River Lethe. We looked at the map together, and he showed me the actual location of the huts. They are high up on Baked Mountain’s north ridge several hundred feet above where they are shown on the map. Our chance meeting with this guy proved to be exceptionally fortunate. Based on the limited information I had, we never would’ve found them.
He offered up some additional useful information as well. The first helpful tidbit was indicating where the actual trailhead was. I had assumed, incorrectly, that the best route down into the valley was on the Park Service Trail to Ukak Falls. This mile-long path is the only official trail in the valley. It descends from the overlook to the Three Forks, where Windy Creek, Knife Creek, and the River Lethe flow together. It may be possible to hike upstream from there along the river, but I’m not so sure. All of the streams in the valley cut deep, narrow gorges that are largely impassable.
It turns out that the best trailhead is along the road a mile or so before the Visitors Center. It’s more of a game path / drainage ditch, but it provides relatively easy access to a safe crossing of Windy Creek. From there, it’s fairly easy walking to the edge of the canyon of the River Lethe, which can be followed upstream. Our new best friend went over all of this with us in detail, pointing out key features on the map.
He also warned us about crossing the River Lethe. He echoed the park ranger we’d spoken with about its dangers. He mentioned that there were one or two spots where it’s possible to jump across the river. These spots are only about a yard across. Jumping 3 feet sounds easy, doesn’t it? I’m sure if I marked off two lines 3’ apart in my driveway, I could jump across them over and over, without fail. However, it’s a little more difficult with a 50+ pound pack on your back. Also, having a torrent of glacier melt thundering through a slot canyon 100 feet below would be a little intimidating. Plus, consider that both banks are comprised of crumbly volcanic ash. Despite all of this, I imagine I could make the leap 99% of the time, without incident. However, the penalty for failure is extreme. A tumble would likely be fatal, unless you’re really unlucky. The fate of the truly cursed would be a thrilling ride down the canyon through a torrent of ice melt. Down inside one of those sheer canyons, there would be no hope for escape. And if, by some miracle, you were able to ride it out, you can bet there would be plenty of hungry grizzly bears waiting for you downstream.
So, the question we faced was a simple one. Considering the chance of success vs. the penalty for failure, was it an acceptable risk? We decided it was not.
There were two other options. One was to follow the rim of the canyon all the way to the Mageik Lakes. Below each lake we’d be able to wade the outlet streams. However, this would take us far out of the way, and we’d have no chance of reaching the huts in the same day. The other possibility was a single place where it might be possible to wade the river. Improbably, there is one spot where the river briefly emerges from its narrow canyon. There, the river widens and runs shallow through some minor ripples before once again disappearing into the depths. Our new best friend gave us a general idea of where to find the crossing. We decided to make that ford Plan A. If we couldn’t find it, or it appeared too risky, we’d continue on to the Mageik Lakes and camp there.
I learned more useful information from this guy in a 10 minute conversation than I had found in all of my pre-trip research. There simply is no substitute for first-hand knowledge. He wished us well, and we thanked him repeatedly before he returned to work and we headed for the bus.
We walked down to the Brooks River bridge. As usual, it was closed due to bear activity. This was a bit of a concern, as we were to meet the bus on the other side of the river. We weren’t too worried though, as we were still 30 minutes early, and everybody else bound for the bus would have the same problem. The bridge opened a few minutes later, and we hustled across. We made a quick visit to the restroom just up the road, and then doubled-back to wait for the bus.
Since we were still early, we decided on some additional bear-watching from the lower platform. There, we met the ranger that would be narrating the tour. Mike was a young guy from Missoula, Montana. He was friendly and knowledgeable, and we enjoyed chatting with him about our upcoming trip. Oddly, Ranger Mike looked just like Daniel Faraday, the peculiar, time-traveling scientist on “Lost”. He was the first of many people that resembled characters on “Lost” that we would encounter throughout our trip.
Mike provided some additional information, although he hadn’t backpacked in the valley at that point. Mike told us that there was an emergency shelter inside the Three Forks Overlook Visitors Center. It was stocked with food, water, and blankets, and would provide protection from the elements. If we had any problems, we should return there and wait for the next bus (there is only one per day). Also, Mike was planning an overnight trip to the Mageik Lakes later that week. His planned trip would overlap ours, so we thought we might actually run into him. It was somewhat reassuring that there might actually be another human being out there somewhere.
We boarded the bus at 9am, along with Ranger Mike and 7 or 8 tourists. As expected, we were the only ones embarking on a backpacking trip. Many of the other folks on the tour inquired about our trip. A few of them didn’t really understand what we were doing, while the remainder clearly thought we were crazy. I can’t really blame them.
Our bus driver, Carter, was cool. If Ranger Mike looked like Daniel Faraday from “Lost”, the driver reminded me of Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. Like I said, he was cool. We asked him to drop us off at “the trailhead”, and he knew exactly what we were talking about.
The ride was largely uneventful. The biggest excitement came when we forded a broad river. When the water is up, the ford is impassable. Fortunately, it was shallow today. Hopefully that wouldn’t change before Saturday’s return trip! We had no idea what kind of weather would be in store for us. We hadn’t seen a forecast in a couple of days, and the last one we had seen had been for King Salmon. Unfortunately, the weather there is usually completely different from the valley, so even that had been pretty worthless. The forecast for Charlotte probably would’ve been equally relevant.
We also stopped three times – twice at overlooks and once at a pair of toilets half way up the road. The first overlook offered a view of Naknek Lake and the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, most of the vista was hidden in the clouds. The second viewpoint was of a series of small, glacial lakes. It looked like a great spot for wildlife, but we didn’t see anything except a hoard of mosquitoes. One thing we were looking forward to in the valley was an absence of flying blood-suckers. After all, the area is essentially a desert known for its windy conditions. It didn’t sound like a place that would be hospitable for bugs.
Carter dropped us off at 11am at a non-descript wide spot in the road. There is nothing here to really indicate a trail. If anything, the beginning of the route is a drainage ditch channeling runoff from the road. We didn’t waste any time, as I was ready to see the valley. We headed down the gully, which was thick with shrubs and small trees. It was here that we made our first mistake of the trip. Our raingear was packed away, but it should have been on. Apparently it had rained here the night before, and the vegetation was soaking wet. By the time we realized it, so were we. At that point, it was too late to benefit from our Gore Tex. We sloshed on, eager to get through the dripping wet jungle.
We reached the bottom of the hill quickly, and the vegetation thinned. At this point, I had to pay close attention to our navigation, even though a primitive footpath continued on. Ahead was the Buttress Range. I knew we needed to follow its east side, tracing a course between the high, green ridge and the rim of the canyon carved by the River Lethe. My first priority was to make sure we didn’t inadvertently wander up the valley of Windy Creek. That might be a nice trip, but it wouldn’t take us to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. I spent a couple of minutes getting orientated before we continued on.
A few minutes later, we reached an obvious junction marked with a pair of antlers. In some areas, junctions and trails are marked with signs or blazes or cairns. In Alaska, antlers from Moose or Caribou are used as signs. It’s an extremely effective technique, as it is very difficult to walk past a huge rack without noticing it (ha!). The bus driver had told us to turn left at the antlers, which made this part of the navigation rather easy. The left-hand path led us down a steep bank to the edge of Windy Creek.
Windy Creek didn’t look too bad. However, the water was probably over knee deep, and there was an island immediately in front of us. Just upstream, the creek flowed through some small, shallow ripples. We crossed there, right at the head of the island. It was the ideal crossing point, except for one thing. The opposite bank was a steep, overgrown tangle of willows. Bushwhacking through thick willows makes crawling through Rhododendrons seem like fun. Unfortunately, there was no path, and we had no other option. We eventually found a place to climb out of the creek and plunged into the jungle. We crawled and thrashed our way up through the tangle of willows. This was awful, but at least we didn’t have to go far. After a few minutes of misery, we reached the top of the bank, and the brush thinned. We paused for lunch there, despite the presence of some pesky mosquitoes.
After eating, I wandered along the bank and found a marginally better route to the creek. If we had crossed the creek right where we’d met the water, we would’ve emerged at the base of a narrow gully. The gully wasn’t pretty, but it would’ve been a lot more pleasant than the willows. I made a note of its location, since we’d have to return this way in four days.
WALKING ON THE MOON
After lunch, we hoisted our packs and headed towards the valley. Initially we followed an obvious beaten path towards the low hills marking the beginning of the Buttress Range. The path eventually began to curve to the left though, to swing around the ridge. We were now on the edge of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, although we still couldn’t see much of it. Heavy dark clouds hung over the valley, only a couple hundred feet above us. Those ominous clouds hid the surrounding mountains and gave our little expedition an air of apprehension. What were we getting ourselves into?
Soon we found ourselves walking across a dusty, barren surface of volcanic ash. I’ve heard hiking in the valley described as being like walking through a giant litter box, or across the world’s biggest bowl of Rice Crispies. To me, it seemed a lot like walking on the moon. Except with gravity. Based on the weight of the pack on my back, there didn’t seem to be any shortage of gravity there.
The walking was initially pleasant. The terrain was flat, and the surface was soft on our feet. Although we weren’t on an official trail, it was obvious that a lot of people – and bears – had followed this route. There were bear prints everywhere, which really wasn’t much of a surprise. After all, the grizzlies use the Valley of 10,000 Smokes as a migratory corridor between the salmon runs near the coast and the Brooks River. Fortunately, all of the bears were now at Brooks Falls, so we didn’t have to worry too much about running into one. I imagine hiking through the valley in June is a different scenario entirely.
In fact, it’s probably a bit inaccurate to say that there aren’t any trails in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. In fact, before the 1912 eruption, a centuries-old trade route connected Bristol Bay, to the northwest, with the Pacific Ocean. The route passed through this same valley, cresting Katmai Pass between Trident Volcano and Mount Mageik. The route was used by everyone from natives, to settlers, to gold-rushers. Of course, back then the valley was rather different. With the eruption of 1912, everything changed.
June of 1912, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century
occurred. The eruption was preceded by
violent earthquakes felt at the small Pacific villages of Katmai Bay and Cold
Bay. A tremendous explosion followed,
which was heard in Juneau, 750 miles away.
Most of the inhabitants of the area evacuated before the eruption. However, one group of Russian settlers
survived the eruptions in Kaflia Bay.
This was evidenced by a letter one wrote to his wife:
“My Dear Wife Tania: First of all I will let you know of our unlucky voyage. I do not know whether we shall be either alive or well. We are awaiting death at any moment. A mountain has burst near here, so that we are covered with ashes, in some places 10 feet and 6 feet deep. All this began on the 6th of June. Night and day we light lamps. We cannot see the daylight. In a word, it is terrible, and we are expecting death at any moment, and we have no water. All the rivers are covered with ashes. Just ashes mixed with water. Here are darkness and hell, thunder and noise. I do not know whether it is day or night. The Earth is trembling; it lightens every minute. It is terrible. We are praying”.
From “The Recent Eruption of Katmai Volcano in Alaska”, by George C. Martin, published in The National Geographic Magazine, Feb, 1913, p. 148, 152.
For more information on the human impact of the eruption, please see:
Early on, our only challenge was the occasional tangle of small trees and brush. We were now hiking along the base of Buttress Range. Its vibrant green vegetation was quite a contrast to the barren expanse of the valley below.
As we hiked, we drew closer to the River Lethe. Before long, we found ourselves walking along the rim of its narrow, deep canyon. The river thundered through the gorge below, its thick brown water roaring between sheer walls of packed pumice and ash. We stopped for another break to get a better look. I walked out near the edge, but I didn’t dare get too close, as the rim of the canyon looked precarious. Across the gorge from my perch, I noticed another, narrower canyon joining the main channel. A small stream ran through it, and tumbled over a delicate waterfall to join the river.
After a short break, we resumed the hike, heading upstream along the edge of the canyon. Up ahead, the river ran closer to the cliffs tumbling down from the Buttress Range. I was concerned that we might have difficulty getting through, and unfortunately, I was right. Before long, we began to encounter a series of deep gullies running down from the mountains above. Each time, we were forced to descend a wall of loose sand, pumice and ash to the base of the gully. Then we had to scramble up the opposite side. The first gully was bad, and they successively got worse. Descending into them was hazardous, and climbing back out was a struggle. After three or four of these, we were relieved to see the river make a sharp bend to the northeast, away from the mountains. This gave us more space to walk, and the gullies were less severe. Rather than follow the river, we continued ahead, still following a beaten path along the base of the mountains.
A bit later, Christy and I thought we spotted some cairns leading towards the river. We speculated that they might lead to one of those narrow spots where jumping across was possible. However, after getting a close up view of the river and its canyon, we had no interest in going that route.
A bit later, we passed a deep alcove in the Buttress Range. A freshwater stream runs down from the mountains here, providing one of the few sources of drinking water in the valley. There was a group of people camped in the alcove, which is locally known as 6-Mile Camp. It was a little surprising to see other people, even at a distance. I immediately recognized them though. In my pre-trip research, I’d stumbled across an advertisement for a Sierra Club trip in the valley. It was a long trip – more than a week – and I knew it would overlap ours. Of course, the valley is a big place, so I hadn’t really expected to run into them. They were some distance away though, and we passed them by without conversing.
The beaten path faded away here. We decided to start angling towards the river, as we didn’t want to miss the spot where we could ford it. A few minutes later, we ran into 2 other backpackers getting water from the stream. Suddenly, the Valley of 10,000 Smokes seemed like a busy place! Bob and Woody were from Cody, Wyoming, and they were here on a 5-day trip. They had started the previous day, and had camped at 6-Mile the night before. They’d gotten a late start that morning, but were hoping to make it to the head of the valley that afternoon. Of course, with sunset around 11pm, they still had plenty of time!
We parted ways, and Christy and I headed towards the river. As we walked, we noticed that the clouds were beginning to break up. The ceiling lifted, and before long, Mount Griggs began to emerge from the murk. Griggs is tallest peak in Katmai National Park, and after only a few minutes, it was towering over the valley across from us. Wispy clouds swirled around the peak, teasing us with partial views of the majestic mountain. This was certainly an encouraging sign, even though the other volcanoes at the head of the valley were still lost in the clouds.
After 30 minutes or so, we reached to the rim of the canyon. The gorge wasn’t as deep here, but it was still completely impassable. We followed the river upstream, figuring we’d find the ford eventually. This worked beautifully. After 20 minutes or so, the canyon suddenly ended. Upstream, the river emerged from its canyon to run wide and shallow through ripples and small rapids. The reprieve only lasted about 50 yards though. Beyond that point, it disappeared into another deep, dark gorge.
I was extremely hesitant to attempt the crossing. A few weeks earlier, in a last-minute attempt at pre-trip research, I’d picked up a book on Katmai National Park. The book, “Rambles through an Alaskan Wild”, by Dave Bohn, turned out to be more of a collection of essays, poems, and photographs than a guidebook. Still, it had been a useful source of information. However, the most disturbing story in the book was about a hiker the author had met at the Baked Mountain huts. This fellow had departed the huts one rainy, windy morning, determined to return to Brooks Camp in order to catch a flight back to Anchorage. The author had attempted to convince him to delay his departure, as heavy rains that day likely meant high water at the ford. His warnings went unheeded. Later that afternoon, the author had arrived at the ford, only to find the river in full flood. There, he spotted the lone hiker’s backpacking floating in the river. Unfortunately, there was no sign of a body, and the hiker was never seen again.
I chose not to share this story with Christy.
Our dog Boone expressed his opinion of the book (or perhaps of our decision to leave him behind while we went to Alaska) by eating it.
Despite my fears, we walked down to the riverbank and assessed the crossing. The river is fairly wide here, but it looked shallow. However, because the water is so silty, it’s difficult to get a true gauge of its depth. On the near side, there were several sandbars. Just before the opposite shore though, it looked deeper. Of course, there was really only one way to find out. We decided to cross slowly, knowing that we could always turn back if the water became too deep or the current too strong.
We changed into our sandals and river shoes, stashed our boots, and started across. Christy went first, following a line connecting sandbars and ripples. I followed behind, using my trekking pole to help me maintain my balance. Neither of us spoke about it, but we both realized that a fall here would turn ugly in a hurry. If one of us fell and got caught in the current, we’d be swept into the canyon downstream in a matter of seconds. If that occurred, there’d be little hope of escape or rescue.
Christy reached the far side quickly. It’s hard to make yourself move slowly when you’re walking through 40-degree water! I watched Christy apprehensively, as the last few steps took her through knee-deep water. This wasn’t too bad, but the current was powerful. She made it out without any problem, and I followed. By the time I scrambled up the bank, my legs had gone numb from the cold. Once out, we flopped down on the bank to thaw out. The sun had finally made an appearance, which helped warm us. Any discomfort we felt was quickly forgotten though, replaced by relief knowing that the most dangerous part of the trip was behind us – at least until we returned later in the week.
HUMAN (THE OTHER PINK MEAT)
We dried off, warmed up and put our boots back on to resume the hike. It was now late afternoon, and I was looking forward to getting on to the huts. Before leaving the river though, I filled up a single water bottle. I knew the glacial silt in the river would clog my filter, so I treated it with iodine tablets instead. Once that chore was taken care of, we shouldered our packs and headed for Baked Mountain.
We had crossed the river almost directly across from the foot of Baked Mountain’s north
ridge. The huts are on that ridge, and with the help of binoculars, we thought we could actually see them up there. The slope of Baked Mountain facing us looked steep. Rather than tackling a steep hillside composed of loose pumice and ash, we decided to head for the base of the ridge. I reasoned that following the ridge would be a lot easier than trying to scramble right up the side of the mountain.
Oddly, there was a large, dark object right at the base of the ridge. It was probably a mile away, so it was impossible to identify, even with binoculars. Still, Christy hesitated. Out loud, she wondered what it could be. After a few minutes of puzzling over this, I began to grow impatient. I told her that it must be a rock. There weren’t many rocks around, but there were a few scattered here and there, mostly at the bottoms of the mountains. Obviously they had fallen from the peaks above. Christy wasn’t so sure, so I pointed out that it was directly in our path. We’d get a much better look at it once we drew closer.
We walked towards the big, dark rock at the base of the mountain. By now, the sun was really beating down on us. It was an amazing change from the overcast morning. There isn’t any shade in the valley, and the temperature probably rose 30 degrees. We hunched our shoulders and marched on, the rock ahead looming larger as we walked.
Every few minutes, Christy paused to study it with the binoculars. Finally, after hiking 20 minutes or so from the river, she declared that she didn’t think it was a rock. Through the binoculars, it looked “fuzzy”. A fuzzy rock? As we closed in on it, I began to wonder myself. If it wasn’t a rock, what was it?
It was still directly in our path, but we began to think that it might be wise to give it a wide berth. We began angling to our left, so we could swing wide around it. By the time we were a couple of hundred yards away, it was clear that it wasn’t a rock. Christy was right – it was fuzzy. Still, we had no idea what it actually was. Before long, we began to suspect that it was the carcass of a large animal. This was a little alarming. If it was a carcass, a predator might be nearby. The last thing we wanted was to get between a predator and its meal.
We were about 50 yards from the carcass, or fuzzy rock, or whatever, when it lifted its head and looked at us. I have to tell you, I had a bit of a moment then. For just a moment, I felt dizzy. All of the blood in every vein of my body turned to ice water. Then, this suddenly animated carcass awkwardly got to its feet. Christy cursed, and I whimpered. We were staring across a barren slope of sand, pumice, and ash at one of the largest grizzly bears I’d ever seen.
There are two things you never want to do with grizzly bears. First, you don’t want to surprise a bear. Bear’s are unpredictable, particularly when they are startled. Second, you don’t want to piss one off. I guess that goes without saying. Somehow though, we had managed to do both. The bear was now more or less fully upright, and he was staring at us, obviously wondering who we were to have the nerve to wake him from his nap. I felt a large lump rising in my throat. Christy seemed on the verge of panic. Did I mention that we didn’t have bear spray?
The bear got to his feet, but then stumbled and nearly collapsed. This was rather alarming, too. He didn’t look healthy at all. I wasn’t so sure that this was a good thing. If this was a dying bear, he would probably be desperate. After all, there isn’t anything to eat in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The river has no fish, and there isn’t any vegetation to speak of. Wild game? Forget about it. This bear’s dining options were limited to…well, us.
Our options were pretty limited, too. There was nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. We decided, by default, to keep moving. We headed away from him at angle, so that we could put some additional distance between us while keeping an eye on him. He staggered again, before slowly walking towards the spot we had just passed. This was not the reaction I was hoping for, but at least he was moving slow. If he decided to charge us, we’d have no choice but to play dead and pray.
As I walked, I wondered what he was doing out here. I certainly hadn’t expected to see a bear out here, miles from the nearest salmon, under that baking sun.
Fortunately he ambled right past where we’d been moments earlier. We kept up a brisk pace, intent on getting as far from the bear as possible without breaking into a run. Fortunately, he kept moving, now heading away from us. This was a huge relief, but we knew he could turn and come back at any moment. Meanwhile, we were now way off course. Our evasion had led us around the back side of the mountain, and we were slogging up a steep slope of loose sand. We didn’t want to double-back to the ridge, since that would take us back towards the bear. Instead we continued to climb, struggling uphill towards the relative safety of the huts.
This approach turned miserable in a hurry. Going up the slope was like climbing a sand dune. It seemed like every time I gained a step, I slid right back. Eventually I found the best technique was to run forward for 5 or 6 steps. Then, when I paused to catch my breath, I only slid back a couple of feet. I repeated this over and over, gradually gaining elevation. Meanwhile, Christy was well ahead of me. Her light pack caused her to slide backwards less. Plus, the scare with the bear had given her inspiration. She was heading for the huts like they were the finish line of an Ironman triathlon.
I finally reached the crest of the ridge. The huts loomed ahead, in a minor saddle. From my perspective, the huts looked a bit like a moon base in a science fiction movie. There were three small, non-descript buildings, surrounded by dozens of large, rusting barrels. It was an odd sight, and the huts seemed completely out of place in the middle of this vast wilderness. Still, they promised a degree of hospitality. Nearby is an outhouse. It’s no longer in the best condition, but it does offer up the best view from any toilet I’ve ever seen.
Christy beat me there by several minutes. She had already explored each building, which consisted of two huts with bunks and a supply shed. There wasn’t anyone around, so we claimed one of the huts and dropped our packs. We then spent the next few minutes searching for water. I had heard that there was a rain barrel here, but one failed to materialize. We found many barrels, but all of them were sealed. After searching all three buildings, I began to realize that my long day wasn’t quite over.
The last water source we’d passed was the river. I wasn’t about to go back down there. That would be a long walk, and I knew that bear was still down there somewhere. Instead, I got out the binoculars and scanned the smaller valley to the northeast. I could see a lot of gullies down there, but it was impossible to tell if any of them held water. Beyond the valley though, at the base of the next mountain, was a late lingering snowfield. I grabbed our camelbacks and the collapsible bucket and headed that way. I was hoping I’d find water before reaching the snowfield, but if not, I knew I could get it there.
I followed a minor gully all the way down the mountain. The gully provided much easier walking than the slope we had climbed earlier. It seemed wonderful, until I reached the valley bottom. Here, instead of following a gully, I had to cross dozens of them. This was less pleasant, as I had to descend into and climb out of each one in succession. Each time I approached one, I was sure that it would be the one with water. Of course, each one was completely dry.
Eventually I gave up on finding a stream and headed for the snowfield. I headed that way quickly, but nearly missed a step when I noticed a large, dark rock on the hillside above it. I paused, and out came the binoculars. I scanned it for a minute, before concluding that this one really was a rock. I chuckled as I put away the binoculars. Was I going to jump every time I saw a rock on this trip?
I hurried over to the base of the snowfield, where I found a small stream of melt water. The water was full of sediment, but we were able to strain it with coffee filters we found in the huts. I filled everything up there without filtering, and started back. The climb back up to the huts was a lot more demanding than the descent, and I literally staggered the last few yards to the door. Christy met me there, and rescued the bucket before I could drop it. The round trip to the snowfield had taken 45 minutes, and I wasn’t looking forward to making that journey again.
We relaxed around the huts for a bit. The huts contain an incredible amount of information, including maps, scientific journals, and books. We spent some time flipping through the stacks of information there, and completed an entry in the shelter journal. I read back through entries made over the last few years. The huts aren’t a busy place, but they do get some visitors from time to time.
That evening, we dined on mac-n-cheese with dehydrated ham and peas. Due to a packing error, we quickly realized that we’d brought 4 servings rather than two. Whoops! We were both stuffed after eating all of it, but it was probably not a bad thing. The hike there had been exhausting, and the meal was warm and filling.
After dinner, I went outside to enjoy the scenery. The view of Mount Griggs from the huts is stunning. Meanwhile, to the southeast, Mount Katmai and the Trident Volcano towered over Pea Soup Pass. The last of the clouds had blown off, so I took a short walk to the crest of the ridge to take in the view to the southwest. There, I was treated to a jaw-dropping view of Mount Mageik. The other volcanoes surrounding the valley are dramatic, but Mageik wins the blue ribbon. It’s a massive mountain, with three distinct summits, and its glaciers run all the way from its crown to its base. It absolutely sparkled in the late evening light. I knew a lot of visitors to the valley never see Mageik, and I felt blessed to have had the opportunity.
I stayed up for sunset, which took forever to arrive. The sun drops slowly in Alaska in the summer! Around midnight I was treated to a bit of alpenglow on Katmai, Trident, and Mageik, before a queer fog began to descend upon the huts. Despite the thin, wispy fog, I was eventually treated to a colorful sunset over the valley. Afterwards, I retired to the hut, where I joined Christy, who was wiped out from the day’s hike.
We slept in the next morning. When we finally roused ourselves, we found our huts blanketed by a thick fog. The stunning views of Griggs, Mageik, Trident, and Katmai of the previous evening were but a faint memory. We had a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate before contemplating our options.
We had two full days at our disposal. On Saturday though, we’d have to reach the Visitor’s Center before 3pm to catch the bus. Missing it would be traumatic, as it would require adding an extra night to our trip. It would also mean missing our flight back to Anchorage, which was scheduled for Sunday morning. I was inclined to get up early (sunrise is at 4:30) on Sunday and hike out. Christy wasn’t confident that we could make it back in time, even with an early start. She suggested we head part of the way back on Friday, so we’d be sure to get back in time on Saturday. As usual, her strategy was the wiser one. With this minor change in plans, we only had one day to explore from our basecamp. I was determined to make the most of it, fog or not.
We gathered lunch, water, and gear for a dayhike and loaded everything in my pack. We were almost ready to depart when the fog suddenly began to break up. The skies cleared almost instantly. At one moment, we could barely see the huts from 20 yards away. A minute later, we were staring across at mighty Mount Griggs. Blue sky was all around us. I got a real rush of adrenaline as we headed down the gully on the northeast flank of Baked Mountain. I couldn’t wait to see what was ahead!
We dropped down into the spur valley I’d explored the previous evening while searching for water. Once at the bottom, we continued up the valley, following a narrow gully. A few minutes later, we passed a small trickle of water running out of a small snowfield buried under a thin layer of rocks and sand. This was a pleasant discovery, as we’d need more water that evening, and this source was a good bit closer than the snowfield I’d hiked to previously. From there, easy walking led us towards Pea Soup Pass, which separates Baked Mountain from Broken Mountain. The pass is a fairly easy climb, and as we ascended, Trident Volcano and Mount Katmai began to reveal themselves. Once we reached the crest, we were treated to a staggering view. We gazed out at the aforementioned volcanoes towering over the head of the valley. Each was draped in glaciers, and the jagged summit of Katmai hinted at the destruction that occurred in the 1912 eruption.
When the eruption occurred, a large chamber full of lava underneath Mount Katmai collapsed. The summit imploded, leaving behind multiple peaks surrounding the caldera, which now holds a lovely aquamarine crater lake. The eruption itself occurred several miles away, as the lava flowed out the flank of the mountain at a new vent. The vent was later named “Novarupta”, which translates roughly to “New Eruption”. From our perch, we were looking directly down on Novarupta. The vent is an impressive tower of black volcanic rocks, looming at the head of the valley, directly below the massive glaciers of Trident and Katmai.
After a quick lunch in the sun, it was time to get a closer look. Getting down to Novarupta proved to be a bit of a challenge. Climbing up to the pass was easy, but the backside is extremely steep. There was no other likely route though, so we started down, moving slowly and carefully. Fortunately, the pumice and ash was soft, and it was easy to slip and slide down the hillside. This part of the hike reminded me of running down a sand dune, and it wasn’t long before our boots were full of debris.
We reached the bottom and looked back up. Neither of us said anything, but I know we were both thinking the same thing. There’s no way either of us wanted to climb back up there at the end of the hike.
That was a problem for later. We headed on towards the dark, looming mass of Novarupta, traversing dozens of small gullies at the head of the valley. As we approached Novarupta, it began to look like a haunted castle, perhaps inhabited by an evil sorcerer. The stench of sulphur from some unseen source added to the ambiance. With those mighty volcanoes in the background, the only thing the scene needed was lightning arcing between heavy, black clouds. I felt like I was walking through a dark chapter of a Tolkien novel, or that we had simply hiked back in time a few thousand years. The Earth is raw and hostile here – as if this small corner of the planet is still under construction (which, after all, it is). Honestly, if a Pterodactyl had swooped down from Falling Mountain and flown over our heads, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.
We approached the base of the castle and stared up at a giant pile of black boulders. Steam was escaping from several spots around the base of the tower, offering a reminder that all of these volcanoes are still extremely active. We took a leisurely tour around the vent, noticing several impressive fumaroles, as well as some discolored ground that hinted at additional volcanic activity. Then we began following a natural rock levee up and around Novarupta. Eventually we reached the top, and gazed out across the jumble of rocks that now fill the crater. Beyond the vent, we had an impressive view of Baked Mountain looming over the desolate valley. Behind us we viewed Falling Mountain, which is extremely well-named. Even now, nearly 100 years after the eruption, Falling Mountain is gradually collapsing. The near face is sheer, and every few minutes a boulder would tumble down the mountain. Each rock slide created a mighty roar. After the first, I turned quickly, certain that I’d see an angry dragon gliding over the peaks towards us.
We loitered there for quite awhile. The scenery was incomparable, with my new favorite mountain, Mount Mageik, dominating the view to the southwest. Back in the other direction, the Knife Creek Glaciers tumbled down from the rim of Mount Katmai. I knew Katmai’s crater lake was hidden beyond that rim, and felt a compulsion to see it. I was pretty sure the lake was beyond our abilities though.
We were out of water, but luckily there were plenty of snowfields nearby. I hiked over to one of them, and filled up our camelbacks. I was nearly finished when I realized I was standing on a thin snow bridge above a deep gully. I relocated quickly, before it could collapse, and hurried back to where Christy was waiting.
It was mid-afternoon, and we needed to plot a route that would take us back to the huts. Returning the same way was unappealing. The easiest route would’ve been to hike down the valley until we found a reasonable route up the flank of Baked Mountain. Christy came up with a more intriguing option though. She suggested that we climb up and over the nameless peak above us. From there, it looked like we’d be able to work our way back down to Pea Soup Pass. I thought it was a great idea. It promised adventure and the opportunity to see new scenery. Plus, if it didn’t work out, Christy wouldn’t be able to blame me!
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD (AND I FEEL FINE)
We resumed our circumnavigation of Novarupta, now climbing the ridge high above it. This offered a new perspective, as we were able to gaze down into the crater. There really wasn’t much to see – just an impressive jumble of black boulders – but it was really cool regardless. Meanwhile, the views continued to expand as we climbed. In every direction was yet another gorgeous, icy volcano. Beyond Mount Mageik, we could just glimpse Mount Martin. And beyond that? Presumably the Pacific Ocean. Either that, or the end of the world. From my perspective, either seemed equally plausible.
We reached the summit of this unnamed peak, where we found a small pond and a possible campsite. From there, we had to find a way down to Pea Soup Pass. Initially we tried the direct route, but were thwarted by a steep snowfield. We backtracked, and worked our way along a more gradual course. This approach featured lots of snow and mud, but the route was safe. A bit later we reached a ridge on Broken Mountain above the pass. Here we were surprised to find a beaten path coming up from the Knife Creek Valley to the northeast. I was tempted to explore that way, to get a closer view of the Knife Creek Glaciers, but I knew it was a long way down there. Instead, we followed the ridge southwest and descended gently to the pass. There we took a long break, despite the howling wind that had suddenly picked up. It was hard to leave that fantastic scenery behind, but dark, angry clouds building behind Mount Mageik provided motivation. It looked like there might be storming moving in from the Pacific. If so, we wanted to be back at the huts before it arrived.
We hustled back, but attempted a slightly different route. Instead of hiking down into the valley and then climbing back up Baked Mountain, we tried to take the high road. This worked initially, but eventually the slope became too steep to traverse. The terrain forced us down into the valley after all. This was slightly disappointing, but it did force us back past the water source we’d found earlier. We filled everything up there, before beginning the tedious slog back up to the huts.
We had chili for dinner that night as high clouds continued to roll in. It looked like our perfect weather was about to disappear, but I was ok with that. We’d enjoyed a spectacular day. If the weather in the valley was going to return to normal, I could live with it. After all, having one really nice day there was almost more than we could’ve hoped for.
The clouds looked threatening, but they didn’t detract from the sunset that night. Instead, as the sun dropped, the clouds lit up in a startling display of reds and oranges. From our perch high above that desolate valley, it looked like the beginning of Armageddon. After one of the most amazing days I’d ever experienced, I think I might’ve actually been ready for it.
We slept in again the next morning. Staying up until midnight for sunset takes a toll, as does hiking all day. We had a breakfast of cold cereal and packed everything up. The Baked Mountain huts had been very hospitable, but our time in the valley was running short. In hindsight, I wish I’d planned a longer trip there.
The clouds of the previous night were a distant memory, as we were treated to another day of blue skies. Our goal for the day was to hike back across the river to Six Mile Camp. We figured the hike out to the Visitors Center would be an easy 3-4 hours from there. However, I wasn’t willing to settle for a simple hike half way back. There was still a lot of the valley I wanted to see. Rather than taking the direct route back, I planned out a long loop that would hit some of the valley’s more interesting features. From Baked Mountain, we’d drop down into the main valley to the south. From the valley, we’d hike up between Falling Mountain and Cerberus to Katmai Pass. Then we’d backtrack a bit before visiting the Mageik Lakes, which are glacial tarns at the base of Mount Mageik. From there, we’d follow the River Lethe back.
We hoisted our packs and located an obvious trail angling down the west flank of Baked Mountain. The trail was sandy and followed a reasonable grade down into the valley. As I hiked, I alternated between watching my feet and gawking at the view. We were hiking towards massive Mount Mageik – my new favorite mountain. Mageik is a beauty, and it absolutely dwarfs the vast valley below. Beyond Mageik, we could clearly see another volcano, Mount Martin. A plume of steam was rising from its summit, which was quite exciting. Exactly what would we do if one these volcanoes erupted while we were out here?
We reached the valley bottom and continued south, along the base of Baked Mountain. We endured lots of small gullies along here before reaching a USGS monitoring station. The station looked like a robot out there in the middle of the valley. I’m not sure what the equipment does, but my guess is that it monitors the seismic activity in the area.
At this point, we reached the corner of Baked Mountain. The valley splits here, with one fork tumbling down from Novarupta and another dropping down from Katmai Pass. From here we had a final, distant view of Novarupta. Our goal for the day was ahead though. We headed down towards the base of the valley, traversing one gully after another. Before long, we reached the biggest, deepest gully. This one was full of snow and mud, but we didn’t see any clear water. We climbed in and out of it, before starting the gradual climb towards the pass.
A deep, rugged gully runs down from the pass to eventually join the river. Walking up the gully looked difficult, so we stayed to the left, below the soaring walls of Falling Mountain. From a distance, this looked easy. Plus, according to the map, we’d only have to climb a few hundred feet to reach the top of the pass. We were looking forward to bagging an easy pass before starting the hike out.
Boy, were we wrong. As we climbed, we began to encounter gullies more and more frequently. We’d traversed a lot of gullies earlier in the trip, but these were deep, rugged, and frequent. Before long, we were constantly either descending into a gully or climbing out the other side. Following them wasn’t an option, as they all led perpendicular to our goal. By the time we realized just how miserable this was going to be, we were too far along to give up. Or we thought we were. The pass is broad and gradual, and our progress towards the top was incredibly slow. We reached one false summit after another, only to spy a higher point ahead. The entire hike was horribly demoralizing.
We passed a number of snowfields, some small streams, and another USGS monitoring station. Finally, after an eternity, the pass loomed ahead. It was well past lunch time, and we were content to collapse there at the pass for a well-deserved rest. We were pretty worn out, as the pass had been the toughest 400’ climb I’d ever endured!
The view from the pass wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d hoped that we might be able to see the Pacific Ocean and Kodiak Island from there. Instead, we found ourselves looking out at a wall of fog. The sky above the valley was cloudless, but the weather was obviously rather different on the ocean side of the pass. Even if the fog had cleared, Observation Mountain ahead of us may have blocked the view to the south.
Although the view was slightly disappointing, reaching the pass did have some historical significance. This was the spot from which Robert Griggs first spied the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, four years after the eruption. His perspective was different though, as they’d approached the pass from the opposite direction.
While we were eating lunch, I puzzled over the map. Immediately above us was a minor peak that I didn’t see on the map. From the peak, a long ridge of black, volcanic rocks descended into the valley below. Smoke was rising from several places on this mystery peak. I was quite sure we were at Katmai Pass, but if that was the case, there shouldn’t have been a mountain there.
We were still eating lunch when two figures emerged from the fog below the pass. I thought I was hallucinating as I watched them walk towards us. We hadn’t seen another soul in two full days. Now two people were approaching us, coming from a part of the park that hardly anyone visits.
The two people turned out to be Park Rangers. They were near the end of a week-long backcountry “patrol”. They seemed to be as surprised to see us as we were to see them. They joined us at the pass, and openly admitted that we were the first backcountry hikers they’d encountered on their patrol. They’d spent most of the week on the coastal side of the park climbing mountains. While they were over there, they’d climbed Mount Katmai to the rim of the crater lake. I was jealous, and inquired about their route. They had taken a non-technical route up the back side of the peak. I thought that route looked doable on the map, but it required a long and demanding approach. It was entirely too far to attempt on a 4 day trip. They had also been up to the lake from Knife Creek. Climbing from that side requires glacier travel. They suggested that we go in June if we decided to attempt it that way. After June, the glaciers turn rotten, and are dangerous to traverse.
Before they left, they pointed out the mountain I’d been puzzling over earlier. It turns out that this mountain isn’t on the map. This wasn’t an oversight by the surveyors. Actually, the mountain simply failed to exist back when the maps were made. I found this astonishing. It wasn’t a terribly big mountain, but for it to grow that much in 50 or 60 years was stunning. Its’ very presence really belies the extreme level of geological unrest in this area. One Ranger pointed out that this unnamed peak was the source of the park’s most recent eruptions, back in the 1970’s. The ridge of black volcanic rock descending from the peak was the most visible sign of those eruptions. Could it blow again? Considering the rate of that mountain’s growth, I’m sure it could. In fact, as we were speaking, Mount Mageik behind us had begun to steam.
The Ranger’s were on the next-to-last day of their trip. They were planning to camp at the Mageik Lakes that night, before heading out the following day. We were also planning to visit the lakes, and we warned them of the miserable route we’d taken up to the pass. They were painfully aware of the problems with that route. Instead, they were planning to take a more direct approach. They planned to go over a minor pass between Mount Mageik and Cerberus. I had looked at that route, but rejected it because it looked too steep. They had gone that way once before though, and remembered it being reasonable. After they left, I began to contemplate a change in plans. Skipping all of those gullies would be nice, and their route to the lakes would be much shorter, too.
I got water from a nearby snowfield and rejoined Christy. She wanted no part of those dreaded gullies. She doesn’t do well with steep descents though, and I warned her that the shortcut might be unpleasant. Going that route would also take us close to Mageik’s glaciers. If the descent route was still snow-covered, it would definitely be hazardous. Despite this, Christy was willing to throw caution to the wind. I agreed, largely for selfish reasons. I knew if we went back the same way, we’d never have the time or energy to go out of the way to see the lakes. I didn’t want to miss them. The shortcut was just too tempting to pass up.
In Greek and Roman Mythology, Cerberus is a three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades. Its job is to prevent those that had crossed the River Styx into the Underworld from ever escaping.
Cerberus the mountain forms one half of the portal (with Falling Mountain being the other) leading from Katmai Pass into the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The mountain was named back in the early 20th century, not long after the 1912 eruption. At that time, there’s no doubt that the Valley looked a lot like Hades. Considering how the mountain “guards” the valley, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate name for it.
We followed in the Ranger’s footsteps, enjoying some easy walking around the back side of Cerberus. We had great views of Mount Mageik and Trident Volcano along here as well. There was a lot of snow here, which provides a convenient water source. This area looked like a reasonable camping area – assuming that the flanks of Mount Mageik are able to block the wind.
We climbed briefly to a saddle and started down a narrow gully. After a few minutes, the gully widened, and we reached the brink of a steep, vast snowfield. Whoops.
As soon as I saw all of that snow, my heart sank. Now we were in a bit of a situation. Far below (almost straight down), we could see one of the Mageik Lakes twinkling up at us. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a safe way to get there. Descending there would be extremely dangerous, and at this point, the idea of going back was actually nauseating. Cerberus is a bad dog.
We continued ahead, above the brink of the snowfield. A minute later, we met the Ranger’s again. They were contemplating their options, and we sat down and joined them. What to do?
They pulled out crampons and pulled them onto their boots. They didn’t have ice axes, but felt that the extra traction from the crampons would get them down safely. I could’ve kicked myself for leaving our ice cleats back at the hotel in Anchorage. I’d left them behind in an effort to save pack weight, confident that we wouldn’t need them.
The Ranger’s started down, but strongly suggested that we not follow. After all, they’d enjoyed a great trip, and didn’t want it marred now with a backcountry medical emergency (or body recovery). Instead, they suggested that we traverse the north side of Cerberus and look for a safer place to climb down.
We decided to give that a try. The snowfield continued, but was less steep around this side of the mountain. We tiptoed along above the snow, moving across rocks and soft mud. After some distance, we reached a break in the snowfield. A narrow spine of rocks descended part of the slope. From where we were, we could see that it ended in the middle of the snowfield, but following it would get us down a considerable distance. However, once it ended, we’d be surrounded by snow.
We descended slowly, sinking up to our ankles in mud. We used the many rocks to hang onto as we carefully worked our way down. The rocks finally ended, and we found ourselves at the edge of the snow, about halfway down the slope. There was a couple hundred feet of steep snow below us, but the grade was much more gradual than what the Ranger’s had descended. At this point, going back up through the mud would’ve been extremely difficult. I went first, easing out onto the snow and slowly working my way down.
The sunny afternoon may have saved us. The snow was soft, and we were able to get some traction. I proceeded by kicking steps in the snow, carefully avoiding the occasional hard, icy spot. Christy followed behind me, moving cautiously. As I worked my way down, I tried to avoid looking down at the big pile of boulders waiting for us at the bottom of the mountain. Hitting those at full throttle would be ugly indeed. Finally I reached the bottom, and exhaled in relief. At this point, I think we’d both had enough excitement for one trip!
We got more water from snowmelt and headed towards the Mageik Lakes. We stopped just above the first one, which is a gorgeous green tarn situated right at the base of Mount Mageik’s massive glaciers. We took a break there to enjoy the view, and spotted the Ranger’s down at the lakeshore. It was good to know they had made it down safely.
In Greek Mythology, the River Lethe flowed through Hades, and those that drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness.
At this point, it was late-afternoon, and we still had a long way to go. We considered taking a tour of the lakes. The main advantage of this is that we could’ve waded each outlet stream, rather than fording the full river downstream. Unfortunately, taking that route would’ve added several miles to an already lengthy hike. Instead, we decided to take the direct route back down the valley. Now that we knew where we could ford the river, we weren’t too concerned about getting across.
We followed a series of gullies down to the river. Following the gullies was much easier than crossing them. However, once we neared the river, we were forced to head downstream, perpendicular to the gullies. A few of them were tedious, but they weren’t nearly as bad as the gullies we’d crossed climbing to Katmai Pass.
The hike along the river was exciting. We passed several old fumaroles, and the views of the surrounding volcanoes continued to impress. As we hiked, I noticed that smoke was now escaping from the summit of Mount Griggs. Apparently all of the valley’s volcanoes were taking turns smoking for us.
At some point we found ourselves following an impressive array of footprints. Six or seven people had passed this way recently, along with a bear. I suspected that the human footprints belonged to the Sierra Club group that we’d seen from a distance on the first day. My suspicions were confirmed a little later, when one set of footprints led directly to a hole in the ground. The ground was discolored here, and it was apparent that there was an old fumarole lurking underneath a thin layer of crust. We had heard that one of the members of the Sierra Club group had fallen into an old fumarole, and now we were looking at the evidence. The Valley of 10,000 Smokes really is a dangerous place. If you manage to survive the river crossings, the snowfields, the bears, the storms, and the occasional volcanic eruption, you still have to worry about the earth opening up and swallowing you whole!
We skirted the hole and continued ahead, warily watching for patches of discolored ground. We saw many, and gave all of them a wide berth. This part of the hike seemed to take forever, but we finally reached the river ford at 7pm. All of the footprints, bear and human, led directly to it. My relief at finally getting there disappeared as soon as I saw the river. The ford looked nothing like it had four days earlier. The sandbars we’d used to help cross were gone. Was this the same spot? What had happened?
The source of the River Lethe is the massive glaciers on Mount Mageik. Glacial rivers are a little different from most streams, in that the water level rises following warm, sunny weather. We were now looking at a blunt reminder of this little quirk of nature. Would we be able to cross safely?
We considered camping there and waiting until morning to cross. I was leery of this though. If one of the valley’s infamous wind storms came up, we’d have no shelter along the riverbank. After a bit of hand-wringing, we decided to give it a shot.
We switched to our river shoes, and once again Christy beat me to the water. We knew the deepest part of the crossing would be at the beginning. She eased in, and the water reached well above her knees. This looked dicey, but after a few steps, she was past the deepest water. Most of the way across, the water was a bit more than knee deep. I followed her carefully, but nearly had my breath knocked out of me by the cold. The water was deeper, but the power of the current was more significant. Three days earlier it had been strong, but not overwhelming. Now, however, it wouldn’t take much to sweep either of us off our feet. I concentrated on my foot placement, and used my trekking pole to help maintain my balance. After a few steps, the deepest water was behind me. The current remained strong though, and I had to maintain my caution until I was most of the way across. Reaching the far shore was a tremendous relief. Hopefully that would be the end of the drama for this trip!
We had a long break on the far side. I collected water again, as we were really going through it under that roasting sun. This time though, I treated it with chemicals. In an area as pristine as this, I don’t hesitate to drink snowmelt without treating it. I wasn’t quite as confident in the quality of the river water though. Thanks to the iodine, we didn’t have to worry about any intestinal parasites. Whether it would keep us from losing our memories was another question entirely.
We followed a gully away from the river, angling towards the Buttress Range ahead. Before long, we found ourselves walking at the base of the cliffs, in the shadows of the mountains above. We continued down the valley following lots of footprints (both human and bear), until we reached a small stream. The stream runs down through a pleasant, green alcove in the mountains before reaching the pumice and ash of the valley floor. We turned upstream here, and headed up into the protected cove to camp. The wind was pretty gentle, but we knew that could change instantly. By camping in the alcove, we were sheltered and we had easy access to one of the best water sources in the valley.
We were exhausted, and Christy threatened to go straight to bed without dinner. I didn’t let her though, and we had a nice, warm, filling meal of pasta, chicken, and vegetables. As we ate, we relaxed and watched the late evening light play on Mount Griggs. After dinner we went straight to bed, but despite our exhaustion, neither of us slept well. It was hard to avoid thinking about grizzly bears after our earlier encounter. Plus, we knew we were camped right along a major bear migratory corridor. For some reason, knowing that all of the bears “should” be at Brooks Falls didn’t do much for our peace of mind. Despite this, we made it through the night without any drama.
We managed to get up at 7am the next morning. Despite a leisurely morning, we broke camp by 9. I was certain we could make it to the Visitors Center in a few hours, but we didn’t want to take any chances with missing the bus.
The hike out was largely uneventful. We did see some Ptarmigans and a handful of squirrels, which constituted the only wildlife sightings of the trip (except for that one bear). Of course, we were constantly reminded of the bear, thanks to all of the bear tracks we were following. The “trail” we were on isn’t an official trail because it wasn’t made by people – it was created by the bears. We were literally hiking the grizzly bear super highway.
We reached Windy Creek at the edge of the valley at 11:30. We descended a gully to the stream, and crossed it without any difficulty. We climbed out the other side, found the trail at the Caribou antlers, and then started up one final gully towards the road. The climb out was more difficult than the descent had been 4 days earlier, but at least the vegetation was dry. We actually reached the road faster than expected. We probably could’ve waited for the bus here, but it would’ve been a long wait. Instead we hiked down the road a mile or so to the Visitors Center.
We found Woody and Bob, who we’d met on the first day, waiting there. They’d had a nice trip, camping the first night at 6 mile, the next two nights below Novarupta, and the final night at Windy Creek. The bus driver was also there, along with a couple of German tourists who had skipped the guided hike down to Ukak Falls. I briefly considered hiking down there, but I came to my senses. I was tired after a demanding trip, and it was really hot out in the sun. Instead, we enjoyed broad but hazy views of the valley and the surrounding volcanoes. The perspective of the valley from above was completely different from being in it. The canyons of the River Lethe, Knife Creek, and various tributaries looked like deep gashes in a broad expanse of flesh.
We spent the next couple of hours looking at the exhibits in the Visitors Center and watching the bus driver swat flies. We also got to chat with Bob and Woody for a bit. They were geology buffs from Cody, Wyoming, which is just east of Yellowstone. They’d come to Katmai to check out the volcanoes and the unique geology of the valley.
Eventually the Park Ranger and dayhikers returned from their trip to Ukak Falls. I was pleased to see that they were nearly as sweaty and grimy as we were. In the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, it just doesn’t take long to get filthy.
The bus departed at 3pm, and we enjoyed an uneventful ride. Back at Brooks Camp we indulged in $7 showers at the “lodge” and treated ourselves to sodas and candy bars from the camp store. We then checked into the campground and headed back over there to set up camp. This time there were no empty sites to be found. Either the campground was overbooked, or we somehow missed an empty spot. We ended up pitching the tent at a wide spot in one of the campground trails. The only thing worse than not getting a legitimate tent site was all of the cotton blowing out of the Cottonwood Trees. The stuff was literally everywhere, to the point that it was hard to see or breathe. The next morning, we spent quite a bit of time brushing the cotton off of the tent and our gear so we could break camp.
After setting up camp, we returned to the lodge for dinner. The dinner buffet was $35 each, and it featured steak and salmon. The food was ok, but certainly nothing special. We did wash the meal down with a couple of beers, which were quite refreshing after a tough backpacking trip. After dinner, we met up with Bob and Woody and walked back over to Brooks Falls. We arrived at 8pm, which was nice timing, as the platform wasn’t very crowded. We hung out there for 2 hours and enjoyed a great show. There was a lot of activity, and we actually counted 15 separate bears there at one point. Once again we really enjoyed watching the families. We spotted a sow with 2 yearlings and another sow with 3 cubs.
The platform closed at 10, so we headed back. We made it back to camp around 11, but I couldn’t fall asleep. It was still unusually warm, and the late lingering daylight continued to mess with my internal clock. I finally fell asleep, but suffered through another restless night.
SPLIT OPEN AND MELT
We were up at 7 the next morning. Christy had also suffered through a rough night, thanks to some awful bug bites. Mosquitoes hadn’t been much of a problem, but her neck was covered with bites from flies or no-see-ums. They had gotten to me, also, but my bites were all on my ankles.
We broke camp and took our luggage over to the lodge and dropped it off. Then we indulged in the breakfast buffet, which was better than dinner, and a much better value ($15 per person). After eating, we decided to squeeze in one more visit to Brooks Falls. We made the hike over there again, which was kind of funny. It’s the first time on one of our trips that I’ve actually done the same round trip hike 3 times! Each time was a little different though. Our last visit to Brooks Falls was actually a little disappointing though. There were only a few bears, and there seemed to be quite a lull in the salmon. It was quite a contrast to the fiesta of the previous evening.
We returned to the lower platform and bridge, and encountered more bears there than we’d seen at Brooks Falls. After a short delay, we were allowed to cross. We returned to the lodge, and lounged around until 12:30 waiting for our flight. At that point, we discovered that our flight plan had been re-routed. Originally we were supposed to take a float plane to King Salmon, and PenAir back to Anchorage. Instead, we’d be taking a float plane to Kulik Lodge, deep in the heart of Katmai National Park. From there, we’d take another small plane all the way back to Anchorage. This sounded great to us – we’d get back at about the same time, and see a lot of new scenery along the way.
We loaded up a bit later and headed out. One of the nice things about taking a float plane is that the process is quick and efficient. There’s no checking in, no security screening, and no hanging around the gate for an hour before your flight. Once our baggage was stored, the pilot assigned us seats (based on weight distribution) and we were off. Somehow Christy managed to finagle her way into the co-pilot’s seat, so she had a great view as we took off from Naknek Lake. The scenery between Brooks Camp and Kulik Lodge was fantastic. As we climbed, we soared past volcanoes, glaciers, icefields, and alpine lakes. We never got very high, and at times we seemed to be soaring just above the alpine tundra. Seeing such a remote part of Katmai National Park ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was almost disappointing when we came in for our landing on Nonvianuk Lake.
Our visit to Kulik Lodge was very brief. There we departed the float plane and took a van a short distance to a dirt runway, where we boarded a small plane. On the ride we spotted another grizzly bear, which was the last one we’d see until we got to Denali National Park, at the end of our trip. Along the way we picked up some additional passengers, who had been fishing in the Kulik Lodge area. Before long we were airborne again, this time bound for Anchorage. Once again we were treated to some lovely scenery. The highlight of this flight was passing right in front of Mount Redoubt. This time the volcano wasn’t smoking, and the pilot took advantage of the opportunity to fly us right past the yawning crater at the summit. Redoubt is a fascinating mountain. The top of the volcano looks like it split in half once upon a time. As we passed by, its glaciers shimmering in the sun, I imagined what it would look like with lava flowing out of the vent and down its broad flank.
We made it back to Anchorage before 3pm. There we landed and taxied all the way to a hangar owned by Katmailand. Then we were shuttled by van over to the terminal, where we picked up our second rental car of the trip. This one turned out to be a Toyota Corolla, which was a nice upgrade from the usual Ford or Chevy P.O.S. While in line at the Avis counter, I was amused by a sign that stated that “it is a violation of the terms of the rental contract to take an Avis car off of paved roads”. I took exception to this, as the contract I’d signed said nothing of the sort. I found it amusing that they thought they could changes the terms of a contract by putting up a sign after the fact. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think it works that way. Ultimately, I decided to go with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Namely, they didn’t ask if I was planning on driving on dirt roads, and I didn’t tell them that we were, in fact, planning to drive a couple hundred miles of them.
From the airport, we headed back to the Holiday Inn Express, where we checked in and collected our additional luggage from storage. Then Christy iced her knee (which was a bit swollen after our backpacking trip) and took a nap while I reorganized our gear. Afterwards, we had dinner at a nice Mexican restaurant (yes, they even have them in Alaska). The restaurant was downtown on Cordova Street, which seemed appropriate since we’d be heading to Cordova in a couple of days. Afterwards, we dropped a couple of hundred dollars at Safeway and picked up another growler from the Glacier Brewing Company.
That night we did some additional re-packing before spending some quality time in the hotel hot tub. We used the hot tub jets to massage our feet, which were aching from days of walking around in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Later we put an impressive dent in our supply of Benadryl cream. If anything, our bug bites had actually gotten worse! By the time we went to bed that night, we had everything ready for the next segment of our trip. We had a free day coming up, followed by a ferry ride to Cordova. I was really looking forward to visiting Cordova, as it promised a completely different experience from our trip thus far.
And now a few observations, and some advice from Christy:
1) Salmon-scented perfume is probably a bad idea in Alaska.
2) It’s better to follow a gully, even if means changing your destination, rather than crossing hundreds of them.
3) Never hike towards large, fuzzy rocks.
4) I’m glad grizzlies like salmon rather than the other pink meat.
5) Always carry crampons in Alaska – even in a desert.
6) Gullies suck.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!