The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Exploration

Going Wild in the New Costa Rica, Part 1

Say the words "Nicaragua" and "family vacation" in the same breath, and you may get odd looks. There's just something about the combination that sounds a little off. Kindly older ladies in the grocery store will gaze with grandmotherly concern at your young children and inquire if there's still a war going on. The manicurist during a marathon layover at the Houston airport nail salon will assume you must be doing mission work. Even the flight attendant on the plane to Managua will ask why you've picked Nicaragua for your family beach adventure, gushing longingly, "Costa Rica is my favorite!"

It's enough to give you second—or third—thoughts.

We'd chosen Nicaragua because last spring we'd traveled to Costa Rica. It had been for us and our two daughters, the perfect mix of inland jungle—complete with monkeys, an organic farm, and volcano views—and idyllic Pacific coast. Costa Rica was so easy to love—maybe too easy—and we loved it so much, in fact, that we just had to go someplace else, someplace like Costa Rica, only maybe, possibly, a little bit better. Someplace with steaming mountains and sandy beaches, with fewer foreign tourists, where not everyone we met spoke English, where there wasn't a zip line in every corner of jungle.

Nicaragua is right next door, and some well-traveled friends of ours had gone with their two daughters and raved about the relatively undeveloped Pacific coast, less than 50 miles north of the Costa Rica border. It was like Costa Rica was 20 years ago, they said, before the explosion of eco-tourism. Nicaragua's bloody war between the Contras and Sandinistas had ended nearly 25 years ago, and I'd heard somewhere that it was now the safest country in Central America. It was also closer and more affordable (flights were $300 cheaper than to Costa Rica and Hawaii). I cruised the internet, sent a few emails, and booked our tickets. We were Nica bound.


Only then did I buy the guide book. In the last chapter, past the many tantalizing pictures and descriptions of empty beaches and howler monkeys dangling from trees like fruit, I found the "practical information" section. This is where I learned that Nicaragua's "safest-country in Central America" reputation was a little dated—try 2008; in some urban areas, crime has been on the upswing. And that malaria is a risk, albeit a low one on the west coast. And that all travelers are advised to have a laundry list of vaccinations before arriving. I thought about our two young daughters and wondered if I'd gotten us in over our heads, when all we wanted was an active, nature-based beach vacation plus a little Latin American culture. By the sounds of it, Nica was going to be a bumpier ride than Costa Rica. But wasn't that the point?

We landed in Managua on a 90-degree April night. I didn't love the idea of arriving in a foreign city after dark with small children, especially one as hectic as Managua, which by most accounts was worth skipping entirely, but driving onward at night to the reputedly nearly 500-year-old colonial town of Granada, an hour away, was discouraged So I reserved a room at a small, well-reviewed inn about 20 minutes from the airport, and a driver who whisked us through darkened streets in his cramped, white Toyota sedan. The girls promptly fell asleep on my shoulders, while up front Steve and the driver chatted amiably about the passing sights in rapid-fire Spanish I couldn't understand.

Out the window, the Latin night blurred by: flashing lights and families in flip-flops clutching toddlers' hands and plastic shopping bags, rickety motor bikes, giant illuminated palm tree sculptures, and eight-year-old boys darting through four lanes of traffic. Cars seemed oblivious to pedestrians, or the pedestrians invincible to cars, with neither yielding to the other, and no one getting hurt. We stopped only once, along with a line of other cars, to make way for a pair of long-legged young women in short shorts crossing the road. "Ballerinas" I heard the driver tell Steve in English. How nice, I thought, a local dance company.

Later, as we settled into the lovely Hotel Casa Naranja on a narrow side street a block from the city's main hotel row, Steve told me that the driver hadn't been pointing out local landmarks but had been giving him a kind of ghoulish, unsolicited crime tour of Managua. This is where someone got stabbed; over there, a drive-by shooting; the ballerinas were strippers leaving a club. But now that we were safely ensconced in the lush courtyard, the gritty city seemed far removed. Our girls were sleeping deeply in a guest house surrounded by high brick walls topped with coiled razor wire, and we were sitting beside a tiny pool, drinking in the strange, new tropical night—the honking horns and squawking parrots that sounded like someone getting strangled and the sweet waft of orange blossoms on the breeze—awake in a way we rarely are at home. The drive from the airport alone had been worth the trip: We weren't in Costa Rica anymore, and I couldn't have been more glad.


Desert dwellers that we are, we had come to Nica to live as close to water—and nature—as possible for the next ten days. Our plan, then, was to head straight to the Pacific coast for six days at Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge, which more or less launched eco-tourism in the country a decade ago. With 15 open-air bungalows set above an pristine arc of white sand and gentle surf in a protected bay, it sounded like our favorite kind of base camp. From there, we'd travel north to Rancho Santana, a burgeoning luxury development that stretched along some of Nicaragua's best surfing beaches. 

Morgan's Rock is both a stylish guest resort and a real working farm, or finca, set on 4,000 acres of dry forest about half an hour's drive north of the expat surfing hub of San Juan del Sur. It's a three-hour drive from Managua on surprisingly well-maintained paved two-lane highways, which we shared with wobbly, three-wheeled tuk tuks and horse-drawn carts before reaching the final dusty, washboarded road to the lodge. When at last we arrived at Morgan's Rock, it was clear that getting there had been the easy part. Leaving was going to be much, much harder.

Our bungalow, number five, clung to a small cliff about 150 steps above Playa Blanca. Screened on three sides, the hardwood cabana sported a thatched palm roof, mesmerizing views of the blue Pacific, and a roomy, private porch with a spider monkey peering down at us from the rafters. Inside was all smooth, polished loveliness: teak beds and furniture, made onsite from wood from the finca, a shower with ocean views, ceiling fans to aid the breeze. In fact, it's hard to say what was more impressive: the sound of the ocean—a steady thunder of crashing waves—or the sight of it. It was just like living outside, only better.

Usually it takes a couple days to unhitch from the routines of home and ease into vacation mode, but at Morgan's Rock we settled into a natural rhythm right away. The constant roar of the ocean, the ultimate 24/7 white noise, seemed to drown out the distractions and root us right to the spot: a mile-long sweep of beach and our breezy bungalow on the hill. Instead of filling our day with organized activities, we decided to let them flow without pressure. This was easy to do because, though Morgan's Rock offers plenty of enticing tours and adventures, there's plenty for families to do on their own.


Without obligations or a schedule, our days took on a pleasing, predictable routine: wake early for a short run at first light, coffee and hot chocolate delivered to our door at 6:30, a lazy morning of reading on the hanging day bed, then down to breakfast by 8. The restaurant is a large, airy expanse overlooking the pool—like the rest of the buildings at Morgan's Rock, thatched-roofed and open on all sides—and Steve and I would linger over our rancheros eggs and fresh papaya and pineapple while the girls swam and hurled themselves off the small rocky outcropping that doubled as a diving board. Almost immediately they befriended at trio of kids from London, about their age, and the five ran around like they owned the place. Which, being the only children at Morgan's Rock that week, they practically did.

Not all beaches are created equal, and not all beaches are child-friendly, but Playa Blanca met all the necessary criteria, and then some. Bound on both sides by steep cliffs that sheltered the bay from strong currents, the surf rolled in gently, at low and high tide, creating a perfect playground for boogie-boarding and bodysurfing. With the exception of a few rocks at either end of the beach, there was nothing larger than a hermit shell crab on which to stub your toe. Morgan's Rock rents boogie boards ($10 per day), and we'd carry one down each morning and set up shop beneath a thatched-roof palapa on the sand.

Most days, we and the Brits had the whole beach all to ourselves. The surf was small enough for our three-year-old to learn to duck dive through unassisted and our five-year-old boogie-boarder to catch her own waves but still fun enough to give us adults a decent ride. The palapas provided ample shade, a couple of lazy hammocks, and Adirondack chairs—perfect for surveying swimming and splashing and sandcastle building while multitasking with a new novel. After lunch, we would retreat to our bungalow, hose off under the outdoor faucet, and stretch out on our beds for an all-family siesta while the tropical sun scalded the beach. (At the tail end of Nicaragua's dry season, April is the hottest month, and, night or day, the temperature never dipped below 85 during our stay). In the late afternoons, the slanting sun would pull us back to the water. We'd rent double sit-on-top kayaks ($5) and paddle into the estuary, or wander down to the north end of the beach and scramble around the rocky point to watch the sun set and wade ankle-deep in tide pools teeming with sea urchins and anemones.


Though the ocean is the big draw, Morgan's Rock doesn't turn its back on the land or its locals. Since it opened in 2004, the lodge has been committed to reforestation, planting 1.5 million hardwood and fruit trees on the property. More than half of Nicaragua's  population lives below the poverty line, and the country's small farmers are among the poorest of the poor, often without running water or electricity. The lodge and farm, called El Aguacate ("The Avocado") employs nearly 100 people and donates part of its proceeds to support six area schools, which serve more than 250 rural students. More than 90 percent of the food at Morgan's Rock comes directly from the finca: eggs, milk, produce, free-range poultry. Many mornings just before sun rise, I'd run past the farm's organic shrimp ponds, or camaroneras, on my way to the beach, where I'd see the fishermen pushing off in their punt to bring in the mahi mahi we'd be eating for lunch.

Early one morning we rode out to El Aguacate in the back of a pickup truck and helped milk the cow and collect eggs from the tidiest henhouse I've ever seen. Inside a simple, dirt-floored shack, one of the women taught the girls how to make tortillas over a wood-fired oven, flattening the dough into small discs with their fingers, which we ate with the eggs we'd gathered, scrambled and served with rice and beans and hot coffee. A breakfast typical in Nicaragua, and probably the freshest we've ever eaten.


For all its laudable agri-tourism efforts, Morgan's Rock isn't perfect, of course. At times the employees, while always goodnatured, seemed distracted or inexperienced (nearly everyone we met during our stay had worked there less than a year). Except for the breakfast farm tour, you have to leave the property if you want to interact with the local communities, which we did one afternoon when we hired a fishing boat to take us south down the coast to San Juan del Sur, a strange mix of backpacker-surfers and American cruise ship passengers who'd come ashore for the afternoon. Still, there's no denying that Morgan's Rock is that exceptionally rare place where you can retreat from the world and immerse yourself in the wild, without sacrificing creature comforts. Not that it is always comfortablenor, if what you want is full immersion in nature, should it be.

On our second night at Morgan's Rock, I awoke as I often did to the crashing of waves. They came in sets, rising and falling in volume and intensity, and every now and then one would crescendo loudly enough to pull me from sleep. Lying there in the inky blackness with my family around me and the whole vast Pacific yawning out for thousands of miles, crashing relentlessly to shore, I felt suddenly small and very exposed. It's hard to think of something I like more than sleeping outside, lulled by the steady thrum of moving water—a river sliding by, water sloshing under a dock, the endless shift of the tide—but for a few moments I inexplicably found myself longing for shelter, real walls and a roof, awed, humbled, and a little terrified by the wild, teeming world all around.

In the morning, when I woke to the first grey light of day and the familiar thump of the sea, I looked around the bungalow and saw everything in its place: the huddled shapes of my daughters and husband under thin sheets, the ocean, the spinning ceiling fans. My uneasiness was gone, replaced by a deep calm. There are few places where you can live this way—truly outside, day and night, in the air and wind, with the monkeys and birds—without camping. In Nicaragua, we'd been lucky enough to find one of them, and for six days at Morgan's Rock, we wore nature like a second skin, sand in our toes, sun on our skin, and the ocean, always, in our ears.

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The Rise of Lyme Disease

Now that the polar vortex has (hopefully) been banished for the year, you're probably chomping at the bit to get back out to your favorite hiking trail—likely with your canine adventure companion in tow. But fresh research about Lyme disease suggests you should think twice before throwing Fido in the back of your truck.

In Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2014 State of Pet Health Report, researchers found that Lyme disease in dogs has increased 21 percent since 2009. The report, which based its results on medical data from more than 2.3 million dogs, found that in 2013, one in every 130 dogs carried the disease-causing bacteria.

"Because it’s been a long winter, especially in many areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, the natural thing for everyone to do is to go outside and enjoy the wonderful weather," says Dr. Sandi Lefebvre, a veterinary research associate at Banfield. "Although it's fabulous to be outside with your dog, you need to be conscious of the dangers that are lurking out there."

Those dangers vary depending on which state you live in. Take New England, where Lyme disease rates are much higher than in the rest of the country. In New Hampshire—the state with the most reported cases of Lyme disease—one in every 15 dogs examined was infected. Compare that to the Pacific Northwest, where just one in every 1,000 dogs carried the bacteria.  

Since 2009, populations of the two species of ticks that carry Lyme disease have exploded. The white-tailed deer populations that ticks feast upon—and that primarily occupy states east of the Rocky Mountains—have also grown since then, says Lefebvre.

"Ticks like to feed off of these deer, so the more deer there are, the more ticks there are, and the higher the chance that those ticks are infected," Lefebvre says. "And the more infected ticks there are, the higher the chance of dogs getting bitten by them."

Climate may also have played a role in the Lyme disease boom. Simply put, ticks like warmer weather. Short, mild winters like the one two years ago translate to longer tick seasons. 

"Any mammal, whether dog, raccoon, or cat, that travels through those environments is potential target for hungry ticks," says Banfield’s Regional Medical Director Amy Bowman. "Ticks don't jump, leap, or fly. They merely climb plant life and release onto the potential host. What can you do to break that cycle? You have to prevent ticks from attaching and feeding on your pet."

But before you decide to lock your four-legged friend in the kennel, take a second to reconsider. Just because your dog is carrying the bacteria doesn’t mean he’ll show any of the disease’s symptoms. And while others can have life-threatening kidney failure, there are a few simple precautions you can take to keep your pup healthy.

With that in mind, Bowman provided some tips to keep your pup safe, identify signs of Lyme disease, and treat the ailment.

Medication and Gadgets

You wear sunblock to prevent sunburns, so why not give your dog a similar treatment to deter ticks? Bowman suggests a chemical method, like the popular parasiticide Advantix, or a flea and tick collar. Both are available at most pet stores and animal clinics.


After any outdoor adventure, remember to check your dogs for ticks. "Ticks need to feed on your pet for about 24 hours," says Bowman. "So when you get back from your activity, groom your pet for ticks. That greatly decreases exposure."

Know the Symptoms

The incubation period and symptoms of Lyme disease in canines vary drastically. However, if your dog exhibits lameness, limping, fever, lethargy, joint soreness, or joint inflammation, it might have Lyme disease and you should seek veterinary help as soon as possible.  

Don't Ignore Your Vet

"The best thing you can do to know whether or not your dog is positive for the bacteria is to have it tested regularly for exposure to Lyme disease," Bowman says. "That is usually done in conjunction with your pet's annual heartworm test. We often pick up Lyme disease in pets who have never shown symptoms." These tests are simple, requiring only a drop of blood, and will help detect other potentially harmful diseases in your dog.

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Baked Alaska: Surviving Aniakchak National Monument

Jimmy's Store in Port Heiden, population 102, stocks all the staples of Alaskan bush life, at bush prices: $14 cans of Folgers, $7.50 packs of sunflower spits, something called the Jerky Master. And on the wall, hanging from a nail: very large steel leg traps, without price or explanation.

“You’re goin’ up there today?” Jimmy asks from behind the counter, in what passes for a formal greeting. Jimmy’s gaze trails across the ample gray acreage of his sweatshirt and settles on the window, where right now a slasher-film fog is sticking to what little scenery presents itself. Tundra. Truck. Still more tundra, unspooling to a horizon so unbroken by man or mountain range that the sky would start at your shoelaces if only you could see them. Welcome to July on the Alaska Peninsula. 

Twenty minutes ago, our bush plane nosed down into the soup and left us on a gravel airstrip, where we hitched a ride to Jimmy’s along with the mail sacks in the back of a gutted eighties Econoline van. QUAYANA (“thank you”), the door read. NO PETS. 

Jimmy Christensen is half Aleut, and like many of the native Aleut here, he’s broad, quiet and kind, and in possession of his people’s sly, dry sense of humor. The way everybody is always asking Jimmy for advice or to borrow his dozer until next Friday, he seems to run his hometown. He’s sort of the gentle Tony Soprano of Port Heiden. There’s not much new here for a man like Jimmy, and our sudden appearance and determination seem to amuse him. He sells us a gallon of white gas and offers to drive us to the road’s end. 

Grabbing his keys, Jimmy says we’re the first backpackers he’s seen in weeks. This doesn’t surprise us. Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. Even fewer come here for fun. The peninsula marks the start of the Aleutian island chain, the 1,400-mile tail that wags west toward Kamchatka. It’s a slim, Vermont-size piece of nearly trackless green with a population of fewer than 3,000 residents, almost all of whom live in just a few villages that sit uneasily on the map, as if nature might evict them at any time. Naknek. South Naknek. Port Heiden. It’s a tortured landscape, pummeled by unrelenting storms and warted with semiactive volcanoes. In a state grinning with superlatives, this is one of the wildest, rowdiest, most remote places around. It remains a question mark to even the most sporting Alaskans. 


Which is exactly why we’re bouncing in the back of Jimmy’s king cab. I’m obsessed with blank spots on the map, the places nobody goes. I’ve learned to follow my cell phone like a reverse Geiger counter: the poorer the coverage, the more enticing the destination. For ten years, I’ve tried without luck to visit the most promising one of all, the one that now lurks out there in the murk: Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, the least visited of the entire 401-unit national park system. 

Already it has taken my companions—guide Dan Oberlatz and photographer Gabe Rogel—and I three flights from Seattle to reach Port Heiden, which sits about 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. Our plan is to backpack 22 miles into the monument’s centerpiece, an ancient and massive crater, and then float 38 miles to the Pacific using ultralight, stowable rafts crammed deep in our packs. From there we hope to hoof and paddle nearly 80 miles down the coast to the native community of Chignik Lagoon, where the closest airstrip awaits.

Inconvenience is the least of the obstacles that Aniakchak throws up for the would-be visitor. The central peninsula is home to one of the largest concentrations of the biggest brown bears on earth. Then there are the man-eating vegetables, alder jungles that swallow bushwhackers, and cow parsnip with poison leaves that blister the skin. Add routinely nasty meteorology—“This is where a lot of the weather is made for the rest of the country,” a guide once told me—and the challenge we face is pretty stark. 

We’re not even out of sight of Port Heiden’s last house when Jimmy starts in on his version of Alaska’s familiar “out of the car, into the food chain” axiom. “Just remember there’s a bear up here, he’s about 12 foot,” Jimmy says. “The worst thing up here, though, are the wolves,” he adds. “They’ve been hanging out now in packs of 40.” The leg traps suddenly make sense. In 2010, wolves in Chignik Lake killed a petite schoolteacher while she was out for a run. The incident was only the fourth documented account in North America of unhabituated wolves killing a human being. 

The truck stops where the muddy track meets a creek, and we pile out.

“What kind of gun you got?” Jimmy asks.

{%{"quote":"Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. It's a tortured landscape, pummeled by unrelenting storms and warted with semiactive volcanoes. In a state grinning with superlatives, this is one of the wildest, rowdiest, most remote places around."}%}

Dan introduces Jimmy to Pepe, his handgun and the fourth member of our group. Pepe is a brawny, confident-looking .44 Magnum. Dirty Harry’s gun. I liked Pepe the moment I met him in Anchorage—a fondness that grew once Dan discouraged me from bringing my bear spray, explaining that not only is bear mace unpredictable, it’s also not allowed on commercial planes.

Feeding Pepe ammo at the trailhead, Dan suddenly seems apologetic. “Probably won’t do more than piss off a 12-footer,” he says to Jimmy.

The Aleut’s silence is a verdict. Jimmy then says that he prefers to carry a shotgun with slugs, the Alaska-approved way to stop one thousand pounds of charging meat. 

Before we shoulder our packs, Jimmy pauses to offer some parting native wisdom. “What you gotta do is file the tip of the sight off,” he says, eyeing Pepe. “So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves it up your ass.”

In 2012, 9.7 million visitors drove through the gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s busiest. That’s nearly 19 people per minute. Meanwhile, 19 people stopped by Aniakchak all year. This isn’t because Aniakchak lacks merit; it may be the coolest place you’ve never heard of. Around the time the Egyptians were at the height of their powers, a 7,000-foot stratovolcano blew its top with a force equal to 10,000nuclear bombs. Bowels emptied, and the peak collapsed on itself, leaving a six-mile- wide crater with walls rising as much as 2,500 feetfromthefloor.Forthenextfewthousand years, it sat resting in near anonymity. Then, in 1930, the Glacier Priest arrived. 

Father Bernard Hubbard was a Jack London character sprung to life—a self-promoting Jesuit and peripatetic head of the geology department at California’s Santa Clara University who was as quick with a bear-felling shot as he was with a Hail Mary. Hubbard’s scrambles all over pre-statehood Alaska, sometimes accompanied by a crew of strapping Santa Clara footballers who wore their leather helmets for protection, made the Glacier Priest a household name at a time when a depressed nation hungered for heroes. His exploits appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic; for a time, he was said to be one of the top-paid speakers on the planet. “The world’s most daring explorer,” one magazine declared.

Hubbard’s visit to unknown Aniakchak, though, really shot the Glacier Priest to fame. Inside the “great moon crater,” as he called the long-quiet caldera, his crew discovered “paradise found… a world within a mountain,” where orchids bloomed in the volcanically warmed soil and the rabbits were so guileless that the padre and his crew felt guilty eating them (but did anyway).

Then Aniakchak erupted again, in the spring of 1931. When the holy man returned that summer and peered over the crater’s edge, he likened himself to Dante on the edge of the Inferno. “It was the abomination of desolation… the prelude of hell,” he wrote in his book Mush, You Malemutes! “Black walls, black floor, black water, deep black holes and black vents; it fairly agonized the eye to look at it.” Hubbard’s Eden had been obliterated, replaced by a Hieronymus Bosch canvas of cauldrons bubbling with sulfurous yellows and greens and fumaroles hot enough to cook his crew’s beans. 


Eighty years later, Aniakchak is a quiescent member of the Pacific’s volcanic Ring of Fire but is considered “potentially active” by the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The crater and surrounding areas have started to recover. So why does nobody come? Access, for one. No roads reach Aniakchak. The aforementioned nasty weather, for another. Stuck between the raging Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, the Alaska Peninsula is forever buffeted by storms like a beleaguered referee trying to separate heavyweights. Skies are cloudy 300 days a year, with low ceilings. Flying here is akin to navigating inside an old gym sock. Parties can wait days to get in or out.

Then there are the brown bears Jimmy warned us about. “The Alaska Peninsula has, if not the highest density in the world, then close to it,” Dave Crowley, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who manages the area’s bears, told me before I left. Recent studies have found up to 400 brown bears per 1,000 square kilometers. (By comparison, it's estimated that just 718 of the famous, feared Yellowstone grizzlies are sprinkled across 72,500 square kilometers in the greater park area.) The peninsula’s bears are genetically similar to the famed Kodiak brown bears, which along with polar bears are the largest bears on earth. 

If you do manage to reach Aniakchak, you will find no broad-brimmed park rangers. No Winnebagos. Not a single marked trail. As the National Park Service’s website for Aniakchak puts it, “No lines, no waiting!”

“We gotta get up and outta this shit,” Dan says as he climbs back into the tent on the second morning. He’s soaked. After our group left Jimmy yesterday afternoon, we squished southward for seven miles across tundra and through low grasses that felt like someone’s overwatered lawn. Just a dozen miles from the grumpy Bering Sea, the landscape almost cowered; bent beneath our 65-pound packs, we were still the tallest things for miles. We eventually pitched camp in what felt like the inside of a milk jug. Now we can’t see 50 feet. I thought back to two days ago, when we’d stood in the airport departure lounge in sunny, 75-degree Anchorage before a mural highlighting marquee destinations like Lake Clark National Park and Katmai and read Gateway to Alaska’s Southwestern Wildlands. Aniakchak wasn’t on the mural. 

If this trip is a fool’s errand, I can’t think of better fools-in-travel than my companions. Dan, 45, is a smart-ass native of Northern California with sharp blue eyes behind his geek-chic horn-rimmed eyeglasses. A ball cap that hides a backpedaling hairline advertises Alaska Alpine Adventures, his 16-year-old company that guides trips ranging from ski-touring from a yacht to climbing in the Brooks Range and then floating to the Arctic Ocean in inflatable canoes. A few years ago, Dan also launched Adventure Appetites, a gourmet backcountry food company that has supplied the fare for our trip. Gabe, 37, from Washington, is an up-for-anything photographer whose goofiness makes it easy to forget that he’s a former mountain guide who has worked everywhere from the top of 8,000-meter Shishapangma to the unclimbed vertical walls of Ethiopia.

“Chimps in the mist,” Dan dubs us after breakfast as we hunch under our packs and trudge into the never-ending whiteout. The land rises almost imperceptibly in a long, green, mossy ramp that, the map tells, is the volcano’s flank. We see bear tracks. We see caribou tracks. We see wolf tracks that stalk the caribou tracks. 

{%{"image":"","caption":"Scouting the 38-mile Aniakchak River.","size":"large"}%}

The fog machine is on full. We steer by GPS. Condensation drools from Dan’s hat brim and from Pepe’s barrel, which rides holstered within easy reach on his hip. Gabe and I are jittery in the spooky murk. Wolves appear at the corner of our vision, only to resolve themselves into shrubs. Bruins become boulders. “Alaskan rock bear,” Dan says after I yelp at one. With no bear spray to comfort me, I calm myself by recalling what bear-expert Crowley had told me: Aniakchak bears live at the largest buffet table on earth—berries, salmon, moose. They’re so well fed they “tend to be fat and lazy,” he said; he’d watched bears catch salmon and only lick them, they were so full. “If you don’t do anything stupid, you’ll be alright.” I repeat the words buffet table like a mantra.

Eventually, the moss gives way to black-pebbled plains and ash piles and rivers of pumice. There is no wind, no birdsong, as if even sound itself has abandoned us. 

“This place is so otherworldly,” says Dan. “Dead. Not a thing alive.” 

Up and up, we chimps walk through the monochrome for hours. Finally, a black line materializes from the white mist: the crater lip. Now the wind rouses, as if Aniakchak has awakened to the trespass. It roars, grabs backpacks, lifts us like bright bits of cloth and practically tosses us over the rim, sending us running down the steep pumice ramp into the crater.

Inside the caldera, the wind relents. The clouds lift. The sun shines. Finally, we can see where we’ve arrived.

“Oh, my God,” I say, looking at Gabe. 

“Oh, my God,” says Gabe, looking at Dan.

“Oh, my God,” says Dan, looking everywhere.

A “bewitched stadium” is how Hubbard described the crater the first time he stepped inside. My initial thought is less poetic. It feels like we’ve stumbled into a gargantuan gopher hole. Inside it’s sunny and dry: an ash-filled bowl more than six miles across whose floor is so large—nearly 30 square miles—that Manhattan could easily fit inside. Before us spreads a scene that’s Land of the Lost meets nuclear holocaust. Eighty years on, the ground underfoot still looks charred. A few sprigs of dwarf fireweed flower bravely in the dry ash. Cinder cones pimple the crater 

floor, and all around us queer volcanic monuments pepper the landscape. To our left is a huge scoop in the earth called Half Cone, remnant of some bygone blowout. Behind us lies a scab of hardened lava the size of a neighborhood which oozed up during the 1931 eruption. As if the scene lacked for drama, high above us fog pours over the crater rim in spectacular cascades that shred and evaporate on the descent. “Cloud Niagaras,” Hubbard called them. 

There’s green water in the distance. We head toward it instinctively, kicking up ash like postapocalyptic pilgrims.



After the 1931 eruption, the Glacier Priest had damned Aniakchak as the pit of Hades. The intervening years have softened the place slightly, rinsing off the heaviest soot and endowing it with a flinty beauty. Call it desolation sublime. We hike past walls candy-striped in sherbet pinks and reds. A caribou prances by, a sole welcoming host. In the middle of the crater, we tramp past the huge cone of 3,350-foot Vent Mountain—“a volcano within a volcano!” Hubbard had exclaimed upon first seeing it—looking sullen with its burnt top. In the distance, glaciers cling to the shadier walls.

Then there’s Surprise Lake, the crater’s psychedelic gem, which glows the unreal green of Imodium A-D, thanks to suspended volcanic particles in the water. The specially evolved sockeye salmon that spawn here are essentially raised on soda water. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in Alaska, that’s for sure,” Dan says that evening after we make camp in a sheltered elbow along the lake and tuck into his company’s reindeer rotini. 

The next morning, wearing only daypacks, we explore the crater’s oddness. It’s like taking a walking tour of our dyspeptic planet. We cross electric green moss and black sand dunes so full of iron they stick to the magnet on the chest strap of Gabe’s CamelBak. We hoof across otherworldly plains of dust staged with small rocks, where I’m pretty sure NASA faked the Mars rover landing. We peer into springs bubbling with a witchy brew of ferric browns and pumpkin oranges. I keep thinking of how one early geologist described Aniakchak: a “pleasing weirdness,” he wrote. And all the more pleasing for our aloneness.

Or at least we seemed alone. “Now that’s a big bear right there. That’s a coastal brown. That’s huge,” Dan says, looking down at muddy paw prints along the lake near our campsite. The claws on the front paw print are as long as Swiss Army blades. The rear print swallows my XL hand with inches to spare. “Definitely a ten-footer,” Dan says.

{%{"quote":"Exploring the crater is like taking a walking tour of our dyspeptic planet. We hoof across otherworldly plains of dust staged with small rocks, where I'm pretty sure NASA faked the Mars rover landing."}%}

“So, uh, how old do you think those are?” I ask, second-guessing our solitude. I search to see if Pepe is still strapped to Dan’s hip.

“At least a few days.” I exhale.

That afternoon, as the guys nap in warm 70-degree sunshine, I tie a fly to the end of my line. Standing atop some of those bear tracks, I’m soon yanking in Dolly Varden trout, their polka dots pink in the yellow sun, from where the Aniakchak River exits the lake. Every few casts, I swivel around to make sure my fly hasn’t foul-hooked the ten-footer. Some people prefer meditation to make them feel present; for me, nothing focuses the mind quite like knowing I’m a potential crudité.

From the moment it tumbles out of the crater, the 38-mile Aniakchak River runs south toward the Pacific as if it’s late for dinner. It will be our escape route. We’ll use our packable Alpacka rafts to float right out of the caldera. At one time the inside of the crater had been filled with a 600-foot-deep lake. That changed about 2,000 years ago, when an earthquake or eruption or massive rockslide cracked the crater wall. A biblical flood gushed through the gap, with a flow close to the Mississippi, overwhelming the landscape downstream. Today, the designated Wild and Scenic Aniakchak River still charges through that 1,000-plus-foot cleft, called the Gates, as it carries Surprise Lake to the sea.

Yesterday, we’d climbed high onto the crater rim to scout our departure. 

“Not a lot of volume,” Gabe had said, watching the small river squeeze through the Gates before uncoiling on distant green plains. “Looks like it might be hard to get in a lot of trouble.” 

More-careful inspection showed garage-size boulders frothing the green waters. I knew the river dropped 75 feet per mile through here—honest rapids. I also knew that my entire whitewater experience consisted of Mom letting me ride the log flume, twice, at Virginia’s Kings Dominion amusement park.

The next morning we wisely portage past the chewing rocks and Class III-plus rapids of the Gates. Downstream, we suit up in ultra-light drysuits for a practice run. Dan gives us whitewater kayaking 101. “They’re super-agile,” he says of our micro rafts. “They’ll bounce off rocks. You’ll spin around,” he adds. “You’ll be fine.” 

For its first third, the Aniakchak is as wide and shallow as a sluicebox. This late in summer, it’s a fun-house ride of mostly Class II rapids. We bounce downstream for 13 miles of unbroken whitewater, hooting and hollering.

It’s comforting to see Pepe riding high on Dan’s life jacket. Which reminds me—what should I do if I see a bear standing in the river?

 “Enjoy the experience,” Dan says. Then, after a short pause, he flashes a wide grin. “And paddle to the deepest water.” 


Later that afternoon, we finally see our first: a honey-colored beauty who quickly bolts deeper into the nearby willows after spotting our odd armada. 

The river slows dramatically the second day, as the land palms open into perfect bruin country. The terrain even looks bear-like—humped, alder-furred hills that seem to root around in the underbrush. We find the calm pace of this new land, sometimes dozing off while seated upright in our kayaks, other times tossing pumice stones at one another and watching them float. 

As we drift languidly, I remember something Dan told me over lunch before we left Anchorage. “I could grow my business and do stupid touristy shit,” he said, making a sour face. “But the soul of my business is in the wilderness.” He’s led fifty-some trips in Alaska since founding his company, but these days he personally guides only those, like Aniakchak, that he hasn’t done yet. Alaska is too big and too cool, he said, to not keep exploring.

That afternoon, the Pacific Ocean welcomes us with a stiff-arm breeze and an incoming tide. After a short struggle against both, we spy an old cannery cabin refitted by the Park Service above the beach. After five days of so much expansiveness, the confines of four walls and a small space is a relief. Inside, the cabin’s logbook records many wild things: Trips of 30-bear sightings. Parties pinned down for days by hurricane winds. Savaged boats. I turn to the most recent entry and count backward. Just 11 visitors so far this year, not including us—and three of them were here for work.

Most visitors to Aniakchak get picked up by floatplane at the cabin after their paddle to the sea. The reason that Dan suggested we keep going on foot is simple: he’d never hiked the rarely trammeled, four-day, 80-mile route along the Pacific to Chignik Lagoon and wanted to do some recon for a possible client trip. Gabe and I were game. 

Our trek along the beach is no Tahiti vacation. We spend long days bent under our still-heavy packs. We make decent time cruising never--ending stretches of firm sand and sneaking around barnacled headlands at low tide. Sometimes, though, we’re forced upland into thickets of alder that grow as tight as prison bars and slow progress to a heartbreaking quarter-mile per hour. Whenever possible, Dan sniffs out bear trails, centuries-old bruin inter-states that are the path of least resistance through the tangle. One is so disturbingly popular that it’s trenched three feet deeper than the abutting alders.


The miles blur in a fever dream of suffering and spectacle. I remember bald eagles posing atop sea stacks like hood ornaments for the continent. I remember inflating the pack rafts nervously for a 13-mile paddle around a headland on the rolling Pacific, only to be pleasantly distracted by orange-beaked puffins and curious sea lions. I remember Pepe, drawn and ready to shout, after we surprise a chuffing brownie on a kill. And how that bear is the last of 19 we see in 24 hours as we leave the preserve and enter the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. 

Mostly what I remember, though, is the feeling of a different rhythm taking hold, not of the wristwatch but of natural places. Each day as we hike, the sun sets a little sooner. We see salmon gather in the bays, sniffing for their home rivers—and see bears come down to the shore, ready to flick their sushi onto the sand. My fancy GPS watch dies; I don’t much care. I go days without thinking of e-mail or my iPhone. This is what we want from our Aniakchaks, isn’t it? Places that help us shake off the dross and find a surer and more ancient pulse.

Four days after leaving the cabin, on the puddle-jumper out of Chignik Lagoon, a familiar green ramp comes into view. From 15,000 feet, it appears as smooth as pool felt. I press my forehead to the window and stare for a long time as the ramp finally climbs higher and higher, until it vanishes in a smother of white clouds. I look up. Gabe and Dan are smiling. For a moment we grin like idiots at one another. Then we press our foreheads against the cold of the Cessna’s tiny portholes. Seeing all this, some of our fellow passengers look out their windows, perplexed. If you hadn’t been there, it would be easy to think there was nothing worth seeing at all. 

Christopher Solomon (@chrisasolomon) wrote about a new and controversial approach to marathon training in January 2013.

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