Baked Alaska: Surviving Aniakchak National Monument
The volcanic remains at the heart of Aniakchak National Monument—the least visited site in the national park system—are a trippy mishmash of postapocalyptic cinder cones, hardened lava, and flame-colored walls. The only catch? Doing it right involves days of trekking and rafting through some of the planet’s toughest, most bear-heavy terrain.
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.
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.
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.
“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.