From an observation deck at the edge of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, we looked beyond a verge of green onto a seemingly unbroken barren expanse. About 15 miles away, at the far end of the valley, rose a wall of volcanoes cloaked in blue ice, white snow and gray clouds.
The chasm, barely 4 feet across, was a threshold. Green Alaska lay on this side, a desert of volcanic destruction on the other. We stood there and considered our next move. Tom pointed to the raging waters.
"If you fall in," he said dryly, "it's death."
Tom tossed his heavy pack over, took a running start and jumped. I did the same.
We were in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
The valley, part of Katmai National Park and Preserve, is an isolated natural wonderland of 4 million acres 290 miles southwest of Anchorage. Katmai is known for its salmon fishing and as one of the premier places to view and photograph grizzlies. About 2,000 of the big bears live in the park, and about 12,000 visitors a year come to see them and the park's other wonders.
A new volcano
The park's original purpose was not to preserve the bears but rather to preserve a geological wonder.
On June 9, 1912, on the flanks of 6,715-foot Mt. Katmai, at the edge of a then-unnamed valley, a cataclysmic event occurred: A new volcano, christened Novarupta, was born. In 60 hours, about 7 cubic miles of pyroclastic material spewed out of the crater. Ash and magma buried more than 40 square miles of the lush, forested valley up to 700 feet deep. The ash fall collapsed roofs in Kodiak, 100 miles away.
You must go back 3,500 years to the eruption on the Greek island of Santorini to find a comparable volcanic event. Mt. St. Helens in 1980 tossed out a mere 1% at one-tenth the force.
After 23 years, Mt. St. Helens is well on its way to revegetation. But 91 years have passed in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and there is little sign of life. The ash is too deep for plants to grow through, and it is without nutrients and often scoured by windstorms. In four days of hiking the interior I found but a single green bush beside a creek and a bit of fireweed and moss near a jagged fossil fumarole.
Our backpacking trip began last August at Brooks Camp, the park's main entry point, 23 miles from the valley on the shore of Naknek Lake, next to Brooks River. It's reachable only by floatplane or boat. We had carried all our food and camping gear with us on the single-engine Otter floatplane from King Salmon at the northern edge of the park. Although Brooks Lodge, a private park concessionaire, has a fine buffet restaurant, it sells no groceries, and backpackers must bring all supplies with them, except for white gas for camp stoves, which is not allowed on the floatplanes. (The lodge store stocks the gas.)
The first thing we saw — even before hearing the mandatory "bear etiquette" lecture — was a sow and three cubs shambling down the beach. No one leaves Brooks without seeing bears. They are seemingly everywhere — on the beach, along the nearby Brooks River, at Brooks Falls, on the paths at the lodge. (The campground has an electric fence to keep them at bay.) They were fascinating, but after a couple of days of grizzly gazing, Tom and I were ready for the valley.
Faced with four days of instant noodles and peanut butter protein bars, I beefed up on the buffet at Brooks Lodge's restaurant. The restaurant is a cut above the usual park fare. So is the price — $22 for dinner, $16 for lunch and $12 for a full breakfast buffet — but, given the location, you won't complain.
I feasted on roast beef with gravy, almond-crusted salmon, split-pea soup, chili, potatoes, salad, ice cream pie and a crepe and thus got my money's worth.
Tom, a veteran hiker and camper who lives in Alaska, was an excellent Katmai companion; this was his second hike into the valley. We discussed our plans over a park map.
Katmai has 14 active volcanoes, part of the Aleutian Range located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Half of its volcanoes have erupted since the last ice age, making Katmai one of the world's more active volcanic centers. Martin, Mageik, Griggs, Trident, Katmai and Novarupta volcanoes form a phalanx at the valley's southern end, divided by 2,500-foot Katmai Pass. Knife Creek slices the valley's length in half and is too wide and deep to cross.