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In Katmai, a walk on the edge

Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska

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.

My friend Tom Ferguson and I cinched up our packs and followed a trail down through thick ground cover and stunted trees. It ended in a barren chasm, where glacial waters cut a ravine through the ash and rock.

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 volcanoThe 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.

To see the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, most Brooks visitors take the Natural History Tour, an all-day excursion that includes a guided hike from Overlook Cabin, 800 feet above the valley, to the edge of the ash plain. The shuttle bus leaves in the morning for the 1 1/2-hour drive to the cabin and returns in the afternoon.

Overnight hikers set out with backpacks and bear-proof food containers and follow the Windy Creek Trail, which runs along the west side of the valley below the Buttress Range. The path leads to a good camping spot six miles from the trail head. The east side, below 7,600-foot Mt. Griggs, has no trail, and few people venture there. When I asked the shuttle driver how many hikers chose the east side, he thought a moment and said, "Zero percent, I'd say."

How could anyone with a modicum of adventure in his soul resist? Tom and I decided to brave the unknown.

About 17 miles southeast of Brooks, the forest thinned and ash began to diminish the vegetation. Silvered corpses of trees poked out of green undergrowth, and orange fireweed lighted up the terrain as we approached Overlook Cabin.

As we walked east this first day, the terrain rose gently, and the depth of ash below our feet increased. In the first five minutes we had left the few charcoal tree stumps and last bits of vegetation behind and entered a tawny-colored world of ash and pumice.

Our boots sank 2 inches in the soft surface. The ash, with the consistency of fine sand, silenced our footfalls. In fact, all was silent in the valley — no bugs, no birds, no fluttering of leaves in the breeze. There was no sign of human passage, not a path, not a footprint, save ours and those of a few hungry grizzlies.

We were still in bear country. On our second day of hiking we came across a fresh set of grizzly tracks, a sow and a cub taking our route up the valley. They were making better time than we. At their pace a grizzly could be over Katmai Pass and on the coast dining on clams in less than a day. Even a strong hiker would take three or four days to do those 25 miles.

Their bears' path traced the most important trade route in this region, which once led over Katmai Pass and connected Shelikof Strait on the Pacific with Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea. It was the main thoroughfare for native Alaskans and, since about 1750, Russian fur trappers. It was obliterated by Novarupta's birth, as were the native villages of Savonoski, Katmai and Douglas. Incredibly, no one was killed.

Four years later, Robert Griggs led a 1916 National Geographic expedition into the valley. Gazing down from Katmai Pass, Griggs saw a landscape pocked by thousands of smoking vents spewing steam 500 to 1,000 feet high. Awestruck, he wrote of seeing "tens of thousands of smokes curling up from the fissured floor." "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes," he called it.

Today steam no longer rises from the valley floor, but fumaroles, crusty mounds of mineral-colored ash, remain, and plumes occasionally rise from Mageik, Martin and Trident.

Trapped in a canyonOur first camp was near Juli Creek, tumbling off Mt. Griggs. Volcanic ash, I was happy to discover, is more comfortable than beach sand, and I slept soundly despite the wind and rain.

By morning it was a drizzle, and the notorious valley winds had dropped to a gentle breeze. Tom poked his head out and gave a weather report. "Fog to the deck and pure dog meat for weather," he said. "In other words, a typical Alaska day."

It was about 45 degrees, and we put on polar fleece and thermals, which we would have to take off as the day warmed. But now, as we headed into the fog, I regretted not bringing gloves.

The featureless desert-like terrain we were crossing was a mirage. Wind and glacial rivers and creeks had cut arroyos, cascading walls of ash and dangerous crevasses into the level surface. These obstacles were invisible until we were nearly on top of them.

Several times canyons closed in on us as we followed a winding creek looking for a ford. The canyons' steep walls were formed of tuff, a rock-like consolidation of ash and silica. Tuff was beautiful — smooth and sculpted by the silt-laden glacial runoff and colored like a rainbow from the minerals in the ash. But it was also fragile: Many ledges were deeply fissured and precarious.

On the third day, our path was cut off by a wall of solid ice, camouflaged in dun-colored ash. Knife Creek rumbled at our feet, spewing from an ice cave beneath the glacier.

Tom volunteered to find a way over the current. He dropped his pack and climbed ledges to about 50 feet. But melting ice covered in ash is a deadly combination, and we didn't have the gear to climb it.

"It's not as innocent as it looks," Tom said when he climbed down.

We tested the creek's current and depth by tossing a few rocks into the middle. About thigh deep, we figured, and strong, with the temperature of a frosty margarita. One slip would mean a good soak at the least, and wet gear. At worst well, we didn't want to think about it.

We sat and chewed protein bars, filled our water bottles and watched the silt settle.

"Maybe there's a jump spot downstream," Tom finally said. We hoisted our packs and set off, following the creek as it dug ever deeper into the ash.

We found our jump spot over to the west side, above a roiling waterfall that dropped into the darkness. Tom jumped over a couple of times just to do it, but we didn't take it. We were halfway to Overlook Cabin, and time was running out. Our four-day trip had turned into our personal journey of discovery. And why mess with that?

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rising from the ashes

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to King Salmon, Alaska, connecting service (change of plane) is available on Alaska Airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $816.40.

From King Salmon, Katmai Air Service, 4125 Aircraft Drive, Anchorage, AK 99502; (800) 544-0551, http://www.katmaiair.com , has half-hour flights to Brooks Camp, the entry point for Katmai National Park and Preserve, for $152 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY:

Brooks Camp has primitive facilities with picnic tables and an electric bear fence. Hot showers and meals can be arranged at Brooks Lodge. Camping fee is $8 per person, per night. Reservations needed; (800) 365-2267, reservations.nps.gov.

Brooks Lodge has 16 rooms on the Brooks River, a buffet dining room and the Bruin Lounge. It is operated by Katmailand Inc., 4125 Aircraft Drive, Anchorage, AK 99502; (800) 544-0551 or (907) 243-5448, fax (907) 243-0649, http://www.bear-viewing.com . A three-night package, which includes lodging, round-trip airfare from Anchorage to Brooks Camp and park entry fees but not meals, is $1,252 per person, double occupancy. Call well ahead for reservations.

The lodge offers shuttle service to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes with its daylong Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Natural History Tour ($89 with a sack lunch). Overnight hikers should take the 9 a.m. shuttle to Overlook Cabin and return another day on the 3 p.m. shuttle ($52 each way).

TO LEARN MORE:

Katmai National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 7, No. 101 King Salmon Mall, King Salmon, AK 99613; (907) 246-3305, http://www.nps.gov/katm .

Alaska Travel Industry Assn., Visitor Information Center, 2600 Cordova St., Anchorage, AK 99503; (800) 862-5275 or (907) 929-2200, http://www.travelalaska.com .

— Carl Duncan

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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