Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

“The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands- literally, tens of thousands- of smokes curling up from its fissured floor.”

                                                                                                        Robert F. Griggs 1916

Above: Novarupta- site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

When Novarupta (a previously unknown volcano) erupted on the Alaska Peninsula in 1912, it spewed 2.6 cubic miles of ash across the valley floor resulting in what is now called, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Today, most of the fumaroles are gone and the valley is no longer filled with smoke but the ash remains. Since the eruption, the rivers have carved chasms deep into the soft ash and the resulting landscape reminds me of sandstone canyons in Arizona and Utah.

I went on a solo, three day hike into the heart of the valley, not really having a plan. The rangers at Brooks Camp told me there was an old USGS hut on Baked Mountain. Since I was sick n’ tired of sleeping in a tent, the hut seemed like a great idea.

I didn’t bring my packraft but I saw some real possibilities there. The Ukak River below Ukak Falls has been done before. It’s a glacial river that has a blind entrance into the canyon and should be scouted first. Looks like sections of PR4. You could then paddle Iliuk Arm back to Brooks Camp.

The trail along the Buttress Range was a good one but once I headed across the vast ash-flow, I felt very small indeed, especially because the clouds were low and I couldn’t see the mountains in the distance.

I headed blindly across the ash, hoping to see the occasional footprint to guide me, but the wind that comes over the pass is like a bat out of hell and erased all the tracks except for one. A fresh dinner-plate sized paw print with claws extending several inches beyond it caught my full attention. I had just witnessed the massive 1500 pound bears of Brooks Camp and the idea that a giant grizzly was out there in the mist, freaked me out. Don’t get me wrong, I feel very privileged to travel in places where wild beasts still roam, that said, I might have started running towards the hut.

Above: Baked Mountain in the distance.

Anyway, the ‘hut’ was ON TOP of Baked Mountain. No one had bothered to mention that part and it wasn’t marked on my topo map.  I found it though and ended up spending two nights there.

USGS hut- Mt. Mageik in background.

A windstorm blows ash in the valley. Some hikers bring goggles.


Katmai Brown Bears

After floating American Creek, I decided to check out Brooks Camp which is known for its high concentration of Brown Bears. I had heard all the rumors- that the place was just one big tourist trap. But I went anyway, and was very glad that I did. In all my years if visiting Alaska I have never been able to get that close to wild bears without absolute fear for my life.

So what exactly is a Brown Bear? I used to think a Brown Bear was just a Grizzly Bear that took vacations to the coast. But after a quick wiki search it appears that I am wrong in that assumption. Grizzly Bears are actually a subspecies of Brown Bears. Anyway, the Brown Bears of Katmai are huge. With an abundant source of food (salmon), Brown Bears can grow to be 1500 lbs. Their cousins, the inland grizzlies, top out around 800.

I set my tent up at the campground which is set inside an electric fence. The campground can accommodate 60 campers and it’s booked for most of July. Make your reservations online before you go or you’ll be camping a mile away somewhere. That would not be recommended.

I could spend hours and hours at the platforms watching the bears do their thing. If you are an Alaskan and have never been to Brooks Camp- I would strongly suggest you visit. It’s $188 bucks roundtrip flight from King Salmon.

Packrafting American Creek, Katmai N. Park

I’ve wanted to visit Katmai forever and this year I was finally able to make it happen. I also wanted to do some packrafting while I was there and after a bunch of research- American Creek made the cut.

Orlan, Mike, and I flew into Hammersly Lake with Cecile (C-Air out of King Salmon) as our bush pilot.  It should be noted that it is possible to fly from Anchorage directly to Kulik Lodge with Katmai Air. Seats are reserved for guests of the lodge but occasionally they have a couple openings. It would be worth your time to check on availability. Once at Kulik, you could then hike the 8 miles to American Creek. Most of the hiking is above treeline and looks pretty good. You may even be able to float the small tributary there but be careful, there is a waterfall in the vicinity.

We began our float in early July, before the salmon run, so we didn’t have to contend with a multitude of bears. In fact, we only saw two. We took another packrafters advice though and brought a bear-fence anyway. The alders were thick near camp spots on the lower river and the fence made sleeping a heck of a lot easier.

When entering the 1st canyon, you will notice a football-sized blotch of red lichen on the face of a small cliff, river-right. This is the indication you are within a quarter mile of the tricky, class III+ rapid. It needs to be scouted. A steep but easy portage can be found on river-right.

The spectacular lower canyon is a great place to fish. Every cast reveals a pink polka-dotted Char. We opted to catch and release so the next folks will have the same fun we had.

The high water this year produced a series of logjams that appear around blind corners. When the river begins to braid be very careful. The volume of water being forced through these strainers would pin you. We had to portage 4 times.

Check out the video of our trip here!

After encountering the major tributary flowing from the west, be sure to find a camp within 1 mile. After that, there is nothing but swamp until the take-out. At the pick-up spot, be sure to plan a night on top of the obvious hill, it’s a special place.

Plan on bringing a headlamp. I didn’t and wished I had one. In Katmai you are at a low enough latitude to have some pretty dark nights.

I recommend Cecile (C-Air) highly. He’s a one-man operation with a Cessna 185. He flew the three of us with all our packraft gear into Hammersly Lake and out of Coville Lake for $950- if you shop around you will find that this is one hell of a deal.

Brad Meiklejohn has some great advice for those who want to float American Creek. Read it HERE.