(from the july/august 2014 issue)
The Boy Scouts of Aniakchak
[by Richard Emanuel]
Aniakchak caldera, located in the heart of the remote Alaska Peninsula, is six miles wide, 2,500 feet deep, and has been known to occasionally explode. Among the least visited locations in the National Park system with only a few dozen visitors each year, an eruption 3,430 years ago sculpted the bowl-shaped valley, which remains volcanically active today, surrounded by a half-million acres of roadless wilderness. Its last eruption, in 1931, was one of the largest recorded in Alaska. So, it’s not the sort of place you would expect to find many people, let alone a Boy Scout troop. This is exactly where nine scouts and five adults from Troop 219 and 230 of Eagle River, Alaska, were in mid-July 2012, however—slogging through alders and soggy tundra.
“We were hiking up the ridgeline,” crew leader Eric Guinn recalls. “We crested a little hill and there it was. The clouds were just pouring out of the caldera, rolling down the valley. It was incredible.” It was unlike anything the scouts had ever seen—unlike anything any scouts had probably ever seen. They were, as far as they knew, the first scout troop to ever visit Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve.
After flying from Anchorage to King Salmon, the scouts had hopped down the Bristol Bay coast to Port Heiden, the jumping-off point for Aniakchak’s western approach. Just after 5 o’clock, the scouts plunged into shin-deep swamp. Local caribou hunters had described a fourwheeler track offering dry passage through the marsh.
“We went two or three miles looking for this land bridge,” Gunnar Davis, one of the scouts on the trip from Troop 230, recalls, “before deciding just to go straight through the swamp. Then we went uphill through thick, thick alders, lots and lots of mosquitoes, up this steep slope.”
Bushwhacking under 80-pound packs, it was almost midnight when they reached a level area with running water and declared it their first campsite.
Geologist Game McGimsey, an assistant scoutmaster with Troop 219, knows Alaska’s volcanoes and had wanted to share them with his scouts. At the same time, in 2011, after hiking British Columbia’s challenging 33-mile Chilkoot Trail through the Coast Mountains, nearby Troop 230 had set its sights on an Aniakchak adventure, seeking something “a little more adventurous” than the famed gold rush trail. The two troops teamed up, and after a year of planning, the 14 members of the expedition set off to explore Aniakchak.
“No one knew anything about Aniakchak,” Taylor Holshouser, a scout on the trip from Troop 230, says. They were soon to find out; it creates its own weather systems.
Early on day two, alders gave way to tussocks of tundra, sliced into steep ravines by snowmelt streams. Crossing ravines was tiring, but as the scouts gained elevation, the ravines gave way to icy snowfields and ramps of volcanic gravel and ash. Day three dawned clear and cold. The climb grew rocky, and before noon, the scouts stood at nearly 3,500 feet on top of the caldera rim. They rested an hour, then picked their way down to a notch in the rim, looking for a route to enter the caldera.
Higher up, clouds hanging low over the caldera began spilling over the rim in what McGimsey calls a “cloud Niagara.” Lower down, dense fog rolled through the notch, dropping visibility to only a few feet. Inside the notch, an icy snow chute fell into the caldera, far too dangerous to descend in blinding fog. They retraced their steps to the previous night’s campsite. Wind and rain blew in overnight, pinning them down the next day, slamming shut their window to explore within the caldera itself. Morning mist on day five convinced the scouts to return westward.
Back in Port Heiden, the boys met the mayor, who spoke candidly of the challenges and rewards of rural Alaskan life, of which the scouts were now slightly more familiar with. “It was the most fun I never want to have again,” jokes Davis. “I don’t think any other troops or scouts or backpackers can get the same experience anywhere else than in Alaska.”
If You Go
- No fees or permits are required in Aniakchak, but remember, there are also no roads or facilities either.
- Consult the National Park Service website: nps.gov/ania/index.htm NPS lists air taxis, and licensed guides for rafting, backpacking, sportfishing and more.
- Most visitors fly floatplane from King Salmon to Surprise Lake in the caldera, but Port Heiden offers the best overland access.
- Severe weather can delay drop-offs and pick-ups; bring extra food, and keep it in a bear barrel.
- Leave an itinerary with someone reliable and a Backcountry Planner at the King Salmon Visitor Center.
- Check for volcanic activity with Alaska Volcano Observatory.