7/4/19 Gold Creek Lodge, King Salmon, Alaska
The word ‘awesome’ is much abused and definitely overused. It has become a generic expression of approval among the younger generations. As such, I don’t generally use the word – it makes me appear to be trying too hard to be younger. But as our Cessna 206 airplane soared up and over the cinder cone and I looked below me to see a field of black, craggy rocks of ash, the only word that I could think of was ‘awesome’.
Aniakchak is an experience that I will remember the rest of my life. It is one that even with pictures, is something not quite describable. Yes, I can point out this view and that view in a photograph and say what it is, but you can’t convey the total image, the magnitude of what is going on beneath you. There is an ancient story here – probably a couple of them – and the plot line is thick with terrifying violence, with nature at her most powerful, rocks reduced to a flowing, bubbling river engulfing and burning everything it encounters.
I’ve seen volcanoes before – several of them in fact. We’ve seen the volcanoes in Hawaii with their licorice-like strands of smooth lava flowing in short waves across former flows. We’ve seen the remains of more violent explosions at Lassen volcanic with a dimly discernible caldera that, if I remember right, was about 15 miles across at its base. But at Lassen, the remains were well aged and worn so you had to fill in a lot of gaps with your imagination. There were nearly perfect cinder cones at Sunset Volcano in Arizona and Capulin in New Mexico. You could photograph both of them and manage to capture the entire image in one frame. But Aniakchak is a volcano different. And, especially, when viewed from an airplane, the experience is totally (another ‘young’ word) unique.
Aniakchak is one of the ring of fire volcanoes, circling the Pacific Ocean and marking where the Pacific plate is being forced down under continental plates, and is still active. The major explosion, the one that created most of what you see here, occurred approximately 3700 years ago – an amount of time that can express some weathering and erosion, but not so long ago that the features have been significantly reduced in scale. Based on visible evidence, the pyroclastic flow spewed forth primarily towards the west and went all the way to Bristol Bay. Smaller ash flows and deposits also covered significant parts of the mountain valleys to the east towards the Gulf of Alaska. The result was to create a natural barrier that early natives could not cross for several generations. And that led to the isolation of the local groups to such an extent, and for enough time, that two entirely different cultures and languages developed – the natives of the Alaskan peninsula speak a different language than those of their former neighbors south of Aniakchak and along the Aleutian Islands.
I’ve said it before, but I have to say it again – more people climb Mount Everest every year than go to see Aniakchak National Monument. In 2016 there were only sixteen registered visitors to the monument, making it the least visited park unit in the system. We are very fortunate to have been able to see it. There are two things that make it difficult to see. For one, it is located about 130 miles south of King Salmon, which is probably the largest town on the southern edge of the Alaskan peninsula, at 374 people. Getting to King Salmon is relatively easy, there are even some scheduled flights from Anchorage, but then you have to charter a ‘flightsee’ to get to Aniakchak. There is a small town a little closer to the monument, Port Heiden, but once you are there you will still need to charter a small plane to see the monument, unless you are an extremely capable outdoors person who can manage overnight camping and a 19 mile hike through soft, spongy, and very wet tundra. (Apparently there are a few people who hike in every year, but you can count them on one hand.)
Obviously, Joan and I aren’t doing that kind of hiking, so we chartered a flightsee with Branch River Air Service, out of King Salmon. Van runs the operation with the efficiency of a military unit. As a pilot of 37 years, he knows what he is doing – and importantly, has survived that many years of flying. He will tell you at the outset that the trip is 100% conditional on the weather. So the second problem, once you get to King Salmon, is that you have to wait for the right weather conditions so they can fly you in. And that simply requires luck because this part of Alaska is notorious for quickly changing, bad, weather. We planned our trip with just two days for the possible flight, staying at Gold Creek Lodge, a beautiful and luxurious place to wait for the weather to change. (I’ll write about that place in a later post.) The first day, we woke up and it was pea-soup thick with fog – not a day for a safe flightsee. It cleared somewhat late in the day, but still, the weather at Aniakchak was cloud covered. I was bracing myself for the possibility that the flight would not happen and I would miss the opportunity to see this monument.
The second day, though, the gods, and the sun, were shining on us. Van called our lodge to tell us the flight was on and we should be at their dock promptly at 10:00. The weather was nearly perfect – there were some high clouds, but blue sky was everywhere and the weather was not yet too hot. We met our pilot, Jeff, a young man who certainly didn’t have the 37 years of flying experience that Van had (we learned later Jeff had been flying for just seven years), but I reasoned that Van wouldn’t let him go if he couldn’t manage this flight. And he did it brilliantly.
As we flew down the peninsula I noted that we were mostly riding down the western side of the peninsula, but as the peninsula narrows, the mountains on the eastern edge were getting closer. I saw a series of snow covered peaks that, in my naive enthusiasm, I decided was the volcano and took a series of pictures. However, as we continued on past them I figured out that, no, that wasn’t Aniakchak. Then, off to the east a series of jagged edges started to rise up out of the rugged landscape. Normally, the tundra is green and dotted with thousands of small ponds and lakes. But as we started to curve around this mass, the colors changed to browns, reds , and yellows. The texture changed too, from spongy looking to a hard, almost polished surface of brownish rock.
Jeff sort of teased us as we flew around the outer edge of the rim, then he turned the plane and we proceeded to head dead into the center. There is a river that flows out from the middle of the volcano and we began to follow the river bed in. At some point in Aniakchak’s history, and I’m not sure when it was, the lava broke through on the eastern rim of the caldera and spilled back around and down. (It couldn’t go much further east because of the coastal mountains, so instead it wrapped around the base and went west towards Bristol Bay.) In breaking through the rim, it created a narrow, steep-sided entry way that is known as The Gates. Jeff flew us right through the gates and into the center of the caldera.
Inside the 6.5 mile wide caldera, there is a lot more going on than you can imagine. At some point in the 1930s a much smaller eruption occurred in the middle of the caldera creating a small cinder cone, surrounded by hellish-looking hardened bubbles of black rock. There is also, in the middle of the smaller volcano, a rounded plug that is the final bubble of the smaller eruption.
Jeff flew us up and around all these parts of the volcano – the problem wasn’t finding things to look at, it was deciding which ones were more amazing and worthy of a picture. Joan and I were snapping left and right. After maybe 20 minutes of soaring and turning, we headed down towards the lake, inside the caldera, on the edge. And, to our delight, he landed the floatplane. We were able to get out and take pictures. Kat, at the Gold Creek Lodge, had packed us a terrific lunch, including one for Jeff, and we ate lunch sitting on a volcanic rock at the edge of Surprise Lake, looking at the inside of the caldera rim.
After maybe thirty minutes soaking in the majesty of our surroundings, we gathered everything up and Jeff took us up and off the lake and then, with a couple of goodbye turns to take a last glimpse of the caldera, we soared up and out of the bowl and headed home.
We had made it – we’ve seen the amazing, awesome wonder of Aniakchak.