Aniakchak: from sea to shining sea . . . via a volcano crater.

Perched between Bristol Bay/Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska sits a 6-mile wide crater formed 3500 years ago in a violent eruption, after which the mountain caved in on itself and formed a huge crater.  Initially water-filled after the first eruption, the damn ultimately broke and created a rift in the crater through which the Aniakchak River flows today: "the gates."  Subsequent eruptions, the most recent ocurring in 1931, have formed multiple craters-within-the-crater and a very unique volcanic landscape ripe for exploration.

I have long wanted to explore the Aniakchak Volcano and it's namesake river, and took the opportunity in July of 2012 to hike in with Paul, Erin, Chrissy, and Ray to meet up with Phil, Toni, Jeremy, Jamie, and Chris who would arrive a day later and continue their trip on to Chignik while the rest of us had to go back to work.

The trip started as many great trips do: quality time in bush Alaska.  In this case, it was a PenAir flight to Port Heiden where we would pickup the fuel we'd called in to reserve and be on our merry way.  Of course it didn't go as smoothly as we would have hoped, but ultimately fuel was obtained and we had a very entertaining few hours hanging out in downtown.  Nothing like lonely rural Alaskan men to make a girl feel like a "10" - suffice it to say our group drew a crowd :)

When we finally got started, day 1 was a hike up ATV trails toward the crater wall . . . a long slow climb :)  We made it into the tundra and had a nice camp, thankful that the wind and rain had been kind to us (unlike friends who'd gone last year and hiked in wearing drysuits).

Erin and Chrissy slogging up the side of a volcano
On day two, we continued up to the crater and then descended into the caldera for a ~6ish mile walk across the center of the earth over to Surprise Lake, where we setup camp . . .
It's a big world out there - looking toward the Bering Sea

Did I mention it was Chrissy and Ray's honeymoon?  

Nearing the crater . . . Erin, Chrissy, and Ray

Ray, Port Heiden, and the Bering Sea

And then the world started steaming . . . guess we ARE walking up a volcano!!

Erin making it look easy . . . more volcano steam

Our first look into the Caldera - Surprise Lake in the distance, the 1931 crater in the foreground - what a sight!!

Another crater view from the top . . . such cool terrain!

Paul on the caldera edge . . . should we have brought skis?!?!?

The 1931 crater
So, we made it to camp, setup along the lakeshore with a nice open view to the caldera and spent the next (rainy) day running the Class IV rapids of the gates and generally enjoying our new home.  The next group of 5 showed up that evening, and so we had a nice snack of Paul's freshly caught fish and our otherwise tasty freeze dried meals :)

The next day dawned sunny and we all split up for our preferred type of exploration.  Chrissy, Phil and I decided to hike to the high point of the Crater, Black Nose Peak, and see what we could see.  So, through the gates and down valley we went, seeing from the map that the backside of the peak looked much kinder than the front. 

Me & Phil, what a stunning day!

View of Aniakchack River from partway up Black Nose

Chrissy May . . . love the volcano action for creating nice walking surfaces!
Me, Phil, and an ever-improving view!

Cmay coming up to the crater's edge . . . in the wind!

Looking down on Surprise Lake and home . . . helluva view even with the clouds in the crater!

Vent Mountain - nothing like a volcano within a volcano to let you know you're in the raddest place ever.

Phil and me . . . view didn't get old :)

Windy, cold, still going up :)  Rad terrain and colors though . . . kind of wondering at this point if we'd lost our minds.  

Cold, windy, foggy, happy :)

Phil glad to be back in vestiges of sun!

Did I mention the wind?!? 

And then back down . . . snowy crater walls in the distance.

Yeah for getting out of the wind and back into the sun!

From there, we ended up running the gates again and then doing a 2-day float down the river to Aniakchak bay.  Thank goodness Katmai Air was reliable and made it over the cloudy pass to get us!!!

Talkeetna Mountains traverse: Eureka to Talkeetna, pushing the limits of tennis shoes

As I started looking closer at the maps and seeing the weather forecast for Southcentral Alaska ("first storm moving away from southcentral with a more powerful second storm on the way"), the doubts over our trip started creeping in.  Sherrie and I planned to hike from the Eureka Roadhouse on the Glenn Highway, 60 miles overland to the headwaters of the Talkeetna River.  From the small roadside town, we'd walk for 2.5 days (most off-trail wilderness travel), over a 4800' and 6000' pass, before rafting 40 miles of the Talkeetna River.  At the confluence with Prairie Creek, we would meet friends who'd flown in with a cataraft and raft the famous class IV Talkeetna River canyon ("the longest stretch of continuous whitewater in Alaska" and one of the state's most classic river trips) to the town of Talkeenta.

As I really started thinking about the logistics, the thoughts of all that could go wrong rushed in with a vengeance.  I haven't been nervous for a trip in awhile, but I have to admit in many ways it felt good to try something I wasn't sure I could do.  We made contingency bailout plans for the inability to cross high passes due to weather, packed a little extra food in case we had to hike out without the cataraft to travel the high-volume canyon, and left a good communication plan in case we didn't make it out. 

Leaving the road at 5:30 pm, we made it to Caribou Creek and camped along its banks. 

Starting out with termination dust on Gunsight Mountain behind us . . . all smiles for the journey ahead!
Surprised and ecstatic, our first full day of hiking up Caribou Creek was graced with sunshine!!  Given the multiple thigh-deep river crossings of this glacial stream, and blessed with peak fall colors, the bright skies made our day super enjoyable as we covered ground.

Did I mention that we were thankful for the sun?  Sherrie shares her joy!

Sherrie making progress toward Chitna Creek confluence with Caribou Creek, one of the day's major milestones

Me headed into the upper Caribou drainage - foreboding skies ahead, but sunny for now!

Me loving the tank top weather and peak fall colors - all the gorgeous mountains made us want to come back with more time to scramble up them!

Caribou Creek shrinking as we neared the headwaters - just upstream is it's super dramatic canyon
We made it to our goal of a lake just below the final climb to our first big pass, arriving at camp in a mix of rain and snow.  We awoke to a white world, and a super cold morning, but were thankful that the conditions still looked okay for travel.

Awaking to a snowy morning at camp 2 . . . brr!!

My shoes were so frozen after all the river crossings the day prior that I had to use pliers to get the laces free . . . I finally thawed them in the icy cold river to be able to get my feet in - now there's a way to start a morning!

 We hiked out of the Caribou Creek drainage and over a gentle pass to the high country in the upper Oshetna River valley.  Opting to "cut the corner," we walked the caribou trails of the grassy hills instead of travelling the creek, rewarded with panoramic mountain views and serene lakes to walk by. 
Heading into the high country - leaving the final trickle of Caribou Creek

Rounding the corner into the upper Oshetna River valley
Me passing one of three lakes as we traveled to the Oshetna River . . . peaceful and stunning country
Sherrie adds a splash of color to the Talkeetnas!

Making progress - our route was just around the backside of the peak in the foreground . . . caribou trails made our travels so nice!!

Caribou kept us company much of the morning . . . should we have brought skis?!?
We had great travel conditions for the morning, the frozen ground creating a nice walking surface, cushioned with a covering of snow . . . greeted by caribou, beautiful lakes, and changing scenery, we were super stoked!  Lurking in the back of my mind, however, was a wonder of what we'd find as we approached the pass - the mountains around us were pretty snow-covered and the wind was picking up - thoughts of avalanches started creeping into my mind.  As a skier, I should know better than to get caught in a windslab, and we had approximately zero appropriate tools (i.e. shovel!) to respond if we did.  But, you never know til you go, so on we went, knowing that we could always come back and raft out Caribou Creek if we had to.  One thing was readily apparent: we were definitely going to be pushing the limits of tennis shoes!!!

Our first pass at 4800' finally in view . . . what's next?

Headed up the pass, looking down to the Oshetna . . .

The landscape got stark, but no less beautiful
On the backside of pass #1, with 6000' pass #2 around the corner - starting to look more like a headwall than a pass!

Sherrie with the outline of switchbacks above her . . . looks like we can probably make it over!!
Standing on the headwall - I have to admit I was hoping to see a little less white than this . . .

Travelling the moraine-from-hell . . . this kind of travel is hard enough without 6" of snow obscuring the appropriate places to step!

Uggh, the moraine goes on . . .

Finally off the rocky moraine and back into snow-covered tundra . . . a much appreciated reprieve of wondering if I was going to break an ankle every step! 

 Thankfully, Alaska let us through and we were able to safely navigate our way over the headwall (after going over it, I am no longer calling it a pass!) . . . I had hoped for a gentle slope off the backside, but instead I found myself plunge stepping into thigh deep snow down its steep flanks.  Spirits plummeted as we walked across the glacial moraine on the backside.  Comprised of rocks, their interstitial spaces filled with snow, it felt like a broken ankle (or femur!) was a threat on every step.  Sherrie characterized our friendship as "old love" as we walked in irritated silence, mentally preparing ourselves to be in snow for the duration of our overland travel.  The Talkeetna side of the mountains is the wet side, but this was more snow than we'd really expected! 

Not shockingly, we awoke to more new snow on our third morning, but with only 11 miles remaining until packrafting time, and knowing it would only get better as we lost elevation, we were off!

Another cold morning - a good chance to multitask with stretching hips, warming toes on my hot bottle, and drinking coffee all at once!!
Our river walk transitioned to a game trail as we headed away from the creek and onto a gently sloping flank to the river . . . back in peak fall colors, the tundra reds burst into our gray landscape.  As we descended, the sun came out and graced us with warmth and views of the Talkeetna Glacier and big mountains surrounding us.  As the river came into view, we were pscyched to start making progress off our feet!!

Good travel, out of the snow, making progress = happy Kellie!
Looking back at the white world we'd come from!
And looking down to the river we were headed to!
Sherrie in peak fall colors yet again, checking out the potential for rapids in the upper river

Still not sure if it was going to fully break, the clouds added surreal feel to the big open country we were in

The Talkeetna Glacier and upper river
We made it to the river just after noon and took a breather in bare feet on the sand, appreciating the moments of sunshine as we prepared for the next section of the adventure.  We had 40 river miles to cover, with beta that it started class III and then mellowed out . . . lured by the sunshine, we did not put on nearly enough layers and spent most of the day super cold until we finally gave into putting puff coats on under our drysuits!  It's been awhile since I've been this persistently cold, and I started to accept that winter is definitely on its way!! 
The upper river was splashy and fun!

So wonderful to enjoy the views off of our feet!  Packrafts and river gear are heavy and cumbersome to carry, but sooooo worth it!
By some combination of good fortune and perseverance, Sherrie and I made it 40 miles downriver in about 6.5 hours, meeting our friends according exactly to plan A.  They had flown in that morning as planned, rafted Prairie Creek, and setup a luxurious camp.  With a dutch oven, coolers, big raft, and cotton clothes our lives were about to change! 
All smiles in the morning as we headed toward the Talkeetna Canyon!
 At the ~8000 cfs level we had, the Talkeetna was considered "low," but the toilet bowl entry rapid and the 14 mile long "sluice box" were exciting all the same, and still much bigger water than I'd want with a packraft!! 
Under sunny skies, Denali and the Alaska Range greeted us in Talkeetna!!
Overall, the trip was awesome.  At no point "in the bag," the adventure continued with every step and wave along our journey.  It was definitely an experience that re-energized me for big Alaskan traverses and throwing it to the wind every now and again :-)