Visiting Alaska’s Volcanic Desert

A portrait of me standing on the ash plain inside the Valley of 10,000 Smokes – Photo: Jack Steward

The twin-engine Otter rumbled through the low clouds, banking a huge turn before touching down on the ash flat. Exhausted, and fearing a major delay due to bad weather, our camera crew let out a collective sigh of relief.

Our six-man team from ABC’s Rock the Park had been huddled in the freezing rain, backs to a huge black volcanic stub cooking meals on a Jetboil stove for the past 24 hours. Food was running out. All the whiskey was gone. The previous day had ended in near disaster.

That’s when a summer snowstorm had blown into the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Whiteout conditions and stinging ash particles had turned us back from the summit of 7,606′ Mt. Griggs. What’s worse, a quick check through binoculars confirmed that I could actually see my tent blowing away as the storm uprooted its stakes. Cartwheeling through the subarctic desert, my flimsy nylon shelter hadn’t been properly anchored in the wind.

I was the only one to blame.

Two days earlier, we’d trekked eight miles through ash and sand to the base of Mt. Griggs. Hosts Jack Steward and Colton Smith had been planning this adventure for a long time. The goal was to observe and photograph a still-active volcanic fumerole rumored deep inside Katmai National Park.

Volcanoes of the Alaska Peninsula – Credit: US Geological Survey

To understand why this was important, a little history lesson is in order. Back in 1912, more than 3 cubic miles of ash were ejected into the atmosphere when nearby Mt. Katmai exploded, creating a giant caldera known as Novarupta. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in the 20th century, 30 times more explosive than Mount St. Helens. The pyroclastic flows created a swath of destruction that covered 40 square miles of the Alaska Peninsula. Every living creature was killed.

Here, the once-lush Ukak River Valley had been instantly transformed into a volcanic wasteland. The surrounding mountains were buried in up to 700 feet of grey and yellow ash. Tens-of-thousands of steam vents, mud pots, and fumeroles smoked here for 15 years after the eruption, lending their name to the landscape – The Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

Fast forward 100 years, and our mission was to hopefully find what could be the last active volcanic feature in the valley. But just reaching the place was a spectacularly hard feat.

Our film crew had just wrapped a 4-day mountain biking shoot in northern Arizona. Wiping the dirt off our gear, we prepared for a massive journey north. The next four days would be a combination of driving, flying in multiple airplanes, and hiking to our final destination.

Departing from Phoenix, we flew to Anchorage via Dallas on a huge Boeing 777. The next morning found us on a vintage Saab turboprop bound for the old fishing town of King Salmon. Flying Katmai Air, we took off in a Beaver float plane for the legendary Brooks Camp the following day.

The story of Brooks Camp deserves its own essay, but I’ll be brief here. The most important thing to know about Brooks Camp is that its home to the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. Dozens of these massive bears balance on the edge of nearby Brooks Falls during the spring and fall, snatching sockeye salmon out of the air as they migrate up the river. The bears are unforgettable.

Not only do they stage daily fishing competitions at the falls, but the bruins have a pecking order that establishes just who gets the best spot. Huge boars that can tip the scales at nearly 2,000 pounds are typically the winners, with smaller males and females relegated to the outskirts of the falls. Younger bears roam the periphery, with many straying into Brooks Camp at all hours of the day and night.

That makes for a huge safety challenge at nearby Brooks Lodge, a historic building that serves overnight visitors to Katmai National Park. Here, park rangers conduct bear patrols, working to maintain a 100-foot minimum distance between humans and bears. Despite their close proximity to humans, the bears are typically not threatening because the area’s plentiful food sources keep them well fed and relatively docile.

A Katmai grizzly battles rushing whitewater while fishing for salmon near Brooks Camp, Alaska

Mt. Griggs with storm clouds swirling at its summit

The lodge served as our final outpost before setting off for the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. After an excellent dinner of local salmon (what else?), we settled into ancient leather chairs clustered around the central fireplace. Surveying aerial maps and plotting river courses, Jack and Colton prepared our team for a backpacking trip into what is perhaps the most remote national park in North America.

Colton addressed us all: “A hundred years ago, the largest eruption of the 20th century took this valley and turned it upside down. So trekking through there is no joke.”

The next morning found our team clunking down a muddy road punctuated by huge stands of alders and sprawling shallow river courses. We’d hopped into a custom 4×4 offroad bus with a lifted suspension, a necessary mod for crossing the flooded streams here. Constant rainfall and low cloud ceiling kept us guessing about the surrounding terrain as the jacked-up bus jumped and shuddered toward the valley. The 20-mile trip pushed us deep into the wilderness of the Alaska Peninsula.

We stopped at a small cabin built on a thousand-foot ridge high above the edge of the volcanic plain. The tiny visitor center had little more than a picnic table, a few maps, and some food and water. A footpath traced its way from the nearby observation deck deep into the valley. We could see nothing but fog and the occasional gap of sunlight. It seemed like an excellent place to surprise a bear. Following the path, we eventually reached the valley floor and could hear moving water.

Eventually, the fog lifted and revealed a sterile plain of grey ringed by emerald mountains. The volcanic ash here was piled up in dunes much like sand on some weird northern shore.

Federal park units near the Katmai area of the Alaska Peninsula – Credit: USFWS

A physical leap of faith was the next major challenge, as our crew jumped a five-foot gap over the nearby River Lethe, our backpacks and bodies lofting above a slot canyon filled with blasting glacial meltwater. We had been warned that a fall here could be fatal. The volcanic rocks were too slippery and the water moving too fast to climb out.

Ironically, this Alaskan river’s name stems from Greek mythology. It’s said that souls who wish to pass through the gates of Hades must first drink from the River Lethe to erase memories of their past lives and be reincarnated. I found it quite fitting for this River Lethe to guard the entrance to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. There was certainly no turning back.

Try hiking 10 miles in volcanic ash while shouldering a huge pack, camera and tripod. Now drop the temps to just above freezing, add some rain, and toss in a few bears for good measure. That’s the kind of trip we were on.

A good description of the place was like “walking on the moon,” according to Jack.

After hiking for most of the day, we finally reached the base of Mt. Griggs. Brown bear tracks traced through the ash just outside what would become our base camp. The bear could have been there hours earlier, or maybe it was several days. The steady rain made it impossible to gauge the age of the tracks. Crucially, our team decided to pitch tents near a windbreak on a sandy flat above the river.

While others used big rocks to anchor their tents, I simply dug my stakes into the loose ground. Trusting the small trees and bushes that sheltered our camp would prove to be a major mistake. An angry sea of clouds rocked the upper limits of Mt. Griggs. I could hear and feel the wind whipping through the canyon. It seemed like bad weather could knock us out at any moment.

Unbelievably, daybreak found calm winds and sunshine peaking through the mountains. For the first time, we could actually see the summit. What luck to have favorable weather in Alaska. However, it soon became obvious that this hike was not going to be easy. Like walking on the beach or stamping through loose snow, each footfall on the approach to the volcano sapped our strength as we sunk deep into the ash step-by-step, over and over.

Interestingly, we soon developed a rudimentary technique for ascending the volcano. It seemed that giant, vertical rock bands pinstriped Griggs, each located about 200 meters apart. These jagged lava ridges were steep and cumbersome to climb, but offered a better alternative than sinking in the ash gullies between them. We worked the vertical ribs, traversing up and across the peak until the ash and rock became coated with ice.

Using our longest camera lenses, we first sighted the volcanic fumerole from perhaps a half-mile away. Its dirty mouth poured huge clouds of toxic gas and steam hundreds of feet into the air. Yellow chemical stains marred the nearby rocks. It was a debate whether approaching the vent was considered a safe idea, much less a good one.

My guess is we topped out around 6,000′ before the storm hit. That’s when snow began to fall and huge wind gusts ripped through the ash gullies, blowing stinging rock particles into our faces. Despite the snarly breeze, we carried on with the hike, fully bundled in winter storm gear and taking shelter at necessary increments. Morale began to gradually fade away as the ice and sand in the gullies formed strange features that resembled small glacial crevasses. We certainly couldn’t tell if the ash had overlain cracks in a glacier, or if it was a freezing effect that mimicked a crevasse. Nobody wanted to investigate further.

Jack summed it up nicely. “If we slip, we’re going to go down and down … and down. If something happens up here, we’re a long way from help.”

At this point, it became obvious that we needed to turn around. We’d spent almost eight hours hiking the 4,500 vertical feet that represented Mt. Griggs, and it was now 2 p.m. Worried that a major snowstorm was about to hit, we reluctantly began a retreat. That’s when we spotted the tents blowing across the plain.

Filming Jack and Colton on the slopes of Mt. Griggs – Photo: Adam Beard

Our tents were poorly anchored in ash near a small windbreak – Photo: Adam Beard

Colton had dug out binoculars and thought maybe a bear had attacked the camp. Two tents were completely missing. Another looked blown over. A quick check confirmed mine was gone. Tiny bright dots of fabric whipped across the volcanic desert. This was no bear attack. We were peering at the effects of big winds on poorly anchored tents. Everyone started running.

Feet smearing through the ash, the descent took about an hour. Record breaking time for such a burning hike up. Jack and Colton arrived at the bottom first. They set out toward the huge vertical canyons that carved through the center of the valley. Our field producer Tye, along with director of photography Nejc, arrived next. They secured the campsite and strapped down the remaining tents that threatened to blow over.

My tent was gone. So was our field coordinator Adam’s. I found his wallet and softshell pants in the sand about 100 yards from camp. His jacket turned up a bit further away. We never found his tent, sleeping bag, or anything else. It could have blown for miles before plunging into a mysterious canyon or unmarked river channel.

Meanwhile, Colton had miraculously found my tent. It was hanging over a 100-foot deep chasm that plunged into the River Lethe, and clinging only by the rainfly. Thankfully, the 3-season mountain tent hadn’t ripped, because inside were scattered the small memory cards that we’d shot for the TV show. I had stupidly left the media case inside the tent before we started our journey. Thousands of dollars in time and effort were inside.

Dragging the broken skeleton of my tent across the ash was a major low point in the trip, but it could have been much worse. A quick check proved that none of the media had been lost. Plus, we still had extra space in another tent for Adam. The crew pooled together sleeping bag liners and warm clothing so he wouldn’t freeze. The day’s disaster turned into relief, and our attention shifted to waiting for the bushplane that would land on the dusty ash flat and get us the hell out of there.

I remember thinking a difficult lesson had been learned by all: never underestimate the power and unpredictability of Alaskan storms, especially in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

Check out the official preview to the episode below: