Aniakchak Crater has been on my ‘life list’ since I first heard about packrafting from a crater lake to the ocean. 40$ tickets and with 15 friends? Only in AK.
Anthony Larson (Tsina Glacier) forced me (as much as a midwesterner can) to commit a block of time for the trip to Aniakchak Crater. We flew commercial flights with Penair and were able to use frequent flier miles and pay $40 for the tickets. This meant we had to walk along the coast from Aniakchak Bay to Chignik Lagoon, a distance of 60 to 85 miles depending on the route, but that sounded fun. Sarah Heck (Denali, Knik) bought a ticket the next day; J.T. Lindholm and Brad Meiklejohn (Sheep, Magic Mile) had tickets within the week. The more the merrier travelling through bear country, and as word got out the group swelled to 15, all with frequent flier miles! The crew: Este, Brook Kintz, Thai Verzone, Gordy Vernon, Ole Carrillo, Roman Dial (PR 201, Magic Mile), Monty Mykolas, Suzi Drinen, Toby Schwörer (Early Winter, Sanford), and Joe McLaughlin. Despite having 3 docs and 2 PAs, nobody got injured, which almost felt like a shame. We organized into 4 or 5 ‘independent nations’ with different arrival and departure dates.
We shared our flight to Port Heiden with Marty, the site manager for Jacobs Engineering’s reclamation project on PCB-contaminated soils. Marty knew Todd Kasteler, who I had just done the Classic with, and Jill Ladegard, a childhood friend from McGrath, who both work for Jacobs Engineering. Marty and Kevin, the project chemist, folded us into their care with dry space to finish packing, coffee for Anthony, and rides to the start of the hike. They extended the same generosity to the rest of our group as they trickled in.
The dynamic weather was really fun. Brad said, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 30 minutes.” Sarah, Anthony, and I were limited to less than 100 m visibility for the entire climb, navigating purely by GPS. When we dropped into the crater we abandoned the wall of clouds and were giddy witnessing the birth of the sun-lit landscape.
The geology was a real treat for me. The volcano was last active in 1931; the crater has several vents and fresh a’a flows. The Gates, where Surprise Lake drains to form the Aniakchak River, were formed during a catastrophic lake-draining event sometime soon after the crater formed ~3500 years ago. The Gates were choked with large boulders, creating beautiful class III rapids. The rapids were so much fun we did laps on them.
The supergroup split into two factions after rafting ~15 miles of the Aniakchak. The crew with flights back to Anchorage on the 6th exited the Aniakchak River near Albert Johnson Creek and cut the corner for the coast. The group I was travelling with had a few extra days, so we finished the float to Aniakchak Bay. We spent a night in an amazing cabin at the bay, dried clothes and pilfered meals abandoned by previous raft groups.
I didn’t have enough food. Actually, I think I had enough by weight and calories, but not enough fats, so I was hungry most the time. Thai and Monty spooked an eagle and stole its salmon kill. I spotted a halibut stranded by the outgoing tide and we ate that too. Anthony caught two humpys by hand in a glorified mud puddle. J.T. bought two beautiful reds from a fishing boat near Chignik Lagoon. Yum!
Traveling the coast was absolutely spectacular. We paddled when the water was calm, hiked the coast at low tide, and bush-whacked or exploited the numerous bear trails for land crossings. We spooked two grizzlies in the woods, too close for comfort. Fortunately they didn’t want to have anything to do with us either. We saw about 20 grizzlies total.
The cliffs along the beaches were really cool. The rock included volcanic debris flows (lahars) and shallow marine deposits: fossil rich sandstones, conglomerates, and shales. The beaches were generally superb for hiking. There were plenty of camp options near fresh water and piles of drift wood.
The group dynamic, pace, and scenery were incredible. I don’t understand how Alaska can keep offering such amazing destinations and travel parters, it is simply overwhelming.