Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve

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P.O. Box 7
King Salmon, AK 99613
907-246-3305

Midway down the wild and roadless Alaska Peninsula lies one of the Nations most fascinatingrecent volcanic features. Aniakchak is a 6-mile wide, 2,000-foot-deep caldera formed by thecollapse of a 7,000-foot mountain. Lying inland in a region of frequent clouds and stormyweather, Aniakchak remained unknown to all but native inhabitants until the 1920's. Then,geographers remotely plotting mountain locations along the caldera's rim noticed their circularconfiguration. Eventually, in 1922, a geologic field party gazed down into the caldera. Theybrought back news of Aniakchak's immense proportions.

Although a dozen calderas stand on the Alaska Peninsula, Aniakchak ranks among the largest.Its fascinating volcanic history can be read from its exposed internal plumbing. About 3,500years ago, a dramatic explosion caused the loss of some 3,000 feet of the upper mountain. Theremainder of the mountain next collapsed, leaving a relatively flat-floored, ash-filled bowl. Sincethe caldera first formed, many lesser eruptions have created the small cinder cones, lava flows,and explosion pits dotting its floor today. Because some explosion features seem to have beencreated underwater, the caldera probably once contained a deep snowfed lake, much like CraterLake in southern Oregon. Eventually, however, at a low place along the rim, lake waters beganto spill out. Over time, this fast-flowing stream created the great breach in the rim known as TheGates. The Gates now allow the Aniakchak River to begin its tumultuous 27-mile coursesoutheastward to the Pacific Ocean.


Aniakchak's most recent volcanic activity came in 1931. A small but impressive explosion pitwas added to the pockmarked caldera floor that year. Many thousands of tons of ash lay strewnwithin the caldera and scattered up to 40 miles away over the small villages. Fortunately, thisvolcanic episode was documented both before and after by an indomitable geologist and Jesuitpriest, Father Bernard Hubbard. His photographs and descriptions provide an importantbenchmark for judging the likely rate of recovery of vegetation to the devastated caldera.Mosses, grasses, and more complex flowering plants have invaded sheltered spots. Brown bearand caribou have returned. Spawning runs of sockeye salmon now fight their way up theAniakchak River and into Surprise Lake, the river's shallow headwater lake inside thecaldera.

In creating Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Congress recognized the uniquegeological significance of the caldera and also acknowledged the outstanding wildlife andrecreational values of the Aniakchak River by designating it a wild river within the NationalWild and Scenic Rivers System. The parklands boundaries also contain other importantresources. West of the caldera lies the waterfowl and migratory bird habitat of Bristol Bay'scoastal plain. To the east, rugged bays and inlets of the Pacific coast and offshore islands providehabitat for sea mammals and sea birds. Evidence of ancient human presence at Aniakchak isminimal. However, more may one day be known of this important transition zone betweenancestral Aleuts and Yupik-speaking people.

Exploring the Caldera

Prehistoric and historic peoples hunted, trapped, and fished the Aniakchak area, but the caldera'smodern exploration began only with geologists in the 1920s. The area's most dramatic visits werethose of"the Glacier Priest," Father Bernard Hubbard. He was flown into the caldera itself in1930, where he witnessed "a world within a mountain" and called it Paradise Found. A yearlater Aniakchak erupted and Hubbard returned, this time hiking some 30 miles from a base campon Kujulik Bay with 3 companions. En route across the coastal-barrier mountains andAniakchak River valley their footsteps sent up clouds of ash that made their hair like wirebrushes. Desert-like dust whirlwinds everywhere raised miniature tornadoes. They made 30miles to the volcano rim the first day and climbed it the next morning. "Black were its snowfieldsand black its glaciered head...Climbing to the crater rim, we are going through a valley of deathin which not a blade of grass or a flower or a bunch of moss broke through the thick covering ofdeposited ash." The party climbed to the new subcrater's steaming rim: "We stood awestrickenon the edge," wrote the priest, "looking, like Dantes, into a real inferno."

Running the River

Are you contemplating running the Aniakchak River from its caldera headwaters through treelesstundra to the sea? A commercial guidebook says:"The weather on Aniakchak is severe;life threatening conditions can develop rapidly. Extremely violent winds in the caldera,particularly near 'The Gates,' can shred tents and prevent air rescue." A hefty budget andpretested skills and gear are absolutely necessary.

Congress named the Aniakchak a national wild river in 1980. Its spectacular resources makerafting the Aniakchak a most rewarding experience. You can float from inside a volcano to theocean past spectacles of wildlife and geology. From Surprise Lake the river flows a peaceful mileto The Gates. The river moves swiftly through this narrow gorge in the caldera wall, and largerocks demand precise maneuvering. A gradient of 75 feet per mile makes this sectionchallenging. After a more gentle 10 miles comes the confluence with Hidden Creek, and theriver is again filled with car-sized boulders, abrupt bends, and a narrow bed requiring extremecaution. After 5 more miles the river slows to meander toward the Pacific and the seals, seaotters, bald eagles, and sea birds of Aniakchak Bay. Total float time: 3 to 4 days from SurpriseLake to the bay. Camp on sandy gravel bars for flat tent sites and fewer bugs - and so that yourhuman impacts are readily erased by subsequent high water. Use a small backpacking stove;firewood is scarce in treeless tundra.

Only a few parties float the river each year, mostly in July. Plan on delays getting in and,especially, delays getting out. Dry suits are recommended; life jackets are required. Scout TheGates and Hidden Creek continence before you run them. Inflatable rafts 12 or 13 feet long withrowing platforms are most popular. Bring lots of repair materials! USGS topographic maps andother supplies may be available in King Salmon, but supplies are sometimes limited.

Planning Your Visit

Few people go to remote Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. Established in 1978, itlies 450 miles south of Anchorage on the roadless Alaska Peninsula. Its 586,000 acres areamong the least visited in the National Park system. Notoriously bad weather combines withcostly and unpredictable access to discourage most would be visitors. Solo travel is notrecommended. Do not attempt to plan and carry out a trip based solely on the informationhere!

Air charters can land you at Meshik Lake, Surprise Lake in the caldera, or Aniakchak, Amber, orKujulik bays on the Pacific Ocean. Air charters fly from King Salmon, which has dailycommercial air service from Anchorage. However, weather conditions often prevent or delaydropoffs and pickups. You must plan and prepare for the worst-case scenario.

The national monument and preserve contains no marked trails, campgrounds, or services. Allcamping is primitive; small backpacking stoves are necessary for cooking in what is essentiallytreeless tundra. Travel in Aniakchak is best accomplished from mid-June through early-September. King Salmon offers the most extensive travel facilities, services, and supplies. Onceout in the wilds you are completely on your own. You must be prepared to be self-sufficient.

Park headquarters is located in King Salmon, 150 miles north of Aniakchak. While backcountrypermits are not required, it is highly recommended that you file an itinerary with both theNational Park Service and a relative or friend. Topographic maps are available at the KingSalmon Visitor Center at the airport, but you should request trip-planning advice in advance ofyour trip.

Hunting and Fishing - Fishing is permitted in both the monument and preserve. AnAlaska fishing license is required, and anglers must follow state fishing regulations. Sporthunting is permitted only in the preserve and in compliance with state regulations. Contact thesuperintendent for information on guides and seasons.

Hiking - Hikers will find excellent hiking conditions atop the ash and cinder fields ofthe caldera floor. However, the Aniakchak landscape also features swift, cold rivers andseemingly impenetrable patches of dense vegetation. In route-finding, the path of least resistanceoften will be an animal trail. Again, make noise as you walk to warn wildlife of yourapproach.

Weather - Summer temperatures in this part of Alaska average in the high 40s to low50s F, with most days overcast and wet. Because winds are frequent, even though it is summerthese conditions can quickly lead to hypothermia, the lowering of the body's core temperature.As symptoms progress it becomes increasingly difficult to respond to them. Be aware of thisdanger and know how to avoid and treat hypothermia.

Wildlife - When Father Hubbard first climbed into Aniakchak Caldera in 1930, his firstdramatic experience - after the scenery was with a female brown bear and her cub. Brown bearsremain numerous throughout this area because of good forage conditions and seasonalavailability of ample dietary protein in the form of salmon. River runners often see brown bearson the Aniakchak River, often a lot closer than common sense dictates.

In dense stands of willow or alder and other conditions that hamper visibility, make lots of noiseso you do not startle resting bears or moose. Moose and bears with young are especiallyprotective and more prone to an aggressive response when they perceive a threat to theiroffspring. Keep a respectful distance from all wildlife.

Trips

Eruks Wilderness Float Tours  - Fly-in expeditions for small groups on pristine Southwest Alaskan rivers. Superb fishing, diverse wildlife, unique natural features. Led by Wildlife Biologist. Flyfishing specialist. Bow or rifle hunts.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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