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Aniakchak Adventure

Packrafts open up the lunatic fringe of National Parks. We hiked into the Aniakchak Caldera and Surprise Lake to packraft down the Aniakchak to the Pacific Ocean.

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by Matt Hage | 2009-05-12 00:05:00-06

There are many reasons that bring folks to those places deemed 'the end of the world.' We had come to run a river. The Aniakchak River offers the unique setting of paddling a river from its headwaters in the heart of a volcano, through a 2,000-feet deep gorge in the crater rim and down miles of splashy whitewater as steep as a stairwell. The Aniakchak is one of twenty-five flows in Alaska protected as Wild and Scenic, but it's in a class of its own when it comes to river adventures. This stunning clear-water meanders thirty-five miles across the vast wilderness of the Aleutian Mountains to its terminus in a Pacific Ocean lagoon.

Crux Rapids on the River

Our trio was enjoying the whitewater rodeo of the river's upper half, where the average gradient sits at a very steep seventy-five feet per mile. My partners were two other Alaska adventure junkies from Anchorage: Agnes Stowe and Seth Holden. The last time we were together was a year ago on the gigantic alpine wall of the Mooses Tooth, getting pummeled by freezing spindrift. Here on the river, the weather was perfect for hypothermia; a steady drizzle hung in the air while the afternoon temperature soared into the low... forties. We were on the lookout for the second crux rapids where the Aniakchak drops eighty-three feet in one boulder-strewn mile. Our plan was to scout this section to gauge the danger to life and limb. We would play the conservative card; any injury out here would be a serious situation. Besides, in this weather, just going for a swim would be life threatening. You gotta love early July in the Aleutian Range.

Packrafting the Aniakchak

Over the last five years, the Aniakchak River has become an Alaska packrafting classic. The typically week-long adventure is equal parts trekking and paddling. Using the tough little 'Tingey Dinghy' to run the river addresses two major hang-ups of the Aniakchak for traditional rafters.

First, it's much easier to get there (by walking). A party can wait a long time for the weather to cooperate for a float plane dropoff at Surprise Lake. Michael Funke of Anchorage-based Alyeska Mountain and River Guides knows this all too well. Funke, who has guided rafting trips down the Aniachak River, said, "You have to be pretty sure that the weather is going to hold before you try to fly in from King Salmon, or else you end up paying for a lot of flights back and forth. [A guide] can easily end up losing money on a trip." Without any monitoring devices in Aniakchak National Monument, gauging what the weather is doing at Surprise Lake is a difficult guess, to say the least.

Second, once on the Aniakchak, the oarsman will have his hands full to keep a fourteen-foot raft off the numerous rock gardens and shallows along the upper river. We were thankful to have the nimble little boats to make quick maneuvers between the volcanic boulders. It was also a plus to be able to cruise through the occasional stretch of six-inch water without having to drag.

Hidden Creek

We had marked a waypoint for the rapids, and Agnes called out when she read a tenth of a mile from the creek on her wrist-mounted GPS. Downriver, I could see the current cut a sharp right before crashing through several large boulders. We had reached the rapids of Hidden Creek, and they were coming up mighty quickly. The river was too hemmed in and swift for a quick pulloff. I frantically searched for an eddy of any kind to stop our descent.

"Rapids! Rapids! Rapids! " I yelled back over my shoulder and quickly skidded into a last chance eddy right on the drop's edge. The roar of the rapids was beyond deafening; you felt it more than heard it. Just a few feet from our swirling eddy, the Aniakchak launched into a train of six-foot waves packed tightly between a few wicked drops. Agnes and Seth joined me in the crowded eddy, sliding in bumper-boat style.

"Holy *&$%! Bear! Bear! Bear!" I yelled in alarm. Right behind us, two very healthy brown bears were taking in the show less than twenty feet up river. They were right on the water's edge, eyes wide and equally brown, wondering what to make of us in our little rafts.

"Who do I spray: myself, you guys, or the bears?" joked Seth as we all prudently unpinned cans of pepper spray.

"Do these things still fire if they've been under water all day?" asked Agnes. The uncomfortable face-off ended once the bruins picked up our chatter. Two thousand-pound bear butts ran off into the endless sea of alders. It's amazing how quickly a critter the size of a minivan can disappear in this country.

Because it was a safe encounter (most of them are), we got to savor it for a while. The national monument is their home, after all, and the river one of their busiest thoroughfares. Coastal brown bears migrate down from winter dens to start feeding on grasses along the coastline. Later in the summer, bears feed on runs of Pacific salmon: Chinook, sockeye, pink. The sockeye run all the way to spawning grounds at Surprise Lake in the Aniakchak Caldera, and the bears follow. None of our trio was bear-phobic and we all had a deep understanding of how to best conduct yourself in grizzly country. Yet for some reason, bashing through the alders to scout the upcoming rapids was no longer very appealing. After a quick "wadda ya think?", we voted to just run blindly into the maelstrom around the corner. How rough could it get anyway?

Remoteness by the Numbers

Our run of the river was the culmination of a week exploring the Aniakchak National Monument in the lower portion of the Alaska Peninsula. Aniakchak holds the title for the most remote and least visited unit of our country's National Park system. Official numbers show a measly twenty-six recreational visits last year. That was down over fifty percent from the 2006 season, which saw sixty.

"Prior recent years have been in the 150-300 range," reported John Quinley, Assistant Regional Director of Communications for Alaska National Parks. There are three years on the National Park Service fact sheet that list zero recreational visits for Aniakchak: 1995, 1996, and 1997. Maybe that's a fluke. A survey of park use for someplace like Aniakchak is not an exact science. Even though I registered a trip plan with the park office in King Salmon, the National Park Service does not require any paperwork from those headed into the monument. Quinley agreed that without a paper trail, it would be hard to get exact numbers.

"I think for big, remote parks like this the numbers should be viewed as sort of order of magnitude. Which, in the case of Aniakchak, is still very little public use compared to other parks in Alaska," he said. By comparison, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve outside of Nome counted just shy of 800 recreational visits last year, putting it in a distant second place for most unloved park. Denali saw that many in 1928 and now regularly sees half a million annual visitors.

Back to the Rapids

Perched on the edge of the Hidden Creek rapids, I pushed out, and the current took me like a freight train. A couple very quick paddle strokes got me lined up for the first drop. I tried to boof (launch off the ledge, clearing the keeper hole underneath), but the 25-pound pack strapped to the front made it next to impossible. My little Alpacka crashed into the first of many six-foot waves at the bottom of the drop. A wall of icy water engulfed me, and I could feel hydraulics of the keeper hole pulling down on the raft's stern. Flipping over backwards is a common way to go swimming in a packraft. I leaned forward as far as I could and turned on the paddle.

Safely out of the keeper hole, the waves kept coming bigger, faster, stronger. The wave trains were too close together to get in sync with. At the second drop, my boat was launched skyward; the bow pointed straight up, my view filled with the steel grey sky. Again, I pushed hard toward the bow. Behind me, I could hear the hoots and calls of my companions as they enjoyed a similar ride. A small eddy presented itself, and I pulled over just in time to watch Agnes get crushed under a wave. She pulled it off in good style, resurfacing from the froth with a huge grin on her river-soaked face. The rapids slowly died down after an hour of paddling. A wide flood plain opened up in front of us; the river meandering in long corners out to the coast.

Our trio emerged from the rugged mountains wide-eyed, hearts racing, and more than a little damp. About an hour after the severe drops of the Hidden Creek rapids, the Aniakchak mellowed into a broad river valley. A suitable gravel bar was found for camp at the confluence with Albert Johnson Creek. With the amount of bear traffic along this corridor, we chose a site where we could see for miles in every direction. Or more importantly, where our yellow tents could be easily spotted (and hopefully avoided) by passing bruins. A light breeze dried our paddle outfits and kept the mosquitoes to a minimum.

Wooly Worm and Wily Char

In the evening silence, we could hear char slurping in side eddies across from our little island. Protective tubes emerged from our tiny rafts, and we got busy stringing up our fly rods. Mosquito patterns surprised two wily char right off. More followed as we continued our barrage of the far cut banks. Not one fish presented any great size, most were in the 12- to 20-inch range, but all came to hand with the same shocked look of surprise. After about an hour assault, the battle of wits came to an end with not another strike top water. A few deep drifts with a wooly worm brought a few last fish before the plunging temps chased us into the tent.

We couldn't have asked for a better final day on the Aniakchak. Even though the sun never really came out, several breaks in the thick cloud cover opened up our horizons to views of the Aleutian Mountains. The light breeze continued to keep the bugs down as we packed our rafts for a day of casting our way to the coast. From our camp it was twenty miles of meandering river, full of classic bends, cut banks, confluences and riffles full of char and possibly trout. Seth stuck to dries while I tied on a hefty egg-sucking leech with the thought of drawing out the more skeptical fish. Agnes switched up as the water changed from shallow flats to deep channel. The three of us coasted lazily down the current in our Alpackas, casting to fishy looking water while rubbernecking the weathered mountains that hemmed us in. Dredging deep with the leech pattern brought up some nice char in the 20-inch range, and pretty much every pattern appealed to the iron-gray fish.

Sockeye Rocket

Just as we were settling into an easygoing rhythm of catching fish and exploring gravel bars, Seth had to up the ante. We knew that sockeye salmon would be moving up the lower Aniakchak by this time (early July) and began to float over their schools a couple of hours below camp. While stopping for a leg stretcher, several revved up sockeye splashed in an eddy mid-current. Agnes and I watched as Seth paddled out to investigate. Within minutes he had a hooked up on a sockeye that took off like a rocket. A five-pound raft does not offer much of a fighting platform for such a hot fish, and Seth was getting pulled around in the sluggish current. From shore, we tried to coach him to terra firma as he tried to paddle and play a salmon on his six-weight rod. Tight turns threatened to upend his packraft as the sockeye tried to shake the hook. The battle grew obviously futile, and our entertainment came to an end with the snap of a blood knot.

Our heckling and laughter echoed down river as we paddled to make some miles. The shadows of sockeye darted underneath our rafts as we passed by. We stopped to fish a couple shallows as we neared the lagoon terminus of the Aniakchak. Coastal brown bears began to appear around every bend. We watched them scramble through thick willows high above the river to avoid getting too close to us. I spun my boat around just in time to catch a large brown ford the river minutes behind us. The more bears we spotted, the less we stopped. Besides, it was getting late, and a historic cannery turned public use cabin awaited us on the coast.

Winding Down

Our wild and crazy river that had emerged from the heart of an Aleutian volcano was quickly becoming part of the Pacific. Paddling into the stillwater of the lagoon, we began to pick up a gentle swell. Waves crashed on the beaches, and gulls fought over dead sockeye that had been brought to shore. The seals were also following the salmon and trailing us in curiosity. The Pacific bobbed in a gentle swell, and we paddled out around a rocky point to a cabin overlooking Aniakchak Bay. Our journey back would begin with a Cessna pickup on the beach and end late at night after flying on three different sized aircraft. Back at home in Anchorage, all the following week, I would look long in disbelief at the small river that flows out of a volcano in the lower left-hand corner of our wall-sized Alaska map.

BOTTOM LAYERTNF Trekking Pants7.6
BOTTOM LAYERPatagonia Lightweight Capilene Bottoms6.0
TOP LAYERPatagonia Long Sleeve Capilene 35.8
TOP LAYERPatagonia Capilene Tee3.6
BASE TOPMoving Comfort Sport Bra3.0
BASE BOTTOMPatagonia Hipsters0.8
SHELLMH Soft Shell14.8
INSULATION HATSmartwool Hat2.0
TOP LAYERMH Buttery Hoody10.4
RAIN PROTECTION TOPPatagonia Grade VI Jacket (S)10.0
RAIN PROTECTION PANTSSheri Tingey Paddle Pants (M)14.6
BOTTOM LAYERLufus Tights5.8
EXTRA BOTTOM LAYERPatagonia R4 Tights7.0
LINER SOCKHot Chili Liner Sock2.0
SOCKS FOR BEDSmartwool Hiking Socks4.2
BASE TOPMoving Comfort Sport Bra3.0
BASE BOTTOMPatagonia Hipster (x2)1.6
INSULATION TOPPatagonia Micro Puff Pullover11.2
INSULATION BOTTOMMontbell Down Pants6.0
SOCKSSmartwool Lightweight Ski Socks2.8
SHOESTeva Rodecker Water Shoes (W9.0)22.2
SHOE GAITERSOR Running Gaiters3.0
SLEEPING BAGMH Phantom 32 Sleeping Bag23.6
PILLOWBPL Inflatable Pillow1.2
COOKING SYSTEMCOOKING POTEvernew Titanium Pot w/ Sack (1.3L)5.2
STOVEMini Bull Design Atomic Stove1.6
CLEANING KITSponge and Soap1.0
WINDSCREENHomemade Aluminum Windscreen0.8
UTENSILSLight My Fire Spork 0.4
DISHWARE2 Cup Ziplock Container w/ Lid1.4
WATER BOTTLE2L Platypus1.2
PACKING SYSTEMPACKGolite Gust w/ straps (S)20.0
DAY BAGWxtex 15L6.2
PACK LINERSea to Summit 35L2.2
RAIN COVERSea to Summit Rain Cover (XS)2.2
PACKRAFTINGPACKRAFTAlpacka Yak w/ Spray Deck78.0
INFLATION BAGAlpacka Inflation Bag3.4
PADDLESAqua-Bound Manta Ray36.0
THROW BAGSHomemade 50' Dyneema Rope10.8
PFDExtrasport Rescue PFD w/ Knife38.2
HELMETBlack Diamond Half Dome13.0
TIE-DOWNS"3/4"" x 60"" (x2)"1.6
PADDLE LEASHScotty Paddle Leash1.8
FISHING GEARFLY RODTFO 9ft 4wt 4pc (x2) w/ Ultralight Case12.6
FLY REELTFO MKI Floating Line6.6
FLY BOXMorell Fly box w/ Assorted Wet Flies0.8
FLY BOXPlastic Container with Dry Flies0.2
ACCESSORIES"Gink, Forceps, Extra Leader, License"2.0
MISC. GEARSUNGLASSESNative Dash Sunglasses0.6
POLESREI Peak UL Carbon Trekking12.5
TOWELMSR Pack Towel Personal3.0
TOILETRIES"Tooth Brush, Tooth Paste, Personal Medication, Lip Balm, Mesh Bag"2.2
EMERGENCY KITFire Starter and Signal Mirror2.8
BEAR PROTECTIONCounter Assault Bear Deterrent11.4
SUN PROTECTIONPatagonia Airius Cap1.0
FUEL BOTTLE8oz Fuel Bottle w/ alcohol0.4
FUELalcohol (24 oz)23.2
FOOD1.2 lbs/day x 10 days12.0
Total Weight Breakdownozlbs
Total Weight (Worn/Carried)88.15.5
Total Base Pack Weight394.024.6
Consumables Weight38.62.4
Total Pack Weight432.627.0
Total Skin Out Weight520.732.5
BASE LAYER Patagonia Briefs3.4
TOP LAYERDuoFold Tee4.6
SHELLMH Soft Shell18.2
EXTRA CLOTHESTOP LAYERPatagonia Capilene Long Sleeve7.6
TOP LAYERDuoFold Long Sleeve Tee10.8
BOTTOM LAYERSmartwool Lightweight Bottoms7.6
BOTTOM LAYERPatagonia Tights8.6
BASE LAYER Patagonia Briefs3.4
SOCKSSmartwool Socks1.0
SOCKS FOR BEDThick Smartwool Hiking Socks2.4
RAIN PROTECTION TOPPatagonia Spector Pullover6.8
RAIN PROTECTION PANTSSheri Tingey Paddle Pants (L)15.2
INSULATION TOPPatagonia Micro Puff Pullover12.0
INSULATION BOTTOMMontbell Down Pants7.2
NEOPRENE GLOVEHydroskin Titanium (M)3.0
INSULATION HATWigwam Stocking Hat2.0
FOOTWEARSOCKSSmartwool Hiking Socks2.4
SHOESSalomon Amphibian Water Shoes (M8.5)23.4
SHOE GAITERSREI Running Gaiters3.8
SLEEPING BAGMH Phantom 32 Sleeping Bag22.4
PILLOWBPL Inflatable Pillow1.2
SHELTERTARPIntegral Design SilTarp 214.6
TENTStephenson Warmlite 2R44.2
STAKESAluminium Tent Stakes (11)11.0
DISHWARE2 Cup Ziplock Container w/ Lid1.4
WATER BOTTLE2L Platypus1.2
PACKING SYSTEMPACKGolite Gust Pack (M)20.0
PACK LINERSea to Summit 35L2.2
RAIN COVERSea to Summit Rain Cover (XS)2.2
PACKRAFTINGPACKRAFTAlpacka Yak w/ Spray Deck78.0
PADDLESAqua-Bound Manta Ray36.0
THROW BAGSHomemade 50' Dyneema Rope10.8
PFDLotus Design Whitewater PFD32.2
HELMETBlack Diamond Half Dome13.0
TIE-DOWNS"3/4"" x 60"" (x2)"1.6
PADDLE LEASHScotty Paddle Leash1.8
FLY BOXMorell Fly box w/ Assorted Wet Flies0.8
FLY BOXPlastic Container with Dry Flies0.2
ACCESSORIES"Gink, Forceps, Extra Leader, License"2.0
MISC. GEARSUNGLASSESSmith Empire Sunglasses0.6
POLESREI Peak UL Carbon Trekking12.5
SUN PROTECTIONPatagonia UL Cap 1.2
BUG PROTECTION"Sportsmen Max Repellant, Headnet, Bandana"3.8
FIRST AID KIT"Band-Aids, Floss, Hydropel, Tincture of Benzoin, Ibuprofen"5.6
REPAIR KIT"Duct Tape, Leatherman Micra Tool, Lighter, Patch Kit, Lighters, Compass, Safety Pins, 1/2"" Clamp, Ditty Sack"10.0
TOILETRIES"TP, Lighter, Wet Wipes"4.8
EMERGENCY KITFire Starter and Signal Mirror2.8
NOTEBOOK"""Rite in the Rain"" All-Weather Journal & Nalgene Marker Pen"1.0
BEAR PROTECTIONCounter Assault Bear Deterrent w/ case12.4
CONSUMABLESFOOD1.2 lbs/day x 10 days12.0
FUELalcohol (12 oz)11.6
SPIRITSFlask of Pendelton Whiskey (8 oz)11.2
Total Weight Breakdownozlbs
Total Weight (Worn/Carried)86.75.4
Total Base Pack Weight433.427.1
Consumables Weight47.23.0
Total Pack Weight480.630.0
Total Skin Out Weight567.335.5


"Aniakchak Adventure," by Matt Hage. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-05-12 00:05:00-06.


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Aniakchak Adventure
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Aniakchak Adventure on 05/12/2009 21:21:25 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Aniakchak Adventure

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Aniakchak Adventure on 05/12/2009 22:28:31 MDT Print View

What a great adventure story! I read the article twice to pick up every morsel and will probably read it again tomorrow.

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Great! on 05/12/2009 23:41:53 MDT Print View

Great read, Matt!
Gorgeous photos!

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Aniakchak Adventure on 05/13/2009 05:39:04 MDT Print View

THE BEST story i have read on BPL in a while!!! For those of us who understand how to boil water with our camp stoves, I was glad to see this article this morn.

Leif Hatlen
(pluboyz1) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
Great Story!! on 05/13/2009 10:17:53 MDT Print View

Great story, well written, and wonderful pictures!! Thank you for sharing!!

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Aniachak Adventure Gear Choices on 05/14/2009 09:34:09 MDT Print View


Have you ever had chunks break off your AB Manta Ray? It is not uncommon and didn't notice any paddle repair material in your kit except for possibly the 1/2" clamp; how is this used?

You carried a homemade 50' Dyneema throw rope. My experience is that this material sinks and tangles in the rocks during a WW rescue; have you considered a 1/4" polypropylene rope which is near the Dyneema weight but not the strength.

With the water temps you experienced water flushing during a swim could be quite incapacitating. I assume that Sheri’s paddling pants you wore had ankle gaskets. You rain jacket did not and would have allowed copious water flushing in a swim. A gasketed top would have dramatically lowered the cold water flush rate and would also serve as a rain jacket when hiking. Did you consider this option?

Have you tested your Sea to Summit 35L pack liner’s protection of your pack contents during a flip in rapids? I noticed Agnes carried a WxTex dry bag which my testing showed works perfectly in WW dumps.

The Bear Spray was in the Consumables total; in your environment that makes sense but what about UL lists in general?

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Daniel Lysko
(dannl) - MLife
Re: Aniakchak Adventure on 05/14/2009 16:24:15 MDT Print View

Wow, thanks for the great write up!

Matt Hage

Locale: Alaska
Re: Aniachak Adventure Gear Choices on 05/14/2009 17:27:58 MDT Print View

Alright Richard-lots of questions to answer here.

After five years using the Aqua Bound paddles, we've found them to be very durable for our purposes. We find them much more durable than the Sawyers. They are the right weight, durability and price for us. No paddle repair other than duct tape. Breaking a paddle on the Aniakchak would mean that you'd have to hike down to the lower river. And miss all the fun.

Our Dyneema cord has a neoprene sheath and floats well. Worked it hard in swiftwater rescue set-ups. We carry ltwt ascenders for rescue ops that would shred neoprene cord.

We determined that full-on paddle top would be overkill for the one day of whitewater. Much heavier to carry and we find the neck gasket can chafe (for ten-days continuous wear). We stayed dry, with bit of dampness creeping up our sleeves by days end.

Sea to Summit pack liners work great. We use a heavier WxTex bag for the easy-access bag for more durability. But came back with punctures in those bags.


Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Re: Aniachak Adventure Gear Choices on 05/14/2009 18:12:12 MDT Print View


Thanks for the comprehensive response.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Aniakchak Adventure on 05/14/2009 19:13:35 MDT Print View

Fantastic story


richard turner
(rjturner) - F
aniakchak on 05/16/2009 20:10:57 MDT Print View

Some years ago I spent three weeks in Aniakchak, one in the caldera, one hiking to the ocean, and the last week on the coast. I chose to backpack and not raft the river. In my opinion the river is not a particularly great choice, rocky, steep and brushy initially followed by a rather placid outrun to the ocean. However, for Alaska, it is almost ideal hiking terrain comprised mostly of volcanic pumice. Walking gave us a tremendous opportunity for wildlife viewing, and indeed there is much to see in this regard. The large bears are everywhere. We also saw wolves and caribou, including a very close encounter with a wolf who had fallen asleep on the tundra, allowing us to approach within feet before awakening. However,I am sorry to see this special place receive much publicity. When we visited we were the only people we saw except for a botanist and park ranger companion doing research in the caldera. The rest of the trip was pure solitude until we saw commercial fisherman on the coast. I hope it stays that way. Perhaps the cost of getting there will help protect it.

Andrew Wolff

Locale: Chattanooga
I wanna go now on 05/24/2009 21:39:36 MDT Print View

This is the best story I've seen in a while too... More please.

Joseph Schwartz
(craftsman) - F
consumables weight on 05/27/2009 13:36:35 MDT Print View

You list food as 1.2 lbs per day x 10 days, That figures out to 11.5 lbs pre day yet you list your consumables weight as 3.0 lbs. How does that work?

Kevin Goulding
(baha-kev) - MLife
Photographic Equipment on 06/19/2009 15:42:20 MDT Print View

Hi Matt-

Amazing photography and great story! Question: What camera/equipment setup did you bring? How was it waterproofed and/or accessible in the raft?