Backpacking in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, part 2

Aug 21, 2021 | 0 comments

I woke up freezing, early in the morning as the sun was beginning to rise, and then fell back to sleep. When I woke again hours later, it was warmer but much windier. We heard the other crew of hikers heading out, and waved goodbye from our tent.

We discussed whether we wanted to try to make it all the way to Novarupta that day. It was late morning and we’d have to complete more mileage than the day before, and even more tomorrow. We considered the rapidly changing weather conditions, how wet our gear still was, and our food and fuel situation (we were both far hungrier than I’d anticipated!). With these factors in mind, we decided to use our time to explore around Six Mile for a while, and then head back to the Three Forks visitor center and sleep there for the night instead.

Once I was up and moving, the cold and the wind didn’t seem quite as bad. I started water boiling on the backpacking stove down by the creek while Asa packed up our things in the tent.

Breakfast was lukewarm oatmeal that we devoured out of a shared pot, packed with nuts, dried dates, apricots, and cinnamon. Normally I hate oatmeal, but I was starving.

After breakfast, we made our own way across the ignimbrite around Six Mile for a while, taking pictures and marveling at the ever-changing views as the clouds came and went, low across the valley. We found spots where old fumeroles used to be right after the volcano erupted in 1912, and so many strange and fascinating rock piles and formations.  All the while, the River Lethe tore through the landscape with violent force at the bottom of its own little forming canyon. 

Eventually we decided to head back to Three Forks. The alder thickets felt shorter on the way back, but the trek across the open ignimbrite felt longer. My body ached, and I was hungry. Asa was patient and kind as always in his quiet, loving way, so I did my best not to let my spirits drop too low as I watched the dot of the visitor center on the distant horizon staying the same size for what seemed like hours. 

Eventually, we made it back to Windy Creek, took off our boots, rolled up our pants, and crossed back over through the chilly current. The water level seemed lower than the day before. We stopped on the other side to filter a bunch of water to last us through the next day, since I knew there wouldn’t be any at Three Forks. This made my pack considerably heavier, but I knew it was only for another couple miles at this point. 

The climb back up the hill through the willows and cow parsnip felt so very long, but we finally made it back to the road, and then up the road another half mile or so to the visitor center.

We were able to stash our food and gear in the radio room of the building, made dinner out back amongst swarms of biting mosquitoes and white socks, and then found a nice flat spot to pitch our tent, hidden away from the visitor center parking lot.

The next day we slept in, luxuriously cozy in our tent, and then spent our afternoon hiking down to Ukak Falls, where I was able to show Asa the route that I take visitors on every week for work. It was a strange feeling, like two worlds colliding–my park ranger life, and my home life. I will say, after hiking across the edge of the valley the last two days, the Ukak Falls trail felt like a piece of cake!

We made it back to our rendezvous point by 5:30 to meet our ride, and cooked a pot of backpacker chili, the last of our food, with the last of our stove fuel, on the side of the road while we waited for the other hikers to return. I was quite relieved to see them when they got back around 6:15, since I had no idea what we’d do if they didn’t show up! The crew chowed down on snacks in the car on the ride back, regaled us with stories of their adventures (unlike us, they did make it to Novarupta and Blue Lake), and talked about all the food they were going to eat when they got back to camp. Although I think Asa and I were a little bummed we didn’t make it to our destination, I think we were also both very satisfied with the experience we had.

Once we were back at my cabin that evening, reality hit that it was Asa’s last night in Katmai. It still felt like we had so much to talk about, and so many things to process, and so little time left. We spent many hours that night talking things through, trying to make the most of our last few hours we had together before falling asleep.

The next morning passed quickly. We walked back out to the falls one last time, and then to camp to check on Asa’s flight. They ended up boarding him early, since all the passengers had arrived on time. He was ushered onto the plane so quickly I don’t think I even had a chance to say goodbye! They taxied out onto the lake for a long time before finally taking off at the distant tip of the peninsula, into the cloudy sky. I suppressed the swirl of emotions rising inside me and walked back to my cabin alone, filled with an empty silence, the kind of silence that is so profound, you don’t want anyone to break it.

Everything felt kind of surreal for a while after Asa left. The experience of getting to spend this time with him in this place that had felt so much like mine over the last few months was very strange. And in some ways, it felt like a sense of closure: my two worlds had indeed collided, and in doing so, they found a way to fit together.

Backpacking in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes with my person was such a dream come true. I hardly allowed myself to imagine we could actually pull it off with the tricky logistics of just getting ourselves out there, and being prepared enough for what we were to encounter with such limited resources, but somehow it all came together. I couldn’t be more grateful for all the people who helped us figure it all out. The valley is truly a magical place.


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