The Aniakchak River in the Alaska Peninsula may be the most fascinating river trip we offer. The river is in a very remote region of Alaska with extreme conditions. This trip is recommended for hardy travelers. After an  hour charter flight from the town of King Salmon, you land in  the crater of an active volcano on the most beautiful emerald-green lake you can imagine. The crater floor reminds some of Ngoro Ngoro in Africa - abundant wildlife that seldom leaves the crater and lush, grassy meadows surrounding cinder cones, steam vents and carbonate springs. The crater is a fascinating place to explore and offers days of fantastic hiking. Vent Mountain, the highest point in the caldera rises 2,200 feet above the valley floor and makes for a great day hike and magnificent views. The fishing is good at the mouth of the river for char and for sockeye salmon that swim all the way up into the lake from the Gulf of Alaska in late July and August. Wildlife in the crater includes caribou, brown bears, wolves, wolverines and foxes. It seems improbable that so much wildlife would live in this extreme environment, but here they thrive.

Aniakchak volcano rose to a height of 7,000 feet until an eruption 3,500 years ago caused it to collapse in on itself. The result was a massive caldera 6 miles across and completely enclosed. The caldera filled with water  over time forming a lake  similar to Oregonís  Crater Lake. About  2,000 years ago, the crater rim collapsed and  the water escaped through the V-shaped notch now known as The Gates. Surprise Lake is all that is left of this once huge lake. The caldera became an oasis of rich plant and animal life that early explorers described as a paradise. In 1931, Vent Mountain erupted in a cataclysmic blast that destroyed all plant and animal life within the caldera. The lake turned black, molten lava covered the floor of the caldera, sulfur fumes filled the air and the ground for miles around was covered with thick volcanic ash. Paradise had turned to hell. The caldera is slowly returning to normal. Lichens, grasses and flowering plants have begun to grow in the rich volcanic ash and birds and mammals have followed.

This float trip can be done in 3 days with a day at the front and back end, but I always recommend at least 7 days to insure time for hiking and weather days. The big unknown, and perhaps the biggest factor, in planning a trip to Aniakchak is the weather. We could  spend 3 days in King Salmon waiting to fly in and we could wait 3  days on the coast for a pick up. The caldera is typically cloud covered and windy making it difficult for planes to come in over the crater rim or come through the high and narrow Gates. When the weather is good in King Salmon it may be socked in at Aniakchak and the pilots have no one to call for a weather report. We may fly 90 minutes to the caldera only to turn around and fly 90 minutes back and try another day. Once on the trip, the weather is always unpredictable and often extreme. In a time span of one hour from our camp in the crater, I have seen snow, fog, rain, hail, warm sun and blue sky and always the wind.

Bears are another risk as this region is prime habitat. The river appears to have the same bear population as the Alagnak. The brown bears here are numerous and can be huge but strangely not often seen. We always see plenty of bear signs all along the river - fresh tracks and scat everywhere. When we land on shore we often see steaming scat and half eaten salmon still flopping on the beach but not too many bears. They were always close by, but they definitely avoided us. I think because this river receives so few visitors the bears have a healthy respect for people.

The float trip starts from our camp on the lower lake near the river mouth. After a mile of flat water, the current increases dramatically as the river begins it decent through The Gates. Here it forms its first large rapid rated as class 4. This rapid is dangerous because of the large and jagged volcanic bombs that dropped into the river after the last eruption. The river has not yet had time to erode these large blocks of stone or channel around them. We will carefully line the boats through these rapids and portage the large gear along the canyon wall. For the next 15 miles, the river forms numerous class 2, 3 and, at higher water levels, class 4 whitewater rapids. Some of these falls are quite challenging to maneuver through, but all are exciting. One very swift rapid is constricted within a narrow gorge (a canal really) of basaltic columns causing boats to be bounced from wall to wall like a pinball. Every bounce off the canyon wall threatens to rip a hole in the boat tubes. Fortunately, the river gives you breaks just when you need them to pull out and tighten up, strap down or repair. The landscape surrounding this stretch of river is magnificent and the camping is fine. The open tundra and ash-covered terrain allow beautiful views of the caldera and the surrounding mountains. Numerous streams and springs flow into the river, and the riverbanks and tundra hills are covered in wild flowers. Hiking from the river anywhere along here is very good.

 

The river leaves the mountainous terrain just beyond the boundaries of Aniakchak National Monument and immediately the current decreases to class 1. At this point an interesting option is to portage over a small pass to Meshik Lake and run the Meshik River to the  Bering Sea. This  makes for a truly epic adventure but easily  triples the logistical problems. For those continuing on, the river enters a broad, willow-covered valley as it braids and meanders for the next 17 miles to the sea. The river slows considerably for the last few miles as it rounds Cape horn and enters Aniakchak Bay. Headwinds and an incoming tide can make this last mile rough and slow going as we make our way into the surf and look for a camp site on the beach. The weather can be windy and rainy in the bay, but the coastline is beautiful and the wildlife such as sea lions and sea birds can be impressive.

 

RIVER DATA: Floating distance 36 miles. Minimum 5 days.

 

ROUTE: From Anchorage, the first leg of the trip will be a commercial flight by jet or commuter prop plane to the town of  King Salmon 200 miles SW of Anchorage. In King Salmon we will charter DeHavilland Beavers or Otters that will take off from the Naknek River to fly to Surprise Lake after an hour and a half long flight across the open tundra of the Alaska Peninsula. The next few days will be spent hiking the caldera floor before we set off down the lake to the river mouth a few miles below. After 4 to 5 days on the river we will reach the Pacific Coast. Our pickup will be by beaver or otter at Aniakchak Bay then a charter flight 2 hours back to King Salmon.  For the Meshik option, pickup will be in Port Heiden by wheeled aircraft.

 

WEATHER: Summer weather in the southern part of the Alaska Peninsula is cooler and windier than the rest of the Peninsula. Temperature may range from as high as 70 degrees on calm, sunny days to the mid 40s F on cloudy days. Beginning in mid to late August you can expect freezing temperatures on clear, calm nights warming to the low 60s the following day. By mid September, daytime temperatures can dip to near freezing and snow can be expected anytime. This region receives 30 to 35 inches of precipitation annually spread evenly throughout the year. In the summer, August and September are the rainier months. Storms are powerful and can blow up at anytime. In the caldera or on the river, the wind can come up quickly and blow ferociously. Sustained winds reaching 100 mph are not uncommon. When fronts come through or pressure cells collide between the cold Bering Sea and the warmer Pacific Ocean, the wind blows and is magnified by the venturi effect of the Aleutian Mountain passes.

 

Aniakchak Trip Slide Show