A Lost Coast adventure usually begins with a bush-plane flight. // © 2016 Christopher Batin
Feature image (above): Aniakchak Caldera is one of Alaska’s most unique destinations for adventure. // © 2016 M. Williams
The path to an Alaska wilderness adventure isn’t found on marked hiking trails or groomed campsites. True explorers go for the gusto and embrace treks that follow bear and caribou trails, winding riverbanks, mountain ridgebacks and wilderness shorelines. Driving to a trailhead is heresy. After a bush-plane flight across miles of roadless wilderness, an Alaska trek begins wherever the pilot lands. Alaska explorers are much like raindrops falling into the sea; once merged, body and wilderness become one.
I’ve spent my life indulging in remote treks throughout Alaska. My three favorite rise above the customary and traditional group explorations and are catalysts for life-changing experiences.
Aniakchak Caldera Fly/Hike/Float
It’s hard not to be moved by the sight of the eerie, apocalyptic countenance of Aniakchak Caldera as it comes into view through the coastal fog. A volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago on the Alaska Peninsula created Aniakchak’s 6-mile-wide, 3,000-foot-high caldera. Imagine a page from Dante’s “Inferno,” with explosion pits, hot springs and smoldering domes. Notorious for its hostile weather, the area is a melting pot of opposing weather systems that swap gale-force storms like prizefighters exchanging uppercuts.
Bush planes land near sapphire-blue Surprise Lake in the caldera basin. The lake is home to spawning sockeye salmon that enter through a river in the caldera’s wall. The river is an artery that brings life to this desolate place, while the lake provides water for the caribou, moose, wolves and brown bears that travel across the caldera.
Michael Wald, co-owner of Arctic Wild, knows the many secrets of exploring Aniakchak.
“Aniakchak is a timeless landscape, and the least-visited unit in the National Park System,” Wald said. “A fly-in trip is doable by 99 percent of explorers and allows them to enjoy the heart of the wilderness without a physically demanding expedition-style approach.”
After a few days of caldera exploration, the adventure continues down Aniakchak River, with a portage around a stretch of Class IV whitewater rapids, and by floating 36 miles via pack raft to the Gulf of Alaska. There, against pounding surf, adventurers find a landscape full of bears, caribou and marine mammals.
Lost Coast Trekking
Alaska’s Lost Coast stretches from near Icy Bay to Katalla. “Lost” best describes the coast’s white, sandy beaches that stretch to the horizon, with temperatures in the low 80s and not a single person to be seen swimming, surfing or sunbathing.
The Lost Coast offers diverse wildlife, including whales breaching off the coast and eagles and foxes gorging on thousands of migrating salmon. All this is set against the backdrop of the iron skeletons of shipwrecked boats, weathered from decades of pounding sand and surf.
Lost Coast trekking is exhausting — not necessarily physically, but mentally, from the abundance of sights to explore.
“It’s an adventure with few, if any, other hikers along its shores,” said Steve Ranney, a pilot with Orca Adventure Lodge who flies the Lost Coast. “It’s a combination of beach walking and hiking old bear trails worn 2 feet deep into the forest moss — or watching streams fill with salmon on the tide.”
I’ve walked sections of this 120-mile coastline dozens of times and covered fewer than 12 miles in a week because the rituals of the trek are important to me. I enjoy poking at driftwood log campfires against a rock cliff as seals — that have never seen humans — stare at me curiously while bobbing like corks in the turbulent surf. I have spent hours in the rainforest fringe devouring scrumptious wild blueberries and huckleberries. I have eased into adjacent meadows to watch blacktail deer graze on wildflowers, and I have scurried up ridgelines to take in the panoramic view of massive, coastal glaciers. It’s a good idea to leave room in a backpack for beachcombing treasures that may just become keepsakes for a lifetime.
Katmai Volcanic Treks
Katmai National Park offers a stark yet beautiful landscape created by the Novarupta eruption of 1912, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
Katmailand, the operator of the park’s concessions, offers a variety of guided treks. While I have found these enjoyable, I generally prefer individual exploration with a pilot or guide who transports me on treks of my own design. Over the years, I have watched massive caribou migrations and hiked atop massive ash floes sliced by churning whitewater canyons. I’ve stared down an old bear with a snout covered in scars and I have watched a fox drag a salmon out of the stream by its tail.
It’s also a place of mirth — where clients might want to stop and take a selfie of themselves lifting a bowling-ball-size pumice boulder with only three fingers.
Rough-and-tumble exploration aside, Jon Kent of Painter Creek Lodge offers a comfortable, meals-and-lodging base camp, along with a range of daily custom fly-outs and trekking options that explore the many wonders of Katmai and its adjacent wilderness. Kent has more than 30 years of experience in the area and is a regional expert when it comes to hiking and exploring.
Your adventurous clients might be tempted to search for a unique experience in some far-flung part of the world, but the fact is, Alaska offers plenty of opportunity to get into the wild — no passport needed.