Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Valley

We arrived into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes this past Wednesday. Our journey took us from Brooks Camp through the low diversity/high density white spruce/cottonwood boreal forest of the Alaska Peninsula, across the treeless, marshy, sub-arctic tundra with its kettle ponds that told of past glaciations, and into the western foothills of the Aleutian Range and the “abomination and desolation” of our final destination.

I don’t know exactly how many people come to VTTS each year, but I know that I am extraordinarily lucky to be among their number. Better yet, I was getting paid to be here and would be expected, as part of my job as a Katmai NP interpreter, to act as guide to many summer visitors who were going to pay a lot of money to experience their own personal meanings in the geologic drama that is displayed so vividly at the Valley.

The plan was for our group of interpreters to hike 3 miles round trip from the unstaffed Three Forks visitor center to Ukak Falls and back, the same guided hike on which visitors will be taken, spend the night in or near (as is one’s preference) the visitor center, and then head back to Brooks Camp Thursday morning on the narrow 22-mile gravel highway that is the only maintained road in the nearly 5 million acres of the park.

As we drove the Valley road we forded the river three times and paused at two places where we would be stopping with visitors. Mike (lived in King Salmon during the winter) offered us assistance on talking points so that we each might be able to formulate in our own minds an outline of what we would talk about at each stop. At Margot Creek Falls (we didn’t walk to the falls) there is a restroom (first things first!) and a ‘bear mark” with its huge footprints and a rubbing tree where the bears mark their territory and scratch their backs. We were experiencing a rare sunny day and so had exceptional views into Research Bay of Naknek Lake, Iliuk Arm, Mt. Katolinat (we would basically circle around its base - its many perspectives became our reference points), and distant vistas. I will never know the names of all the peaks in the area, but will only be able to learn the most distinctive and famous. There are so many mountain peaks in Alaska that most remain unnamed, particularly in the vastness of the wilderness areas.

Kettle Ponds and First View of VTTS

In southwestern Alaska, evidence abounds of the sculpting power of past glaciers. From our first stop at Margot Creek we observed the ever-present U-shaped valleys, formed as the massive moving river of glacial ice, thousands of feet thick, scoured and battered its interminable way down from its source to its own terminus; at our second stop were kettle ponds, where huge blocks of ice had dropped from the glacier and eventually melted in place inside a ring of glacial sediment or till dropped as the glacier retreated, leaving the till and melted block of ice together in their present reincarnation as the kettle pond. The ponds were in the tundra, on a low divide somewhere between the two drainages of Margot Creek and the Ukak River. There were moose, swans, and beaver ponds, and we got our first glimpse of the distant Valley.

Before the volcanic eruption of 1912, the largest in the world of the 20th century, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes had been lush, green tundra with another name (I think it was called Knife Creek Valley), much like the tundra which was presenting itself before us now. But on June 9, 1912, after almost 3 days of relentlessly explosive volcanic activity, the Plinian eruption (very gas-rich and explosive) finished its venting, the intense activity ceased, the magma chamber beneath Mt. Katmai and Novarupta had emptied (for the time being, anyway), and the landscape was changed forever.

There is so much I could describe here – ash dunes constantly shifting, rivers blasting their way off snow-covered mountains and carving sinuous paths through hundred-foot cliffs of rhyolite ash, fossil fumaroles, the contact between the pyroclastic ash flow and the bedrock of the Naknek Formation, the wind screaming its way across the Valley, wolf and moose and bear prints, the beauty and desolation of it all. For now, I am able only to offer a few photos but hope that these will suffice temporarily, and I sincerely hope that your imagination can bring you to this place where I have been and to which I trust we can all, in one shape or form, return this summer.

So we followed Mike along the trail, 800 feet down into the Valley. Again he stopped often so as to give us ideas and encouragement in outlining our own ideas for our guided hikes. Before we got to the falls we decided on a ½ mile detour to the Confluence, where Windy Creek, River Lethe, and Knife Creek all come together to form the Ukak River which ultimately carries its high-energy sediment load into braided streams that drain into the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. Here were rhyolite ash cliffs 20-30 feet high at least, the ash-silty waters roaring below us. The wind was screaming and I felt really sorry for all the contact lens wearers in the group (been there, done that). I was chewing on grit by this time but was nearly delirious to be at that place.


Ukak Falls carves through the ash and underlying bedrock of the Late Jurassic Naknek Formation (about 160-146 million years old). Here were the famously-abundant hard-shelled fossils of Buchia pelecypods (clam-like critters). I also spotted some straight-shelled ammonite casts scattered about in the bedrock. When I pointed these out to my fellow interpreters they became excited about being able to recognize something previously unknown to them. The Naknek Formation is the oldest rock unit exposed in the eastern part of Katmai and tells a story of inundation of the Katmai region by a progressively deepening ocean. I have as my constant companion “The Geology of Katmai National Park and Preserve” by Jim Riehle, from which much of my geologic knowledge of the area has enthusiastically been obtained.

I moseyed back to the visitor center on my own, lost in thought about what I had seen and done but also singing and carrying on a conversation with myself out loud (Nothing new here! There go those voices in my head again.) and looking around –this is bear country. There was no rush, after all.

We had our Park-supplied carbo-loading dinner of couscous and tortellini cooked over the Coleman stove as the late evening sub-arctic sun began to cast shadows on Mts. Griggs, Katmai, Mageik, and so many other named and nameless peaks of the Aleutian Range. I set up my “nest” in a corner of the floor away from the card-players and settled down to read for a while until I fell asleep. I have gotten pretty good at sleeping during daylight hours which seem to (and really do) last forever in these Alaskan summer days. Phil and Kent slept outside on the deck and in the morning I asked them if they had seen any stars, particularly the Northern Star, during the night. They said they had seen one or two measly stars but that was about it.

They both related how the night never really got dark, even for a few hours. It helped to picture in our minds eye the outline of a circle representing the orbit of the sun in the sky. We imagined this circle-outline at a right angle to the horizon such that just a very little portion of the circle-outline is hidden beneath the horizon. Kind of like when the sun is just setting over the ocean there is a small piece of the sun below the horizon. That is what the night is like at this time of the year in Alaska. Dusk is present from sunset until sunrise – the sun rises early, goes up high in the sky and then sets late. It never really gets dark, even when the sun is below the horizon for that short time. I have long known that high-latitude daylight has to do with the angle of the Earth during the different seasons, but I’ve always had a good bit of difficulty conceptualizing this until the other night at Three Forks visitor center. And so it follows that during winter, the circle is flipped so that the majority of that same circle is below the horizon.

Thanks, Alaska. I owe you one.

VTTS with Knife Creek Glacier







  2. Hmmmmmmm...
    But I can't abandon my mapping project in the Beaver Dams!
    What to do, what to do...