Sunday, August 22, 2010

"My Pants Melted!"

Minnesota Sue is now on her way back home via Anchorage with a side trip to Prince William Sound. What a great visit that was! We geologized ourselves nearly into a frenzy for a week while we hiked or lounged about; we salmon-watched and we peered at bears, we kayaked and drank wine and beer and hot chocolate and diet coke and played lots and lots of cards. We lobbed tons of pumice! And we did most of this in the rain, of course. This has been, after all, summer in Alaska.
What we did not do was get to Novarupta.

It wasn’t that we weren’t prepared to go. I would have to say that we were too prepared, if anything. Or perhaps over-prepared would be a better description of our condition. I’m sure you backpackers out there know exactly what I am talking about when I say this.

There was also that bleepingly unpredictable weather.

The Sunday afternoon that Minnesota Sue arrived by floatplane (which is a totally cool way to arrive anywhere with a lake) we just took it easy. We moseyed about and I showed her the hot spots at Brooks Camp (my cabin, the Falls, the bar at the lodge), trying somewhat unsuccessfully to orient her to the cardinal directions - but she still insisted that East was North. It was probably best that she hadn’t flown the plane. That night after dinner we attacked our backpacks. Of course, we attacked them accompanied by a large supply of wine nearby. We did pretty much everything accompanied by a large supply of wine nearby.

Minnesota Sue at Brooks Falls

Our plan was to pack, then empty everything out and cut it all by half, cut that by half, and cut again, until we got down to a reasonable enough weight that we thought we could carry (“Hey, don’t these things get lighter as you eat the food?” “How many hats does one person really need?”). Well, things got squirrelly when we had to decide between 4 cans of Diet Coke (“One for each day!”) and 5 of those cute little boxes of wine that hold 3 glasses worth each (“We’ll need to celebrate getting out there!”). We almost came to blows. I just didn’t see the need to carry all that carbonated cola beverage. Plus, aren’t grapes an antioxidant which is good for health on the trail? Oh wait – that’s blueberries.

So we jettisoned all the coke and wine and packed only tea and hot chocolate. I still can’t believe it. I am getting sooo old.

But the nightmare of it all was those stupid bear-resistant food containers. Yes, the containers are stupid. And you have to carry your food in one when going into the backcountry in Katmai. But we had two (for reasons that will remain unknown to the rest of the world) and they weigh half-a-ton each (I do not know off-hand what a ton converts to in kilograms, for our metrically-inclined friends).

We went to bed that night secure in the knowledge that our packs were appropriately packed - if we were being transported across Siberia by elephant.

Monday morning dawned. We looked at our packs and groaned. We lifted our packs and really groaned. So we decided to ignore the entire mess and hope it would go away. We went out to lob some pumice and then have breakfast at the lodge where we drank gallons of coffee and diet coke and ate specially-prepared for me (Really! I know the breakfast chef!) bacon-mushroom-swiss cheese quiche and fruit and muffins. Afterward, we went back to my cabin and did the best we could with those packs, but in Alaska, with its unpredictable weather, you have to be prepared for a lot of surprises. How much spare dry clothing do you bring when it rains all the time? We didn’t need to carry much water at first because we could get it along the way – but there is none at the USGS hut so water for nearly 2 days (and how much is that?) ultimately had to be carried for a few miles from the spring. Food? Sue had bought some “backpacker’s dinners” and granola breakfasts, which seemed reasonable enough, but then there was lunch for 4 days, and snacks. You’d think after this many years of trying to get it right about packing the right amount of food and clothing, that I would finally get it right. This time, I just didn’t think of the peanut-butter-and-tortilla combo to last us the 4 days. Plus I like dry socks.

And then there was the tent. Mine is not bad for 2 people – it weighs around 4 pounds (2.2 pounds/Kg for those folks of the metric persuasion). If we thought we were going to get to the hut (10 miles from the Three Forks visitor center) without anything going wrong then we wouldn’t need a tent. But this is Alaska, and something could always go wrong. So you go prepared, and bring a tent.

The sun actually came out for a while

Finally Monday evening we were ready to depart for Three Forks visitor center where we would spend the night and hopefully get a fresh start early in the morning. Kent drove us out along the 23-mile road (we stopped at Margot Falls to check out any salmon there) and soon we were heaving our packs out of the Excursion and into the vc.

Before long we were joined by 4 very friendly youngish travelers from Holland who had been in the Valley the previous night and had a story to tell about gale-force winds coming down the Buttress Range at 1:00 in the morning at the 6-mile campsite where they had pitched their tents. It had been a perfectly lovely evening as they watched the sunset on the mountains and sipped their rum, but in the middle of the night all hell had broken loose and the 50+ mph winds (multiply by 1.6 for kilometers?) and rain raged around and blew down one (or more?) of their tents and snapped some of their tent poles.

I glanced at Sue. This definitely wasn’t good weather news. We chatted a while longer with the 4 very friendly youngish travelers from Holland who had been in the Valley the previous night, and then they went back to sleep in the small room they had come out of earlier. Sue and I stayed up bit longer to play a game of rummy as the light faded from the Valley.

I never do sleep very well on the floor, and so even though I had my brand-new
Big Agnes sleeping pad I had been restlessly dozing. The rain was pounding the metal roof and the wind was blowing like a fiend for the second night in a row – it was a wonder that the roof stayed on the building. I had apparently drifted off, though, and was dreaming of serious doubts about any lengthy hike in my near future, when I heard a loud whisper.
“Hey, Nina!”
“Do you smell anything?”
(sniff sniff)
“It smells like toast!”
“What are those guys cooking back there at 2:00 in the morning?”
(rustling about for head lamps)
“Is Novarupta exploding???”
(both get up, stagger around in the dimly-lit darkness, trying not to bump our heads on the interpretive displays and rolling relief map)
“Oh jeez – my pants melted!!!



  1. To be exact: the wind blew down both our tents, but one out of two somehow survived and only had a bend tent pole. And to prevent more damage we had to move the 1,5 tent into the bushes on the side of the canyon to make it through the night.

    Except for the night, I really loved the Valley though. It is beautiful (and windy). Enjoy your stay at Katmai!

    Greetings from the Netherlands,

  2. Hi Robin! Good to hear from you and get the proper story on your tents. Details were certainly all a bit hazy, with that wind and the melted pants and all. What a crazy night that was!

    I am planning to get out to Novarupta next week, after all, before I leave Katmai - details to follow! Not going alone so that's good.