I was fortunate to win another coveted permit to the McNeil River Bear sanctuary, and flew directly there from Homer this time. After six days there, John and Suzanne Mingo were flying to Brooks Camp so I hitchhiked over there with them and spent a week backpacking in the Valley of 10,000 smokes. I was told that that only about 50 people a year brave the Valley, the conditions can be so treacherous, and they were when I was there. As happened one when I was there, strong wind storms called willawaws suddenly appear a few miles down the valley, picking the ash on the valley floor giving them the appearance of tornadoes. You can walk through them, but every so slowly, leaning forward so you are not blown over, The 80 pounds I carried on my back helped keep me grounded. You cannot pitch a tent on the valley floor, so you have to find refuge for the night in the small coves off the side of the valley. But these coves are almost 1000 feet off the valley floor as the result of a century of williwaws tossing the ash up against the mountains to the side of the valley.
The willawaws aren't the only damage, however. Crossing the several glacier-fed rivers that cut through the valley can be dangerous or troublesome for several reasons. First, you may have to wait several days for the swollen rivers to subside, after changing overnight from a crossable river to a torrent, with no other means of exit. Second, in wading across the river, you have to watch you step very carefully, especially because of how swift the water is flowing. One misstep, and you go down, and if you don't recover quickly, you can be swept down river and into one of the chutes, which would mean sudden death, as happened to one hapless soul decades ago. Third, although I did not experience one, occasionally large chunks of ice break off from the glaciers and travel down river. You do not want to be in their way when crossing the river. Finally, the river bed in the valley is made up of ash, and when he take a step, you could sink up to your knees in what feels like quicksand. This happened to me once on this solo 1993 trip, but I was able to extricate myself with a walking stick someone gave me as a started my journey into the Valley on his way out.
The real thrills of a trek into the Valley involve camping in the valley itself, when you can find a cove to bivouac in for the night, and climbing Novarupta, the site of the 1912 volcano eruption itself, on the lower side of Mount Katmai, both of which I did on this first trip., However, most hikers seem to head straight for the geologist's cabin on Baked Mountain, which I did, too, and camp out there. It is not exactly the Ritz but given the alternatives, it might as well me. since the Valley is devoid of any insect and animal life, not to mention people, you can stand outside the cabin on a windless day and hear absolutely nothing. Pure silence.
At the exact moment I started my trek into the Valley about 3pm on this first trip, I was alone in the Valley. I learned before I left for the trip that at that exact moment, the Discovery Channel was going to be airing a new documentary on Katmai and the Valley. It was an odd feeling knowing that tens of thousands of people were attaching that show when I was the only one in the valley at the time.