Going To the Least Visited Site in the National Park Service
Updated: Jun 13
"The weather is good enough today, but we don't have any planes..."
Nearly a year ago, I began making plans for how to tackle Alaska's 23 sites. More than any other state, I knew this one had the power to break this trip. But as one Alaska Ranger told me, "We won't let Alaska break you!" So I'm writing this to thank you for your prayers, your donations, and your well-wishes, because they've been working! This past week I woke up in Brooks Camp (Katmai NP&P) every morning and was told "Today's Aniakchak day!"
I'd jump out of bed, gather my "Go Bag" (akin to if you're 9 months pregnant, except with perhaps less GoPros) and wait for "The Moment" when myself and 3 compatriots would gather our belongings and run to meet a bush plane to fly an hour to the least visited park in the National Park System (with fewer visitors each year than scale MOUNT EVEREST): Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve To get there, one must get to Anchorage, then fly to King Salmon, then general wisdom says to build in 4-7 days to wait for weather to be good enough in 3 places (your departure point, an hour's worth of Aluetian Range land, and the park itself) to fly to the ancient exploded crater of Aniakchak. I had just 3.5 days. And not to stay in King Salmon, as is best advised to be near the bush planes. But to be a 30-minute bush plane ride away in Brooks Camp, Katmai NP: a place with no public phone service or WiFi. But your good vibes have made their way to Alaska... Because I did have a friendly Ranger who was 1 of the 4 people interested in flying to Aniakchak. And he had communication capabilities in Brooks. So every day he'd check in with Katmai Air, and they'd say "We think we can today!" Then every hour an update: "Not good enough weather. Not good enough weather..." For 2 days we waited on this news until Day 3: "The weather is good enough, but we don't have any planes..." Katmai Air was so busy with the influx of passengers to Brooks hoping to view the Peak Days of bears, that they didn't have a plane to take us. But my Ranger friend had access to email and a phone! So we contacted Branch Air, who came to Brooks Camp, picked us up, and said, "We'll fly there. But we can't guarantee we can go in the actual crater. Or land. Or maybe even get all the way there. Do you have a credit card to pay before we depart?" 1 hour later I stared at a blanket of low-laying clouds that would keep us from entering the Aniakchak crater, and lamented for dragging 3 others along on this failed mission...
And then it appeared. The Gates of Aniakchak. The one spot where the crater had been burst open by enough water to drain the Mississippi River in 6 hours, and left a section that now drained a river to the ocean. This V-shaped window appeared and left just enough space under the cloud layer that we were able to enter, and after a few circles to evaluate the lake, land in the crater. "That's the first time I've ever successfully done that," said Jeff the pilot upon our touchdown at Suprise Lake. Surprise! And with that, I've made it to the Least Visited site in the National Park Service.
Watch the whole experience below...