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Packrafting Aniakchak National Monument: The "Black and Blue" Variation

Updated: Aug 22, 2020


A vent within the Aniakchak caldera.

Why Aniakchak?: The Aniakchak River is a legendary Wild and Scenic River in a remote part of the Alaska Peninsula. The main draw of paddling this section is its unique setting. The river flows out of a lake nestled inside a caldera and then passes through steep volcanic walls as it breaches the crater and tumbles toward the Gulf of Alaska. While the paddling is a highlight, groups should prioritize spending time the crater and exploring the many vents and cinder cones.


Following game trails along Chignik Bay.

Why packraft?:

This route could be done as a kayak or raft trip, but packrafts dramatically reduce the cost and increase options for exploring the surrounding area. Charting a flight into the crater and then back from the mouth of the river is an option but is very expensive. Because the crater is known for its low visibility and creating its own weather, you will either need to be flexible with your dates or you might not have the weather window necessary to land. With a packraft, you can use the villages of Port Heiden or Chignik for access and egress which have regular flights from King Salmon at a much more reasonable price point.  


The character of the Aniakchak below the Gates: scenic and continuous class II-III.

“Black and Blue Loop”: While the Aniakchak is becoming a more popular packrafting destination, there are typically two primary ways parties complete the route. One option is to hike south along the coast towards Chignik while the other is to leave the Aniakchak early and paddle the Meshik towards Port Heiden.

I conceived of a new route in the spring of 2019. While the Aniakchak looked great, I wanted a trip where we would do some more paddling without sacrificing the beautiful coastal walking on the Gulf of Alaska. Named for likely first descents of Black and Blue Violet Creeks, the "Black and Blue Route" offers a new option that creates a loop route that does not miss the excellent costal scenery while adding some more paddling. We did this 115-mile loop over 10 days. We felt that we would have liked 1-2 days more given the boggy condition between the Meshik and Port Heiden took longer than expected.


A breakdown for considering route options. Our route was the "Black and Blue Variation" shown in the map below.


The Caldera: The caldera is an outright highlight of this trip and it is worth spending at least a full day exploring. While it is often shrouded in clouds, we were lucky enough to layover in the caldera during a clear day. With good visibility, hiking Vent Mountain offers a 360-degree views that give a good scale of the crater.

Exploring cinder cones within the caldera.

Hiking around crater rim of Vent Mountain.

Wildlife: Traveling in Aniakchak felt like a wildlife safari. It is not a question of if you will see bears but how many. Given the continuous pace of the river and the many blind corners, it seems wise to stow your bear spray in a spot where you could use it from your packraft. That being said, we only had one of our 16 bear sightings on the river with the majority of them happening along the coastal hike. Moose, caribou, and eagles are also prevalent.


A grizzly cruising the tidal flat. 1 of 16 that we saw along the route.

Difficulty: The Alaska Peninsula is a remote wilderness that tends to get hammered by weather converging from both the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. The point is, this trip gets a whole lot more taxing if it is wet, windy, and cold. As far as the paddling, the Aniakchak can be paddled by intermediate paddlers with class III experience. The Gates is an anomalous rapid that seems to be almost a full grade higher than anything else on the run (IV), so tentative class 3 paddlers will want to scout and portage. The rest of the run is primarily continuous class II+ with few eddies punctuated with the occasional class III boulder garden before the whitewater tapers off after Hidden Creek. As for the remainder of the paddling in the “Black and Blue” variation, Black Creek is class III+ micro-creeking with small slides and ledges (perhaps not paddleable late in the season or in a dry spell) while Blue Ivy and the Meshik range from swift class I to not so swift class I.  

Entering "The Gates" rapid as it exits the crater.

Looking up at "The Gates" rapid. The character of the Aniakchak continues like this for another quarter mile.

Small ledges characterize the upper part of Black Creek.

Logistics:

Flights- We chose to fly commercially with Alaska Airlines to King Salmon before flying with Grant Aviation.  By doing this we could purchase the King Salmon tickets with Alaska miles which made the trip much more affordable.  It is $250 dollars on Grant Air for a round trip from King Salmon to Port Heiden. Grant also serves the community through mail service and intermediate stops, so don't plan a tight connection in King Salmon as flights tend to not adhere to strict schedules.  

Flammables- Commercial flights, such as the Alaska Airline leg, prohibit high-risk items such as fuel, bear spray, or flares. We had no trouble shipping these things to Port Heiden from Anchorage a few days in advance with Lake Clark Air ($5 dollars per pound). Upon return, we left our excess white gas, bear spray, and flares with a guy at the airport who said he would leave them at the village council office for future backpackers. I bet lots of fuel and bear spray dead end in Port Heiden, so it is worth calling the village office and asking if they have any left over for use on your trip.

Pick-up- While some purists might want to walk the road from the airport, I am not one of them.  It was easy to get a ride out of town and expedite the start of the hike while saving yourself 5 miles of road walking.  Don’t worry, you can do it on the return trip.  


A moose crossing the Meshik River.



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