A Volcanic Wilderness
Midway down the wild, remote, and mostly roadless Alaska Peninsula lies one of the nation's most fascinating recent volcanic features. Aniakchak is a large caldera formed by the collapse of a 7,000-foot volcanic mountain. Set inland in a place of frequent clouds and fierce storms, Aniakchak was unknown to all but area Natives until the 1920s, when geographers remotely plotting mountains along the caldera rim noticed that they formed a circle. In 1922, a geology field party gazed into the caldera itself and brought back news of its immense size. Maps and diagrams help tell the volcanic story on the other side of this brochure.
This narrow stretch of the Alaska Peninsula boasts a rich human story, but its spacious promise of solitude also suggests: "Here is the world as it was." Volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis have interrupted the human story, even burying it under volcanic ash. Yet the land abides as a wild place where humans can sense not just independence but interdependencekinship, evenwith the whole of the natural world. Here are brown/grizzly bears, moose, and caribou; sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals; and geese, swans, and other waterfowl. Life has persisted here in the face of world-class catastrophic change.
Catastrophic Change and Slow Regrowth
Aniakchak's most recent volcanic activity, in 1931, cast thousands of tons of ash in the caldera up to 40 miles away over small villages. (The blast was a mere blip on the radar compared to the caldera-creating blast 3,700 years ago.) Fortunately, the caldera was documented in 1930 and again just after the blast by the geologist and Jesuit priest Father Bernard Hubbard. His photos and descriptions help us judge how long plants will take to recover in the devastated caldera.
Plants now grow in sheltered spots and near Surprise Lake and its outlet. Brown bears and caribou are back. The sockeye salmon run up the Aniakchak River into Surprise Lake in the caldera to spawn, as they have for perhaps 2,000 years, since the caldera wall was breached and gave them entry.
West of the caldera, Bristol Bay's coastal plain is habitat for waterfowl and migratory birds. To the east, rugged bays and inlets of the Pacific coast and offshore islands are habitat for sea mammals and seabirds.
Congress created the national monument and the national preserve in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, one of the most far-reaching conservation laws of the 1900s.
Recognizing its outstanding wildlife and recreation values, Congress also designated the Aniakchak as a wild river under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System Act.
Ways of Life Built on the Bounty of Nature
People used the coastal and inland areas before and after the eruption 3,700 years ago, but they did not re-inhabit the devastated land for nearly 1,500 years. Historically this volcanic wasteland has formed the boundary between Aleut (Unangan) speakers in the southwest and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) speakers in the northeast. The narrow peninsula, 30 miles across here, gives ready access to distinct environments: the Bering Sea and ice-free Pacific coast. Trade and warfare regularly brought Native groups in contact with each other.
Russian Gregory Shelikhov subdued Koniag people's resistance in 1783 and founded the first permanent non-Native settlement on Kodiak Island. His fur trade empire then dominated economic and social life on the Alaska Peninsula. Russians conscripted Alutiiq people to hunt or trap puffins, sea otters, seals, and foxes for the Russian American Company.
In the 1890s the Alaska Commercial Company built a trading post on Sutwik Island that became a commercial center that bought caribou, otter, fox, wolverine and mink pelts from Native hunters. As salmon numbers waned in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River Packers Association built a cabin at Aniakchak Bay in 1924 for its workers tending the commercial fish traps in the bay. The cabin, now restored, is in the Aniakchak Bay Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Salmon are still a crucial food source for Native people, as they have been since time immemorial.
Subsistence Lifestyle Certain subsistence activities are allowed in these parklands for those who qualify. Subsistence fishing, hunting, and trapping are regulated for maintaining natural, healthy populations of the wild animals.
If you come across subsistence-use camps or equipment, do not disturb them.
Aniakchak's Volcanic Past
A Huge, Climate-changing Eruption
Dwarfing every subsequent volcanic eruption, a 7,000-foot-high mountain erupted and collapsed here 3,700 years ago, leaving a 2,000-foot-deep, bowl-like caldera 6.5 miles across. Hot ash flows then overran the narrow Alaska Peninsula to both the Pacific Ocean and, mainly, the Bering Sea. The flows overran 780-foot mountain passes and slammed Bristol Bay so hard their impact caused a massive tsunami.
The blast created an ecological "dead zone" that separated cultural and linguistic developments of the northern peninsula from those of the south, amplifying the differences between them. Sprawling plains of tephraash, pebbles, and bouldersvisible from space, extend 20 miles around the caldera, with little or no vegetation. Airborne sulfur dioxide from the eruption would block sunlight for such large areas that the global climate would have cooled but to what extent is not known.
Pacific Ring of Fire Aniakchak lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Pacific Ocean's active volcanic rim where Earth's crustal plates interact. Often explosive, these volcanoes can produce huge volumes of ash. Aniakchak is cousin to America's Katmai, Redoubt, and Mount Saint Helens and Japan's Fuji and Indonesia's Krakatoabut the Aniakchak eruption was far, far more powerful than any of those.
A Catastrophic Flood
Water eventually filled most of Aniakchak caldera, but when the caldera wall was breached 2,000 years ago, the lake drained so suddenly that it caused catastrophic flooding. The outrushing waters' great force carved The Gates in the caldera wall, and it rafted house-sized boulders downstream. Chunks as big as semi-trailers came to rest as much as seven miles down the newly created river, the Aniakchak.
Salmon Flooding left a much smaller Surprise Lake inside the caldera, and the floodpathnow the Aniakchak River valleyopened the lake to ocean-run sockeye salmon and Dolly Varden, who colonized the caldera. The salmon all live on one side of Surprise Lake because water from the caldera floor contains various metals toxic to animals. The salmon are living where cleaner water from the caldera wall drains into the lake. Vent Mountain's 1931 eruption inside the caldera no doubt wiped out life in Surprise Lake, but sea-run salmonwho live for two to three years in the oceanwere able to return from the ocean, spawn, and produce offspring.
Aniakchak preserves not only volcanic features but fossilsfrom the footprint of a hadrosaur, a plant-eating duck-billed dinosaur, to other land and sea fossils, millions of years old. In dinosaur days the climate here was warm and humid. Lush forests and other plants clothed this region. Youthful volcanic rock and ash cover much of this land, but its sedimentary rocks are 70 million years old, from the Cretaceous period. Paleontologist Tony Fiorillo found this first evidence of dinosaurs in 2001.
Safety May Mean Life or Death Here You and your gear must be tested and experienced before you travel here. There are no roads, no trails, no facilities. Brown bears, caribou, and moose may injure, maim, or kill you. Weather can delay drop-off and pick-up times for daysyou must pack extra food.
Some people fly into Surprise Lake to float the Aniakchak River to its mouth. Others hike in with pack rafts to float out. By Alaska standards this is good, open country for backpacking, despite no trails. But it 1s not for inexperienced backcountry travelers or paddlers. You must be prepared and practice proper food storage as required by law in bear country. See the park newspaper and website for important details.
Source: NPS Brochure (2010)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Preliminary Study of Subsistence Activities on the Pacific Coast of the Proposed Aniakchak Caldera National Monument Cooperative Park Studies Unit Occasional Paper No. 4 (Merry Allyn Tuten, 1977)
Aniakchak Crater, Alaska Peninsula USGS Professional Paper 132-J (1925)
Assessment of Coastal Water Resources and Watershed Conditions at Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve (Alaska) NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-2007/371 (Sonia Nagorski, Ginny Eckert, Eran Hood and Sanjay Pyare, May 2007)
Beyond the Moon Crater Myth, A New History of the Aniakchak Landscape: A Historic Resource Study for Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve (HTML edition) Research/Resources Management Report AR/CRR-2207-63 (Katherine Johnson Ringsmuth, December 2007)
Bibliography for Hayes, Spurr, Crater Peak, Redoubt, Iliamna, Augustine, Douglas, and Aniakchak volcanoes, Alaska USGS Open-File Report: 95-435 (Kathleen J. Lemke, Benjamin A. May and Ann M. Vanderpool, 1995)
Descriptions, photographs, and coordinates for Global Positioning System stations at Aniakchak Crater, Alaska USGS Open-File Report: 96-46 (1996)
Dinosaur ichnology and sedimentology of the Chignik Formation (Upper Cretaceous), Aniakchak National Monument, southwestern Alaska; Further insights on habitat preferences of high-latitude hadrosaurs (Anthony R. Fiorillo, Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, Paul J. McCarthy, Tomonori Tanaka, Ronald S. Tykoski, Yuong-Nam Lee, Ryuji Takasaki and Junki Yoshida, extract from PLOS ONE, vol. 14 issue 10, October 30, 2019)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2015/1033 (C. Hults and C.A. Neal, September 2015)
Invasive Species Management for Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2012 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/KATM/NRDS—2013/429 (Allison Connealy and Claire Parker, January 2013)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2013 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/KATM/NRDS—2014/672 (Nicole Landry and Aleksandra Voznitza, June 2014)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2014 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/KATM/NRDS—2015/747 (Victoria Anderson and Alex Lindsey, January 2015)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2015 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/KATM/NRR—2015/1096 (Jordon C. Tourville and Melissa S. Armstrong, December 2015)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2016 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/KATM/NRR—2016/1349 (Christine A. DeVries and Nicole E. Zampieri, December 2016)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2017 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/KATM/NRR—2018/1624 (Stephen B. Caron and Jessica L. Westbrook, April 2018)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2018 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/KATM/NRR—2020/2094 (Kayla Sherman and Thomas Hatton, March 2019)
Invasive Species Management for Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alagnak Wild River, and Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve: 2019 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/KATM/NRR—2020/2130 (Lillian Setters and Shayla Ramos, May 2020)
Isolated Paradise: An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak NPS Units, Alaska (Frank B. Norris, 1996)
Lake Temperature Monitoring in Southwest Alaska Parks: A Synthesis of Year-Round, Multi-Depth Data from 2006 through 2018 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SWAN/NRR-2020/2191 (Krista K. Bartz and Paul W.C. Gabriel, November 2020)
Monitoring Responses to Climate Change in Southwest Alaska (February 2010)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/ANIA/NRR-2016/1129 (Jacob Zanon, Mike R. Komp, Jon Sopcak, Kevin M. Benck, Kathy Allen, Kevin J. Stark, Lonnie J. Meinke, Andrew Robertson and Barry Drazkowski, February 2016)
Preliminary Volcano-Hazard Assessment for Aniakchak Volcano, Alaska USGS Open-File Report 00-519 (2000)
Traditional Use and User Groups Study, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Draft (Douglas Deur, July 2007)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 29-Apr-2022