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Valley of 10,000 Smokes

No, it's not an Alaskan version of Marlboro Country. Alaska has a chain of mountains which are all pretty much active volcanoes - the reason the mountains are so high and pointy. This valley was named when it was first explored, soon after an eruption, so I guess it was actually still smoking. It no longer steams like Yellowstone, but the weird scenery remains.

Anyways, this was at Katmai, which is where we went to see big old bears nomming salmon. GIANT bears nomming salmon. Giant HONGRY bears. Keep this in mind.

Like so many adventures in Alaska, this began by getting on a Partridge Family school bus. That's the driver on the left. Even though a real live park ranger went along on the tour, she seemed to be somewhere around 17 years old, and also appeared to to know quite a bit less about everything than the bus driver.

There was also an adorable older couple along. The husband had more than a bit of trouble getting on and off the bus, not to mention keeping his balance once earthbound. He was, IIRC, 90 years old (no lie!), though they both looked to be in their 70s.

The bus ride was actually kinda fun. We spotted a lynx, which is one of the shyer critters around. Even the bus driver got out his camera to take some pix.

Anyways, we stopped at this overlook. The big deal of the day was to eat our ham sammiches, and then, once full of belly and smelling of nummy food, hike down to the bottom of the valley. Through HONGRY BEAR COUNTRY.

Since I'm about as chary about heights as I am about flying (not to mention anything having to do with the word "hike") I asked our young ranger if this was a shallow descent, or if there would be anything to give a committed acrophobic a panic attack. She assured me that the hike was gentle as could be. Though, when the sweet older couple expressed interest in coming along, suddenly she became evasive, and finally, swept us away on the hike before the couple had officially decided whether or not to accompany us.

The hike was indeed mostly a shallow descent, but the ranger for some reason seemed determined to make it all in double time. It wasn't yet an aerobic challenge, just, what with roots and plants and rocks and all that nature stuff, a challenge of tiki's coordination, which is minimal.

The scenery was indeed pretty kewl, what little time we had to gather it in before Ranger Sprint decided to spring off down the hill. We had a discussion about Grizzly Man, a film that came up over and over again during our stay in Alaska. It turned out that there has actually NEVER been an encounter of a bear with groups of 4 or more. Since there were about 6 or 7 in the tour group, it was therefore no problem. Of course, being the stumbling type, we began trailing around at the back of the pack. Which, usually isn't so worrisome, except that, as you will remember, we were in HONGRY BEAR COUNTRY.

You can prolly see better pix of the weird-tastic scenery in Mr. Tiki's flickr set, he being a better photographer (as well as far less out of breath).

Finally, we got to the very bottom.

At which point the ranger said, "Bye-de-bye!" and, before anyone could object, charged back up the hill. Alone.

Leaving us all alone in HONGRY BEAR COUNTRY. After taking some photos and catching our breath, we began our ascent. Unfortunately, at the halfway point up the hill, just where the trail became most overgrown, the other tourists decided to take an alternate route to the top, leaving Mr. Tiki and ourselves in a group of two. Which is, ya know, less than 4.

Did I mention, HONGRY BEAR COUNTRY????

So, up we marched, through the tall, potentially bear-obscuring weeds, trying to make haste (but not too much haste, as you're NEVER supposed to run from brown bears) as well as keeping up a patter of witty dialog (as bears don't care for the sound of the human voice, especially, we hoped, pattering wittily).

Sadly, we ran out of witty dialog far below the rim, and had actually resorted to naming states of the union in alphabetical order. (Gus decided that there needs to be a law that for a new state to be admitted, it has to start with a letter that hasn't been used yet.) And, thanks to aerobic non-fitness plus anxiety, tiki ran out of breath for any kind of speech somewhere after that.

Needless to say, after a bit of anxiety, we somehow made it back to the ranger station. With a few more grey hairs. Dripping with sweat. In a NOT PLEASED state.

The sweet old man, who was waiting at the station, announced to all that that he and his wife had "wandered down" the trail a bit after we'd all left (ie, abandoned them), and that after talking to the ranger about their ramblings, they had decided that they actually descended "about halfway" down the trail. That is, through the steepest, most overgrown part, most BEAR-tastic bit.

He had not broken a sweat, but we decided not to disabuse the fellow of any notions.

And also vowed that we would NEVER visit this particular park again without bringing our trusty chainsaw.

And maybe some Navy SEALS.



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