BROOKS CAMP -- About seven hours after leaving my desk at work, I found myself fumbling with the door handle of an empty pickup truck near Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park and Preserve. I was hoping the door was unlocked, so that I could escape the two very large brown bears walking down a dirt road toward me, about 50 yards away and closing.
I'd flown into the park a few hours earlier on a float plane, for a hiking trip with four of my friends to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, a spectacular volcanic area created in a massive eruption a century ago.
Five of us -- myself, three roommates, and one more like-minded 20-something outdoor enthusiast -- had settled on the trip to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes a couple of months earlier, after considering and discarding other options that included packrafting out of a volcanic caldera in another Alaska park (too complicated), and hiking in Southeast Alaska (too wet, too much time required).
The Valley of 10,000 Smokes' selling points?
It's reasonably cheap, different -- volcanoes aren't accessible, say, from Anchorage's popular Glen Alps trail head -- and not hugely technical. (All of the people in my group were young and fit, but some of us, especially myself, had minimal climbing or mountaineering experience.)