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Flawlessly Remote: Visiting America's Least-Visited National Park


It's time for Wingin' It. This week, we're going to take you to a place that's been called the moon crater of Alaska - Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. It's one of the least visited places in the national park system. You won't find any signs marking the entrance, and it's not even accessible by road. Christopher Solomon is a travel writer and was one of the very few people to visit Aniakchak last year. I spoke with him about his journey and started by asking him how he got there.

CHRISTOPHER SOLOMON: It is very hard to get to. It took three plain flights from Seattle just to get to a place of a hundred people called Port Heiden. And then we backpacked about 20 miles to reach the centerpiece of the National Monument and Preserve. And the centerpiece of Aniakchak is this blown-out volcano. And there is this giant crater ring that could swallow the island of Manhattan inside it. And inside is this - it's kind of this lost world. The - one of the eeriest places and most wonderful places I've ever been, with all sorts of sort of volcanic, geologic wonders.

And it's just strangely beautiful. I mean, the words I thought of were sort of this desolation sublime when you're inside it.

MARTIN: Who goes there, I mean, besides the intrepid, backcountry hiker? Are scientists going there - geologists?

SOLOMON: Scientists have certainly studied it. It's part of the Pacific Ring of Fire that - the ring of volcanoes that line the Pacific. There are mostly bear hunters and moose hunters, if any, very few backpackers, maybe a dozen a year, if that.

MARTIN: If there are no signs, are you just working off of a map to let you know when you've actually arrived inside the park space, the monument space?

SOLOMON: Yes. We backpacked in. I went with a guide and photographer Gabe Rogel. And we backpacked in, in a complete ground fog off the Bering Sea navigating by map and GPS and then popped into the crater. And we had this kind of freaky, "Jurassic Park" world to ourselves. Where there are these lunar kind of planes where you'd swear that NASA had faked the moon landing inside there. There's a remnant lake. It's just this spectacularly strange, wonderful place with pumpkin-colored hot springs. And we hung out there for about three days.

MARTIN: You did go on this trip with two other people, but aside from them, I'm guessing you didn't see anyone else on this adventure.

SOLOMON: You know, we saw one footprint inside the caldera, which we weren't even sure where that came from. And then, when we finally got to...

MARTIN: Human - human footprint.

SOLOMON: Human footprint. We saw lots of brown bear prints the size of garden rakes. So they're just gigantic bears and lots of them. But the only other people we did end up seeing right on the coast where some fishermen who were finished with the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and had just stopped off to just rest and, weirdly enough, was fishing in the Aniakchak river. And they were so happy to see us and hear about our adventure. And we were just kind of happy to see them and just talk with them.

And we had this weirdly fraternal moment when we all kind of almost wanted to be in each other's shoes. They wanted to join our adventure, and we, seven days out, sort of wanted to get on the boat and putter back to Sitga, Alaska and be in a warm, wheel house. And then we parted ways and kind of looked back at each other as we were both parting, and it was this - it was this kind of beautiful moment where human friendship really meant a great deal there after you hadn't had it for a while.

MARTIN: But you say you do seek out the lonely spaces. Why do you need that remoteness?

SOLOMON: I've been thinking about that a lot in the last couple years. When I was out there for 10 days with these colleagues, my fancy GPS watch died, and iPhones of course didn't work. And you start noticing things about the natural world and feeling the change of seasons. You notice the salmon starting to swim toward the rivers and the bears at night coming down with their cubs to learn how to flick their salmon on to the shores. And you feel a different sense of time that feels more true and honest.

And that speaks to me more, in a lot of ways, than a lot of the things that we surround ourselves with in our modern lives. And I personally need that a lot more than I need a lot of the things that I seem to find so important in daily life.

MARTIN: Chris Solomon. You can read more about his trip to Aniakchak in the May edition of Outside Magazine. He joined us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle, Wash. Chris, thanks so much for talking with us.

SOLOMON: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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