They call this wind-scoured place "hell with the fires burned out," a desert of pumice and ash piled 700 feet deep by the most powerful series of volcanic blasts this century.
Geologists continue trying to sort out the plumbing beneath Novarupta Volcano, which erupted in June 1912 with a force 10 times that of the Mount St. Helens explosion a decade ago.For the past two summers, a multiagency team of scientists has been ferrying supplies and equipment by helicopter in and out of this roadless and unique corner of the 4 million-acre Katmai National Park and Preserve.
The area was established in 1918 by President Woodrow Wilson, who set aside an initial 1,700 square miles to preserve an area of "importance to the study of volcanism."
Scientists want to pinpoint the size, shape and location of the eruptive vent.
"It will help us predict eruptions, find ore deposits and better understand the earth's process," said Tom Miller of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage.
But because the science is being gathered in a wilderness area, the project is not without controversy.
A dozen scientists were tiptoeing around this summer, trying not to intrude on the wilderness experiences of backpackers trekking more than a dozen miles to the shelter of two ramshackle huts on Baked Mountain, near where the volcano is believed centered.
Men and women who spent years in classrooms and labs earning their doctorates spent several days on their hands and knees re-roofing one of the huts as part of an agreement with the National Park Service.
The Park Service relaxed its rules for using a helicopter in the Katmai backcountry in exchange for the work.
Proposals to drill two holes deep into the body of the still-warm volcano already have begun drawing fire, although the environmental impact statement has not yet been written and public hearings are at least a year away.
When Robert Griggs first saw the valley that he appropriately named the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, the sounds were deafening as thousands of fumaroles, or vents, hissed and roared, spitting steam and heat into the air.
"The whole valley as far as the eye could see was full of hundreds, no thousands - literally, tens of thousands - of smokes curling up from its fissured floor," said Griggs, who explored the Ukak River valley in 1916 for the National Geographic Society.
The valley is silent now, except for the wind. And most of the fumaroles were extinct by the 1930s, although hikers can warm their hands over a few small holes that emit odorless steam clouds near the Novarupta vent.