By Mike Fitz
I could see the dust clouds forming ahead under a stiffening south wind. Luckily, some of the landscape was still snow covered or at least damp with snowmelt, tempering the wind’s ability to carry fine dust into my lungs and eyes. Still, the experience wasn’t what I would describe as pleasant. Volcanic ash is sharp, abrasive, and irritating. Pausing my progress, I turned to face away from the strongest gusts, using my pack and hat as a partial shield against the wind. I stood in the middle of the most barren region of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park where blowing ash would eventually erase my tracks just as readily as they would disappear in melting snow.
While Katmai National Park in Alaska is most famous for brown bears, the area’s volcanic backbone was the catalyst for the park’s protection. On June 6, 1912, at the head of an isolated valley on the northern Alaska Peninsula, Novarupta Volcano erupted on a scale rarely equaled in recorded history. The eruption spiraled ash 100,000 feet high (30 km) in the atmosphere. It plunged Kodiak, over 100 miles from the eruptive center, into complete darkness during a season when the town would normally experience 20 hours of daylight. The eruption forced Alaska Natives to flee Katmai and Savonoski villages. They arrived at safe locations only after long, arduous paddles while ash and pumice fell around them. The eruption lasted nearly three days, enveloping hundreds of square miles in volcanic fallout. When it was over, the approximately 7,600-foot summit of Mount Katmai had collapsed, leaving a sharply rimmed, 2,000-foot deep caldera and a valley transformed into an otherworldly landscape. It was the fifth largest eruption in the last 1000 years and the 20th century’s largest.
Today, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and the volcanoes of the Katmai cluster remain a place of great scientific and scenic interest as well as a challenging place to visit. I came expecting ash and strong winds, having spent about a collective month camping in the “Valley” over the last 12 years. This afternoon, as I stood almost dead center within it, brought both. Yet, exploring this place never gets old. How could it when it has proven Earth’s ability to change in an instant?
Like most people, I began my journey into the Valley by booking a ride on the daily bus tour from Brooks Camp, the hub of visitor activity and bear viewing in the park. After reaching the drop off point, I followed a seldom-maintained trail through thick willows to Windy Creek and a short, but chilly ford. Across the creek, I began to hike on vast pumice-covered flats. During the next five days, I would be walking almost exclusively on this surface.
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is the product of massive and repeated pyroclastic flows that originated during the 1912 eruption. Think of a pyroclastic flow as a volcanic avalanche, an unconsolidated mass of ash and rock collapsing from an eruption column. They are one of the most dangerous and destructive of all volcanic hazards. Pyroclastic flows buried Pompeii during the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius. A similar phenomenon, a pyroclastic surge, killed 28,000 people during the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique in the Caribbean.
The 1912 eruption’s pyroclastic flows eventually covered about 45 square miles of land. In total, Novarupta unleashed roughly four cubic miles of ash and 2.6 cubic miles of pyroclastic flows. This represents three cubic miles of underground magma, an output slightly greater than Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption and thirty times more than Mount Saint Helens in 1980. My first day into the Valley on this trip was June 8. If I had been there on the same day in June 1912, the eruption would have still been ongoing and I would not have survived.
For decades after the eruption, the land steamed with thousands of fumaroles, the sight of which led Robert Griggs, the botanist who led the first exploratory expeditions into the area, to christen the area the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. It was this place that inspired him to lobby for formal protection of the area, an effort that succeeded when Katmai National Monument was established in 1918.
Griggs first came to Alaska to study vegetative recovery in the wake of the eruption, but soon turned his attention to exploring the eruptive center, discovering the Valley during a long, laborious expedition from Katmai Bay on the Pacific coast in 1916. He returned for several more trips to explore the landscape, which was and remains unique on the face of the Earth. This is the only historic eruption to have emplaced large-scale pyroclastic flows on land. The impacts became a wonder to Griggs and remain so for wanderers like myself and modern-day volcanologists.
In the late 1910s, 86 fumaroles had temperatures over 190˚ C (374˚ F). The hottest was measured at an incredible 432˚ C (809˚ F). In his classic 1922 book, The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Griggs writes that travel across the Valley was initially worrisome. Griggs was, obviously, unaccustomed to walking on a potentially scalding surface and feared falling through to be cooked alive. His team gained experience and confidence as they went, however, finding the surface supported their weight easily, even as they could create new fumaroles by poking their hiking staffs into the ash. Trepidation quickly gave way to the practicalities of exploring the landscape. With no vegetation to build fires, Griggs and his team used the fumaroles to cook their food and to melt snow for drinking water.
Over time, the ash sheet cooled, but the legacy of the fumaroles is preserved in the ash. The surface of the Valley is stained with ochers of red, yellow, pink, brown, and cream, marking where scalding steam cooked the rock as it escaped to the surface. To me, these are some of the Valley’s most interesting and beautiful features, kaleidoscopes of color in an otherwise brown and gray landscape.
About 11 miles from the beginning of my hike, I rounded the shoulder of Baked Mountain and began the final approach to Novarupta, the still-steaming lava dome that marks the vent of the 1912 eruption. I often prefer to camp in this area because I can find nooks that are reasonably sheltered from the wind as well as snowmelt for drinking water. It’s also the most colorful part of the Valley, where particularly intense fumarolic activity colored the surface with earth-toned rainbows.
Novarupta was the last gasp of the eruption. Its lava was largely degassed by the time it began to ooze to the surface over the days or weeks immediately after the eruption. A ring of coarse pumice surrounds the dome and some of it remains noticeably hot. The ground is safe to walk over, unlike the geyser basins of Yellowstone, but a carelessly placed hand or chosen seat will result in a painful surprise.
The area is far from sterile though. Thick mats of beautiful, pristine biological soil crusts grow in the basin surrounding the Novarupta. Caribou and brown bears use the area. Plants have established a foothold here too. Novarupta lies just below 3,000 feet in elevation, which in Katmai is well above tree line, so plant cover was never great here to begin with. In sheltered pockets surrounding Novarupta though, where steam warms the ground and soil crusts help to hold the ash and pumice in place, tundra plants like partridge-foot, clubmoss mountain heather, and Katmchatka rhododendron were just beginning to bloom. Insects, even a few mosquitoes, were abundant. The blocky structure of the 200-foot high lava dome also provides habitat for many snow buntings. I listened to the males serenading for females as I pitched my tent and went to sleep.
I stayed in the Valley for four nights total, using the many hours of late spring daylight to ramble to pockets of the landscape I hadn’t explored previously. Each time I experience this place, it is different, and that’s what makes it particularly intriguing.
The 1912 eruption won’t be the last in Katmai. Indeed, it isn’t even the most recent. Trident Volcano, whose summits tower above the upper Valley, erupted periodically from the mid 1950s to early 1970s. Many other large volcanoes and lava domes are found within a few miles. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes remains raw, a place still recovering from the effects of the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption. Here though, walking through a unique landscape, Earth’s potential for sudden change is on full display.