THROWBACK: Novarupta Volcano – 100 Years Ago

Banded pumice colors the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Katmai National Park in Southwest Alaska. A summer view of Katmai Pass extends to Novarupta volcano.

That account was recorded by National Geographic Society explorer Robert Griggs and reprinted in a National Park Service pamphlet called “Witness,” one of the precious few accounts of the 1912 cataclysm. In Kaflia, where villagers huddled in hot barabaras, soaking their faces with wet moss, there was no telling when the darkness would end.

Across Shelikof Strait, in more populous Kodiak, the apocalypse started with bright red skies and the sighting of towering dark clouds to the southwest. From 90 miles away, the ash clouds roiled in, threaded with lightning—an “unusual storm” that at first seemed to threaten snow or rain, but finally seemed like the end of the world.

The weight of ash collapsed rooftops, and ash avalanches rolled off the hillsides, threatening entire buildings. For nearly three days and nights in Kodiak, it was difficult to see the light of a lantern held at arm’s length.

Bear density in Katmai [LEFT] is among the highest in the world, with more than 2,000 brown bears estimated to live in the park. Dozens gather to catch salmon along the shore of Naknek Lake and at the world-famous Brooks River Falls, near Brooks Camp.

The Coast Guard cutter ship Manning was anchored at Kodiak and eventually became shelter for more than 500 people. A tugboat, the Redondo, arrived at Kaflia Bay on the Katmai coast and rounded up stranded residents who were described as “destitute” and “very badly frightened” but otherwise healthy. The help had been summoned by nine Katmai coast villagers who had managed to cross Shelikof Strait by kayak.When the refugees joined their Kodiak neighbors on the Manning, some were as alarmed by the extreme overcrowding as by the falling ash. On nearby Woody Island, lightning ignited a blaze that burned to the ground a wireless station—one of the few points of contact with the outside world.

When the sky finally cleared, three days after the eruption, residents emerged to a gray and grave-silent world. Rivers clotted with a quicksand-like slurry that fatally blocked the gills of fish. Dead birds covered the beach, where even the kelp and tidepool creatures had perished. Some land animals were reported still alive but blinded by ash and desperate for food. Kodiak bears roamed, starving and confused, seeking easy prey in the form of dogs, sheep and cows.

Falling rain brought the bitter taste of acid and a sense of dismay that lingered even as Kodiak residents returned to their damaged, ash-filled homes. But, as one resident noted, “All the people are grateful to God because we are alive.”

One month later, Katmai coast residents were transported back across the strait and resettled in a centralized location. Three weeks later, they chose a second, more hospitable spot along the coast and named it Perry (now Perryville) after K.W. Perry, the captain of the Manning.

Considering the magnitude of the eruption, it’s surprising things didn’t turn out worse. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia had killed 36,000 people or more. Novarupta, by comparison, was blamed for not a single direct human fatality.

Could it happen again? Almost certainly. By studying deposits of ash, volcanologists have identified seven times in the last 4,000 years when Alaska volcanoes exploded as violently as Novarupta.

The Land Today

A disaster for residents, the eruption and its aftermath enchanted naturalists who visited years later. The National Geographic Society had been sending explorers to the Katmai coast since 1912. Led by botanist Robert F. Griggs, the Society visited four years after the Novarupta eruption, venturing far enough inland—up Katmai River Valley and over Katmai Pass— to behold for the first time a landscape of smoking fumaroles, some spewing steam that climbed to 1,000 feet. Griggs named this place “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.”

On a series of trips between 1916 and 1919, Griggs and his men hiked across the eruption zone, cooked camp meals over steam blasting from the cracked ground, and vamped for silly photos, showing how a man could lift an enormous pumice boulder that looked big enough to crush him. They also took scientific measurements, producing material to fill magazines and an entire book, a record written to convince the world Katmai was every bit as awesome—and worth protecting— as Yellowstone.

An American public made weary by war appreciated the magazine stories and amazing photos. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson was convinced to declare the area a national monument. Scientists expected the fumaroles to keep smoking, so the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes would forever live up to its dramatic name. Instead, the fumaroles mostly petered out by 1930, leaving a landscape recovering and revegetating only slowly—but still so moonlike in the 1960s NASA used it for astronaut training hikes.

Once discovered by an awed public, this remote corner of Southwest Alaska was never entirely forgotten. Novarupta had rocked, burned and temporarily sullied an enormous swath of the Alaska Peninsula, depositing more volcanic material than had been unleashed in all previous historic Alaska explosions combined. It decimated wildlife, forced the abandonment of six Native villages, and clogged salmon streams, which slowly recovered. But it also opened up Southwest Alaska, stirring attention that would help lead, especially after World War II, to the development of Katmai as a fly-fishing and wildlifewatching paradise—a place so full of life it’s hard to imagine its darkest hours, one century ago.

The lava dome of Novarupta volcano rises in front of Trident volcano in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, located at Katmai National Park

Heading There

If you go: The area around Novarupta was designated a national monument in 1918 to protect the area around the 1912 eruption, and was later expanded and established as Katmai National Park and Preserve, in 1980. Most visitors come to fish and watch the photogenic gathering of brown bears at Brooks River Falls, near the main visitor center. Fewer make the 23-mile bus trip out to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (no longer smoking)—but it’s a must-see, and easy to reach from Brooks Camp. Learn more from the visitor center and hike from the vegetated zone, alive with birdsong, into the ghostlier valley, a landscape of compressed ash and sand (forming a rock called tuff), steep bluffs and rushing creeks. More challenging backcountry trips are possible, but require wilderness skills and knowledge about the valley’s unique conditions. The main visitor season in Katmai National Park is June to September, with peak bear viewing (and crowds) in July. Scheduled flights connect Anchorage to King Salmon (six miles west of the park boundary) daily, with chartered fl oat planes connecting King Salmon to Brooks Camp. More info can be found at Andromeda Romano-Lax has written a dozen books about Alaska and Mexico, including a forthcoming book about Katmai National Park.

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