Hey, Otis, it wasn’t always about you.
Katmai National Park is known for its brown bears, but the origins of the park are centered around something entirely different, an event you’ve probably never heard of even though it was one of the most significant geological occurrences of last century.
I’m referring to the volcano Novarupta, which erupted in 1912. As part of our visit to Brooks Camp, we took a tour to the site of the devastation, a place now known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. We also learned a great deal about the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 2oth century.
Even today, the Alaska Peninsula is sparsely populated, but in June 1912, in the region where Katmai National Park now sits, only a scattering of settlements existed. And with June being fishing season, most residents of the region, which included the villages of Katmai and Savonoski, had already moved to summer fishing camps or to places like Kodiak, where they had seasonal jobs.
In early June, those few who were still at home began to experience earthquakes daily. The quakes became increasingly more forceful and ominous each day, and the disturbance was severe enough that both villages were evacuated to other places on the Alaska Peninsula.
It’s a good thing, too; the earthquakes were the precursor to something much bigger, the foreshadowing of a moment when the ground reveals itself to be a mere cover for the tumultuous world beneath our feet.
At approximately 1:00 pm on June 6, 1912, the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century—and one of the mightiest in recorded history—took place. How mighty, you ask? Here are some facts:
• It was ten times more powerful than Mount St. Helens, which blew in 1980, and it also discharged 30 times more magma, placing it among the five largest volcanos in recorded history.
• The sound of the explosion could be heard hundreds of miles away in places like Fairbanks and Juneau.
• The blast was so powerful that post-eruption earthquakes registered as far away as Washington, D.C.
• A column of ash surged skyward for almost three days, with the resulting ash cloud spewing 100,000 feet into the air. The upper atmosphere quickly distributed these fine pieces of volcanic rock throughout the northern hemisphere.
• So much ash was dispelled that, if all of it was piled atop Anchorage, it would bury the city under a layer three miles deep!
A brand-new volcano
For decades after the blast, scientists attributed the source of the eruption to Mount Katmai, one of numerous volcanos in Alaska’s Aleutian Range. In actuality, however, it was from a brand-new vent, later named Novarupta, that the searing volcanic ash spewed, geyser-like, for 60 hours.
The National Park Service describes Novarupta as an “Exceptional Event.” Massive amounts of pyroclastic flow, composed of glowing ash, volcanic cinders, and volcanic blocks, flowed down the Ukak River valley. The ashflow incinerated 40 square miles of the previously fertile valley, and the trees in the areas surrounding the flow were stripped bare by the initial shock wave and the hot gases that followed.
Mount Katmai, which sits six miles from Novarupta, may not have been the source of the eruption, but it, too, was irretrievably altered; so much magma flowed from beneath the mountain and to the vent that the summit collapsed, leaving a wide caldera. The cave-in caused 14 earthquakes of magnitude 6 to 7 as well as at least one hundred shocks greater than a magnitude of 5. The crater has since filled with water, forming a lake that’s about 800 feet deep.
Novarupta impacts Alaska…and the world
The volcano devastated everything in its immediate path, forever altering the Ukak River valley and also destroying the villages of Katmai and Savonoski, which were never resettled.
Because residents had evacuated, there were no deaths. There were, however, plenty of eyewitnesses. The people probably closest to the eruption, a local known as American Pete and his family, were making preparations to leave when the eruption occurred. They were thought to be about 18 miles from the blast, and they witnessed “fire” flowing down the valley as they raced to their boats. They escaped by speeding across Naknek Lake and down the Naknek River to where it empties into Bristol Bay, pushing through hot, suffocating ash fall the whole way. They covered the 60 miles in one day, an extraordinary feat.
Evacuees at Kaflia Bay, who were enveloped in ash, smoke, and darkness, described fire raining down upon them. The air was choked with sulpher dioxide and intense heat. The ash cloud emitted lightning, a rarity in Alaska, and it both fascinated and terrified people. Volcanic detritus several feet deep covered the bay itself, and dead birds, fish, and porpoises floated on its surface.
The village of Kodiak, some 100 miles east of Novarupta, was devastated by the ash, which started falling on the town about four hours after the eruption’s onset. It obliterated sunlight, leaving Kodiak in complete darkness for three days. The residents, some of whom were temporarily blinded by the noxious gases in the air, were evacuated by boat. Much of the village was destroyed by the products of the eruption: several feet of ash buried buildings, and the weight of it collapsed roofs. Other buildings were crushed by ash avalanches, and still others were struck by lightning. The water also became contaminated and unfit to drink.
The ash cloud didn’t just affect the local region; it affected the Northern Hemisphere. Parts of Alaska and the Yukon Territory were shrouded in darkness, and over the following days and weeks the jet stream carried much of the cloud eastward across the continent. It dropped acid rain on Seattle and the Puget Sound, more than 1500 miles away. By June 10th, it had reached Virginia, and by June 17 it could be seen in Northern Africa.
Sunsets were unusually vibrant, and atmospheric effects such as smoke, haze, and red twilights were experienced as far away as Europe. And for the next year, the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere dropped by about 2°F.
Exploring a new volcanic landscape
The most violent part of the eruption lasted around 60 hours, but Novarupta continued to expel material throughout the summer and until at least the last week of August.
As both eyewitness accounts and ash started flowing into Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Society knew the site had to be explored. In cooperation with the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Society sent geologist George Martin, who had successfully navigated 300 miles of Alaska’s coastline on a previous USGS mission. Martin was unable to reach the site of the volcanic devastation but spoke with several witnesses, and upon his return to the northeast, he wrote two articles for National Geographic Magazine. His accounts of a massive volcanic eruption in remote Alaska intrigued both the National Geographic Society and the public.
From 1915-1919, the Society funded several other expeditions, this time led by botanist Robert Griggs. During the first expedition in 1915, Griggs and his team made little headway into the Ukak valley but saw enough to justify a larger expedition the next year. In 1916, they made it deeper into the valley but had to turn back due to supply constraints; nevertheless, they caught intriguing glimpses of the valley’s bizarre landscape.
When they returned in 1917, they were determined to study the area that would become known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The National Park Service describes the journey into the volcanic landscape as a “month of terror and elation for the twelve adventurers” who made up Griggs’ research group. They took samples and photographs while navigating hot temperatures and ash.
The landscape was littered with fumaroles, openings in the earth’s surface that emit steam and gases such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. At the time, these fumaroles, which Griggs sometimes referred to as tiny volcanos, were the valley’s most prominent feature. They had seen a few of these unusual formations as they neared the outskirts of eruption, but when they came to an overlook of the entire Ukak Valley, they were blown away. Griggs says this about his first views of the eruption site:
I can never forget my sensations at the sight which met my eyes as I surmounted the hillock and looked down the valley; for there, stretching as far as the eye could reach, till the valley turned behind a blue mountain in the distance, were hundreds—no, thousands—of little volcanoes like those we had just examined…. It was as though all the steam-engines in the world, assembled together, had popped their safety-valves at once and were letting off surplus steam in concert.
This “valley of 10,000 smokes,” as Griggs called the area, so captivated the public that in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson—once he was convinced that the fumaroles would be permanent—protected 1700 square miles of the area as Katmai National Monument. The fumaroles were the main attraction, with people comparing them to Yellowstone’s geysers and steam vents. In Yellowstone, however, the geysers are fueled by a vast underground aquifer heated by magma, while the source of the steam for Katmai’s vents was the ashflow itself, and this eventually cooled. By 1940 almost all of the “smokes” had died out, with the active fumaroles being those few near Novarupta itself. Their disappearance threatened the very existence of Katmai National Monument. Luckily, its fame was enough to save it for what would become its second act—protecting some of the largest brown bears in the world.
Today, Novarupta and its Valley of 10,000 Smokes is one of the most studied volcanic sites in the world. It was the first time in recorded history that a large volcano deposited its flow onto land rather than in the ocean, and this allowed the remnants to be extensively studied, greatly increasing our understanding of volcanos. Research in the area is ongoing.
Katmailand, the park’s concessionaire, offers a tour to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This day trip takes visitors on the only road into Katmai National Park, a 23-mile stretch of packed dirt that was created in 1962. The road ends at the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center and its spectacular overlook of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Our transportation was a funky tour bus that’s been specially modified with four-wheel drive and high ground clearance to ford water crossings. We crossed three streams, which our driver, an amusing fellow named Casey, called Model T, Edsel, and Cadillac.
Top cruising speed being 25-30 mph, the drive took about an hour each way, with a couple of stops to enjoy in the scenic overlooks.
The trip was also an opportunity to appreciate autumn in Alaska. As I wrote about in this Denali National Park post, you wouldn’t expect to find spectacular fall colors in Alaska, but they do exist, and the tundra is especially vibrant in September, which offers a brief intermission between summer and winter.
As we progressed down the road, we enjoyed the transition from richly foliated tundra to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, from which all plant life appeared to be stripped clean.
The tour is always led by a Katmai Park Ranger, and our guide was Ranger Tandy. She acknowledged that most visitors come to Katmai because of the bears, but her enthusiasm for the park’s geological wonders was infectious, and she made us appreciate the fact that we had taken a day away bear watching to visit the valley. She provided an excellent overview of Novarupta and made it clear that it’s a special place.
The road ended at the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center. We had lunch and then opted to do the ranger-led hike down to the Valley floor. At 3.4 miles round trip and 800-foot elevation gain, it was moderately strenuous but totally worth it.
We stopped several times along the way so that Tandy could share information about a particular feature of the valley. The trail ends at a river gorge carved into the ash, and we had plenty of time to take pictures and appreciate the unusual landscape.
Should you do the tour?
The answer is, yes, with a but thrown in.
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is just plain cool. Standing there, whether it’s at an overlook or on the valley floor, it’s easy to visualize the drama that played out here a little over a century ago. We enjoyed the experience and would love to go back for further exploration one day. We’d also recommend it to almost everyone, the exception being those who are at Katmai for only a night or two. We were at Brooks Camp for 5 nights, so we didn’t mind taking a day away from the bears to visit another area of the park. Had we been there for only a few nights, however, I can’t say that we would’ve taken the tour.
To get a second opinion, we asked our friend Tsi-Wei, an awesome Aussie with whom we bonded over our love of bears. We did the tour together, and she agreed that yes, it was worth it, but only if you’re staying long enough to get your fill of bear watching. She recommended devoting at least two days to the bears, whereas we recommend spending as many days as you can, because bear watching never gets old.
More about the tour
Reservations: Reservations for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour are required and can be made through concessionaire Katmailand. We signed up for the tour when we got there, but you can also do so online.
Time: The tour lasts about seven hours.
Fees: In 2017, the cost for the tour was $96/person with a sack lunch and $88 without. We opted against purchasing the lunch, which was a sandwich, chips, and a drink, instead putting our money toward another yummy meal in the lodge.
What to bring: Brings snacks and water. If you’re going to do the hike, keep in mind that the trail was fairly exposed and had moderate changes in elevation, so bring appropriate hiking gear. Also bring a rain jacket and layers to accommodate for Katmai’s notoriously changeable weather.
Other hiking and backpacking options
In addition to the day trip that we took, there are other, longer backpacking trips that you can take, including a hike to the Novarupta vent itself. This is a 14-mile trek through exposed landscape, and it includes a couple of river crossings that can be dangerous depending on the conditions, so backpackers should come prepared. A few unmaintained huts at the 12-mile point are open to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis. Hikers should plan on spending at least 1-2 nights in order to explore the surrounding area. For a fee, backpackers can hitch a ride on the tour bus to the trailhead, which is near the Griggs Visitors Center.
Click here for more information about backpacking and backcountry exploration in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. And this park ranger’s blog post talks about the wonders of his first backpacking trip into the valley.
Sources and further reading:
- Here are two posts from the National Park Service that offer an excellent overview of the eruption: “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and the 1912 Eruption” and “The Great Eruption of 1912.”
- Eyewitness accounts of the blast are fascinating: “Witness: Firsthand Accounts of the Largest Volcanic Eruption in the Twentieth Century.”
About Katmai’s volcanos
Novarupta and Mount Katmai aren’t the only volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula; in fact, the Aleutian Range is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and geological surveys have identified more than 50 volcanic vents in Katmai National Park alone. Here’s more information about Katmai’s volcanoes: