SUMMER ADVENTURES: Alaska’s Volcanoes and Another Voracious Predator

Half of the active volcanoes in the world are located in Alaska. We traveled over 26 miles of gravel roads and through three rivers from Brooks Camp to reach this eerie moonscape of devastation.

“The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” is the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th Century. It was first believed that Mount Katmai was the source of the huge blast on June 6 of 1912 that left 40 square miles covered in ash ranging from 200 to 700 feet deep. (Never heard of it? You are not alone. Reports about the sinking of the Titanic pushed the story off the front pages at the time.) Even after 96 years, you could still see the skeletons of trees seared by the heat and bleached by the ash along the route.
The eruption was 100 times as large as Mt. St. Helens in 1980, and twice as large as Krakatoa, which had a death toll of 32,000 in 1883. Miraculously, there were no fatalities here. Pictures and clippings on the walls of the small museum at the site tell the story: Most of the population had already moved to summer locations where the men fished and the women worked in the canneries. Those who remained, gathered in the village of Kaflia. They survived, thanks to a wise elder who, although he had never experienced such an event in his lifetime, had heard stories as part of the oral tradition of his tribe. He instructed the people to collect all the fresh water they could and to turn the canoes upside down so they wouldn’t be filled with the cement-hard ash. As soon as it was possible, a few of the men ventured out by canoe to find help, bringing a ship that evacuated the villagers to Kodiak Island. Here is part of the account by Harry Kaiakokonok, who witnessed the eruption when he was six years old.

“It get hot in those barabaras. We pull off our clothes. We soak them in water and put them over our face. Those peoples who have mosses in their barabaras pour water over those mosses and put them over their nose and mouth so they can breathe. After a while we open the door and try to see out. All black, everywhere. A little bird fly into barabara. He can’t see where he go. We childrens wash his eyes with water and he stay in barabara with us.” You can read more of the history here: http://www.nps.gov/katm/historyculture/upload/Witnessweb.pdf.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that it was determined that Katmai had not erupted at all, but that the lava under the volcano blew out sideways and formed a new vent, named appropriately, Nouvarupta. (Ah, so that explains why the molten-chocolate cake at the Lodge was called Nouvarupta.)

In 1915, Robert Griggs led an expedition to Katmai for the National Geographic Society. He observed thousands of fumaroles in the valley, which he named “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.” He believed he had discovered another Yellowstone. It was because of his observations that the area was eventually designated a National Monument. The vents, which were caused by water trapped under the hot ash rather than volcanic activity, continued to spew steam for another ten years.

When we returned to the Lodge after our excursion, we heard the news that the Okmak Volcano on the Aleutian Island of Umnak had erupted for the first time since 1997. We could see the ash plume from the plane when we left the next day. Since then, Mount Cleveland, on Chuginadak Island has joined in, and on August 7, Kasatochi, which had been silent for almost 200 years, came back to life, causing the cancellation 44 Alaska Airline flights. If I were superstitious, I could almost believe that Chuginadak, the Aleut goddess of fire, was trying to remind us that we are still at the mercy of powerful forces that are beyond our control.

Alaska’s other voracious predator:
I used to be a mosquito magnet. A large gray mass would visibly shift in my direction whenever I stepped outside in the summer. I also over-reacted to the poison and would get large, swollen lumps that didn’t go away for weeks. I expected to be eaten alive by the mosquitoes in Alaska. They were everywhere at Katmai, even inside the buildings and the cabins. But a strange thing happened. I came home without a single bug bite! Not one. I wonder if it might be yet another benefit of not eating sugar. The females need a meal of blood in order to lay eggs, but mosquitoes live on nectar. Perhaps they can’t find us if we have no sugar in our blood. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?

© 2008, Judy Barnes Baker

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