The story of Katmai begins more than one hundred years ago when a volcanic eruption like few others in recorded history took place here on the Alaska Peninsula. While volcanic eruptions were and still are common in Alaska, this one was large enough to attract worldwide attention and a century later it still captures the attention of scientists and explorers alike.
On June 6, 1912, a vent on a volcano named Novarupta exploded in a remote, nameless valley, and for nearly four days sent so much hot ash and pumice into the sky and all around that it completely buried a 40-mile section of the Ukak River valley. Snow fields and glacial streams were buried and flashed into steam. This eruption had transformed a remote, glacially carved valley into what first discoverers of this area four years later dubbed “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes,” a place where thousands of fumaroles (steam and gas vents) shot into the sky. [An interesting comparison, the ash and pumice released during the Novarupta eruption represents over 3 mi³ of magma beneath the earth, 30 times more magma than what was released during the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens!]
To preserve this living laboratory of the Valley, Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918, but over time the geothermal features have cooled and steam no longer escapes. The Valley is still a unique and beautiful landscape, and thanks to a cousin who had worked as a National Park Service Ranger in Alaska for six or seven years, we were told of this erie and special place and decided to come here. [Thank you, Jason, for the tip!]
Fred and I took a day-long trip from Brooks Camp out to this surprisingly rarely-visited place; in fact, we were the only people on the tour, so we had the bus and NPS Ranger all to ourselves! After an hour-ish drive out a dirt road on the above-pictured school bus [read: it was yet another bumpy ride as we had been on so many other times down dirt roads in Alaska already!] we arrived at the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center where we learned all about this cataclysmic event.
Then Eric, our ranger, lead us down a couple of miles into the Valley where we were awed at the depths of the debris, the unique color of the pumice rocks [which are so lightweight that they float in the river!] and the sheer destruction of landscape that this slurry had caused. We hiked down a river, fittingly called the Knife River for the way it knifes its way down through this ash and cuts into it as it rages through. We ate our lunch on a rock in what has to be one of the most, if not the most, unique places we’ve ever stopped for lunch, then we hiked up river a bit to a confluence of two types of merging rivers and that, too, was incredible.
To call the scene “other-worldly” seems to not do it justice. Walls some 70 feet high were the remnants of the pumice and ash that rained down here, but we were miles and miles down the Valley away from the eruption; up nearer the volcano, this debris reaches 700 feet thick — it filled an entire Valley! A nearby volcano, Mount Katmai, collapsed during the eruption forming a deep (2,000 feet) caldera that resembles the caldera we saw at Crater Lake in Oregon. It is only visible, however, from a flightseeing trip that gets above it, or a several-day backcountry hiking trip to reach it.
So that was our Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes day, and an incredible day it was. But believe it or not, this was just a side excursion; we had really come here to see the bears. Fred’s post features many shots and great closeups of these massive mammals, and I’ll write another quick post on our bears and include a few bear fishing videos.