August 6, 2015. I stand at the crest of Katmai Pass, remarkably alone in an exceptionally quiet place, not having seen or spoken to a person in five days. Surrounded by wildness, I couldn’t help but think of the transformational moments that occurred here about 100 years before.
While wildlife such as brown bears take center stage in Katmai National Park today, volcanoes originally placed Katmai on the world map. Each national park is unique, but Katmai stands apart from all others for a landscape that did not exist before June 6, 1912.
An extinct fumarole in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
On June 6, 1912, around 1 p.m. in the afternoon, Novarupta volcano exploded at the head of the isolated Ukak River valley. The eruption continued for 60 hours, plunging the region into darkness. It was the largest eruption of the 20th century and the fifth largest in recorded human history. Novarupta unleashed roughly 4 cubic miles of ash and 2.6 cubic miles of pyroclastic flows. In total, this represents 3 cubic miles of underground magma, an output greater than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and 30 times more than the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. The eruption drained a magma chamber underneath the 7,600-foot Mount Katmai, creating a 2,000 foot deep caldera, and flooded the area near Novarupta in hundreds of feet ash and pumice.
In the aftermath, the Katmai area, particularly the mainland Pacific coastline and interior regions near Mount Katmai became uninhabited. What seemed to be a wasteland, however, would soon inspire the movement to establish Katmai National Park.
Robert Griggs was a professor of botany at Ohio State University when, in 1915, he led a National Geographic Society expedition to explore vegetative recovery on Kodiak Island. About of foot of ash fell on Kodiak in 1912 and Griggs found the town “bleak and desolate” with only tall shrubs, trees, and hardy perennials surviving above the ash when he visited in 1913.
Upon his return to Kodiak in 1915, however, Griggs found a wholly different place. The island was verdant. As he recalled, “[I] could not . . . believe my eyes. It was not the same Kodiak I had left two years before. . . . I had come to study the revegetation, but I found my problem vanished in an accomplished fact.” Griggs concluded the foot-deep ash, rather than killing the hardy perennials underneath, served as a mulch that retained soil moisture and suppressed competition for space and nutrients.
Instead of remaining on Kodiak watching the grass grow, Griggs decided to explore the area closer to the eruption center with his remaining time. Landing in Katmai Bay with two expedition companions, Griggs discovered a strikingly different scene than the greenery of Kodiak, one that he described as an “entrance to another world.” It seemed the entire world was covered in ash. Traveling conditions were so difficult—they routinely encountered thigh-deep quicksand and dangerous river crossings—that the team could not ascend far up the valley. The little he saw, though, convinced Griggs that the area was worthy of further exploration.
The next year, 1916, Griggs returned determined to reach Mount Katmai, then thought to be the sole source of the 1912 eruption. His larger and better-equipped expedition slogged up valley that July and eventually climbed Mount Katmai, becoming the first people to gaze into its 2,000-foot deep caldera.
While on the caldera rim, Griggs thought he saw wisps steam wafting from the far side of the volcano. He would soon discover what lay on the other side but was wholly unprepared for what he saw. I’ll let this excerpt from my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls, describe what happened next.
July 31, 1916 was a tiresome day for Griggs and his two partners, Donovan Church and Lucius Folsom. Their legs remained fatigued from their second Mount Katmai climb and the ash beds offered little firm ground to stand on.
Not far from the highest point in Katmai Pass, Church gave out, “incapacitated by too many flapjacks at breakfast” and waited while Griggs and Folsom continued onward. Griggs’ first glimpse through the pass didn’t hint of much worth investigating except more ash and pumice, but just as he considered turning back a tiny puff of steam caught his attention. This fumarole, or volcanic gas vent, wasn’t particularly large, but the day was damp and chilly so Griggs used it practically, warming his hands in the condensing steam. Shortly afterward he spotted another plume rising from a larger fumarole in the distance. Curiosity hastened Griggs forward and he climbed a small hillock for a better vantage.
“The sight that flashed into view . . . was one of the most amazing visions ever beheld by mortal eye. The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor.
“After a careful estimate, we judged there must be a thousand whose columns exceeded 500 feet. I tried to ‘keep my head’ and observe carefully, yet I exposed two films from my one precious roll in trying for pictures that I should’ve known were impossible. For a few moments we stood gaping at the awe inspiring vision before us…It was as though all the steam engines in the world, assembled together, had popped their safety valves at once and were letting off steam in concert.”
With the day waning and Church still waiting on the other side of Katmai Pass, Griggs and Folsom had little time to explore further, but this was truly virgin territory. No one had set foot in this valley since the eruption irreparably altered it. No one had felt the hot earth under their shoe leather or warmed their hands next to the fumaroles. No one had seen the eruption’s epicenter, the steaming dark gray lava dome Griggs would later name Novarupta. After roughly estimating the number and extent of visible fumaroles, he christened the landscape the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Griggs didn’t return to his base camp until very late in the day. Despite his fatigue he found sleep impossible, his mind whirling with thoughts about the valley he had just found. The landscape was “unseen and unsuspected…until this hour…I had yet only a very inadequate conception of the place we had discovered, but I had seen enough to know that we had accidentally discovered one of the great wonders of the world. I recognized at once that the Katmai district must be made a great national park, accessible to all the people, like Yellowstone.”
From the 1922 book The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes by Robert Griggs.
Griggs returned home later that summer and began immediately to lobby for a national park in the Katmai region. With the support of the National Geographic Society and their contacts in the federal government, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Katmai National Monument in 1918.
Standing in Katmai Pass about 100 years later, I thought of the moments that Griggs and Folsom experienced as they wandered into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes for the first time. With the heat trapped in the ash and pumice having almost completely dissipated, there are no fumaroles in the pass today. Large lava flows from the southwest flank of Mount Trident, even fresher than the 1912 deposits, constrict the valley leading to the pass from the south. A wrinkled cryptogamic soil covers much of the pumice, anchoring the airy gravel in place. The veneer of glaciers on the nearby volcanoes has thinned as the climate continues to warm.
Still, the scene remains remarkably similar to that in which Griggs experienced. No roads or maintained trails snake their way into the Valley or the pass. The views are unimpaired. No light pollution reaches its night skies. In calm weather, your footsteps and heartbeat are often the only sounds—a quiet so immense that the rip of a jacket’s zipper feels like an intrusion. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is contradictory, both wholly different and very much the same as it was when it inspired Griggs to pursue permanent protection for a unique landscape on the face of the Earth.
In 1912, the Alaska Peninsula was forever changed. Rarely has a single event—one that humans witnessed—catalyzed the creation of a national park. If you’ve been fortunate enough to experience the sublimity of wild landscape then perhaps you’ve also experienced something akin to what Griggs felt at Katmai Pass in 1916. The legacy of the discovery of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes continues to shape the history of Katmai.
Looking north in Katmai Pass near the spot where Griggs and Folsom found their first fumarole. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is found just beyond Mount Cerberus at center.
Taken in 1919, “Waiting for Supper to Cook” is perhaps the most iconic historic image of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. From the 1922 book The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes by Robert Griggs.
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes near the confluence of Knife Creek and River Lethe.