In celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul explores the history of this great volcanic event, which shaped part of Alaska’s landscape.
It may sound like a fictional destination in an Indiana Jone’s film, but the Valley of 10,000 Smokes is the real deal. Here in the Last Frontier, where earthquakes and biting cold weather can rattle the soul, is a pristine and a magical, yet unforgiving wilderness—all shaped by a volcanic eruption.
Known for its large population of brown bears, rugged coast, and volcanoes—Katmai is no place for the faint of heart.
It was the aftermath of a volcanic eruption with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 6 that drew Dr. Robert Fiske Griggs on a National Geographic Society expedition to the Katmai coast in 1915. What is left of the summit of Mount Katmai—a composite volcano—is a 4 square mile caldera or what volcanologists call a volcanic crater. The center of the crater now supports a crater lake, as a result of a collapsed mountain. The actual eruption occurred 6 miles west of the summit of Mount Katmai at a vent that we now call the Novarupta volcano.
Griggs, a botanist and 11 other explorers traveled the ash-covered terrain to study the temperatures and substrate layers of the Katmai River Valley in the wake of the 1912 Novarupta volcano. From June 6th to June 8th of that year, Novarupta which translates to “New Eruption,” expelled 30 times the volume of magma that was produced during the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount Saint Helens, making it the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th Century.
Included in the the tephra or pyroclasms—the fragments of rock spewed into the air during a volcanic eruption—is volcanic ash, which includes pulverized rock. These tiny fragments of the Earth were ejected from Mount Katmai’s volcanic vent; and they buried everything in sight, including the Ukak River Valley. As the Ukak River’s water heated, the ash ascended, escaping through fissure and cracks in the Earth’s surface. The opening or fumaroles allowed steam and other gases to rise into the atmosphere, giving the valley its name.
Although the “smokes” are gone as the volcano has cooled, the depositional process is visible and represented in the composition of geologic formations that exist in the area today—an area now known as Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Not far from the famed Brooks Camp, which is one the most famous bear viewing venues in the world, is Griggs Visitor Center. The Center serves as an observation area and shelter, and a hub for visitors interested in touring a portion of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The facility is open only during the summer and hours of operation are available on the National Park Service website.