National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 1/The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

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The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes[edit]

National Geographic Society Explorations in the Katmai District of Alaska

By Robert F. Griggs, of the Ohio State University
Leader of the Society's Mount Katmai Expeditions of 1915 and 1916

In view of the extraordinary conditions of the Katmai region, unparalleled anywhere in the world, the Board of Managers of the National Geographic Society has made a further grant of $12,000 for explorations of Katmai during the summer of 1917, the expedition to be in charge of Prof. Robert F. Griggs, who was the leader of the Society's 1915 and 1916 expeditions.


The eruption of Mount Katmai in June, 1912, was one of the most tremendous volcanic explosions ever recorded. A mass of ash and pumice whose volume has been estimated at nearly five cubic miles was thrown into the air. In its fall this material buried an area as large as the State of Connecticut to a depth varying from 10 inches to over 10 feet, while small amounts of ash fell as much as 900 miles away.

Great quantities of very fine dust were thrown into the higher regions of the atmosphere and quickly distributed over the whole world, so as to have a profound effect on the weather, being responsible for the notoriously cold, wet summer of that year.

The comparative magnitude of the eruption can be better realized if one should imagine a similar eruption of Vesuvius. Such an eruption would bury Naples under 15 feet of ash; Rome would be covered nearly a foot deep; the sound would be heard at Paris; dust from the crater would fall in Brussels and Berlin, and the fumes would be noticeable far beyond Christiania, Norway.

Readers of The Geographic will remember the accounts of the eruption by Capt. K. M. Perry and Dr. Geo. C. Martin, which appeared in the magazine for August, 1912, and February, 1913, respectively.

Fortunately the volcano is situated in a country so sparsely inhabited that the damage caused by the eruption was insignificant—very much less than in many relatively small eruptions in populous districts, such as that of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Indeed, so remote and little known is the volcano that there were not any witnesses near enough to see the eruption, and it was not until the National Geographic Society's expeditions explored the district that it was settled difinitely which of several near-by volcanoes was really the seat of the disturbance.

The most important settlement in the devastated district is Kodiak, which, although a hundred miles from the volcano, was buried nearly a foot deep in ash. This ashy blanket transformed the “Green Kodiak” of other days into a gray desert of sand, whose redemption and revegetation seemed utterly hopeless. When I first visited it, a year later, it presented an appearance barren and desolate. It seemed to every one there that it must be many years before it could recover its original condition.

The eruption was the best thing that ever happened to Kodiak[edit]

What, then, was my surprise on returning after an interval of only two years to find the ash-laden hillsides covered with verdure. Dispite the reports I had received, I could not believe my eyes. Where before had been barren ash was now rich grass as high as one's head.

Every one agrees that the eruption was “the best thing that ever happened to Kodiak.” In the works of our hotel keeper, “Never was any such grass known before, so high or so early. No one ever believed the country could grow so many berries, nor so large, before the ash.”

Were the title not preëmpted, Kodiak might have been called the “Emerald Isle” quite as well as Ireland. Its situation in the Pacific is indeed very similar to that of Ireland in the Atlantic, for it owes its climate, as does Ireland, to the tropical ocean current which bathes its shores. It is indeed a hundred and fifty miles farther north than Ireland, but this is more than counterbalanced by the protection from the Arctic Ocean afforded by the mainland.

Many people will no doubt be astonished to learn that the winter of Boston is far more severe than that of Kodiak, which more nearly resembles that of Washington, D. C. Indeed, an old lady, who had lived all her life in Kansas, found on returning there after two or three winters in Kodiak that the climate was almost unbearable and has been anxious ever since to return to the mild climate of Kodiak.

The eastern half of the island is occupied by a dense forest of spruce, whose trees reach a great size. Beyond the forest it is covered by a luxuriant grass land, which, in the abundance and fine quality of its hay and forage, surpasses any grazing lands in the United States proper and finds a parallel only in the “guinea-grass” pastures of the tropics.

At present this country is lying almost entirely neglected, but as Alaska passes from the stage of exploitation to that of development, these lands are destined to be much sought after for stock-raising.

The eruption, of course, destroyed these pastures, so that the live stock nearly perished from starvation. The herd of the Government Experiment Station was shipped back to the States until it could be determined whether it might be possible to grow forage enough to support them on the ash-covered land. When they were shipped there was scant hope that they could ever be brought back again; but at the end of only two years the pastures had so far recovered that they were returned with full assurance that they could be maintained without difficulty.

Places which three years ago were sand plains, with hardly a green leaf, have now come up into luxuriant meadows of blue-top grass. In some places the grass is still in scattered bunches, but in others it covers the whole ground in pure stands six or seven feet high. Where the meadows are completely grown up, the grass is finer than ever before.

Of the berries, the most important is the salmon or “Molina” berry (Rubus spectabilis), which is allied to our blackberries and raspberries, but somewhat intermediate between them, having much the shape and appearance of a blackberry, but coming loose from the receptacle like a raspberry.

Salmon-berries were of course common before the eruption, but the ash provided such greatly improved conditons for them that the plants have made unusually vigorous growth.

The ash also smothered and weeded out the smaller plants which formerly competed with the berries and apparently acts somewhat like a mulch, protecting the soil from excessive evaporation, for the berries did not suffer in the unprecedented drouth of 1915 as they are said to have done in less dry seasons before the eruption.

But although the country is in places clothed with vegetation as richly as before, it must not be supposed that the old order of things has completely returned. The new vegetation is not altogether the same as that which was destroyed. It is true that the species are the same as those dominant before the eruption, but the smaller species which formerly grew with the dominant plants were unable to pierce the ash blanket and were smothered. This is particularly true in the bogs or tundras, which formerly covered considerable areas. Even four or five inches of the ash was fatal to the bog plants, whose extermination was so nearly complete that it is difficult to find even individual survivors.

Thus while the salmon-berries and high-bush blueberries are finer than ever, the low-bush blueberries and cranberries are entirely lacking.

The exposed mountain tops were formerly covered with an alpine heath containing many of the same species that grew in the bogs, and to them the eruption was similarly fatal. While the sides of the mountains are covered with verdure, their tops are largely barren wastes covered with ash drifts and the skeletons of the former vegetation.

The new vegetation came from old roots[edit]

One would have supposed from the appearance of the country at the end of the first season after the eruption that practically all plants except the trees and bushes had been destroyed, and that revegetation must be due to new seedlings started on the ash. Such, however, is not the case. Excavation of the root systems of the new plants shows that they are old perennials which have come through the ash from the old soil.

Where cultivation destroyed the weeds, the land is still absolutely bare except for an occasional weed which escaped destruction by the plow. The fallow ground, on the other hand, is a mass of fireweed whose bloom is conspicuous for miles.

The sand blast[edit]

While these weeds protect the surface of the fallow ground, ash from the bare surface is picked up in clouds by every wind, forming a sand blast which is very hard on the few plants that have persisted. All of them are lopped over before the wind, and their lower leaves are cut to pieces by the sharp sand or are buried beneath it.

The particles of ash are all very sharp, sharper than ordinary sand. Indeed, volcanic ash forms the basis of such scouring agents as “Old Dutch Cleanser.” The ash is also finer and much lighter than shore sand, so that it is more easily carried by the wind. Consequently this sand blast is a very different thing from the sand drift common among beach dunes. Standing before it is like facing a blast of “Old Dutch Cleanser” in one's face and is at times exceedingly unpleasant.

One might suppose that the frequent rains which characterize the climate of the region would have the effect of checking the sand blast, but it is surprising how quickly it tarts up again after the rain stops. We found once, for example, after a day of soaking rain, that the sand was blowing early the next morning, although only the very surface had dried off.

It was of the utmost importance for the welfare of the country that the ground be covered with vegetation, regardless of the value of the plants making the cover. Of all the native plants, the one which could grow through the deepest ash and, once through, could spread most rapidly on the bare surface was the field horsetail (Equisetum arvense). This is a common weed of railway embankments and such places with us. In Kodiak scattered individuals were frequent before the eruption, though they formed no noticeable element in the landscape. But it has come up everywhere through the ash and spread out on the surface, forming in many places a beautiful greensward, where hardly anything else can come through.

Its present abundance contrasts so greatly with its former state that, according to Mr. Snodgrass of the Experiment Station, some of the natives thought that it must have “come with the ash,” and could only be convinced of the contrary when he dug out the rootstocks and showed that they originated in the old soil beneath the ash. While a deposit of 10 or 12 inches would have been fatal to most plants, the horsetail in many places came through from 30 to 36 inches of ash.

Contrast between Kodiak and the mainland[edit]

Nothing could offer greater contrast to the rehabilitation of Kodiak than the condition of the country on the mainland near the volcano. The village of Katmai, which was the nearest settlement affected, is in an altogether different state from Kodiak. While Kodiak is rejoicing in the prospect of a prosperity beyond that of former days, Katmai is sinking deeper into desolation.

In fear of their lives, the people of Kodiak deserted their town for a few days; but the natives of Katmai, who, fortunately, were away fishing at the time of the eruption, were never allowed to return to their homes, but were removed in a body and settled in a new town built for them by the government. The grass has returned to cover the hillsides of Kodiak as richly as ever before, but the former luxuriance of Katmai Valley is replaced by a barren waste, whose few spots of green serve only to heighten the weird effect.

Our trip to the mainland[edit]

It is not to be supposed that Katmai village was at all near the crater, however. Situated at a distance of 25 miles, it was five times as far from the volcano as was Pompeii from Vesuvius or St. Pierre from Mt. Pelee. More important still, Katmai village was not in the main track of destruction, but lay at one side, near the edge of the ash fall.

To make the trip to Katmai, we secured the services of Mr. Albert Johnson, of Uyak, who undertook to land us at Katmai and come and take us off again when we had finished our exploration. Mr. Johnson proved himself not only trustworthy, but a first-class seaman and a man of very good judgment as well, all of which qualities are essential in one who would successfully navigate the dangerous waters of Shelikof Strait, which lies between Kodiak Island and the mainland, for it has justly acquired the reputation of being one of the most treacherous pieces of water in the world. There were three of us in the party: Mr. B. B. Fulton, Entomologist of the New York Experiment Station, who accompanied me throughout the summer, a most efficient and loyal assistant, and Mr. Lucius G. Folsom, manual-training teacher of Wood Island, near Kodiak, who by his resourcefulness and never-failing optimism helped to carry the expedition by many an obstacle which might otherwise have turned us back.

A weird, fantastic scene[edit]

The scene which met our eyes as we entered Katmai Bay was fantastic and weird in the extreme. Quantities of fresh pumice were floating about as though thrown out by a recent eruption. The sun was shining brightly, but the sky was filled with haze from the volcanic dust in the air, which increased the ghastly and mysterious appearance of the desert landscape and veiled the upper reaches of the valley and the volcanoes we hoped to visit.

As soon as we landed, we began to see evidences of the great flood, which was to be the source of much concern to us. The flats were everywhere covered ankle deep with soft, sticky mud. We were unable to find any place to pitch our camp between the precipitous mountain sides and the flooded flats, except a mound of avalanche detritus, which we felt was too dangerous, for boulders and small avalanches were rolling down the mountain sides all around us every few minutes. We finally reached a bed of pumice which had been floated into place in a grove of poplars. Although there was very wet mud only a few inches below it, the surface was fairly dry. We were in constant fear, however, that the water would suddenly rise in the night and drive us out.

The desolation of the country beggars description. All of the trees had perished except such as were favored by some special circumstance, such as proximity to the protecting mountain sides. In one way the trees and bushes suffered more seriously than the herbage, for wherever the ground had been swept bare of ash the old roots of the herbage sent up new shoots, so that in a few fortunate spots flowers were blooming in their pristine profusion.

But where the ash remained to the depth of a foot or more, the ground under the dead trees was absolutely bare. No vegetation had come through cracks, as at Kodiak, and indeed such cracks may not have been formed because the deposit here is much coarser grained.

Under the mountain sides, where a few remnants of the forest remained alive, different species had suffered in different ways. The only large trees were the balsam poplars. All of the growing parts and ordinary buds of these had been killed, but some of the dormant buds, buried deep in the bark, had survived and grown out into short, bushy branches which gave the trees a most bizarre appearance.

The alder, which is the most characteristic Alaskan bush, everywhere was simply exterminated. For our purposes this was somewhat fortunate, for it was easy to break our way through the branches of the dead thickets, which otherwise would have made traveling difficult. Not a single live sprig of alder was seen until after we had explored considerable country, and then only two or three very small shoots were seen coming up from the roots.

When we arrived at the village, the magnitude of the flood was impressed on us as it could not be in the brush-covered dunes. The church where the people had worshiped undisturbed for years was standing in a sea of liquid mud. The high-water mark could be plainly seen across the front about five feet and a half from the ground.

Some of the native houses were filled solid full to the eaves with pumice. Some had been completely submerged, as might be seen by the stranded pumice which had floated onto their roofs. The roof of one had been floated away from the body of the house and lay at a little distance. The church had evidently floated free from its foundation, for the high-water marks across it were somewhat diagonal.

A river five miles wide and five inches deep[edit]

The river, whose former bed was close by the houses, had subsided from the flood condition enough to show its character. Where formerly was deep water was now a maze of quicksands and intertwining streams. So much material had been dumped into it that the level of its bottom was several feet above its former channel. We could see no indication of the farther bank. Somewhere out beyond the range of our vision were one or more main channels in which a formidable volume of water was running, as we later found to our cost. But except for these shifting main channels it could be described as five miles wide and five inches deep.

We ventured far out from shore to see whether it would be possible to cross, but soon found ourselves miring in the quicksands, so that we were glad to hurry back to terra firma.

The condition of this river is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle to the exploration of the district. While the bottom is too treacherous to travel afoot, especially under a pack, the greater part of it could be easily traversed with snowshoes or some similar contrivance, which, however, would be a fatal encumbrance in the swift currents of the deeper channels. A boat might be used were it not for the fact that the current is too strong for rowing, the bottom is too uncertain for poling, and there is no place to land.

Mysterious source of flood[edit]

Conditions at the village greatly increased our respect for the magnitude of the flood, but failed to enlighten us as to its cause. The volume of water had been tremendous, considering the size of the watershed, for although the main stream is less than forty miles long and has a steep gradient through much of its course, the water had filled the whole valley, six miles wide, many feet deep. We knew of no general storm which could have caused any such unusual quantity of rain.

Our first thought was that the spring tides, which had just passed, had overwhelmed the land; but a little examination showed that the high water had been far above any tide-mark. We then thought of volcanic rains up the valley, for we had no knowledge of the condition of the volcanoes.

But the examination of the village was reassuring in one respect: Although there could be no doubt but that the flood had culminated only a day or two before our landing, everything indicated that it was a very exceptional event.

Exploring in a dust-storm[edit]

When we awoke the next morning we found that a westerly gail which had started during the night had picked up the fine dust from the mountains until it had changed the haze of previous days into a terrific dust-storm. The dust was so thick that it obliterated everything beyond the immediate vicinity. It permeated everything about our camp. We were extremely worried lest it should get into our cameras and ruin all our films.

It matted our hair so that we could not comb it for days. The sharp particles caused acute discomfort in our eyes, and at first we were afraid that it might do us permanent injury; but after a time the irritation stimulated an increased flow from the tear glands, which helped to keep the eyes washed out.

During this day of dust-storm we explored the valley as far as Soluka Creek. The dust heightened the already weird character of the landscape, giving it an indescribably unearthly appearance. The effect was much like that of a heavy snowstorm. This was increased by the outlines of the bare trees. Indeed, so keen were the visual sensations of a snowstorm that every little while I would realize with a start of surprise that I was not cold.

About noon we fell to speculating on the state of the weather above the dust-storm and were surprised on searching the sky at being able to find the sun, whose disc was just visible, a pale white, something like the moon in daytime, but fainter.

It would be quite impossible adequately to describe our feelings on this day, as we groped our way forward into new country, utterly different from any we had ever seen before. Fortunately the loose sandy surface of the ash everywhere held our tracks, so that even without our compass we could hardly have become lost.

Following a bear trail[edit]

We followed all the way a well-worn bear trail which skirted the foot of the mountain, finding that the bears had selected the easiest going to be had. It was very noticeable that the bear trails, except for an occasional side branch into the mountains, all ran lengthwise up and down the valley. They had made no attempt to cross the river. Apparently they had learned by experience not to try that.

Everywhere we kept a sharp lookout for bears, but, although we found a great many tracks belonging to at least a half-dozen sizes of bears, we did not see any of them. At first we were rather concerned for fear that we should come upon one suddenly, for in such a barren country we could not but believe that they must be hungry, and in any event a she bear with cubs is an ugly customer to settle with on short notice. The bears of this region are only slightly inferior in size to the Kodiak bear, which is the largest carnivorous animal in the world, so large as to make a full-grown grizzly look like a cub by comparison.

Later, after we had traveled many days without seeing one, we began to be as much concerned for fear we should not see a bear as we had been at first for fear we should.

They doubtless saw us many times, but were shy and kept out of our way. Indeed, once we thought a mother and cubs who had been advancing toward us had turned and retreated on our approach, for we found where their tracks, apparently just made, suddenly reversed and turned up the valley. We often found on returning over one of our trails that a bear out of curiosity had tracked us for some distance, and when we saw beside our own footprints enormous bear tracks measuring nine by fourteen inches we could not avoid having somewhat of a creepy feeling. Some of the bear tracks were so clear that we could see the marks of the creases in their soles, and had we been palmists doubtless we could have read the fortune of the possessor or at least have learned his disposition.

Other signs of animal life[edit]

Besides bears, foxes were very abundant, and we could frequently get their scent as we traveled along. Wolverines were also frequent travelers along the trails we used. One of the latter must have passed close beside us one day as we climbed a mountain, for we found his fresh tracks on the pass at the top, and on returning followed his trail across our own. How he managed to hide from us in a country so destitute of cover is not clear, but probably he had ample notice of our approach and secreted himself somewhere behind a rock. Of the smaller mammals we saw not a sign, although the surface of the ash preserves tracks to a remarkable degree.

We were surprised to find a few small fish like minnows in the river, for with the ash fall all the streams were entirely filled up for a time, and even the river must have been nearly choked. There was no evidence, however, anywhere of salmon, which must have formerly entered the river in large numbers.

The means of subsistence of so many large animals was very much of a mystery to us; yet they must have found something to eat, for they were evidently at home and not merely passing through. Moreover, if they had not found food they could easily have migrated, for a journey of 20 miles to the westward would have taken them into a country rich in berries, mice, ground-squirrels, and marmots, besides large game such as caribou, and, most important of all, in the summer, salmon in the streams. The only evidence we could secure in this matter beyond our own conjectures was obtained from the character of the bear droppings, which much resembled horse dung, as though the animals had been living on grass. The quantity of grass obtainable, however, seemed entirely inadequate to feed even one bear.

First view of the volcanoes[edit]

On the 16th, having previously broken the trail as far as Soluka Creek, we packed up our outfit and as much food as we could carry and started up the valley for the volcanoes. Our remaining provisions, together with everything not essential to our work, were left in the base camp. Although we had made things as snug as we could, it was not without considerable trepidation that we turned our back on our supplies; for in such a desert country we were absolutely dependent on our provisions, and if a bear or wolverine should take it into his head to wreck our camp in our absence we should have been in a bad way.

Three or four miles up the valley we came out into the open, where we could see the distant mountains of the main range. Standing square across the head of the valley stood Mount Mageik, its magnificent three-peaked snow-cap brilliant in the sunshine. From a small crater east of the central peak issued a column of steam, which, although clearly visible for 50 miles out to sea, appeared diminutive in comparison with the bulk of the mountain.

Mount Katmai itself was concealed beyond the bend of the valley, so that we were to have no glimpse of it until we encamped at its foot.

A new volcano named for Dr. Martin[edit]

But to the west of Mageik, in a position where no volcano is indicated on the maps, was rising from a comparatively low mountain a tremendous column of steam a thousand feet in diameter and more than a mile high.

Comparison with Horner's picture showed at once that this was the mountain he photographed as “Mt. Katmai,” when he penetrated to the upper valley in 1913. It was clear enough from its location that it could not be the mountain called Katmai on the maps, which is east of Mageik. Even from our position it was evident that this was at present the most active volcano of the district.

And it was not at all certain but that this, rather than Katmai, had been the seat of the great eruption whose effects we were studying; for, curiously enough, there has never been any very positive evidence, beyond the statements of a few natives who saw the beginning of the eruption, that it was Katmai, rather than some other volcano in the vicinity, which exploded. Indeed, there was one well-informed man in Kodiak who assured us that he had climbed the mountains back of Amalik Bay and taken bearings which fixed the location of the vent nearer the coast, in a position which he indicated by a cross on my chart.

Fortunately we were able later to obtain evidence which fixed the seat of the great eruption beyond question. In the first place, we found that the deposits became progressively deeper as we approached Mt. Katmai, while the volcano of Hesse and Horner's photographs was near the edge of the ash fall. Thus the deposits on the lower slopes of Katmai are 15 feet deep on the level; but 10 miles farther south, near the other volcano, their depth is to be measured by as many inches, and only a mile or two beyond the country is covered with vegetation, so rapidly do the deposits thin out in that direction.

Moreover, great as is the activity of this volcano, its crater, in comparison with the great caldera, which we later found in Mount Katmai, is relatively diminutive and quite too small to have thrown out such a tremendous quantity of ash and pumice in so short a time. Further, great as must have been the changes wrought in the landscape in the sudden opening of a vent a thousand feet in diameter, they were relatively insignificant beside the tremendous change we found in Mount Katmai itself. There can be no question therefore that the eruption was from Mount Katmai and not from any other vent.

But if we were convinced that the volcano of Hesse and Horner's photographs was not Katmai, we were equally uncertain of what it was, for none of the maps show any volcano near its location nor give any name to the mountain, and there appears to be neither record nor tradition of any volcano in that quarter.

There is every reason to believe, therefore, that this new volcano sprung into being at the time of the great explosion.

But tremendous as is the phenomenon of the opening of such a gigantic vent through a mountain, we were to find later other accompaniments of the great eruption of even greater magnitude.

In order to discuss the new volcano, it is necessary to give it some designation. It seemed to us as we watched the new “steamer” that no name could be more appropriate than one commemorating the work of Dr. George C. Martin, whose explorations and report for the National Geographic Society will always stand as the first authoritative account of the great eruption of Mount Katmai. We therefore suggest that this new volcano be called Mount Martin.

We were not able to determine the position or altitude of this new volcano with precision, but have located it approximately on the map given on page 23. Although situated in the main range, it is considerably lower than the neighboring mountains. Its altitude is approximately 5,000 feet.

Ash slides more than a thousand feet high[edit]

When we reached Soluka Creek we found it much more formidable than our reconnoiters in the dust storm had indicated. Leaving the others on the bank, I dropped my pack and waded out through the dead forest for half a mile in the icy water. From that distance it looked wider, deeper and swifter than from the starting point. I therefore decided it was impracticable to attempt to cross under our heavy packs, so we camped that night in the dead forest on the flat near by.

next morning, starting to hunt for a practicable ford, we climbed up on to the shoulder of a mountain where we could get a bird's-eye view of the creek below and select the likeliest place to try.

Here we found a new experience in climbing the great ash slides with which the lower slopes are covered. Wherever the mountains were precipitous and too steep for the ash to stick, it slid down into the valleys, covering the lower slopes with great fans of sand, which stand the critical angle ready to slide down at the slightest provocation. Some of these ash slopes are more than a thousand feet high. Their surface is loose, rolling sand, into which one sinks to his ankles, while new sand continually slides down on to him.

Often the whole slide above one will begin to move and then he is placed in a tread-mill, where he must keep moving or slide to the bottom. Such climbing was of course hard work, and we soon cut up our finger-nails and wore the tips of our fingers down to the quick in the sharp sand by using our hands to help us in climbing.

Fording a mile of quicksand[edit]

When we descended to the ford we found that the bottom was a continuous quicksand clear across.

Sometimes the surface would hold like the crust of a snowdrift; but we were in constant fear of going down, for on sounding with our alpenstock we discovered that the whole length of the stick went down into the sand anywhere without finding bottom. Often our footing gave way and we found ourselves floundering up to our middle in quicksand.

With all our crossings in the two expeditions no one ever got in so deep that he could not get out alone. But there was the ever-present knowledge that we never touched the bottom and the fear of what might happen next time.

Besides this the labor of carrying a pack through such mire is so great as to defy description. It must be experienced to be appreciated. Every step takes all one's strength and soon one's weary muscles ache from the strain. But once in, there is no chance to rest until one reaches the farther shore, for there is no place to lie down or sit down, and if one even stands still he immediately begins to sink. Even the strongest man is well-nigh exhausted after a mile of such work.

The condition of streams choked with ash and pumice is peculiar in the extreme. They spread out over their whole floodplain, wandering this way and that through the dead forest in a most fantastic way, changing their courses continually, so that the stream is never the same for half an hour at a time. The whole bottom is rapidly traveling downstream, its continuous, steady motion resembling one of the moving platforms which are sometimes used to transport passengers.

One stream near our camp had cut clear through the accumulated mass of ash just below a fall, forming a bluff some 70 feet high. A hundred yards downstream, however, the slope, though still very steep, was less, and the stream had been completely overcome by the enormous quantity of pumice in its way.

It was ludicrous to watch the struggles of this stream as it wrestled with the pumice in its bed. Dammed up in the failure of a previous attempt, it would gradually accumulate enough energy for a new effort. Then suddenly breaking loose from its bonds, it would rush forward down the slope, pushing a pile of pumice before it, as though to engulf the onlooker, writhing this way and that like a live thing, picking up pieces of pumice and floating them along as it came. Before it had gone far, however, its new load would literally choke it, and it would give up the struggle in a hiss of grating pumice stones.

It was quite a problem to secure water from such streams. The water always carried such quantities of large angular pumice fragments, not to speak of sand and mud, that it was out of the question to attempt to wash in the brooks. If we tried, the pumice would so grind into our flesh as to prohibit any further efforts as cleanliness. But while washing is a matter of choice, one must drink whether or no. We were obliged everywhere to strain our water through one of our foodbags. Often we would have to strain a quart of pumice to get a pint of water. The stream changed so rapidly that we sometimes had to move before we could fill a bucket. Straining, of course, removed only the coarser grit.

At one of the camps our water was so full of mud that Mr. Folsom refused to wash his face for three days, because he “did not want to dirty it with the water we had to drink.”

Caverns formed by snow melting beneath the ash[edit]

The day after crossing Soluka Creek we climbed the mountain to the west in hopes of seeing the volcano, for we feared lest the fine weather which had favored us would come to an end before we should attain our object. Our quest, however, was vain, for when we reached the summit we found that another summit, not marked on our map, cut off our view so that we could not see Mount Katmai. This we called Barrier Mountain.

We tried to cross the pass to reach a position where we could see the condition of the volcano, but were balked by a new kind of difficulty. On the way up one of us, sticking his staff into the ground harder than usual, discovered that it went through into a cavern beneath. Examination showed that we were supported on an arch of ash a foot thick, spanning a deep hole.

We found that the mountains everywhere were deeply covered with snow, which was concealed by a mantle of ash and pumice blown over it by the wind. The snow beneath was rapidly melting out in the warm weather, leaving the ash surface standing as smooth as ever above the cavity.

Such small holes as the one into which we had accidentally broken were, of course, of no consequence; but as we looked down one of the side valleys, we could see great cave-ins in an apparently smooth ash field, where a stream burrowing through the snowdrifts beneath had undermined the surface. For half a mile or so the tunnel thus made had caved in, and then for another half mile it was still intact, giving no indication of its presence to an unwary traveler.

Reflecting on the significance of such phenomena for us, we carefully chose a path free from all appearance of buried snowdrifts. We had not gone a hundred yards, however, when I happened to stamp my foot and was astonished to hear the ground beneath me ring hollow. We quickly retreated, spread out, and tried another place. We had not gone far when all three of us at once, though 50 feet apart, detected a cavern beneath us. We had absolutely no means of judging whether the hold was 5 feet deep or 50, nor of estimating the strength of the roof.

The danger of such a situation was altogether too great to undertake, so we reluctantly turned back, with as yet no view of the volcano.

An awe-inspiring valley of death[edit]

The following day we started to encircle the mountains into upper Katmai Valley. As we proceeded the country became progressively more desert. Small birds which were common in the lower valley were absent here. The stillness of the dead forest was oppressive. One could travel all day without hearing a sound but his own footfalls and the plunge of rushing water. The bear trails persisted until we turned the corner into the upper valley, but there they disappeared. Beyond that point there were no signs of animal life, except a pair of bald eagles, which reconnoitered our camp the first night, a few mosquitos, and, curiously enough, a humming-bird moth, which seemed strangely out of place in such a valley of death.

Clouds hung so low that everything above a thousand feet was obscured, but as we pushed up into the valley a feeling of tremendous awe possessed us. We had quite exhausted our stock of superlatives in the lower valley and found ourselves altogether without means of expressing the feelings that arose in us or of describing the scene before us.

More evidence of a tremendous flood[edit]

As we proceeded, evidences of flood damage rapidly increased; but we noticed that none of the tributary streams had been affected, and when we reached the forks of the river we found that the whole flood had come down from under the volcano itself, wreaking havoc in its way. A deep channel had been eroded in the pumice deposits. Part of the way it had washed out all of the pumice and had cut into its original bed besides.

For miles where thick forests had stood the trees were sheared off at the surface of the ash. The few trees which remained were bent, twisted, splintered, and broken in every describable manner. In places, sheltered from the extreme fury of the waters, the trees were piled high with driftwood.

The volume of water had been enormous. We found high-water marks 25 feet above the bed of the stream where the valley was two miles wide.

As we gradually came fully to comprehend what a tremendous catastrophe this flood had been, we were more and more thankful for the good luck which had delayed our expedition until after it had passed. If we had landed a week earlier, we would certainly have been overwhelmed, unless by chance we had happened to be on high ground, out of the valley, at the time of the disaster.

We had finally penetrated as far as we could up the valley and camped, as we hoped, about opposite Mount Katmai; but we could not be sure of our position, for the clouds hung low.

A flow of bright red mud more than two miles long[edit]

Here we beheld a formation quite different from anything else we had seen. A ravine which branched off from the main valley behind a spur of the mountain was filled by what looked like a great glacier, except that its color was a bright terra-cotta red. In every detail of its form except for its crevasses it was exactly like a glacier: beginning at a considerable elevation, where the ravine was narrow, it sloped evenly down to the valley level, widening as it descended, so as to assume a triangular form.

If the color had not been so different from everything else in the landscape, we would have been quite sure it was a glacier covered with dirt. But in such a situation no glacier could have escaped without a thick covering of the omnipresent ash. We concluded, therefore, that it must be a mass of mud which had run down off the volcano.

Later, when we visited it, its structure confirmed this theory. As it lay on top of the ash, it had evidently been formed since the eruption. Although it was hard and firm, so as to be easy walking, both its structure and its form showed clearly that it had reached its position in a semifluid condition. Like a glacier, it had a relatively steep front and was convex, highest in the middle, so as to turn the drainage off to the edges, along each of which a deep canyon had been cut.

But despite the indications that it had once been fluid, we saw no mud-cracks or other evidence of shrinkage upon drying out, such as one would have expected to find in a mud-flow. Its length we estimated by our pedometer at 2½ miles. Its highest part attained an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet, from which point it sloped to about 300 feet at the base. We were not so well able to estimate its thickness. But along the edges where it was cut into by the streams a section about 50 feet thick was exposed. In the middle it may have been much thicker, both on account of the convexity of the surface and the greater depth of the valley floor.

Under erosion, this and other similar mud-flows, later found, develop very striking bad-land topography, so that on a bright day one might almost imagine himself to be in western North Dakota if it were not for the streams trickling everywhere from the melting snows. When the mud dries it becomes hard and holds its shape, so that the sides of the gullies remain vertical, as they are cut by the streams, and do not crumble away as would softer soil.

Lava all blown to fragments[edit]

We were very much surprised at the character of the ejecta close to the crater. Post-cards are current in Alaska showing great rocks which are said to have been “hurled from the volcano,” and we ourselves had expected to find something of the sort.

The fact is, however, that the violence of the explosions was so great that everything which came out of the crater was blown to “smithereens.” Pieces of pumice six inches in diameter were hard to find, and the very largest piece we could discover near Mount Katmai was less than nine inches in its longest dimension.

Nowhere was there any flow of lava in connection with the recent eruption. This is due to the fact that the lava as it rose through the throat of the volcano was so heavily charged with gases, mostly steam, under enormous pressure, that on reaching the surface it was either blown into a froth of pumice by the sudden expansion of the included gas or exploded and was completely disrupted, forming ashes and dust.

On first thought one is apt to be more awed by a force that could hurl great rocks through the air than one which merely throws up ashes and dust. But when one reflects that ash and pumice are rock blown to fragments by the violence of the explosion, he realizes that much mightier forces are involved than would be required to toss boulders about.

Crossing the river[edit]

In spite of the desolation of the valley, even in the shadow of the volcano, some few remnants of plants persisted in sheltered nooks on the steep mountain side. In our climb we found living plants of devil-club, lady-fern, salmon-berries, a willow, a sedge, and a bedstraw. The leaves of most of these were injured around the margins, and in general they appeared more dead than alive, though, of course, still retaining the possibility of later becoming the means of revegetating the country.

Our next venture was to try to cross the river to examine the lower slopes of the volcano and the mud-flow. This we found a very formidable undertaking. Although the stream was divided into many channels, none of which was deep, it was so swift as almost to carry us away. Indeed, both Fulton and I went down under its current and succeeded in getting out only with difficulty. We did not mind the ducking, even though the water was icy cold, but we were in fear of wetting our precious cameras.

A second new volcano—The Trident[edit]

After two days of waiting, the sky cleared, and when we woke we beheld the whole range. Off to the westward was a steady column of steam rising from Mount Martin, which was concealed behind a foothill, which, from its position, we named Observation Mountain. Next were the three peaks of Mount Mageik, covered with newly fallen snow. Across its northwestern slopes formerly ran the trail to Bering Sea, across Katmai Pass, which, though reputed difficult and dangerous, looked very easy from our position.

On the northeast side the pass is flanked by a lofty three-peaked volcano, which we called The Trident. Its three peaks are arranged in semicircular fashion, leaving between them an amphitheater open toward Katmai Valley, which looks somewhat like an ancient crater breached on one side. The highest peak appears from the valley like an almost perfect cone, truncated at the top as though by a crater. Its height as given by the chart is 6,790 feet.

The present crater is a fissure at the base of this peak (altitude about 3,500 feet), from which issued, somewhat intermittently, a column of steam. Although the volume of this steam was quite small in comparison with that of Mageik and Martin, it sometimes assumed quite respectable proportions, rising 3,000 feet or more. There is good reason to believe that this vent also appeared in connection with the great eruption.

Our first sight of Mount Katmai[edit]

Next in line beyond a wide pass stood Mount Katmai itself. This was quiescent during our visit and at first sight presented a rather disappointing appearance, for its glaciers and snowfields were so covered with ash as to make it suffer from comparison with Mount Mageik. As we studied it, however, we saw that its great bulk reduced its apparent height.

The crest, as seen from the valley, forms a great arc some three miles in length, highest at the ends, and broken in the middle by a sharp, tooth-like rock, which stands up out of the lowest place in the rim. Even from the valley the edges of this curving rim are so sharp as to give the top a hollow appearance, indicative of the great crater within.

Mount Katmai is now merely a stub of its former bulk[edit]

Although Mount Katmai was seen by many white men before the eruption, there is no record of any photograph or description of it; so that there is no very definite means of determining the configuration of the mountain before the explosion. It was higher than Mageik, however, and originally must have quite overshadowed the latter, because, though much less conspicuously placed in the valley, it gave its name to both river and town. The Coast and Geodetic Survey's chart of the district shows a three-peaked mountain with an elevation of 7,500 feet. The highest peak was to the south, while the middle one was 7,360 feet and the north 7,260 feet high respectively.

From the contours of the chart I have made a diagram of the mountain before the eruption for comparison with its present condition. But even without the information given by the chart, it is evident that the present mountain is merely a stub of a much greater peak of former days.

Coming back into the lower valley after the total desolation of the country in the shadow of the volcanoes was like regaining the earth after a visit to the inferno. How green the trees looked! How the birds sang! How beautiful the green mountains! And this was the country on which we had exhausted our superlatives of devastation in an effort to compare it with Kodiak! We ourselves had not fully realized the awful devastation near the volcano until we felt the relief from its contemplation in the comparative verdure of the vicinity of the ruined village.

We were much relieved to find our base camp intact. Although a wolverine had been prowling around, he had evidently been suspicious of such fresh signs of man and had not disturbed anything.

On July 29 we began to look for Mr. Johnson to come to take us back to Kodiak, according to appointment. We learned later that he tried to reach us both that day and the next, but was unable to land. On the 31st, however, the weather was clear and calm, so that he was able to get ashore.

We were rejoicing in the prospect of a speedy return to Kodiak, but soon found that our troubles were not over, for before he could get us off a “northeaster” blew up, so that he had to abandon us hastily on the beach and make for his boat with the word “Back at the first chance.” The sea rose so quickly that he had difficulty in regaining the sloop and reaching a place of safety. It was not for three days that he was able to return, and then, although there was considerable surf running, we lost no time in getting aboard.

Organizing the expedition of 1916[edit]

The expedition of 1916 was carried out on substantially the same lines as that of the preceding year, except that it was possible to organize the work more thoroughly and to provide against various contingencies which could not have been foreseen without the experience of the previous year. The party consisted of Mr. Folsom, Mr. D. B. Church, as photographer, and myself. The experience of the previous year showed the necessity of the employment of a packer also.

Here we met one of our most difficult problems, for we found that the natives were afraid of the volcano and could not be induced to go to the mainland. When we broached the matter to the chief, he said at once very positively, “Me no Katmai,” and we learned later that he had advised his followers, “Life is better than money.”

The problem was most happily met, however, when we thought of Walter Matroken, the celebrated one-handed bear hunter of Kodiak. He agreed to go without any hesitation and stuck to his promise, although, as we found afterward, the other natives used all sorts of arguments to dissuade him.

Already a hero among his fellows because of his many exploits as a hunter, he was doubly so when he returned safely, having actually looked into “The Hole” out of which had come the devastating blast. Even Walter, however, was very nervous on the crater rim, keeping sheltered behind a rock a good share of the time and shifting about uneasily as he watched us work, finally remarking when he thought we had overstayed our time. “Can't make nothing up here.”

The bear hunter of Kodiak[edit]

Walter was one of those strong characters whom one finds among all classes, who stand out superior to their fellows. Deprived of his right hand by a hunting accident in his youth, he has so overcome the handicap that with his one hand he can accomplish more than most men with two. We found nothing he could not do, even to tying knots and rolling cigarettes.

But when there came a place where we needed some one to handle a boat I supposed that finally I had found his limit, for I could not imagine how any man could handle two oars in one hand. Not so, however, for in a flash he had somehow lashed one oar to his stub and was rowing along as well as anybody.

The general appearance of the country was much the same as it had been the year before; but the mountains were greener, and even on the flat seedlings were beginning to start. When we began to examine old landmarks, however, we found that while the general appearances were unaltered, there had been great changes in detail.

The site of our camp of the previous year we found buried under 20 inches of fresh pumice, washed off the mountain side, while a stream had cut its bed across the place where our tent had stood. The year before this stream had been 50 yards distant and we never dreamed that it might come our way. As we journeyed up the valley, we found other similar changes, but the general conditions were but little different.

Soluka Creek was the same maze of quicksands that had almost turned us back the year before. I must confess that as many times as we crossed Soluka Creek I never got used to it. Although we never had an accident, I never could free myself from the dread of the crossing and the fear that the next time it would “get” one of us.

Grand view camp[edit]

When we arrived at the head of the flat we picked our camp site so as to command a view of the surrounding mountains. The marks of the great flood were no longer fresh on the ground and it was evident that there had been no similar catastrophe during the year that had elapsed. We therefore had no fear of a repetition of the flood and did not hesitate to camp out in the open, choosing, in fact, an island in the river, which, although being cut away by the swift water at the rate of several yards a day, was safe enough for the period of our visit.

I never expect to be privileged to have a camp site surrounded by grander scenery than was this island. On the east side of the valley was the waterfall that we christened Fulton's Fall, nearly a mile away, but the more impressive for its distance, framed in between the brilliant orange and green slopes of two mountains, which we called Slide Mountain and Avalanche Mountain, and backed by the rich red precipices of Barrier Mountain. The latter, though in reality several miles away, at the head of a valley, appeared set just a few hundred feet back of the fall, which has the majestic sweep attained only by falls of much greater height than breadth.

Farther up at the head of the valley stood the 1,500-foot cliffs which guard the entrance to the inner canyon of Katmai River, while towering aloft over inaccessible precipices the summits of Slide and Avalanche Mountains themselves presented fine enough spectacles to command attention in any other setting. But here they were eclipsed, for on the other side of the valley we could see the whole chain of glacier-covered volcanoes of the main range in continuous series, broken only by Katmai Pass, whose 2,700 feet looked low indeed by comparison.

From north to south were Katmai, Trident, Mageik—partly hidden behind Observation Mountain, and finally the distant steam from Martin.

It was evident that the activity of all the vents was somewhat greater than the year before. There could be no longer any doubt but that considerable steam was rising from Katmai, whereas the year before we could not be certain of any activity. The column from Mageik was larger, and there was a small column rising from a point well down on the slope of Martin which we had not seen before.

Indications of activity on the Bering Sea side of the range[edit]

In addition to these vents, every time it was clear we saw very definite indications of more volcanoes on the other side of the range. Through Katmai Pass we could see two large clouds when everywhere else all was clear except the “steamers.” Over the isthmus connecting Katmai and Trident we saw, as we had in 1915, similar signs of activity.

These were, however, very puzzling, elusive, uncertain—quite different from the steady columns rising from Mageik and Martin; for they were not only inconstant and variable in volume, but equally uncertain in position, appearing now at one point and now at another.

Starting for the first ascent[edit]

On finding the sky clear and bright the morning after our arrival, July 19, we decided to see how the river was and to reconnoiter the volcano with a view to picking our path for the climb when the proper time should come.

When we started we had little idea of making the ascent, expecting to content ourselves with reconnoitering the lower slopes. But as we went on we became more and more anxious to try the climb. So, leaving the mud-flow at about 800 feet, we started up the long ridge which runs out parallel with the canyon. This was easy going, with a gentle ascent up to 2,000 feet, when we suddenly came into sight of the upper valley of Katmai River.

The tremendous flood explained[edit]

We found that the canyon was only as long as Mount Katmai itself, while farther on, the valley turned to the east and expanded again into a flat, in which we discovered three large lakes, blue as the sky, in strong and grateful contrast to the gray land.

But what especially surprised us was suddenly to discover the origin of the flood which had so sorely puzzled our party the year before. A stream flowing between Katmai Volcano and its neighbor had piled up an immense dam across its valley. Behind this dam a vast lake had accumulated until the pressure of the impounded water became irresistible, when the dam burst and the torrent, like a Johnstown flood, rushed seaward, fortunately without human toll.

Turning from the lakes with the hope that we might be able to return and explore them, we roped ourselves together and decided to have a try at the slopes above.

We were on dangerous ground from the outset. The surface was covered by many feet of ash overlying snow, which, melting out from beneath, made the surface slump away and crack open in all directions, while at intervals boiling torrents issued from the cavernous depths. No experience with snow bridges could give any precedent for judging the strength of such ash bridges and we had no means of knowing what to expect.

It was with fear and trembling that I ventured out across the first and, as it proved, the worst of these bridges. It was only a few feet wide, with perpendicular edges 30 feet high, while from beneath came a roaring torrent, which divided just below, part going down behind the arrête we had come up and part tumbling directly down the face of the mountain.

Climbing the mud-plastered slopes[edit]

The slopes were all plastered with mud of varied colors—gray, yellow, chocolate, red, black, and blue—the results of the last spasms of the great eruption.

At the lower levels the mud was dry and hard, making easy going; but as we ascended, it soon became slippery, and a little higher soft and sticky. Most of the way it was about ankle deep, but in spots we went in nearly to our knees; and at times it required all our strength to extricate ourselves. Unpleasant and laborious as walking through deep mud is under any circumstances, we found traveling up the slope very hard work indeed.

Above 4,000 feet the way was mostly through soft snow, with only occasional mud patches, and the slope became steeper as we advanced.

As we reached the higher levels the scenery became superb. We could see Kodiak Island across the strait over the tops of the nearer mountains, which presented a magnificent mass of sharp peaks and intervening snow-fields.

But finer than these was the canyon of Katmai River, which lay stretched below us. Flanked by the multicolored mud-flows, with the river hidden within the lower gorge, this resembled greatly the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and indeed, except for its shortness, rivaled the latter in its proportions, for it is about 4,000 feet deep, of which about 1,500 feet is the inner gorge, cut through beautiful delicate green rocks, not to be matched in the Grand Canyon.

Steam from the crater obscures the summit[edit]

Long before we reached the brim the hard work had begun to tell on us and we were becoming tired, especially Church and Folsom, who were carrying packs. Mr. Church in particular deserves great credit for lugging the big camera, with its tripod weighing 20 pounds, to the summit. He told me afterward that he could never have done it except for two facts—that he was hitched to a rope and could not get away and the fear that if we turned back today we would have it all to do over again tomorrow.

As it began to cloud up, we were afraid we would not be able to see anything if we did reach the rim. All the other summits as far as we could see were clear, but Katmai became densely covered with black, heavy clouds which permitted only occasional glimpses of the top. Furthermore, we were on the lee side of the crater instead of to windward, as we should have been. We knew these clouds must be due, in part at least, to the activity of the volcano, because of the strong sulphurous odor which filled the air, but could not tell how much was to be attributed to this cause and how much was simply due to the greater altitude of the volcano.

As we came closer we could see that the clouds were in rapid motion, coming straight up out of the crater. What if we should reach the rim only to poke our noses into a steam jet through which we could see nothing! Nevertheless we were unwilling to give up now without at least a try, and so we pressed on.

The crater[edit]

Finally, at 5,500 feet, we reached the rim. The inside wall was standing nearly perpendicular and great masses of snow and mud were cracked off from the edges, ready to fall in; so that I did not dare to look over the edge, even though anchored by the rope, until I could find a place which looked safer. Then we approached the edge. Nothing could be seen through the rising steam.

But, as we looked, there came a little rift and we could see something blue far below us. Then the steam cut us off again and we waited. Again it blew away and we were struck speechless by the scene, for the whole crater lay below us. It was of immense size and seemed of an infinite depth.

A vitreolic lake[edit]

About half of the bottom was occupied by a wonderful blue and green vitreolic lake, with the crescent-shaped remains of an ash cone near the middle. In the larger end was a circle of lighter-colored water which was in continual ebullition.

Around the margin were a thousand jets of steam of all sizes, issuing from every crevice with a roar like a great locomotive when the safety valve lets go. On the far side, close to the water, were two large, bright yellow spots of sulphur, while in two angles of less activity there were snow-fields.

The perpendicular sides near us were composed entirely of frozen mud and fragments of various sorts of ejecta, and nowhere in the whole ascent did we encounter bedrock. On the opposite side of the crater we could see that the greater part of the wall was composed of lava and tufa, the successive flows giving it a roughly stratified appearance.

We were powerless to form any real estimate of the size of this stupendous hole. It was clear, however, that it occupied all of the area within the rim, which from below appears three miles long. As to the depth, the best I could do was to look in and then try to carry the same level to the slope up which we had come. Thus estimated, the depth was apparently about 1,500 feet. This estimate we subsequently had to enlarge.

All this we took in almost at a glance. Before we could get our tripod set up the cloud closed in again and we waited amid a thunderous roar of escaping steam. Were we to be cheated of the coveted pictures after all? Finally the cloud lifted a little and frantically we made our exposures.

I had planned to take bearings and measurements which would permit more accurate determination of the depth and size, but we were vouchsafed so few clear moments that we could not make them. We had reached the rim at 5.05 p. m. The moment we stopped moving we began to suffer so from our cold, wet feet that waiting was torture; but we lingered on the edge for 50 minutes hoping for better views, but as the clear intervals became less and less frequent we had to give it up and descend. None of us fully realized, I think, how far we had come till we found how long the return journey was, but we reached our camp safely at 10.20 p. m.

Next day I was up at 5.30 to take pictures of the mountains, for practically the only opportunities to get good pictures of the volcanoes came early in the morning. The sky was clear except for a few very delicate cirrus clouds above the mountains to the east. They were long combed out and lay in horizontal lines, drifting slowly toward Katmai.

The wonderful scenery of the canyon[edit]

Our distant view from the mountain of the second Katmai Valley, with its lakes, and especially the dam, which had caused the great flood, made us anxious to penetrate the canyon and examine the upper valley in detail. But we found it impossible to penetrate beyond the mouth of the canyon, being stopped on the brink of a 500-foot precipice, which we named Prospect Point.

The magnificence of the view from this point was simply beyond description.

It is like the Grand Canyon and the Canadian Rockies all put together and then the volcanoes added. The desert landscape, covered with the many-colored muds from the volcano, together with the fine colors of the rock walls, recall the Grand Canyon. But the upper slopes, with their sharp summits occupied by snow-fields and glaciers, remind one of the Canadian Rockies, in particular of such places as the “Valley of the Ten Peaks.”

Down the sides pour numerous waterfalls, some of which are of great beauty. Opposite Prospect Point is one whose thin, misty streams drop 1,500 feet from the top of the inner canyon clear to the bottom. Two more, each several hundred feet high, may be seen on the slopes of Katmai.

The two sides of the canyon show very different rock structure. The east wall is a 1,500-foot cliff, of delicate green sedimentaries, but little metamorphosed, although shot through by numerous dikes of igneous rock, also pale green. But on the west the river is hemmed in by great mahogany-colored lava flows, whose massive cliffs rise 2,000 to 2,500 feet before giving way to the gentler slopes of the plateau. At least three successive flows may be made out lying superposed one on the other. All appear to have come from Katmai itself, but none of them is recent.

In the more exposed situations the wind has often cut through the different layers of ash, leaving the hillsides marked with many bands and circles, where deposits of different colors have been alternately uncovered.

Experiences in a terrific gale[edit]

Where the unprotected positions were occupied by birches, their dead trunks often bear evidence of the power of wind erosion; for on the northwest side their bark has been all cut away, and in many cases the wood deeply abraded by pieces of ash and pumice flying before the wind.

But even such evidences of the power of the wind could not have given us any conception of the terrific violence of the gales if we had not had the misfortune to experience one. For 48 hours it blew with such fury that we were in constant fear lest our tent should be torn to shreds. I would never have supposed that any tent could have stood up under the strain. We had it double-guyed at each end with our Alpine rope, but were not able to keep the pegs from pulling out at the bottom. We could not have held it down without the floor. Several times we held it in place by lying on the floor until the pegs could be driven in again around the bottom.

Only less noisy was the bombardment of the sand-blast, which drove against the tent like showers of hail. The power of the wind was such that pieces of pumice even an inch in diameter were picked up and carried away, while others twice as big went rolling along the slopes.

The wind was so fierce that we could not keep a fire, nor could we have cooked anything if we had, for we no sooner put on a kettle of water than it began to fill with sand, so that it could not be used.

The second ascent[edit]

On July 30, for the first time since our arrival in the valley, the steam from Mageik rose straight up into a cloudless sky. We therefore decided the conditions auspicious to try for a second view into the crater. This time I chose a path over the lava plateau from near the base of the mud-flow. From the valley the ground did not seem especially favorable, and we were by no means sure of reaching the rim when we started; but I was anxious to examine the Trident at close range, and especially to see what might be behind the isthmus connecting it with Katmai, because of our suspicions of activity in that direction.

We got a fine view of Trident, whose crater proved to be a simple fissure, out of which steam was continually issuing in a comparatively small volume. But we were disappointed in our hopes of seeing anything over the divide between Trident and Katmai.

Although we traversed the whole length of the nearly level névé at an altitude of about 4,200 feet, we could see no indications of volcanic activity beyond. There were several jagged minor summits, but no large mountain and no clouds; so that we quite dismissed the idea of a volcano in that quarter.

How greatly in error I was in this conclusion I was to find only the next day.

For a good share of the way beyond 2,000 feet our path this time lay across the lines of drainage, which had gashed the level surface of the ash with innumerable gullies anywhere from two to ten feet deep. On our first ascent we had followed straight up a single ridge, and so avoided the necessity of crossing the gullies. This time we soon found that continued jumping across or scrambling up and down the sides of these ravines is very fatiguing and were thoroughly tired of the job long before we got through them.

For the last 1,500 feet our way led across much-crevassed snowfields and glaciers, which, while easier going for the most part, kept us in constant fear of cave-ins on account of the uncertain conditions introduced by the ash-fall. In places we traversed as nasty a series of seracs as one would care to find.

We found that the glacial seracs extended clear up to the very rim of the crater, above whose depths the loose blocks hung with a precarious hold.

We did not dare to approach the edge over such ground and had to make our way around, descending somewhat until we finally reached the rim at the lowest notch, at an altitude of 5,200 feet, beside the rock which breaks the regularity of the arc at that point.

This from the valley appears as a small tooth-like projection. Near at hand it is seen to be a great neck of jointed columnar basalt two or three hundred feet high, which evidently owes its preservation to its superior hardness, which enabled it to resist the force of the explosion that blew away the softer rock all around it. Its position and structure indicate that it was formerly a vent filled with liquid lava which, cooling in place, formed the massive neck that remains.

Inability to judge height or distance[edit]

From our position directly under it, its perpendicular cliffs, though insignificant from the valley, appeared immeasurably high! Frequently in this land of stupendous dimensions we had occasion to realize how little conception we could really form of the true sizes of the features around us.

When one stands directly beneath a cliff or at its brink and looks up or down, 200 feet appears as an immeasurably great height. Ten times as much appears no greater unless there are trees, houses, or some such familiar objects beyond, by which one can form an independent judgment of their distance. In a desert country without such objects, we were frequently unable to form any estimate at all of the size of the various features which met our view.

We had an amusing instance of this when, sending a man to climb the great ash slide to serve as a scale for a picture, I found that he was hardly visible to the naked eye and utterly lost in the picture. We nearly always found that our estimates were too small rather than too large, and throughout the present paper I have endeavored to scale down my statements of size, so that any errors should be in the direction of minimizing rather than of exaggerating the things we have to report.

Standing on the edge of the crater, we recognized our total inability to form any judgment of its depth by the ordinary methods one uses in estimating such things. But, using the shape of the volcano as a whole and such differences in altitude of the parts of the crater rim as we could see from the valley for our guide, we concluded that our former estimate must be too small, and that it must be at least 2,000 feet in depth.

The second view of the crater[edit]

Both the weather conditions and our position were much more favorable for observation of the crater this time than on our first ascent. The sun shone brightly, and it became evident why we had had so much trouble with the steam on the first ascent, for we found that the point which we had reached the first time stood directly above a prominent fissure extending in an easterly direction from the edge of the lake to the crater wall. Its direction was significant in connection with what we were to discover the next day.

The boiling lake this time was all covered with little (so they appeared from our position) wisps of steam curling up everywhere from its surface. The vapor thus given off condensed into a hazy cloud, which hung in the mouth of the crater, so that the part of the rim opposite us was veiled. This haze made it impossible to secure as clear photographs of the crater as we would have wished.

At the northeast angle we could see another low notch in the rim of about the same altitude as the one where we stood. But this one was occupied by a wall of ice which rose perpendicular, flush with the crater walls, as though it had been sheared off by the explosion. It was indeed curious that a moving glacier, however it might have been affected by the eruption, should remain in such a position. It is probably to be accounted for by the falling away of the crater rim, which continually exposes a new section of the ice cliff. As we had made the summit by 3 o'clock, this time we were not so late in getting back, reaching camp again at 8.30.

The next day, July 31, dawned as clear and bright as the former; but the cloud from Mageik this time drifted off to the northwest, and small clouds were beginning to gather on the west side of the valley, so that I knew it was to be the last day of good weather.

A mud-flow covering ten square miles 80 feet deep[edit]

I had hoped to take a two-days' trip across the pass to see if we could find the source of the clouds which had aroused our suspicions. But remembering the bad name given Katmai Pass by Spurr, who states that it was the most difficult pass crossed by his party in their long and adventurous journey in 1898, I had no desire to be caught short of provisions on the wrong side, and so gave up the projected trip and decided to reconnoiter instead. Planning to make an easy day of it, for we were tired after our ascent of Katmai the day before, we climbed around the shoulder of Observation Mountain and descended into the upper valley of Mageik Creek, where we found the largest and most striking accumulation of ash observed anywhere.

The whole flat, occupying a triangular space five miles on a side, was filled many feet in depth by the ash, which had slumped off the mountain sides. One section we traversed was no less than 125 feet thick, and two others 80 feet.

Ascent to Katmai Pass[edit]

Having stopped a little while to examine the character of the Mageik mud-flow and to eat our lunch, we made our way forward across the bad lands toward the pass, following now the ridges of the mud-flow, now the bottom of the canyon, which rose in a gentle slope.

As we ascended the valley past the highest peak of Trident, we came into view of the hollow between it and the next peak, from which I had thought several times I saw clear indications of rising steam. The sun was shining into it brightly, so that I could see it all clearly. There was not the smallest puff of steam anywhere to be seen. We were up now to 2,500 feet and could see a long way through the pass, and there was no steam to be seen there either.

So again I concluded, as I had the day before, that we had seen nothing more than the ordinary clouds which gather so easily around the summits of all high mountains.

Church, jaded from the continual hard work, had given out and we left him behind with the packs, much against his wishes, several hundred feet below, while Folsom and I went forward a little farther to see what we could discover. We were both tired from our hard climb the day before, and traveling transversely across the gullied “bad lands” of the mud-flow, which was necessitated by the condition of the canyon below, was very laborious; so that I was ready to turn back satisfied with having seen through the pass and, as I believed, having laid another ghost.

The first fumarole[edit]

But just as I was about to suggest turning back to Folsom I caught sight of a tiny puff of vapor in the floor of the pass. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, there it was, a miniature volcano sending up a little jet of steam right in the pass. When I saw this I decided that we must go on to investigate, because the very smallness of this steam jet made it of as much interest as a large volcano.

For one of the most striking features of the eruption of Katmai—one which was without parallel in other great eruptions—was the absence of subordinate manifestations of vulcanism outside the main theater of action. I had been continually surprised at the absence of parasitic cones, fumaroles, mud craters, hot springs, and the like in so great an eruption.

Earlier in the day we had found the stream from the hot springs near the pass, mapped by Spurr; but aside from that, this fumarole was the first thing of its sort to be observed. When we reached the pass we found its floor all shot through with cracks and small fissures, from which issued half a dozen good-sized jets of steam and perhaps a hundred small ones.

With some trepidation we approached over the fissured surface and discovered that most of the steam issued from small openings a few inches in diameter, whence it came with considerable velocity, giving forth a low, roaring sound.

We could come quite close and warmed our hands in the steam, which, though very hot as it emerged, soon cooled like the vapor from a tea-kettle.

Coming off with the steam were various other substances, which gave rise to curious evil-smelling odors and precipitated a highly colored crust on the ground. Prominent among these was the “rotten-egg” smell of hydrogen sulphide and of sulphur dioxide, while crystals of sulphur gave a yellow tinge to the parti-colored sublimations of the crust.

I was anxious to return to Church, for we had already been gone much longer than we had expected when we left him. So, starting to return, I had reached a little eminence, for the fumaroles were just over the pass, when, turning around to urge Folsom to hasten, I saw far down the valley, over the top of some rising ground beyond us, a puff of steam. This had not been there when we came over the pass and was evidently considerably larger than the jets we had been examining, and as the obstructing hill was not far away I decided, late as it was, to go forward and have a look.

The Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes[edit]

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. They were not so little, either; for at such a distance anything so small as the little fumaroles at which we had been warming our hands would not be noticed.

Many of them were sending up columns of steam which rose a thousand feet before dissolving. After a careful estimate, we judged there must be a thousand whose columns would exceed 500 feet.

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. Some were closely grouped in lines along a common fissure; others stood apart.

The biggest of all, whose steam had first caught my eye, stood well up on the mountain side, in a nest of fissures which looked like the crevasses of a glacier, and were big enough to be plainly visible, though more than five miles away.

Fortunately a strong wind was blowing across the pass, carrying the fumes all down the valley and away from us, or we might not have dared to go on. In addition to the active fissures, there were thousands more that were quiescent at the time of our visit, but which had encrusted the ground round about with colored deposits like the others. If all of these vents were to be counted, their numbers would undoubtedly reach into tens of thousands.

Character of the vents[edit]

In some cases the orifice from which the steam issued was a large, deep hole; in others there was no opening at all, the steam simply escaping through the interstices of the soil particles. There was no relation between the size of the vent and its output. Some of the largest had no visible opening at all, while from some cavernous holes issued only faint breaths of steam. In many cases steam issued from the sides of the gullies cut by water from the melting snow on the mountain sides where it did not break through the more compact surface layer of mud.

In some places the ground was warm beneath our feet, and had we not been solicitous for our shoe leather doubtless we could have found places as hot as we might have desired.

Although there is every reason to suppose that the vigor of the action is variable, there was in most cases no evidence of explosive action, such as remnants of ejecta around the vent. Most of the steam jets came out of cracks in the level mud floor of the valley. But some, on the contrary, had built up small cones around themselves or formed a small-sized crater by hurling away the ground around the vent.

I wish my vocabulary were adequate to describe the curious mixture of foul odors which they gave forth. Mixed with the omnipresent sulphurous gases were others which had a strangely organic smell, recalling at once burning wool, the musky smell of a fox den, and the odors of decay.

We could not tell to what extent, if any, odorless asphyxiating gases, such as carbon dioxide, might be present in the complex. We did not notice any ill-effects from the fumes, but we took good care to keep to windward most of the time.

Branch valleys also full of steam jets[edit]

Three or four miles down the valley, beyond the mountains next to the pass, we came to a place where lateral valleys come in from both sides at once. Here new wonders awaited us. The southern branch, leading off in the direction of Mount Martin, was full of fumaroles and looked like the main valley. We did not go far enough to see what might lie further up, because of the evident interest of the opposite branch which bore off to the northeast toward Mount Katmai, whose jagged crater walls appeared in full view in the distance.

Two more new volcanoes of the first magnitude[edit]

Up this valley was a prodigious column of steam. As we drew nearer we saw that the main body of this steam was rising from a central mass of rock, surrounded by a comparatively low ring of cinders, the whole extending across the valley and blocking further progress. This I interpret as a plug of lava being slowly pushed up through a vent which was formerly rather violently explosive; so that instead of building a high cinder cone, most of the ejecta were scattered far and wide and only a small ring was formed around the vent.

The surface of the cooling lava plug was covered in most fantastic fashion with sharp irregular cinders, the result of the too sudden cooling of the molten magma, much in the same way that a piece of melted glass fragments if suddenly plunged into cold water.

Farther on up the valley, on the back side of the isthmus between Katmai and Trident, was another volcano, with a crescent-shaped summit, the side of the crater toward us being open. From this also a considerable body of steam was rising, evidently furnishing part, at least, of the clouds which had excited our suspicions from the other side of the range. Beyond this there may have been yet another volcano, but the rising column of steam from the lava near us obscured the view to such an extent that we could not see clearly.

An interpretation of the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes[edit]

Even the hurried observations we had been able to make were sufficient to bring out distinctly, in its larger outlines, the significance of the phenomenon. It was evident that the valley of the ten thousand smokes is underlain by a great fissure extending northwest from Katmai Pass along the line of the old trail toward Naknek Lake. This might be appropriately denominated the “Naknek Fissure.” It is evident that the steam issuing from this fissure and seeping through the mass of accumulations from recent eruptions finds its vent in the myriad fumaroles in a similar fashion to the many small leaks one finds on the surface of an old bicycle tire when there is a single puncture of the inner layer of rubber.

While the main line of this fissure extends up to Mageik, the lateral fissures branch off toward Martin and Katmai. Katmai stands, therefore, like Krakatoa, at the junction of two lines of fissures: one, the Aleutian fissure, which finds its vent in the long line of volcanoes reaching down the Alaska Peninsula and out into the Aleutian Islands, has been long known as one of the greatest lines of volcanic activity on the globe; the other, this newly discovered Naknek fissure, has never been previously recognized and perhaps did not exist before the great eruption of 1912.

That there were no signs of volcanic activity in this direction as recently as 1898 is evident from Spurr's narrative of his journey across the Alaska Peninsula from Naknek to Katmai, which is the only description of the country ever published.

This remarkable valley, like the other volcanic activities of the district, therefore, probably burst forth at the time of the great eruption.

The return journey[edit]

We had now seen as much as could be observed without extended exploration, so we turned our steps homeward and hurried to rejoin Church, who had shivered for five hours, even with the extra clothes of all three of us. Once across the gullies, which were more than ever a terror to us, now that we were nearly exhausted, we made good speed back to camp, which we reached a little after 10 o'clock.

Here we found that the river, showing the effects of the warm weather on the snow-fields, was beginning to rise so rapidly that we were afraid of being caught miserably on the wrong side. How we wished we could have returned and explored the wonderful valley we had discovered! But we were not equipped for such an undertaking and it was better to get back with what we had than to risk it all for the sake of more. So, hoping that we might be permitted to return and finish the job, we decided on a move, and before 5 the next morning we were up and breaking camp. The event proved that we had lost nothing, for, although the boat to take us back to Kodiak did not come for ten days, only once in that time did the clouds break away again.

Looking back at the work after one has had time to forget the excitement and labor of the daily routine and take a calmer survey of results, the one thing which stands out is the great magnitude of the eruption. Evident from the first reports, this has grown with increasing knowledge. No one, not even those of us who have lived in the desolation of the thing, can form any adequate conception of the stupendous cataclysm that occurred.

This explosion is easily to be ranked among the first dozen known within historic times. Previously Krakatoa has held first place in the minds of most, but the quantity of material thrown out by Katmai was so much greater as to put it into an altogether different class. Indeed, the whole island of Krakatoa could be dropped into the crater of Katmai.

We so inevitably estimate the magnitude of natural phenomena by their effect on human affairs that an eruption like this in an uninhabited district seems unimportant in comparison, for example, with that of Pelee, with its great loss of life. Yet there may have been in the present case tornadoes of hot gas greater than that which overwhelmed St. Pierre and killed 25,000 people; but the destruction by other agencies was so great as to leave little evidence of them if they occurred.

Imagine Katmai's eruption occurring in New York[edit]

The magnitude of the eruption can perhaps be best realized if one could imagine a similar outburst centered in New York City. In such a catastrophe all of Greater New York would be buried under ten to fifteen feet of ash and subjected to unknown horrors from hot gases. The column of steam and ashes would be plainly visible beyond Albany, but the continued activity of the volcano would probably prevent any one from approaching for several months to view the ruins nearer than Patterson, N. J.

Philadelphia would be covered by a foot of gray ash and would grope in total darkness for sixty hours. Washington and Buffalo would receive a quarter of an inch, with a shorter period of darkness. Small quantities of ash would fall over all of the Eastern States as far as the gulf coast.

The sounds of the explosions would be heard as far as Atlanta and St. Louis. The fumes would be noticed as far as Denver, San Antonio, and Jamaica.

Not even the most vivid imagination could picture the destruction of life and property which would result from such an eruption in a thickly populated country. We may be profoundly grateful that we have had vouchsafed us such a wonderful opportunity to study the phenomena of volcanoes without any of the horrors usually attendant on their action.

Source: Robert F. Griggs (January 1917), “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(1): 13–68.