- Historic Sites
Sixty-eight years before Mount St. Helens blew, Alaska’s Mount Katmai erupted—and nearly brought on a second ice age
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
As Griggs and his companions slowly worked their way back from the sea toward the site of the eruption, the countryside became more desertlike. “The stillness was oppressive,” Griggs said. “One could travel all day without hearing a sound but his own footfalls and the plunge of rushing water. … The bark had dropped off the dead trees, leaving gaunt white skeletons standing up out of the deep ash deposits. We saw no signs of animal life around our camp except a pair of bald eagles which flew over at a great elevation, a few mosquitoes, and a single hummingbird moth, which seemed strangely out of place in such a valley of death. ”
The expedition advanced up the Katmai Valley, appalled to find the destruction there even more complete than down below, something they would have thought impossible a few days before. When they arrived within five miles of Mount Katmai, they found the mountain had been completely disemboweled in the eruption. What had once been a towering, three-peaked, 7,500-foot-high summit was now a stump. Through the binoculars Griggs traced the sweeping arc of a great crescentic rim and could only guess at the stupendous crater resting within.
“Coming back into the lower valley after the total destruction of the country in the shadow of the volcano,” wrote Griggs, “was like regaining the earth after an exile in the inferno.” The lower valley, which had once appeared so much like a desert to them, now lifted their spirits. “The broken remnants of the former trees appeared the most luxurious verdure. The branches seemed alive with singing birds. The mountains seemed covered with herbage from base to summit. And this was country that a few days before had seemed utterly devastated in comparison with Kodiak!”
In the summer of 1916 Griggs led another expedition into the area. On July 19, under clear skies, the party began its assault on the slopes of what had once been Mount Katmai, determined to reach the top and discover what lay inside. The climb proved surprisingly easy, and by late afternoon the team reached the summit. The knife-sharp rim fell away 2,000 feet below them. “We found ourselves hanging over the brink of an abyss of such immensity that… we were powerless even to guess its size.… In the bottom lay a wonderful lake, of a weird vitriolic robin’s-egg blue, milky, like one of the glacial lakes of Switzerland. The middle of this was set with a horseshoe island, the remnant of a cinder cone evidently thrown up in the last spasms of the eruption. Around the margin hissed columns of steam, issuing from every crevice.”
On July 31 Griggs’s party explored the Katmai Pass, suspecting that the persistent and unusual cloud formations in the area might be the result of recent volcanic activity. When they reached the pass, they found the floor shot through with cracks and fissures that discharged clouds of steam. Griggs was about to order a return to camp when he suddenly spotted a puff of steam above a nearby hill. Exhausted from the day’s activities, he almost decided to forget about it when he changed his mind and started forward “to have a look.” The party reached the top of the little hill and looked down the other side into the valley below. The explorers stood transfixed, for they had discovered, quite by accident, one of the great natural wonders of North America, “unseen and unsuspected by white man and native alike until this hour.
“The whole valley,” Griggs wrote, “as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally, tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor. … Some were sending up columns of steam which rose a thousand feet before dissolving.” He estimated there were at least one thousand fumeroles whose columns exceeded 500 feet in height. “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. ” Griggs named his discovery the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Awesome as the destruction had been, the land soon began to heal itself. For two years after the eruption much of Kodiak Island was a bleak, ash-strewn desert. Yet when Griggs returned in the summer of 1915, he was amazed to find that the recovery of the area had been rapid beyond expectation and that considerable revegetation had occurred the previous year. Meadows of grass as tall as a man now covered the ash slopes. The ecstatic townspeople told him that the eruption was “the best thing that ever happened to Kodiak.” “Never was any such grass before, so high nor so early,” Griggs’s hotelkeeper said. “No one ever believed that the country could grow so many berries nor so large, before the ash.” The townspeople assumed the luxurious vegetation occurred because the volcanic ash was a good fertilizer. However, Griggs’s investigations showed just the opposite. The ash was as sterile a soil as could be imagined. “It destroyed the smaller plants and gave the quick-growing species, which are of the most interest to man, more favorable opportunities for growth than they had ever enjoyed under normal conditions. It helped the surviving plants very much as weeding improves a garden.”