The Valley of 10,000 Smokes

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7/6/19  Wilder B&B, Port Alsworth, Alaska

When Katmai National Park was established, the bears at Brooks Camp were hardly even known.  The bears were probably there, because the salmon were there, but humans knew little about them back in 1916.  Brooks Camp was named after the surveyor who first mapped the area and came years later.

The brown stuff is the tuft in the valley.

Katmai National Monument was declared in 1916 and initially protected a section of the coastal mountains that included at least two active volcanoes and a particular valley known as The Valley of 10,000 Smokes.  In 1912, the second most powerful volcanic explosion in recorded history occurred here.  The explosion was felt by natives hundreds of miles away and it generated a tsunami that was felt up and down the Gulf of Alaska.  The ejecta amounted to a volume estimated at 30 times the amount from Mount St. Helens, in 1980.  It saturated the air enough that it had a cooling effect on temperatures in the northern hemisphere of about 1.8 degrees F that lasted for about two years.  It was, as they say, a pretty big deal.

A whole lot of molten rock.

Initially, scientists thought it was Mount Katmai that had exploded, because, in fact, the mountain had collapsed.  It was only several years later when an expedition entered the effected area, that they learned that the explosion came, not from Mount Katmai, but an entirely new source they named Novaerupta which was eight miles away from Katmai.  Katmai collapsed because Novaerupta was so huge that it sucked all the magma out from under Katmai.  The resulting loss of mass caused the top of the mountain to cave in.

In addition to the ejecta thrown into the air, the pyroclastic flow emerging from Novaerupta was also among the largest known to man.  The ash and lava essentially filled the surrounding valley.  The depth of fill near the source is estimated at 700 feet.  It flowed down the valley several miles stopping at a natural dam created by glacial till.  At the minimum point it is only seventy feet thick.

Canyons through the tuft

A popular excursion from Brooks Camp is the bus tour to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.  It was named that when it was discovered because of all the fumaroles issuing from the hot rocks.  The place has cooled enough now, after a century, that there are only a couple of steam vents left.  But the tour takes you out to an overlook where you can see several miles of the tuft, a pumice-like rock that is what all the ash hardened into.  Although I wasn’t feeling up to it, there is a fairly strenuous hike that takes you down to the edge of the rocks where you can explore the remains.  

Inside the 4-wheel drive school bus

We took that excursion and it was a lot of fun.  The school bus they use is a rather unique creation.  It has been modified to be four wheel-drive.  They need the extra traction to navigate three stream crossings and a couple of fairly steep hills.  The road is one lane all the way and seems carved out of the surrounding woods.    

The ‘Valley’ curves around and continues to the right.

We had a park ranger, Maurice, ‘Mo’ for short, accompany our trip and he was, as most rangers seem to be, terrific.  Full of knowledge and enthusiasm, he spent about an hour with us explaining local plants and geology.  Larry, the bus driver, was equally enthusiastic, but spent most of his time keeping the bus on the road.  (They joked that they were trying to find a ‘Curly’ to join them on the trip!)

It takes the better part of the day to drive out there, hike down and back to the valley floor, eat lunch, and return.  But it is a good way to take a break from the bears.