Postcard from Katmai

Quick — which was the biggest volcanic eruption of the 20th century? Was it Mount St. Helens in 1980; or Pinatubo in 1991? Not even close! The largest by far was Novarupta in 1912, a cataclysmic event that darkened skies for three days and created the barren Valley of 10,000 Smokes in what is now Katmai National Park. Unlike other famous eruptions, this one resulted in no deaths, though it did send hundreds of Southwest Alaskans fleeing in panic for their lives.

Last week we (kids, hubbie and I) spent a day tossing pumice stones into the turbulent Ukak River and hiking the valley, which is no longer smoking, but still mostly unvegetated. It looks a bit like the Southwest desert transplanted to Southwest Alaska, except the tan colors here are the result of ash, 700 feet thick closest to the eruption site. I was in the valley and nearby Brooks River doing research for an Alaska Geographic book that will hit shelves in 2012, in time for the volcanic centennial. Plenty of time for me to learn more geology! (Until recently, I thought deadly Krakatoa was king-of-volcanic eruptions, but it burped only half as much magma as Novarupta.)

Of course, when most people hear “Katmai,” they think bears — and we saw plenty of those, too. Usually in September at Brooks Camp (about 20 miles north of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes), you’ll see one, two or three brown bears fishing the falls. But we saw seven, with more just downstream. There were so many bears on the trails leading to the campground — surrounded by an electrified fence, thank goodness — that we got turned back at times. One darkening evening, we had to go find a ranger to escort us down the beach, past a brown bear that was bobbing in the Naknek Lake waves, a little too close for our comfort. We’d already turned away from the inland trail by a close encounter with a different bear — lifting its massive head from the deep shadows of the tangly woods, no more than 20 feet away. Of course, we were the ones tramping around in the bears’ territory, while the bears were trying to fatten up on dying sockeye salmon in time for autumn hibernation.

This is the last you’ll hear from me for a week at least, because a day after returning from Katmai, we hopped a plane for Italy, location of my novel in progress. I hope to send more updates, and will check in regularly to see what other Alaska writers have to say about their own latest adventures and projects.


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