Katmai: The Valley of 10,000 Smokes

Have you ever heard of Mount Saint Helens? In May of 1980, it was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.  How about Novarupta? Have you heard of that volcano?

In Katmai National Park there is a placed called the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. It is named as such because of a volcanic eruption that occurred in June of 1912.  Novarupta spat out 30 times more ash than Mount Saint Helens. 

Time out: I want you to think about the idea of “30 times more.” An adult male weighs about 180 lbs. Thirty times that is 5,400 lbs.  An adult male white rhinoceros weighs about 5,100 lbs. Would you rather have an adult man or a rhino fall on you? Now that we have your attention, I want you to ask yourself. Why have you never heard of Novarupta? It was the largest volcanic eruption in the world in the 20th century. Well, there are a couple of reasons:

1. In April of 1912. there was a little boat that sank off of the coast of Greenland. That boat was called the Titanic. Hundreds of the “Who’s Who” of New York City died in the sinking of the Titanic and it occupied media attention for some time.

2. They couldn’t find it! In 1916, four years after the eruption, National Geographic Society was able to get Robert F. Griggs to the site of the eruption. He ultimately gave the Valley its name, saying :

"…The whole valley 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."

Imagine trying to piece together the story of Mount Saint Helens if no one examined it until four years after the eruption.

Well, Novarupta exists and we were going to try and hike out there. We took a sweet looking bus to the visitor center and then started hiking towards the Valley. It takes four miles to get out to the valley and we felt like we were in fairly familiar territory. We were surrounded by spruce trees, and as they thinned out we found ourselves among alders. Reminder – An Alder is the same type of tree that we had bushwacked our way through in Lake Clark on our way to Holy Mountain.

Once you get to the actual valley, there is a slight difference. You move off of trails with vegetation and onto what looks like dirt. It’s not dirt though; it’s pumice, so it’s basically glass. It’s super light, meaning your feet sink just a little bit more than they would if there was sand. You are walking on ground up pumice, but there is still some vegetation to your right on the lower edges of the Buttress Range of mountains.

To your left is the River Lethe. Lethe has a very ominous meaning. The River Lethe is from Greek Mythology and it is the river of forgetfulness and oblivion. It flowed through Hades and the dead were required to drink its water to forget their earthly life. The Lethe is no less ominous in this place. Its waters flow through pumice like a warm knife through butter. We receivednumerous warnings from folks that we needed to be careful around the river, because what looks like a shallow crossing can sometimes be much deeper and will sweep you down the river. Where we first came to see the valley, a crossing was impossible as there were sheer cliffs down and a raging river. We continued to follow the trail.

Two miles further we came to appropriately named “6-mile.” This is where the trail disintegrates. There is no longer vegetation, just pumice and rock. Footsteps last as long as it takes for the rain and wind to wipe them clean. In an instant, you hike up and over a hill and are confronted with a lunar landscape. It’s insane. Novarupta spat out so much pumice that it is 700 feet thick in some places.

The Valley is beautiful on a calm and sunny day. There are so many different colors of pumice. You are warm and you get to enjoy views of the surrounding Trident Volcano, Mount Mageik, and Mount Katmai. We took the recommendation of some friends we met at Brooks Camp and headed for the lakes at the base of Mount Mageik. The mountain looks like a huge glacier, it is covered in ice and snow and we heard that some of the rangers were using their day off to hike to the peak. They camped at the right lake and we camped on the shored of the lake on the left. The evening was perfect; we sunbathed in our tents and took a nap before making dinner.

We woke up the next morning We woke up the next morning with business to accomplish. Our plan was to hike to Katmai Pass and then up and over a ridge to Novarupta. We left our tents and backpacks, taking only daypacks to hike light and fast. We kept seeing caribou tracks and were rewarded with a viewing of three from quite a distance. They were moving quickly across the landscape, as there was no growing food for them. We continued to Katmai Pass where we saw some volcano monitoring equipment and the paw marks of a massive grizzly bear—luckily they had been made much earlier.

We continued up and over a ridge to make our way to Novarupta when the weather rolled in. In a matter of minutes we were covered in clouds and a light rain.  We hunkered down and decided to make the stop serve as our lunch break. After eating, we tried to hike closer to Novarupta, but due to poor visibility we couldn’t even see it and had to make the call to return to camp. With the weather deteriorating, it was important for us to get back to camp and start heading away from the rain and cold.

It was cold and we were wet, so I was hiking fast to both warm up and get back to our stuff so that we could head out. I came to the top of the hill overlooking our camp.  Trevor’s tent was unstaked and rolling with the wind. My tent, while still staked was without it’s rainfly (I had left it off to sleep) and everything was getting rained on. I ran the last half of a mile down the hill and secured Trevor’s tent. I then moved to my tent. Everything was wet. Everything. I probably should use the word soaked. You could squeeze my sleeping bag and water would pour out of it. Not good. I furiously started packing my things and got ready to hike to our next camp. We got moving and hiked away from the lakes at Mount Mageik and got a good view of the rainstorm. 

We occasionally got rain, but for the most part it was behind us. We crossed the Lethe where it was shallow and hugged the Buttress Range.  We decided to hike as long as possible, as we would be heading out of the valley in the morning. We made it to 6-mile and set up our tents in dry weather! There was no sun, but I set my sleeping bag out to dry for several cycles. We had climbed up a little hill where we camped on an overlook. Just as we were cooking dinner, we saw three people hike past 6-mile towards the Valley of 10,000 Smokes visitor center. They had to be the rangers, as everyone else would have had to wait for the bus.

We woke up and the stove that we had rented from Brooks Lodge was out of fuel. We kept the oatmeal packed and opted for Snickers bars. As we hiked the last six miles, we got some open blue-sky patches and a rainbow over the visitors’ center. We finally arrived and were confronted with a pirate’s treasure. There were rice krispie treats, chips, hot chocolate, and coffee for the group that had come out to see 10,000 Smokes for the afternoon. I will let Trevor tell you what else he ate. We read about Novarupta and were happy to be warm and dry. The other visitors returned and talked about the “strenuous” hike back up.

If you go to Katmai, go to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, and if you go to the Valley, take a backpack and spend a night out in it.