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Eruption turned June into winter

Sara Loewen
G.C. Martin / AP2012

Editor's note: June 6 will mark the 100th anniversary of the eruption of Novorupta, the volcanic event that created the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, site of present-day Katmai National Monument. Kodiak writer Sara Loewen ruminates on it in her upcoming book, "Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands" (University of Alaska Press), a collection of essays, some of which originally ran in the Daily News, This excerpt is from the book. Read the full essay here.

June in Kodiak is a month of endless light. Even after midnight, the sun softens more than sets. But one hundred years ago, late in the afternoon on June 6, 1912, daylight was snuffed out completely. There was no sound to warn Kodiak's eight hundred residents of Novarupta's eruption one hundred miles to the north, though the explosion was heard as far away as Juneau and Fairbanks. The only hint was a massive black cloud, fanning upwards and outwards as it traveled across Shelikof Strait. Lightning and thunder are rare here, so people were alarmed by the flashing, rumbling sky that afternoon. But they expected the cloud to pass over, and when the first soft powder began to fall, they scooped it up with teaspoons, thinking they might want to save some, unaware the town would soon be buried in ash.

By 7 p.m., the ash fall was so thick that it blotted out the sun. People couldn't see lanterns an arm's length away. They fought to breathe the ash-choked air. Lightning struck the wireless telegraph tower on nearby Woody Island, burning down the town's sole source of communication. Ship radios failed because of static electricity. Kodiak was cut off from the world.

"While we were at dinner the sky became black as ink," wrote W.J. Erskine, who had bought the Alaska Commercial Company holdings in Kodiak, and ran a general store and fuel dock. "By nine o'clock the pumice and sand was three inches thick and the air was suffocating."

John Orloff, an Afognak resident fishing on the mainland during the eruption wrote a letter to his wife,

"My Dear Wife Tania:

First of all I will let you know of our unlucky voyage. I do not know if we will be alive and well. Every minute we are awaiting death. Of course don't be alarmed. A hill has erupted near here. So it is covering us with ashes. In some places 6 ft and 10 ft. deep. All this began on the 6 th of June. Night and day we light lamps. One cannot see daylight. In one word it is horrible, and we are awaiting death every minute. And we have no wate(r). Here it is dark and hell. Thunder noise. I do not know whether it is night or day ... So kissing and blessing you both, goodbye. Forgive me. Maybe we shall see each other again. God is Merciful. Pray God For us.

Your Husband,

John Orloff

P.S. The earth is trembling every minute. It is terrible. We are praying."

The Dora, a mail steamer traveling from Uyak Bay to Kodiak, was just a few miles from the harbor that evening when it had to turn back to the open sea because all navigational landmarks were hidden from view. The ship's log reads, "We were in complete darkness, not even the water over the ship's side could be seen."

"As far as seeing or hearing the water, or anything pertaining to earth, we might as well have been miles above the surface of the water," wrote J.E. Thwaites, Mail Clerk on the Dora. "Birds floundered, crying wildly, though space, and fell helpless on the deck."

Cabins struck by lightning caught fire and burned to the ground, unseen by those just a few hundred feet away. Roofs collapsed, and houses filled with landslides of ash. Hildred D. Erskine, a teacher at the territorial school in Kodiak and W.J. Erskine's sister-in-law, wrote, "No one who has not passed through such a horror-producing cataclysm can realize what it is to have the feeling that you were going to be buried alive, all the while being hemmed in by a blackness such as you had never previously known and from which there seemed to be no escape."

On June 8 th, after two days of darkness, people followed the summoning church bells and the whistle of the Revenue Cutter Manning, docked in front of town, holding wet rags over their mouths against the smell of sulfur. Some carried lanterns; some traced their way along fences or roped themselves together. Men on board the Manning kept colliding as they worked to shovel ash from the deck. The ash sliced their eyes.

"The people came aboard panic stricken," wrote Nellie Erskine, W.J.'s wife, "The next day was another tough one for us. Captain Perry came and said if we don't get this ship cleaned out we will all be sick. The filth on the berth deck is frightful." Nellie sent for supplies like muslin and cornstarch from the warehouse. "The children had not been washed or their diapers changed for five days."

Eventually, the entire town evacuated. Five hundred people were packed on the deck of the Manning, the rest boarded the tugboat, Printer and the coal barge, the St. James. They anchored off Woody Island, a few miles from town, cramped and weary, to wait out the largest volcanic eruption of the 20 th century.

For two days, those living on Woody Island hid indoors, listening to thunder and the "thumping on the windows of some little birds that had been attracted by the lamplight, trying to find refuge from the storm," George A. Learn wrote in the Orphanage News Letter. They had no way to communicate, and were in dire need of fresh water and medical attention when they were finally picked up by the fishing boat the Norman. Another hundred villagers were evacuated to Afognak Island from the Alaska Peninsula. George Kosbruk was a child living near Katmai during the eruption and remembered the rescue ship arriving. "We all boarded the boat. To where? China? We had no slight idea of where they were taking us. We felt pretty safe though. Looking back, our home was disappearing where we had enjoyed our life."

Crossing Shelikof Strait, the water's surface was hidden by a seemingly solid stretch of floating pumice. "Just previous to the darkness, pumice stone began to fall, some stones fall just as big as the biggest potato you could possibly imagine," recalled Harry Kaiakokonok. "Boat was like coming across dry land. All those stuff was floating on bay, about six feet deep. Dead whales and sea lions and salmons were all mixed up in those stuff floating on top of the bay."

On Kodiak, the ash from Novarupta filled shallow lakes, destroyed salmon runs for years to come, ruined water mains, and smothered the new summer growth under layers of gray. Kodiak looked lunar. In places, the ash formed drifts reaching to the rooftops. Some decided to move away from Kodiak, certain the land and town were ruined.

"Poor old Kodiak, it certainly is a wreck," Nellie Erskine wrote in a letter home, "Whether the people can live there is not at all settled. Of course it will take time and patience. It certainly is awfully discouraging, but we are not worrying. The feeling of thankfulness is too strong yet. The ashes are about two feet on the level but in places it is higher than your head. People are dazed, dirty and despondent, but I guess we can make something out of it... Baby is all well and strong and I am only tired."

Most people in Kodiak returned home within a week of the eruption, digging to their doorways through knee-deep ash. They found that most of their chickens and ducks had died, but the dairy cows were spared. Some homes were ruined, like one little house near the hillside, where all that was visible through the windows was the top of the piano and the pictures hanging on the wall. Nellie Erskine described the slow return to normal life in a letter home, "Of course the place is most desolate ... when you think of Kodiak, the garden spot of Alaska, it is surely enough to make you weep."

The U.S. Revenue Service kept a boat stationed in Kodiak, and ships arrived with supplies from Seattle. Little by little, rain cleaned the hillsides, though in places it turned the ash to quicksand. Rescuers worked for hours to help a man who'd been trapped, but he was blue by the time they got him out and he died soon after. Because there were no berries and salmon couldn't make it up ash-filled spawning streams, the bears were hungry and preyed on cattle and sheep.

"To everyone who visited Kodiak during the first two seasons after the eruption, the damage done to vegetation seemed irreparable," reported Robert Griggs (who led a National Geographic expedition to Katmai). Yet when he returned in June 1915, he wrote, "I could not believe my eyes. It was not the same Kodiak that I had left two years before. The mountains were everywhere green with their original verdure ... Where before had been barren ash was now rich grass as high as one's head."


Sara Loewen
Around Alaska