Friday, May 18, 2012

Out of the Ashes: 100 Years After Katmai

“Here it is dark and hell.”

The Baranov Museum building, after the eruption
So declared John Orloff, an Afognak Island dweller, in a letter to his wife on June 9, 1912. Indeed, the Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912 seemed nothing short of apocalyptic to those in its path: the usual omnipresent summertime sunshine was swallowed up by darkness, thunder and lightning ravaged the sky, and ash fell like untimely (and malignant) snow. “Poor old Kodiak, once so beautiful, is now a barren desert and I fear nothing can live there,” W.J. Erskine wrote days after the eruption.

Kodiak residents seek refuge aboard the Manning.
Fortunately, Kodiak proved resilient, and now we find the one hundred year anniversary of the catastrophe just around the corner. The Katmai eruption is a notable part of Kodiak history not only because of the horrors it wrought upon the island and its citizens, but because it so vividly illustrates the fortitude and bravery of the Kodiak community in the face of adversity. “To stand face to face with what appears to be certain death, to feel the poisonous destroyer gradually coming upon you and to know that you are powerless to ward it off, is an experience one never wants repeated, but that was what we who were caught in the embrace of the clouds of smoke and ashes following the Alaskan eruption went through,” wrote Captain Perry, whose leadership aboard the revenue cutter Manning was highly - and justly - praised. “We of the Cutter have received words of commendation and praise from the department for our work. That is indeed most gratifying, but I want to say right here there are others, I mean the men and women stationed on the island of Kodiak, who are entitled to just as much praise as is anyone for their noble and self-sacrificing work.”

The commemoration kicked off last month on April 26th, when Research Geologist Dr. Judy Fierstein delivered her lecture The Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912: A Centennial Perspective at the museum. The lecture packed the building, with more than fifty people in attendance. Dr. Fierstein, who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke about the pivotal connection between history and geology, highlighting just how neatly the historical accounts of the eruption align with the geological evidence it left behind. For example, immediately following the eruption, Ouzinkie residents reported that the ash fall was minor compared to the inundation experienced in Kodiak. In the 1980s, Dr. Fierstein travelled the region and measured ash distribution, finding that there was significantly less ash on Spruce Island than around the town of Kodiak. Dr. Fierstein praised the historical accounts of the “citizen scientists of Kodiak,” emphasizing just how fundamentally history twines itself into the physical world around us.

The caption on the back of this photo reads 'Making ash pie.'
On June 6th, the centennial anniversary of the eruption, Kodiak kids can come to the museum and learn about our island’s volcanic history, even participating in a simulation of an eruption out on the lawn. The activity will be conducted by the newest member of the Baranov Museum team, Senior Gallery Associate and all-around delightful human being Sarah Kennedy. On the same day, the Russian Orthodox Church will be ringing its bells just as it did on June 6th, 1912, to give spectators some idea of what it was like to make one’s way through ash-ridden darkness with only the pealing of the church bells to guide them.

The museum is also partnering with KMXT to breathe new life into these century-old stories. KMXT will broadcast readings of various accounts about the eruption, ranging from personal letters to scientific reports. Several community members (including yours truly) have been recruited for the readings; among them, look forward to hearing Senator Gary Stevens deliver a proclamation from President Taft and employees from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge lament the ash-choked salmon streams and singed fox pelts.

“People are dazed, dirty, and despondent, but I guess we can make something out of it,” Nellie Erskine concluded on June 15, 1912.

And make something of it, they did.

Please join us throughout the month of June to celebrate and explore this remarkable chapter in Kodiak history.

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