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Some evidence suggests that Alaskans inhabited Katmai's eastern edge for at least 9,000 years up to 1912. But on the morning of June 1 of that year everything changed. After five days of violent earthquakes, the 2,700-foot Novarupta blew its top, erupting steadily for the next 60 hours. Rivers of white-hot ash poured into the valley. A foot of ash fell on Kodiak Island, 100 miles away, and in all more than 46,000 square miles of territory ended up under at least an inch of ash, winds carrying yet more ash to eastern Canada and as far as Texas. While Novarupta was belching away, another explosion occurred 6 miles east. The mountaintop peak of Mt. Katmai collapsed, creating a chasm almost 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. The molten andesite that held up Mt. Katmai rushed through newly created fissures to Novarupta and was spewed out. Over 2½ days, more than 7 cubic miles of volcanic material were ejected, and the green valley lay under 700 feet of ash. Miraculously, the people who called this remote region home made it out safely; no one was killed.
By 1916 things had cooled off sufficiently to allow scientists to explore the area. A National Geographic expedition led by Dr. Robert F. Griggs reached the valley and found it full of steaming fumaroles (holes in the volcanic terrain that emit smoke), creating a moonlike landscape. The report on what Griggs dubbed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes inspired Congress in 1918 to declare the valley and the surrounding wilderness a national monument. Steam spouted in thousands of fountains from the smothered streams and springs beneath the ash and gave the valley its name. Although the steam has virtually stopped, an eerie sense of earth forces at work remains, and several nearby volcanoes still smolder, or even threaten to blow every couple of years. Anchorage's airport will sometimes get shut down by smoke or ash from the peninsula's active volcanoes.
The Native peoples never returned to their traditional village sites, though many now live in nearby communities. They are joined by sightseers, anglers, hikers, and other outdoors enthusiasts who migrate to the Katmai region each summer. Fish and wildlife are plentiful, and a few "smokes" still drift through the volcano-sculpted valley.