Account of the 1931 Aniakchak Eruption
As told to Father Bernard Hubbard by Meshik resident Frank Wilson. From "Aniakchak Explodes" in Father Bernard Hubbard, Mush You Malemutes! (New York: The American Press, 1943).
Aniakchak, with its huge base a hundred miles in circumference, spreads all over the central section of the Alaska Peninsula. The nearest Native village is Meshik, at Port Heiden on the Bering Sea, and from its cluster of deserted barabaras and shacks, the volcano rises to an unobstructed view. The first of May dawned quite clear and bright on the Alaska Peninsula. Winter had departed from the shoreline and the snows had begun to retreat up the lower slopes of the mountains, but winter still maintained its icy grasp on the interior. The trapping season was over and the handful of hardy mean who seek a livelihood from the furs of this section were preparing their fishing boats for the summer run on Bering Sea. Among their number was Frank Wilson, one of the few white inhabitants of Meshik. He was scraping and caulking his boat when Mabel, his little daughter, who was playing in the sand nearby, uttered an exclamation of surprise, claimed his attention. She was pointing excitedly at the peak of snow of Aniakchak, fifteen miles away, whence a dense column of white steam was shooting miles high into the sky.
Wilson noted the time. It was 10 a.m. There were none of the preliminary symptoms that are usual with volcanic eruptions. No earthquake shook the ground, nor were any rumbles heard from the nearby mountain. For two hours the white smoke rose in billowing clouds. It was probably steam generated from some fissure in the volcano floor that allowed water to reach the smoldering, buried rocks below. Then, at twelve o'clock, came a terrific explosion. A dense black cloud of incandescent gas and ashes rushed more than 20,000 feet into the air, spread out like a tremendous mushroom and started to descend rapidly. Wilson and his family rushed to their cabin, as did the few fear-stricken Aleuts of Meshik. The earth shook, flame and smoke rose thousands of feet high, and the pyrotechnic display of individual lava bombs hurtling through the air combined with the lightning forming in the cloud to make a truly fear-inspiring sight. Thunder added its din to the almost constant explosions of the erupting volcano, and the sides of the mountain reverberated to the crash of the falling rocks.
A close sound soon aroused the already terrified people of Meshik, when cinders, first the size of peas, then as large as eggs, beat a tattoo on their houses. The eruption lasted uninterruptedly until 11 May, when a final terrific explosion shook the surrounding country and sent into the air rocks and ashes which descended in such great masses as to make it pitch dark for several hours at distances more than sixty miles from the volcano. Wilson left Meshik after the explosion of 1 May, and on the way to Bristol Bay, where he met the author and narrated the story of the eruption, had the paint scraped off his boat and engine ruined, pushing his way through more than five miles of floating pumice the size of water buckets.
The volcano was quiet only for a few days, breathing dense clouds of gas and smoke. Then explosive activity heard two hundred miles away culminated in another major eruption on 20 May. For several more days, the detonations of the volcano sounded like the beatings of distant surf from Ugashik, more than sixty miles away. Lava then welled up into the new vents and another phase of activity began.
The most distant sufferers were the reindeer in the interior back of Nushagak. It was fawning time, and when volcanic ash covered the feed the reindeer started to migrate, leaving the helpless young to perish. Reindeer and caribou ground their soft teeth down to the gums from the grit in their food and died. Dead swans and geese floated down the rivers from lakes on the tundra of the Alaska Peninsula, and cutting them open revealed the cause of their destructionentrails full of volcanic ash. Hibernating bears, squirrels, and small game living inside the crater probably were consumed in the first great explosion...So much heat suddenly liberated, as well as millions of tons of powdered ash filling the air, caused an interesting phenomenon shortly after the eruption. Clouds condensed rapidly all over the region and rain drops, which had formed about the tiny ash bits, started falling. Turning the ashes to mud, it literally rained mud balls the size of walnuts for hours at a time, making the snowfields and glaciers black as ink and causing the surrounding country to look as though covered by a huge funeral pall. The ash mud was sticky, too, and insisted on getting into every crack and corner and penetrating the closest-woven fabric.
Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009