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It is night, late March, 1971: still winter in the Bering Sea. I am crewman on a king crab boat, working bent over, sorting crab, tossing small ones over the side, the big legal ones into our hold. Another crewman puts a hand on my shoulder and I stop and stand up, look over the side to where he is pointing. Just then one of the volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula steam ventburps a couple of thousand cubic yards of ash and fire into the sky, lighting up the sea around us and the snowy range 20 miles away with an eerie reddish pink light. It takes a full two minutes for the sound to reach us, a thundering boom that we can hear even over our diesel generators. The last bits of the flaming debris settles onto the lonely and snow covered peninsula, and once again, all that can be seen is the circle of light around our boat.

Alaska is one of the more active parts of the Ring of Fire – the volcanoes that circle much of the North and Central Pacific. In Anchorage the volcanoes across Cook Inlet occasionally burp enough ash to stop air traffic for a few days and to cause residents to put nylon stockings over thLanding party with volcano in background, 1905eir vehicle air filters. In Western Alaska, where we were fishing, a burp, or minor eruption is only witnessed by a handful of folks, or sometimes not at all.

In 1905 a whole island, Bogoslof, emerged from the Bering Sea among the Aleutian Islands, steaming and smoking after an extensive underwater eruption. A survey ship was all set to drop off a party of eager scientists, but then got a call from a vessel in distress and had to leave before the scientists could get on shore. It was a good thing; when they returned a week or so later the island was gone, replaced by a column of steam, smoke, and ash blowing five miles up into the sky. It was a few more months before the island appeared again.

Some volcanoes are less dangerous that others. Mt. Edgecumbe, at the top of the page, looms over Sitka. On one recent April Fool’s Day, a local loaded a helicopter with old tires and flew out to the top of the volcano around 4 a.m.

Volcano houseHe made a big pile of tires, lit them with a gallon of kerosene, spray painted “April Fool’s” on the snow with black paint, and flew back to town to spread the word that Mt. Edgecumbe was about to blow for the first time in 10,000 years!