Rebirth in the Aleutians

Story and photos by Ned Rozell

 Kasatochi Island

Red suits on the ground on Kasatochi IslandWhen you step on the beach of Kasatochi Island, something feels wrong. There’s a smell of sulfur in the air, mud pudding sucks at your rubber boots, and, after you peel off your orange float suit, there’s nowhere clean — no grass, no tundra, no dry rock — to set it down. Unsettled, you place your suit in the mud.

It’s August 2009, and you’re going to spend the whole day on the island with scientists. This has been a day you’ve thought about for the past year, ever since Kasatochi blew up in August 2008, surprising the two biologists who were living on the otherwise uninhabited island. The eruption was violent enough to strand air travelers in Seattle, who wrinkled their eyebrows at the Japanese-sounding word that’s not Japanese. Most volcanologists also had to check their maps to locate the speck that sent an ash cloud across North America.

All 1.9 square miles of Kasatochi (say –shee, not –chee) sit alone midway in the broad smile of the Aleutian arc. Russian explorers named the island some 200 years ago. The Unangan people, or Aleuts, were calling it Qanan-tanax for probably a lot longer.

You are here with Jeff Williams, a likable, boyish biologist, and Derek Sikes, an insect guy from the UA Museum of the North.

Sikes likes to search for insects where few have searched before. In a stroke of luck, he had visited Kasatochi just two months before it erupted. Being a museum guy, he had collected every insect he could catch in his 10 hours on the island: 396 specimens, about 60 species in all. Two of them, a beetle and a sawfly, were new to science. In his netting and tweezering, he noticed that many of them were wingless. As he leaned into gusts of wind along the lip of the great caldera, filled with aquamarine water, he understood why — creatures without wings are less likely to be blown off the island.

A year after its eruption, Sikes saw the aerial photos of the pale, lifeless doughnut the island had become. After an offer came from the keepers of the Aleutians — the men and women of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge who run the 120-foot M/V Tiglax, based in Homer — Sikes hesitated before responding. Despite his sense of adventure, his summer for collecting is short in Alaska.

“My first thought was, do I want to go to the island and crawl around in the mud and find no insects?” he says. “I expected no survivors and really unpleasant work.”

Nobody who saw what happened at Kasatochi predicted escape for any of the former residents — from fly to blade of grass to bald eagle — from the explosive eruption, the tens of feet of suffocating ash and the gases hot enough to crack teeth seconds before vaporizing flesh. So complete was the destruction that scientists, usually the most cautious of writers, included in their research plan that the eruption “likely extirpated the terrestrial and nearshore marine biota.”

Sikes thought the island had indeed self-sterilized, resetting its biological clock to zero. But that utter destruction also was the appeal to returning to Kasatochi, even if he found nothing but a lifeless dome of mud — not many scientists get to walk on a brand-new landscape. A few have studied Surtsey, an island that popped its steaming head into the maritime air off Iceland in the 1960s, but none had been on a dead island that was crawling with life the last time they were there.