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Teachers Guide to Stratovolcanoes of the World
A Fictional Story

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Veniaminof, Alaska, USA:
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A Fictional Story - Little Bird and the Mountain She Could Not See

Little Bird tugged at the sleeves of her otter skin parka. She would get a new one, and this one would go to her sister. She hoped it would be soon, because the wind was strong, and her arms were always cold.

It was a beautiful autumn day at her village. Little Bird lived near the shore, which looked out toward other nearby islands. She could see many mountains far in the distance. They sparkled like ice, floating in the sea. Little Bird was one of the Unagan, living in the Aleutian Islands, 3,500 years ago.

The families of the village were busy preparing for winter. Already the first snows had come, but in between were sunny days like today. The People could work outside of their long lodges that were built partly under the surface of the ground. It was a good day for repairing the sod roofs, and mending clothing. It was also a good day to get things ready for the upcoming winter ceremonies.

Suddenly the ground began to rumble. The villagers paused, then whispered among themselves. When the mountains came alive, the earth shook. The People knew that these events could be serious. Lately, the earth was shaking more often.

Little Bird had relatives a half day away who could see a different group of mountains from their village. Messengers traveled by sea in skin covered kayaks, back and forth among the villages, to pass along the latest news about family, weather, and what they could see in the distance. The latest word was that there was smoke rising from the mountain that Little Bird could not see.

Veniaminof volcano

"Look, the Uncles are coming!" someone shouted.

Messengers in a two-man kayak pulled ashore. These were Little Bird's uncles, who lived at the next village. The People gathered around.

"It's getting worse," one messenger said. "Last night the sky was glowing. We think that the mountain will explode soon."
"And the villages beyond?"
"Yes, they think the same."
"Are your people staying or leaving?" Father asked the Uncles.

The villagers could stay in their subterranean houses, or go out in boats some distance from shore. Either choice was a gamble.

"When we left this morning, The People had no intention of moving. They were going inside. The smoke was covering our lodges like a fog."
"And what do you think now that you've seen the mountain from the sea?"
"Sir, we think that it would be better if we all go out to sea."

This was the message. Little Bird felt her heart pound.

Two young men from Little Bird's village were assigned to take the kayak down the coast. The message must be passed to the next village right away. The Uncles stayed to confer with the grown-ups. Each lodge family was to assemble enough stored food and water for three days. The earth continued to shake.

Near sunset, The People gathered at the large, open skin boats with their supplies. Strong women and men were given oars. It was time to go.

"Look," said Little Bird, pointing to the ridgeline. "The sky!"

A black cloud was creeping over the ridge. The People heard an explosion from the mountain they could not see.

The People rowed their boats into the darkening twilight as quickly as possible. The women and men paddled hard to escape the rapidly descending smoke. The ash was thickening, and made a sizzling sound as it struck the water in the bay. The villagers covered their noses and mouths to keep out the choking ash.

When they got out far enough in the water to see the mountain, Father ordered The People to pull their boats close together. A long fiber cable was passed from boat to boat, until they were loosely connected to each other. From there, The People would wait. All was now dark except for the spectacle before them.

Little Bird could see smoke and fire coming from many vents around the mountain. Flames shot up from its top, and fiery clouds tumbled down its sides. Lightning flashed in the clouds over the mountain.

The mountain exploded again. Huge rafts of pumice fell into the water and onto the islands nearby. The whole ridgeline behind her village was on fire. A great wave rolled out from the shore, rocking the boats. Little Bird held on to Father. She watched in horror as the waves washed up on the shore where their village was located. When the waters receded, the land was flat! The trees were gone! If they had stayed, The People would have drowned.

After a night of terror, the sun shone weakly through the ash clouds, which seemed to melt into the sea. Little Bird could see the mountain and was amazed to see that its top was gone!

The People had survived the eruption and the tsunami, but now faced the challenge of surviving winter with all their preparations lost. There was nothing left except for what they had in their boats, and winter was coming quickly. They would find a new, suitable location and rebuild. And many years from that day, Little Bird would thrill her grandchildren with stories of the night the great mountain exploded.

Little Bird and her family are fictitious, but a caldera collapse similar to the one described here occurred at Mt. Veniaminof in the Aleutian Islands about 3,500 years ago. It was one of the greatest eruptions that occurred on Earth.