Ever-changing Bogoslof Island, the mystery land of the Bering Sea, has long been the center of interest for all vessels cruising in those waters. It has been called the disappearing island and was the most elusive one until it was nailed down for good in 1935 by the Coast and Geodetic Survey when it definitely fixed its position. Generally speaking, it is about 60 miles west of Unalaska and 25 miles north of Umnak Island.
Although outside of the regular trade routes, Bogoslof is mentioned by many of the explorers and it has been a port of call for the Coast Guard as long as that service has been in Alaska, notwithstanding the fact that there are no reports that the island had ever been inhabited by man but was only a hauling-out place for sea lions and the home of thousands of birds, principally murre and sea gulls. Most of the officers visiting the island made sketches and surveys and took pictures of it. With the data obtained from the records of the Coast Guard, of the American Geographical Society, the reports of explorers, and some imagination it is possible to present a series of sketches that may give a pictorial story of its transformations.
Its early history dates back to Krenitzin and Levashef, who reported it in 1768. Captain Cook on his third voyage sighted an island on October 29, 1778, in the general position given and described it as an “elevated rock which appeared as a tower.” Father Veniaminof, the Russian missionary to the Aleutian Islands, wrote the following account.
The new island, Bogoslof, in latitude 53°-58' N. and longitude 168°-05' W. rose from the sea in the early part of May, 1796. Before the island appeared above the sea, there had been witnessed for a long time in that spot a column of smoke. On the 8th of May, after a strong subterranean noise, with the wind fresh from the northwest, the new small black islet became visible through the fog and from the summit great flames shot forth. At the same time there was a great earthquake in the mountains of the northwest part of Umnak Island, accompanied by a great noise like the cannonading of heavy guns; and the next day the flames and earthquake continued. The flames and smoke were seen for a long time. Many masses of pumice stone were ejected on the first appearance of the island.
Here we have its rebirth in 1796. Since that time Langsdorf, Dali, Cantwell, Mahan, and many others have visited the island. In 1907 Lieutenant Camden on the cutter McCulloch reported a decided change stating that,
No such extraordinary story of growth and alteration of an island in the sea in a history that has lasted 111 years has ever been told in the records of science before and the changes of the last sixteen months are unique in the records of volcanology.
This transformation evidently was just the beginning of a real upheaval, for in 1910 Captain Quinan in command of the cutter Tahoma writes,
About four o’clock of the morning of the 19th September, when we were 25 miles SW of Bogoslof, forked lightning was seen in the northeast. I thought it was strange as it was such a beautiful clear night with a gentle northerly wind. However, there was Bogoslof. Could it be it, for thunder storms are unheard of in the Bering Sea, especially in September. At daybreak, an hour later, my suspicions were confirmed. When Bogoslof was sighted Perry Peak was in a state of eruption. At first it resembled a waterspout, which afterwards spread and enveloped the whole island. It was found to be in a state of violent eruption, throwing up immense clouds of vapor, smoke and ashes. A thick dark cloud hung over the island and at the same time a tongue of flames could be seen shooting up from the crater. Intermittent forked lightning split the clouds extending to the crater, followed by sharp peals of thunder. Ashes fell all around the ship. The eruption though constant was intermittent in intensity and presented an ever-changing aspect. Vapor rose to a height of several thousand feet, spreading at the top and assuming a mushroom appearance resembling a huge white cauliflower. Then at times, in the center of this white mass would appear a black streak of ashes and mud, most of which fell on the island but some on the sea, pattering like immense drops of rain. Officers and men stood on deck fascinated with the magnificent spectacle, which was still further enhanced by the rays of the rising sun just peeping over Mt. Makushin. After getting to windward of the island, we approached to within a mile. All sea lions and gulls had disappeared. Only smoke, steam and lava remained.
My first trip to Bogoslof was in 1913 and my last was in 1937. During that time a living island practically became a dead one. Previous to 1934 change due to action seemed to be the only dependable thing about the island, while after that it seemed to take on a general appearance of permanence. How long this is to continue, no one really knows, although numerous forecasts of renewed volcanic activity have recently been made.
Bogoslof in 1937 was definitely divided into two parts, the main island and a small one. The main island consisted of Castle Peak, dead and cold, an adjacent peak, the decapitated remains of McCulloch Peak, a salt water lake and a series of small hummocks ending up with a sandy beach which stretched toward the adjacent small island called Fire Island but never reached it. Castle Peak had two summits very sharp in outline, about 360 feet in height. The island was 1,925 yards long and about 850 yards at its widest point. Standing alone at one end was Fire Island, an islet closely resembling a medieval castle with three towers. It had a series of wave-cut caves and its sheer sides made it a dangerous venture to attempt to climb. The general appearance of the island built up around Castle Rock gives one the impression that the whole sea bed had been pushed up bodily by an enormous, though evenly applied, pressure. This was evident from the fact that numerous quite distinct strata were practically horizontal and that the bottom surrounding the main island was regular and sloped quite gradually from the beach to deep water. The plateau which extended from the extinct McCulloch Peak was covered with many volcanic bombs, some of huge proportions, the larger ones being evidence of a terrific explosion of years back, while the smaller ones were probably indication of a minor eruption of more recent time.
Although the general conditions were the same, there was quite a contrast between my first visit in 1913 on the Unalga and my last in 1937 on board the cutter Northland. In 1913 there were the remains of a large peak called Perry Peak giving off sulphuric vapor. The water at the base was hot below but cold at the surface. Adjacent to the peak was a flat area dotted with many hot water holes in which eggs could have been boiled. The central part was lower than sea level. Thousands of sea lions gathered at the low spit off Castle Rock. Thousands of sea gulls and tens of thousands of murre built their nests in the crevices of the highest points of the land, depositing their eggs, hatching and rearing their young on the narrow ledges. Everywhere there was evidence of doubtfulness. Nothing seemed old, everything seemed new. In 1937 everything appeared old. There was a tomb-like silence present except for the squealing of a much reduced number of murre and the discordant roar of a thousand or so sea lions. The smoking peaks were gone except for a fissure alongside of the remains of McCulloch Peak that gave up considerable steam and gas at high tide. A hot spring was seen. The temperature of this was as high as 85° C. and had a chlorinity of 20.42 per cent. No fresh water was on the island but a small salt water lake on the northern side existed which showed a chlorinity of 19.39 per cent indicating a salt content about 8 per cent higher than that of the surrounding surface water. The temperature of the lake water varied from 14.5° C. to 19° C. as compared with 9° C. of the sea water. Volcanic activity furnished sufficient heat to maintain the comparatively high temperature of the lake and to evaporate the sea water which surged through to a high salt concentration. Elsewhere everything was cold. As the island is of volcanic origin of comparatively recent time, little growth of value was found. Driftwood of Douglas fir, western hemlock, red cedar, cottonwood and alder, all characteristic of the western coast of the United States, were seen. All Asiatic species were conspicuous by their absence. Thirty seed spots were made on the island using seeds of the above mentioned woods received from the University of Washington. Will nature allow them to grow? I doubt it very much for only two species of succulent plants were seen on the beach near the salt water lake, while in the lake water was found much unicellular green algae. There were also some terrestrial forms of unicellular algae on the slopes near the nesting places of the birds, while small tufts of grass were on the eastern slope with one prominent patch on the western side.
Nothing of interest remains now save comparison with what was in existence. The murres still come back, perhaps to do honor to their forebears and to raise their young. They still nest on the rocky cliffs and ledges of Fire Island, Castle Peak, and on the adjacent peaks. The funny shaped eggs and the peculiar strut of these arctic penguin will always be remembered. The sea gulls are still there, nesting on the level or gently sloping areas. They are the real teaser of the murre. They still make life unbearable at times for them. Horned puffin nesting in burroughs along the wave-cut terraces carefully guard their eggs and their young, and are on the increase. Forked-tail petrels were much in evidence and would abandon their homes on the island at night—seemingly to investigate the bright lights of our ship. Many were blinded and struck the deck house and fell on the deck. The sea lions were also still true to their progenitors though they seemed smaller in number. Bulls, cows, and pups were at home. Whales hovered in the waters offshore, while on the rocks off Fire Island and off Castle Peak a few seals seemed to enjoy their remote home in the Bering Sea.
If I visit Bogoslof again, in what condition will it present itself? No conjecture is safe. The one thing I might rightly be sure of is—change.