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Once upon a time, a girl dreamed of sailing down a river of lava. Her name was Katia. Katia became fascinated with volcanoes when she first saw them on-screen at a small French movie theater as a teenager. So, she set out to study them, capturing their magnificent beauty and power through the lens of her camera. With her daredevil husband Maurice by her side, Katia visited over half of the world’s active volcanoes, sailed a boat into a lake of acid, and even escaped out a second-story window into a pile of volcanic ash.
Self-proclaimed activist May Boeve is the Executive Director of 350.org, an international climate change campaign. In 2006, she co-founded and led the Step It Up 2007 campaign, which brought together communities from 1,400 places for a National Day of Climate Action. Four years later, Boeve was handcuffed and arrested in front of the White House while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Through it all she has maintained her commitment to fighting for what’s right, and in 2015 Time Magazine recognized her as a “Next Generation Leader.”
Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of sailing a boat down a river of lava. Her name was Katia.
In a small town in northeastern France, Katia Krafft was restless. At every opportunity, she went outside to sketch rock formations and collect samples to study later.
Katia’s parents sent her to a strict school, hoping that the discipline their daughter encountered there would prepare her for a quiet life. Instead, her passion for science and adventure grew stronger.
When she was a teenager, she went to the movie theater to watch a documentary called “A Date with the Devil” made by a volcanologist — a person who studies volcanoes. The film followed the scientist as he descended into the craters of volcanoes, and gray ash fell like snow around him.
Katia stared up at the screen. Her heart throbbed and her shoulders shook as the sound of exploding lava filled the silent theater. The ash darkened the picture, but she could still make out the silhouette of a man snapping photos to capture the alien world around him.
Katia leaned forward, imagining the rocks falling and the earth trembling beneath her.
When she exited the theater, she thought to herself, “One day, that will be me. I’m going to be a volcanologist.”
I’m MAY BOEVE. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the women who inspire us.
This week: Katia Krafft.
<END THEME MUSIC>
Katia became a girl obsessed. She applied to and was accepted at the University of Strasbourg in France, joining their geology program. She studied rocks, minerals, and all other substances that make up the layers of the Earth. She marveled at the evolution of Earth’s surface, how massive tectonic plates shifted around a molten core, creating mountains, canyons, islands, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions where lava spewed into the sky.
Katia read every book the school library had on volcanoes. One evening when she was returning a stack of books, another student approached her and began examining the titles she held in her hands.
“Ahh,” he said, “So this is why I can never find the volcanology books!”
They both shared a laugh and introduced themselves, Katia learned that his name was Maurice and he was also passionate about volcanoes: he had been creating model volcanoes since he was eight years old and he had even seen one in person! They quickly became study partners, helping each other learn as much as they could.
Whenever either of them learned something new in class, they would meet later to excitedly discuss it. Whenever Katia took a beautiful photograph of a particularly interesting rock formation, Maurice was the first person she would show.
Katia knew she had found the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Maurice not only supported her dream but wanted to visit the most dangerous volcanoes right alongside her.
Maurice and Katia graduated from Strasbourg, got married, and set out to find their first volcano.
Maurice and Katia knew their future was not destined to be in a lab.
As recent college graduates, Katia and Maurice had to work hard and save up to fund their first projects. For their joint honeymoon and research adventure, they chose an active volcano, which was on the island of Stromboli, off the west coast of Italy.
Without the funds for protective gear, Katia created her own volcanology uniform: a red knit cap to protect her short brown hair from falling ash and khaki canvas coveralls which she patched with thick fabric when they inevitably got holes burned through them.
Though patched and worn, Katia wore her coveralls like a suit of armor as she stood at the base of the Stromboli volcano. She took a deep breath of the sulphur-rich air and began trekking upwards.
As Katia approached the edge of the lava flow, she could feel the heat on her cheeks. Her round glasses, balanced precariously on her nose, reflected the bright orange glow from seeping magma.
Once lava is exposed to the air, it begins to cool and slowly solidify. But Katia didn’t want to capture pictures of silent rock, cooled to still. She wanted to capture the movement of lava flows carrying the crusted surface that breaks and blisters as if flows over the earth. She wanted to capture the glow of lava bubbling in thick, liquid glops, and spurts of glowing gold. She wanted to show lava like a stormy sea.
So, she inched closer and closer to the source of the orange glow.
Feeling the metal of her camera growing hot in her hands, Katia framed every shot with intention. She wanted to show others the power and beauty of the fire giants that she loved so much.
At the edge of the crater, feet away from the melting point of her camera and lens, Katia shot every roll of film she had.
ADVENTURES & GEAR
When Katia and Maurice returned from Stromboli, they shared their experiences with anyone who would listen: reporters, professors, students, colleagues. Katia had captured up-close photographs of volcanic activity unlike any the world had ever seen before.
Everyone responded to the Kraffts’ images with wonder, appreciation, and best of all, funding for more projects. Katia didn’t get all of this attention because she had the best gear or even because she had discovered a new volcano: it was because she was absolutely fearless.
And it showed in her work.
<CUE: Katia Krafft saying, “For me the danger is not important. I am afraid when I go in a car. But on volcanoes, I forget everything.”>
Katia didn’t just record. She carefully captured the rancid smell and dangerous fumes of gases escaping through cracked earth around the volcanoes, bringing back samples to study. Even as acid rain fell around her, she and Maurice collected fragments of solidified lava, minerals, and toxic gases, and measured the readings of volcanic activity.
Katia wanted to learn absolutely everything she could about volcanoes. The Kraffts got to know the volcanoes so well that Katia even considered these massive geological giants their friends.
Eventually, Katia and Maurice purchased their own protective gear to reduce the risk of their being burned or inhaling toxic fumes. Katia felt like a space explorer in her silver suit and metal helmet.
In many ways, the uncharted territory Katia explored was like visiting another world. Her feet slipped and then steadied on rocky, unpredictable terrain. The ground trembled beneath her. Ash rained down on the reflective suit that protected her from intense heat. What had once been a childhood dream in a small French movie theater had become her reality.
When Katia looked at the photographs, she saw her silhouette draped against a rising wall of orange, liquid rock. She could barely believe how small she looked. At the edge of a volcano, her body looked like an insignificant speck.
Volcanoes were so much greater, older, and bigger than she was.
“You feel like nothing,” she thought to herself, “and sometimes it is nice to feel like nothing.”
THE VOLCANO DEVILS
Katia had always been a brave adventure-seeker. At university, she skied, swam, cycled, and rode motorcycles for fun. She even rode her motorcycle in a “Wheel of Death” — a cylinder where she drove at full speed along the inner walls, appearing to defy gravity.
As their fame as daredevils and volcanologists grew, though, Katia and Maurice earned themselves a new nickname: “The Volcano Devils.”
In fact, whenever she could, Katia would set up camp inside the rim of the volcano she was visiting which allowed her to conduct more studies. Sleeping and working on a small platform perched in the mouth of a volcano was not how most volcanologists conducted their research – – but Katia loved it.
After a day of collecting samples and data, Katia would sit on the rim overlooking the volcanic crater and watch the glowing lava below crack and flow as night fell around her. In the darkness that never quite reached her, Katia watched the warmth of the magma pulse like a heartbeat.
Katia and Maurice dreamed of building a boat to traverse the flowing lava like children paddling down a lazy river. It was an impossible dream at the time, and even today contemporary science has not been able to invent a vehicle that can withstand temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Although some thought the couple might be irresponsible, Katia and Maurice were well aware of the risk they took. Five of their colleagues had perished in volcanic eruptions. But their passion for the work outweighed the thought of personal safety.
When the Kraffts travelled to Indonesia, the country with the highest concentration of volcanoes in the world, they brought along a small, rubber boat. Its purpose? To float out on a lake made entirely of acid, a substance released when volcanoes erupt that could disintegrate human flesh.
Undeterred by the danger, Maurice paddled out into the middle of the lake with a colleague. Katia would stay behind to observe and report back if they didn’t survive their mission.
As the acid sizzled around the boat, they lowered a small bottle tethered by a cable to measure the depth and acidity level of the lake. Katia took photos on the shore as Maurice paddled further and further out to collect more samples. Finally acid ate through the cable and claimed the measurement bottle for good.
Katia did not like standing on the sidelines while Maurice was in harm’s way. She saw one of the two paddles slip out of Maurice’s hand and slowly sink into the sizzling acid. Katia’s heart clenched in her chest, feeling like it was sinking with the paddle. No one was coming to rescue them.
Katia thought she might never see her daredevil husband again.
The minutes that stretched by were agonizing as Katia waited until finally, Maurice was able to paddle the boat back to safety.
And when Maurice stepped back on dry land, Katia embraced him –– grateful to have her daring partner back by her side.
When the volcano was too explosive and unpredictable to allow them to camp on its rim, Katia and Maurice would stay in whatever accommodations were the closest. In 1973 a newly formed volcano erupted without warning, bringing the Kraffts to southern Iceland. While the whole town had evacuated to safety, Katia and Maurice unloaded their gear into a nearby hotel.
When Katia reached for her purse, the owner of the hotel waved her away. “The building will be gone by the end of the week,” he said. “I can’t take your money.”
Using the hotel as their home base, Katia and Maurice made daily journeys to the volcano. One evening Katia walked in through the front door, but by the next morning, the volcanic ash had piled so high that she was forced to exit through the second story window.
Instead of feeling afraid, Katia and Maurice were delighted by this adventure. Even while the erupting lava flow narrowed the entrance of the harbor where they had arrived, threatening to close it off completely from the sea, Katia continued her work.
DEATH & LEGACY
After 23 years of travel and research, Katia and Maurice were the most famous volcanologists in the world. Out of 500 active volcanoes in the world, the Kraffts had studied nearly 300 of them. Wherever there were signs of an eruption, they would immediately pack their bags and travel there. Sometimes there would be two volcanic events at once, so Katia and Maurice would separate to cover more ground.
But in 1991 they were both called to the same eruption at Mount Unzen on the island of Japan. They climbed above the surrounding rice paddies, ascending to a low plateau two miles from the volcano’s summit. Forty-one people ––mostly geologists and journalists ––joined them that day.
Then without warning, a pyroclastic lava flow broke free. The Kraffts themselves had warned the public about pyroclastic lava flows. The massive river of lava travels faster than a speeding car, and it’s one of the most dangerous events that can happen during a volcanic eruption.
There was no time to react.
The pressure of the flow carried burning-hot lava and toxic gas hundreds of kilometers down the slope of Unzen at lightning speed.
In the valley below, a cloud of ash filled the sky above the surrounding tobacco and tea plantations. Rocks and debris shot down into the valley, burning the crops.
Within seconds everything in the path of the flow was destroyed.
“French Volcanologists Among the Missing,” read the newspaper headlines on the streets of Paris.
After publishing many books, producing several films, and appearing on television numerous times, the Kraffts had become widely admired for their dedication and courage. Surely the couple had somehow escaped, people assured themselves. But as days passed, the hopes that the Kraffts were holed up somewhere safe, awaiting rescue, evaporated.
Only days before the eruption, Maurice had told a reporter that Unzen was the most dangerous volcano he’d ever seen.
“I have seen so many eruptions in 23 years, that even if I die tomorrow, I don’t care,” Maurice said.
By the time Maurice’s final words had made it around the world, the Kraffts were confirmed dead.
Katia’s legacy lives on through her contributions to the scientific community. During her lifetime the images and footage she captured of volcanic eruptions convinced public officials to enlist her in better preparing for and responding to volcanic eruptions. Because of the research she conducted, thousands of lives have been saved.