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"The Blast At Eklutna; A February avalanche seen by nobody leaves plenty of clues to its enormity and fury."-By Doug O'Harra of "We Alaskans"



The birch stump bulged from the ground on a broad slope beneath Bold Peak, smack in the middle of a quarter-mile-wide swath of flattened vegetation and scoured earth. Its gnarled base was about 28 inches in diameter -- rare bulk for a birch at the 1,100-foot elevation in the Chugach Mountains. It was a tree that had lived many decades.

No more.

In early May, the trunk rose only about a foot above the ground, terminating in a fan of splinters and spears the size of popsicle sticks. A tree that had once reached skyward from this base had simply disappeared -- not toppled on the ground below the stump, not even in sight on the hill. It was gone.

The same was true for hundreds of other trees on this slope, which rises above the head of Eklutna Lake, eight miles from the Eklutna trail head in Chugach State Park. Most of what remained of the trees ended in shredded clumps of heartwood a few feet above the ground, tops ripped away, the twisted remnants pointing downhill in the freeze-frame image of something caught in a hurricane. Alongside them lay a few still-rooted trees and brush flattened to the ground.

Except for the blue sky and white clouds overhead and the tiny green plants emerging from bare dirt underfoot, the view might have served as detail in a painting of mayhem. ''Still Life in Full Gale'' wouldn't be an exaggeration.

The same February storm that paralyzed the Anchorage region with deep snow and 100-mph winds -- the storm that spawned an avalanche that killed an Alaska Railroad worker trying to clear a previous slide near the Seward Highway -- also devastated this unpopulated mountainside on the southwest face of Bold Peak, about 16 miles up the valley from the Glenn Highway. The fast-moving powder blast had enough force to clear 120 acres of spruce and birch forest, in some places down to dirt. It piled debris on the Eklutna Lake trail from Mile 7.9 to Mile 8.5. Three months later, spring melt was fast eating away what was left of the dirty snow, revealing the full extent of the damage.

Searching for what was left of the big birch tree meant taking a bearing from what was left of the stump: the strands pointed downslope, slightly to the left of the fall line, toward a gully filled with slash and trunks and limbs. Sure enough, about 70 feet down the steep slope, a massive birch tree lay squashed in the duff, partly buried by debris, partly riding over other whole trees.

Its base and girth seemed to match the big stump. The trunk stretched 54 feet in length, ending in a tightly clenched crown of denuded branches. A tree as tall as a five-story building had been ripped loose from its roots and tossed like a javelin downhill. But it was hardly exceptional.

Along the edges and bottom of the slope lay jumbled piles of trunks and branches, some piled in windrows, some tangled this way and that, some lying neatly together like slash from a logging project. A small stream course had filled to the brim with slash, leveling the ground so you could cross the gully from brim to brim, with the stream itself visible some 10 feet below through a hole in the compacted snow and slash. Scattered underfoot were smaller sticks and kindling and posts -- shattered pieces of limbs and trees. In places, the spruce needles lay thick, carpeting the floor.

It was as though the forest had exploded.

No one saw the slide come down. Amyot had patrolled the trail on Jan. 27 and found nothing amiss. Within three days, conditions radically changed.

A low-pressure system swirled into Prince William Sound, sending a flow of moisture over the Chugach Mountains and dumping 8 to 12 inches of snow in Anchorage, far more in the mountains. By Feb. 1, avalanches were thundering down steeper slopes, closing highways, knocking out power, isolating communities. That afternoon, Alaska Railroad heavy-equipment operator Kerry Brookman was killed when his Caterpillar tractor was struck by an avalanche near Mile 98 on the Seward Highway, carrying him and the machine 400 feet into Turnagain Arm. Some of the snow avalanches off Penguin Ridge, overlooking the Arm, stretched 1,000 feet wide. Together, they covered miles of roadway.

A slide also blocked Eklutna Lake Road about six miles up from the Glenn Highway. Another slide crossed the Old Glenn Highway at Mile 7.5, just across the mountains from the Eklutna Lake valley. Severe conditions throughout the area prompted Chugach Park superintendent Al Meiners to close most back-country areas and leave trail heads unplowed to discourage visitors.

''This is a good time for folks to stay home,'' Meiners told a newspaper reporter at the time.

One stretch that remained technically open to public use included the trail along Eklutna Lake through about Mile 12, a stretch with little known avalanche danger. But conditions had become so severe and unstable that the snow load would soon redraw nature's own avalanche map.

Few people ventured out over the next few days as the winter storm evolved into a classic Chugach chinook, sweeping the mountain front with winds gusting to 100 mph and more. Finally, on Feb. 5, after conditions had eased, people touring upper Eklutna valley on snowmachines reported that a very large avalanche had damaged the forest at the head of Eklutna Lake. The report was vague but intriguing.

Within a few days, rangers visited the site and others viewed it from airplanes. After performing their own brief analysis, Anchorage avalanche experts Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler said they found the slide remarkable in several respects.

A slab of low-density snow had been set in motion high on the side of 7,522-foot Bold Peak, overlooking an old path that had rarely slid during the past quarter-century. The slide accelerated over a two-mile path descending about 6,000 feet, taking with it an entire chute of light, unstable snow. The surge of so much snow displaced a tremendous wave of air. This powder blast -- propelled ahead of the snow at a speed of at least 100 mph -- ''entrained'' a great deal of light powder, which in turn increased its own mass and ''knockdown power,'' possibly by a factor of eight.

As this wave roared down the mountain, it ripped out vegetation, windmilling whole trees so that they shattered and snapped into rails. At the base of the mountain, a tsunami of wind and snow and wood crossed the road, tearing into a forest that had stood for many decades. The slide then fanned out onto the flats, mowing down about 120 acres of mature spruce-birch forest and reaching about a half-mile into the valley. The force dissipated; a cloud of powder must have risen like a thunderhead.

The angle of the farthest reach of the slide to its starting zone was about 20 degrees, according to Fredston. This angle -- used by analysts to predict potential danger -- was one of the most remarkable aspects of this avalanche.

''It was a very long-running slide,'' Fredston said.

Larger avalanches occur frequently in the Chugach Mountains. But rarely does a slide carve so much new territory out of the forest and extend so much farther.

At the end of the lake, overlooking the mouth of the East Fork of Eklutna River, the avalanche debris was piled high enough to bury a cabin, as though a timber crew had gone berserk. Several 8- and 10-inch cottonwood trees were bent across the road, blocking it as effectively as a gate. A mound of trunks and branches and interlocking slash stretched out of sight. The road simply disappeared into the mess.

A sign in the roadway -- ''Lakeside Trail closed to motorized vehicles due to Avalanche Damage'' -- provided an amazing understatement. ''Trail Obliterated'' would have been more accurate.

Deeper in the debris, the level of damage was so vast it seemed to imply malevolent intent. The debris was deepest along the edges, where it had filled gullies and smoothed the landscape. And yet, in the middle of one denuded knoll, between flattened cottonwood trees and squashed fragments of brush, a springy wild rose bush stood -- Rosa rugosa, with new buds, maroon stem, prickly thorns. More of them had emerged from the nearby slash, reaching for the sky and bouncing in the breeze.

And that's when the reality of the avalanche began to appear. It didn't cause destruction so much as complete change, not obliteration so much as opportunity. An open glade had taken the place of dense woods. After all, what's bad for a stand of old spruce might be a stroke of luck for a patch of feisty, thorny roses. From the perspective of a whole community of plants and bacteria and voles and insects, nothing was lost here except maybe some chilly shade.

Clues to this renewal were hidden everywhere among the debris. Along one portion of slope, where the stumps rose in ragged scars, spears of devil's club fluttered jauntily in a cold spring breeze, utterly undamaged. In a few months, this section would become an impassable jungle of pizza pan-sized leaves equipped with spikes.

Deep in one section of wreckage lay a single reddish-orange cranberry, as perfect and untouched as the day it had ripened last summer.

And out on the flats, where the forest had been mowed down and the snow was blackened with duff and bits of bark, emerged a bed of new ferns. A streamlet tinkled through them. The little plants rose from the earth a few inches, crooked and bent. But they were fuzzy to the touch, lush, deep green and growing fast.



The Bold Peak Avalanche site at the head of Eklutna Lake