Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Not just another day at the office

One of the things I love about working in a National Park is that every day is different, and our dynamic landscape is always changing. Thus, when one of my summer interns, Yonit Yogev, a graduate student at The Evergreen State College, turned out to be the first ranger on scene when a debris flow came down Tahoma Creek last week, my first thought was to have her write down her experience for this blog. I hear from volunteers every week about the interesting things that happen to them and the wonderful things they encounter along the trail. But it will take a while to top this one. - Kevin Bacher, Volunteer Program Manager

Mount Rainier is a geologically active area.  Signs of rock fall, past debris flows, braided rivers full of glacial flour, and even the occasional sound of distant rock falling are all clear reminders of just how active the mountain really is.  Volunteering here over the past few years I’ve had the privilege of hearing lectures by and going on guided walks with park scientists and geologists, heard their stories and about their research.  They always emphasize (and so I placed firmly on the back-burner of my mind) the warnings about quickly finding higher ground if I were ever to hear loud rumbling that sounds like an oncoming train.

On August 13, late in the morning I headed out to do an ‘attended listening’ session on the Tahoma Creek Trail for the park’s Soundscape Project.  This research records and confirms background noise levels at strategic places in the park. As I drove up the Westside Road—thought to be the most geologically active and dangerous area of the park at present—I brought the warnings of rumbling trains to the forefront of my thoughts. I was awed and humbled by the signs of recent geologic activity which landed truck-sized boulders onto the road and left many others in precarious positions on the remaining landslide.  Thinking I should not stay in that area for long—though it’s so fascinating one may be compelled to just stare at it for a long while—I continued the drive up the road to the trailhead.  On the way, I ran into and briefly talked with two hiking parties—one of about 5 adults, and the other a couple. 

I arrived at the trailhead, turned the truck around and parked it.  As I got out and prepared to get onto the trail, I heard what sounded like very loud helicopters overhead.  The noise continued for some time.  I had read an email about helicopter traffic, so at first didn’t worry too much, though I thought it sounded awfully loud.  Of course, in the back of my head, the warning signs were waving red flags.  I decided to wait out the noise before beginning the hike.  (That decision turned out to be key to keeping me out of harm’s way!)  After a couple of minutes or so, it became louder and louder and clearly turned into rumbling, accompanied by the sounds of trees being knocked over and the roaring of the river getting louder as well.  At this point, I finally was quite sure we were dealing with a debris flow, so previously having backed the truck further uphill, I got myself to higher ground and watched and waited, heart thumping, and head shaking in disbelief at my mixed luck!

As I watched, a large flash flood of water, mixed with mud, rock and debris washed over the road.  It looked to be about a foot or foot and a half high, and washed away part of the road on the far side where it flowed over into a shallow ravine.  After a few minutes it subsided and I felt safe enough to come back down to the road; I called dispatch on the radio, and took pictures with my phone.  Then I saw the couple coming up (they had been on the way to the trail as well).  I turned them around, explaining what had just happened.  They reported witnessing lots of large trees being washed down-river.  I then realized I should report all the visitors I had seen to dispatch. 

Eventually, two rangers and Scott, the park geologist, came up and there was discussion about closing roads and trails and making sure all the hikers were accounted for.

On the one hand, this was an incredibly rare thing to get to see, and it was unbelievably exciting.  On the other hand, of course it was rather nerve-wracking, though I would have loved to have been allowed to go up in the helicopter to scope out the source—the Tahoma Glacier, where an event of this sort was expected to occur at some point this summer.  I learned that when it happens, there are usually several waves, and indeed we heard another two while we were standing there, though the subsequent ones were not high enough to wash over the road again.  At some point earlier, another volunteer who was higher up the mountain was able to get to the suspension bridge and provided ongoing, real-time information about what the river was doing, and at least twice he mentioned further rumbling and rises in the water level.  Indeed a couple of times we heard increasing noise from the river, up to the level of rumbling, but not as severe as when I initially heard it. 

We never knowingly put ourselves in harm’s way, but with a mountain as geologically active as this one, this was a heart-thumping reminder that these things really do occur, really can be dangerous, and that you can never be too careful when you’re out hiking the trails or wilderness.  The beauty is jaw-dropping, but it is rugged and unstable, and it pays to always keep those warnings on the front-burner when venturing out in this region.

- Yonit Yogev, Volunteer and Outreach Intern, The Evergreen State College

Post-script:  As my mind processed this event over the course of the evening, I remembered that the evening before, I had been to see a screening of the documentary “Chasing Ice,” about James Balog’s incredible Extreme Ice Survey.  In this decade-long project, they have set up cameras on over 20 sites on glaciers around the world.  The resulting footage documents in a jaw-dropping, ‘in your face’ manner, the degree and speed of glacier recession around the world.  If you haven’t seen it, you absolutely MUST.  This is a powerful film about the urgency of climate change.

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