Visiting Mt. Rainier

By Jay Satz
From his December 21, 2006 visit to Mt. Rainier

road washed out

Over a two day period in early November 2006, Washington State’s iconic Mt. Rainier National Park received up to 18 inches of rainfall, which in any other November would more likely have fallen as three or four feet of snow. The resulting cascades of water from the rain and melted snow and ice from Rainier’s glaciated peak created some of the worst flooding in the mountain’s history as a national park. Since those couple of extraordinary days, in an unprecedented situation, the park has been completely closed to the public.

When I met with the park’s superintendent, Dave Uberuaga, and his senior staff six weeks after the event, I was wondering what I would see. Powerful photographs published during and soon after the storm showed massive walls of water moving down the Nisqually River, carrying huge boulders and massive 800-year and older trees. Rivers changed channels, leaving campgrounds, bridges and roads washed completely away. The emergency helipad was gone and the river flowed into Longmire, the national historic landmark settlement that houses park headquarters, and home to the families of park staff, including children cut off from their school. Buildings were undermined and utilities, sewage, and drinking water were all disrupted, with electricity unavailable for six weeks despite an aggressive restoration effort by park staff and federal highway workers.

On December 14, the week before I drove down to the park, another extraordinary storm swept through the Pacific Northwest, with 90 mph winds sweeping away trees, homes, bridges and leaving almost one million people in and around Seattle without electricity. The November damage to Mt. Rainier (recently estimated at $36 million) and sister national parks Olympic and North Cascades was blown off the headlines and from the minds of most Northwesterners as 15 local citizens lost their lives to the second storm, including one woman in Seattle, drowning in her basement as flash flooding overtook the municipal sewer system’s capacity to manage the volume and velocity of water.

Dave Uberuaga and I had been trading phone calls and emails since the worse of it but the 18-hour days he and his staff had been solidly putting in since Election Day had made meeting earlier impossible. Now we were getting together to see how SCA could be of assistance in repairing the damage.

After a substantive meeting which laid the groundwork for a significant recovery partnership between the park and SCA, Dave drove me into the park. We bypassed the closure of the elegant arched entry of the Nisqually gate, not closed to the public since Mt. St. Helens massive eruption in 1980. We went in the “back way,” over a bridge spanning the Nisqually River narrowly saved through dozers moving massive amounts of river rock, and eventually through a locked gate that crept up on the backside of a closed campground opposite Longmire. I had never entered the park this way and when I queried Dave as to why we were going in the back way he patiently explained, “because we don’t have a road anymore, Jay.”

We had the back road (as it was – it was barely adequate for a single vehicle in some places, and already snow packed for the season) to ourselves, so Dave stopped often to point out the most severe damage (see the photos elsewhere on SCA’s website!). Emergency operations center and helipad – gone, swallowed completely by the river. Sunshine Point campground was gone as well, including a critical 50 yards of roadway that effectively separated the park’s entrance station from Longmire. Utility conduit, culverts, bridges gone. Huge trees and massive amounts of debris scattered along both banks, and both banks under scoured and eroded beyond my more informed than most expectation of the damage.

Perhaps the most visually impactful scene for me occurred as we approached Longmire from the east side of the river. The channel was ten times wider than I remembered from my last visit several winters ago. The beautiful log built Longmire community center behind me had thankfully not been damaged, but the road in front of it had partially been washed away, along with a swatch of beautiful old trees that had framed a gorgeous view of the Mountain from the wide wooden porch. Thousands of tons of river rock had been moved to shore up the road and river bank, and two very large earth moving machines with huge backhoe buckets were still maneuvering in the river bed, moving rock with clangs and bangs so loud that their sound was more dominant than the roar of the river.

Dave’s presence in the park was obviously appreciated by every park employee we met. He was very knowledgeable about every project we encountered and clued in to how much each employee had been working and what the impact of the situation was having on each person and in many cases, their families. It was also clear that Dave was making significant and often challenging resource management – and political – decisions regarding the future of the park on a daily (versus the hourly decisions of the first weeks) basis.

The progress of some repairs was really extraordinary, including the replacement of the road bed next to the Sunshine Point campground, though it is currently not expected that the public will have access to Longmire until very late winter or early spring. As for Paradise – site of the renowned Paradise Inn, the main park visitor center, the major winter recreation area and the key jumping off point for ascending the mountain – the road is so significantly damaged or the suspected weaknesses in the road bed is so severe, that it will not likely be open before summer is full on.

Thinking about the immense amount of snow covering all of the mountain now – it looks as if the Cascades are in for another 100% or better snow pack this year – brings with it the realization that all of the damage that occurred to high country hiking trails, bridges, and backcountry campsites has not been catalogued in any way. It is clear that this damage will be significant. In addition to the obvious damage to existing trails and structures will be the erosion scars from the immense run off – scars that will further undermine the stability of the soils and vegetation, and yet another opportunity for non-native plant species to invade and intrude into the delicate alpine ecosystem.

As Dave began the circle back on the main park road – still damaged and in some places dangerous, but just opened for official traffic a few days before – the damage from the mid-December wind storms became evident. Several 800-to-900-year-old fir and cedar trees had cracked and splintered into the forest along the road, or in two cases, onto the road itself (Dave and NPS employees in another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction witnessed the second crash as it occurred days earlier). Other trees of equal grandeur and age were wholly blown over, exposing immense 40+ foot diameter root wads that towered over the road.

Surveying the damage with me only seemed to emphasize Dave’s optimism about getting the park open to the public, but at the same time it was a sobering enough recognition of the resources that this job would take. Even though wide-eyed and awestruck by the impressive display of damage I was seeing, I could not help also feeling pride that Dave was calling on SCA to help the park with the extensive restoration he was imagining, and to provide leadership for the many other non-governmental groups and individuals offering their support.