Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mount Rainier- After the Deluge

At the time, driving a bulldozer into Mount Rainier's wilderness seemed like a good idea.

A storm starting on Nov. 6 had dumped nearly 18 inches of rain on the mountain in 36 hours. Rivers poured from their banks and sliced through road after road throughout Mount Rainier National Park.

Sunshine Point Campground was mostly gone. The Carbon River Road had become part of the Carbon River. An 80-foot-deep gash cut across Highway 123. It was the most destructive natural disaster in the park's history. For the first time ever, the entire place was closed to visitors.

To read more of reporter Warren Cornwall's story:

These images were taken this spring after the autumn floods. This is a regional story, but it also has a wider context. Many of our many of our National Parks face a similar dilemma— How do we protect wilderness and still serve the public?

Ryan Cyphers, a National Park Service trail crew worker, walks across a logjam in the former Ipsut Creek streambed. The Carbon River and Ipsut Creek flooded in November, causing massive road and trail damage in the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park. Park Service and Washington Conservation Corps crews have been working in the Carbon River area to make it safe for hikers. Crews will be working throughout the park this summer, and possibly for many seasons to come, repairing flood-damaged areas.

Paul Kennard, a National Park Service geomorphologist, wades into Tahoma Creek to obtain a cross-section of the waterway. Kennard and two other Park Service scientists collected data to try to predict when the channel will flood. Kennard said the creek has flooded every year since 2003. During November’s deluge, the creek cut into the woods, flooded Nisqually Road and ultimately destroyed a section of Sunshine Point Campground. “It’s going to continue to flood in the future,” Kennard says. “The question is how often.”

An Alpine Ascents International guided expedition climbs toward Camp Muir in early April. While the park remained closed to the general public for flood-damage repairs, the National Park Service, always sensitive to the demands of businesses that depend on the park, found a way to get the guide services in.

Pictured through the window of an airplane, majestic Mount Rainier casts its alluring spell in the setting sun.

In the dwindling evening light, a red fox yawns on a snow bank near the main park road up to Paradise. Park Service ranger Glenn Kessler says he has seen the fox before and thinks the animal has become accustomed to being fed by tourists. The main park road was closed for six months this winter, and Kessler says the animal likely had been looking for a handout.

Ben Wright, a biologist for the Park Service, snorkels and searches for bull trout in Falls Creek, a tributary of the Carbon River. Wright and fellow scientist Heather Moran searched for the endangered fish in the new deep pools created by November’s heavy rains.

During November’s floods, Tahoma Creek ran over its banks and cut into old-growth forest. The overflow followed an ancient floodway channel that has not held water for hundreds of years. Park Service scientist Paul Kennard believes the current Tahoma channel is filling with debris to the point that the waterway is finding alternative paths — routes that have the potential to close the main park road.

Since November’s massive flood, rust-colored residues have left their mark on the park’s waterways and banks. The coloration is a naturally occurring phenomenon in mountain streams, and is often a result of geothermal springs or storm-caused landslides that bring down soils containing iron. The coloration is widespread around Mount Rainier, and can be seen in Tahoma Creek, Kautz Creek, the Nisqually River and the Ohanapecosh River.

Mike Gauthier, a NPS Mount Rainier lead climbing ranger, arrives at Camp Muir and the Butler Shelter after climbing 4.5-miles and 4,600-feet of elevation from Paradise. The camp is a heavily traveled route for climbers bound for the summit.

Access to the northwest corner of the park is closed to only foot and bike traffic.

Mitch Anderson, a National Park Service carpenter, works at Kautz Creek, installing two 12-foot culverts in an effort to keep the waterway on the same path. The creek diverted in early November when 18 inches of rain pummeled Mount Rainier in just 36 hours. The waterway swept into the forest and crossed the park’s most popular road — bringing into focus long-simmering questions about how the Park Service can protect wilderness and still serve the public.

Jayme Margolin, a geological education specialist and interpretive ranger, performs a pebble count near Tahoma Creek on a drizzly afternoon near the southwest entrance of the park. Margolin and other NPS scientists were trying to determine how quickly water could flow over the riverbed during episodes of flooding, and how frequently the channel will flood in the future. The pebble count indicates the roughness, or the amount of friction, in the channel.

Park Service biologist Ben Wright closes the Carbon River entrance gate after searching for endangered bull trout. Locals, environmentalists and the National Park Service are not in agreement about what to do with the damaged road — and their disagreement is a reflection of the ongoing tension between advocates for more wilderness and those who want the park to be more open for visitors of all kinds.

Water pours off the rocky hillside along the Nisqually Road that leads to Paradise. Christine Falls, one of the park’s most popular attractions, flows nearby.

Two hikers cross a section of the Carbon River Road that now is a segment of the Carbon River. Foot and bike traffic are the only means of transportation through the Carbon River entrance to the national park.

All images/text- The Seattle Times/Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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All images copyright Erika Schultz or The Seattle Times