Skwentna bears brunt from volcano

SURREAL: Mat-su Borough mostly unaffected; schools open.

March 23, 2009 

WASILLA -- Winds swept Mount Redoubt's towering ash plume toward the Mat-Su Borough Monday, raising fears the area could be deluged with ash.

But the clouds of gritty volcanic debris left the heavily populated region mostly unscathed, save for some Upper Susitna Valley communities where residents woke to find a light dusting on their vehicles, homes and streets. Talkeetna and Trapper Creek were among the places hit.

The heaviest fall, though, was reported in the remote riverfront outpost of Skwentna, about 70 miles northwest of Anchorage. Skwentna Roadhouse manager Bonnie Childs described a surreal scene there around noon.

Up to a quarter-inch of ash covered the snow, the sun was trying to break through a brown-gray fog, the air smelled of sulfur and the wind was starting to blow tiny shards of ash from the trees, she said.

Debra Burdick-Hinton, who along with her family snowmachined to the roadhouse after spending the night camping in the Kichatna Valley, described the area as being shrouded in a dark, gray fog. Unaware of any eruption, the family had first noticed "a light splattering of ash" as they rode on the Yentna River.

"It's just a complete ash-out. You can't see anything," she said. "Hopefully we didn't destroy our machines."

Even so, the impact of the ash fall was more novelty than nuisance for most.

Wasilla, Palmer and other more populated parts of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were unaffected by the eruption. Schools remained open, as did businesses.

In Talkeetna, a light speckling of ash, hardly distinguishable from dust, fell on the town. But the faint dusting, along with ash in the air, was enough to shut down flights at the airport.

Talkeetna Air Taxi office manager Annie Duquette said the company canceled three flights Monday. The peak of the climbing and tourist season is still a few months off, or the number of grounded flights would have been much higher, she said.

The flights included two to pick up climbers -- a group of two men and two women hunkered down on the Ruth Glacier on Mount McKinley, and a group of two men in the Tordrillo Mountains. Both groups started their trips in mid-March and had food and fuel to last several more days, she said.

The company also postponed a flightseeing trip for a group of four Ohio tourists. The group wasn't too miffed, she said, asking instead where they could drive to see the erupting volcano.

Duquette said the company canceled the flights out of an abundance of caution because of the dangers posed by the gritty ash, which can scratch wings, jam air filters and gum up engines.

"We figured it was better to err on the side of caution," she said.

Also grounded at the airport were about 20 members of the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment from Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. The crews flew to Talkeetna Sunday in three Chinook helicopters, planning to spend two weeks practicing high-altitude flying maneuvers and helping the National Park Service set up two base camps on Mount McKinley at 7,000 feet and 14,000 feet for the climbing season.

John Leonard, lead mountaineering ranger for the Park Service in Talkeetna, said the group had been scheduled to ferry 10,000 pounds of gear including fuel, medical supplies, tents, propane and other equipment to the camps. At his office Monday, he was still waiting to hear word on whether the mission would be delayed or scrapped altogether.

Meanwhile, to the west, in the Trapper Creek area, about a tenth of an inch of ash reportedly covered the snow -- enough that walkers left behind footprints and people scrambled to protect aircraft, schools, generators and vehicles.

"Everything's got a brown tint, and there's a haze in the air," said Susie Seibert, who operates Gate Creek Cabins about 10 miles up Petersville Road with her husband.

Any of the 45 customers hoping to rent a snowmachine and go riding might have a volcano-enforced shutdown, Seibert said. She was also hoping ash wouldn't clog their generator.

Seibert suffers from asthma and isn't going outside.

"It's really a bummer," she said. "I'm coming off 20 days of steroids trying to get on top of it."

Trapper Creek resident Roz Daniels scanned the snow Monday morning with a flashlight and saw tan.

"It was a windshield wiper's worth," said Daniels, who lives on Oilwell Road, off Petersville Road.

Several area residents noted that the ash fall is more than a dusting, but nowhere near the 1992 eruption of Mount Spurr, which created near-blackout conditions at midday.

Schools around the Mat-Su were kept open, though the 21 students at Trapper Creek Elementary encountered brown snow and hazy air. Trapper Creek and Talkeetna elementary students were kept inside, school officials said.

District maintenance supervisor Henry Cottle spent all night monitoring conditions at Su Valley schools, said Jodi Picou, principal at Talkeetna and Trapper Creek elementary schools. Cottle covered computers and turned off fans in ventilator systems to make sure ash didn't sneak into the buildings.

And while there wasn't much in the way of volcanic fallout at Cubby's Marketplace near the turnoff of the Talkeetna Spur Road from the Parks Highway, there was fallout of a different kind from the eruption.

There was a run on pantyhose, great for protecting air filters on vehicles and heavy equipment. Just a few packages -- petite size only -- remained on the shelves.

Cathie Dawson, who cooks in the store deli, said her husband came in Monday morning and grabbed a bunch of hosiery to protect his excavator, his backhoe and his bulldozer. Dawson doesn't wear hose, but asked him to put some on her car.

"The bus driver came by this morning, he was looking for some big ones," she said. "I said, 'Listen, those queen size are the biggest that they make.' Anyway, we're prepared."

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