Skwentna reports 'complete ash-out'

Zaz Hollander

The remote riverfront outpost of Skwentna is ashfall central today.

While the eruption of Mount Redoubt left a light dusting of brown ash and hazy skies in parts of the Susitna Valley, including Trapper Creek and Talkeetna, the scene at the roadless community about 70 miles northwest of Anchorage is downright surreal.

Up to a quarter-inch of ash covers the snow in a dismal blanket, the sun is trying to break through a brown-gray fog, the air smells of sulfur and the wind is starting to blow tiny shards of ash from the trees, Skwentna Roadhouse manager Bonnie Childs said around noon.

Debra Burdick-Hinton and her family snowmachined into the roadhouse after spending the night camping in the Kichatna Valley. Unaware of any eruption, the family first noticed "a light splattering of ash" on the Yentna River, Burdick-Hinton asid. Then they turned toward Skwentna.

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

The ashfall appears to be isolated to the upper Su Valley. Wasilla, Palmer, and other more populated parts of the Matanuska-Susita Borough remained unaffected by the eruption.

At Talkeetna's airport, the National Weather Service reported "light ash covering all surfaces."

Ashfall was a bit heavier in the Trapper Creek area to the west, where 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 today, Seibert said. She's also hoping ash doesn'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 geton top of it."

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

Light ash is also being reported at Denali National Park and at Cantwell, along to the Parks Highway, the Alaska Volcano Observatory reported.

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

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

While some Talkeetna residents reported no sign of volcanic activity, a thin veneer of ash blanketed the town's airport.

"We got up in the middle of the night as soon as we got word it was coming and covered our airplanes," said Bill Post, a pilot with Talkeetna Air Taxi. "It is visible on the surface of our aircraft, just a very light dusting."

The company halted today's scheduled scenic flights and climber dropoffs in the Alaska Range due to concerns about ashfall, which can damage aircraft engines, Post said. "Nothing is moving at this point."

Schools around the Mat-Su are open today, though the 21 students at Trapper Creek Elementary encountered brown snow and hazy air. Trapper Creek and Talkeetna elementary students won't play outside today, 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.

No students stayed home because of the eruptions, Picou said. The schools have masks available.

Residents in Willow reported no ashfall as of about 9 a.m.

And there's not much in the way of volcanic fallout at Cubby's Marketplace near the turnoff of the Talkeetna Spur Road from the Parks Highway.

But there is a run on pantyhose, great for protecting air filters on vehicles and heavy equipment. Just a few packages - petite size only - remain on the shelves.

Cathie Dawson, who cooks in the store deli, said her husband came in this morning and grabbed up 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."