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Sitka couple barely survives freak Alaska landslide that wipes out their cabin

Sean Doogan
It's not often that a mountain falls on your head. A Sitka couple is still recovering from a freak Mother's Day mountainslide nearby the Redoubt Lake public use cabin in Southeast Alaska. Courtesy Mark Hackett, Harris Air

It’s not often a mountain falls on your head. But that's exactly what happened to a Sitka couple last Sunday.

Kevin Knox and Maggie Gallin are scraped, bruised and mourning the loss of their border collie mix dog, Luna, after getting swept into the ocean by a landslide while visiting a U.S. Forest Service public use cabin near Redoubt Lake. They returned to the area, about 15 miles southeast of Sitka, Tuesday to look for the dog, but don’t believe their pet survived. The pair had been camping at the cabin over the weekend, before a massive piece of the mountain above them gave way Sunday morning, sending trees, dirt, and debris cascading down the steep slope above them.

"We heard some rocks falling (Saturday) night," loud enough to "echo throughout the forest, waking us up at one point," Knox said. Since the sounds seemed to be coming from so far away, the couple decided to go back to bed.

“I was worried, but never thought anything could get all the way down to us, because there were so many trees between us and the top of the mountain,” Knox said.

Timing is everything

The overnight rock falls were just a prelude to what was in store. The next morning, after rowing out to scout the mountainside and do some fishing, Knox stood on the shoreline, making a video of the boulders as they came crashing down from a peak about 4,000 feet above him. Gallin was inside the small cabin, packing up to meet the plane later that day.

And that's about the time a swath of mountain, later estimated to be about 200 yards squared, broke loose. 

"I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The entire mountain was moving," Knox said.

He began yelling for his girlfriend to get out of the cabin. "Run, just run, I told her."

He joined her and with their dog they ran as fast as they could to try and sidestep the trees, debris and mountainside. Instead they were forced into the water, sucked in and pushed under while 20-foot-tall rocks came to rest just feet away from crushing them.

“We popped up a few feet from shore; I couldn’t believe what had just happened," Knox said. "We were still alive.

"It was lucky timing, because if we had been inside the cabin when it hit, we wouldn’t have stood a chance,” Knox said.

After pulling themselves to shore, Knox and Gallin noticed their 11 year old border collie, Luna, was missing. Knox said they'd last seen her before going under water.

Pilot can't believe what he's seeing

From the air, the scene looked horrific. The entire area where the cabin used to be was buried under debris, including large old-growth spruce trees that were dragged down the mountain during the slide. Mark Hackett, a pilot for Harris Air in Sitka, was scheduled to pick up Knox and Gallin Sunday afternoon. 

“When I flew over the area, I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing. I think my exact thought was just, 'oh shit,'" he said.

Since Knox and Gallin had hiked to the Redoubt Lake cabin from Salmon Lake, about 5 miles away, Hackett, at first, said he wasn't sure if the couple had been caught up in the slide.

"I circled the area a few times trying to get my bearings, and that’s when I saw Kevin (Knox) waving his coat in the air," Hackett said. After landing near shore, Hackett opened the plane’s door and yelled for the couple to get in.

"When I saw their eyes, I could tell that they were traumatized," Hackett said.

Hackett flew Knox and Gallin back to Sitka to be checked out by a doctor. Knox says he is sore, with some bruises and scrapes on his back, but that Gallin was more banged up.

"She has a black eye, swollen nose and is very sore," Knox said. But the physical damage is the least of the injuries suffered by the couple. The loss of Luna, a happy-go-lucky dog Knox adopted 10 years ago, has devastated them. And then there are the lasting emotional effects of being swept up in a massive landslide.

"I woke up this morning, reliving what had happened, and all I could think is: 'I have no idea why I am still alive,'" Knox said. A lifelong resident of Sitka, and avid outdoorsman, Knox wonders if his sense of safety in the wilderness has vanished. "You think, OK, I am prepared for what may happen, like a bear encounter, or a fall, but you can’t prepare for something like this,” Knox said by phone after returning from the scene Tuesday afternoon."

Rock slides common in the area?

The Redoubt Lake cabin is 40 to 50 yards old, according to Forest Service Sitka Area District Ranger Perry Edwards. It is popular enough that before the landslide, the small, one-room cabin was scheduled to be updated and rebuilt. That’s unlikely now as the land it once occupied has been transformed into a pile of tangled trees, rocks, and mud. But since it was at the base of a steep slope, in an area where rockslides are not uncommon, should that location have been selected in the first place?

Edwards doesn’t have a problem with it. “Judging by the old-growth forest on the mountainside, and the type of trees there, it is highly likely that a slide of this magnitude hasn’t happened near there for at least 300 to 400 years,” Edwards said. He noted he’s never heard concerns about the cabin’s location.

Across southeast Alaska, landslides happen all the time. Rain, wind and the annual freeze-thaw cycle combine to erode the landscape, frequently sending rocks down the mountains. Although their aftermath is frequently spotted by passing planes and Forest Service crews, the vastness of Alaska means, usually, no one is around to see them – let alone get caught up in the debris field.

Critical Sockeye Salmon Habitat

Redoubt Lake is home to a strong run of sockeye salmon -- a major source of food for Sitka’s fishermen. The slide has blocked the entrance to the lake from the ocean. The Sitka Ranger’s office thinks there is enough water movement to clear a path for migrating salmon – expected to push up the area in mid-July.

“If it doesn’t, we will consider blasting open a channel,” Edwards said.

Recovering in Sitka, Kevin Knox said he isn’t sure if he and Gallin consider themselves lucky -- because they survived what probably should have killed them, or unlucky -- because they got caught up in it in the first place.

"It was an absolute fluke," Knox said, "everything from it happening in the first place, to surviving the slide."

One thing is certain, Knox said: while the couple’s scrapes and bruises will heal, memories of what happened this weekend, and an overwhelming sadness at the loss of their dog, Luna, will stick with them forever.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com