Flooding in Denali National Park leaves more than 100 stranded

Laurel Andrews

Heavy rainfall overnight in Interior Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve flooded a backcountry lodge and left more than 100 park guests and employees stranded beyond Wonder Lake on the Denali Park Road on Thursday.

The Denali Backcountry Lodge, at the western end of the park road near Mile 92, flooded early Thursday morning, forcing the lodge to evacuate its guests and employees, said Kris Fister, spokesperson for Denali National Park. A total of 103 guests and lodge staff were placed on the lodge's buses and taken to higher ground, where they remained on Thursday afternoon. They had adequate food, water and shelter, and no injuries had been reported Thursday, Fister said.

In addition, about a dozen park employees were stuck past Wonder Lake, she said. Those employees were taking shelter in park cabins, she said, and were all safe and accounted for.

The nearby Kantishna airstrip was also partially flooded Thursday, Fister said, so airplanes were unable to land to evacuate those stranded.

The road beyond Wonder Lake, starting at Mile 85, was flooded over in three places Thursday, Fister said. Both Eureka Creek and Friday Creek -- which usually "run across the road at very low levels," she said -- were flowing over at high levels and bringing "significant debris" over the road, she said. In addition, a culvert running into Wonder Lake had overflowed, she said.

The park closed the road beyond Wonder Lake around 4:30 a.m. At about 8:45 a.m., the park closed the road at Eielson, Mile 66, as rain was causing "significant rockfall" in the area, according to a press release sent out by Fister on Thursday afternoon.

Road crews were working Thursday afternoon to clear and repair the road, Fister said. Meanwhile, the park was gearing up to evacuate people by helicopter, she wrote in an email. Four "stranded, hungry climbers" on the south side of the McKinley River, notoriously difficult to cross even without the rain, would be picked up first and dropped at Eielson Visitor Center, she wrote. After that, a Denali Backcountry Lodge employee who was stranded on "what is now an island near the lodge" would be picked up, she wrote, followed by the stranded lodge guests.

No other lodges in the area had yet to evacuate, she said. Campers at the Wonder Lake Campground were given the option of leaving on a single bus on Thursday afternoon but some chose to remain, according to the release. That campground was on higher ground and was not in danger of flooding, Fister said.

The National Weather Service issued a flood advisory for Denali National Park on Thursday morning, stating that 1.5 to 3 inches of rain had fallen overnight, causing small streams and creeks to rise and flood in some areas.

On Thursday afternoon, the rain had stopped, Fister said.

MORE FLOOD ADVISORIES

Meanwhile, in Fairbanks, a flood advisory was issued for the Upper Chena River Thursday afternoon, lasting until Saturday evening. "Some water may flow across mile 36.9 Chena Hot Springs Road this evening," the flood warning stated.

Water levels were not expected to be as high as last week, the warning said.

A flood advisory was also issued for the Salcha River.

"Minor flooding is expected in low lying areas beginning today in the upper basin. The Salcha campground could also receive minor flooding on late Friday afternoon through early Saturday morning," the advisory said.

Ed Plumb, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, said this June was the third wettest on record at Fairbanks International Airport.

Two weather systems brought rain to Fairbanks this week and last, Plumb said. Some areas had recorded 3 to 5 inches with this week's rain, he said.

Last week, flooding on the Goodpaster and Salcha rivers caused damage to some homes and cabins in the area, Plumb said. The flooding was "pretty unusual" and was "one of the bigger floods in recent decades," he said.

Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, a dam system that diverts floodwaters from the Chena River before it reaches Fairbanks, was put to use last week. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was monitoring the situation Thursday and was prepared to operate the dam if necessary, Plumb said.


By LAUREL ANDREWS
laurel@alaskadispatch.com