As floodwaters swirled around Denali Backcountry Lodge on Thursday, evacuated employee Thom McAleer thought the buildings would be swept off their foundations.
Heavy rain overnight Wednesday in Interior Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve turned two placid streams into raging rivers, sweeping debris across the park road and forcing more than 100 lodge guests and staff to evacuate.
Despite McAleer's fears, those floodwaters did not breach the lodge buildings. Damage Friday appeared relatively minimal, McAleer said.
The park road, closed Thursday at Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 after a rock fall caused by the rain, was open again to Wonder Lake at Mile 85 on Friday, said park spokeswoman Kris Fister. Park buses were running on their normal schedule, she said.
But the road beyond Wonder Lake, where Denali Backcountry Lodge sits near Moose Creek, remained closed Friday as crews worked to assess and repair damage caused by the swollen creeks. Yet the water had receded around Denali Backcountry Lodge and employees managed to get its power back on Thursday night.
McAleer, vice president of Alaska Denali Travel, which owns and operates the lodge, on Friday recounted the scene as Moose Creek crested its bank and forced the evacuation.
'We needed to get to high ground'
Around 6:30 a.m. Thursday, as guests prepared to leave the lodge, staff found the road blocked by debris swept in by swollen Eureka Creek.
"At that point we realized that (Moose Creek) had come up pretty significantly," McAleer said.
Waters continued to rise until 8:30 a.m., when McAleer made the call to evacuate the lodge.
"As it started to fill in the property, we made the determination that we needed to move," McAleer said. "I didn't know exactly where we were going, but we needed to get to high ground."
Moose Creek diverts around the back of the lodge, and he knew that they would be trapped on the property if they didn't leave.
Employees shut down the propane tanks and generators, made sure the lodge's wellhead was secure, and packed lunches for guests. Rain boots normally worn for gold panning in the creek were passed out, McAleer said.
By 9 a.m., floodwaters had crested the Moose Creek bank and were about shin-deep on the property, McAleer said. Guests were loaded into buses and employees fit into vans as water reached the lodge buildings.
They drove up to higher ground, parking near Skyline Lodge. From the higher vantage, they watched as Moose Creek flooded the Denali Backcountry Lodge property. "I thought we were going to have buildings pushed off the foundations," McAleer said.
Eureka Creek, normally a 6-inch trickling stream, had swelled to become a "50-yard-wide raging river," McAleer said.
"This is the largest flood that anybody's ever seen up there," McAleer added.
Rainfall between 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and 8:30 a.m. Thursday at Wonder Lake was measured at 2.91 inches, said Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service Alaska region. That is "a lot of rain for that part of the world" and a "once every-few-decades event for sure," he said.
As they evacuated, McAleer said, there was "nervous energy" among guests. Yet as they realized a potential natural disaster was taking place, "people were really agreeable," he said, and remained in good spirits as the day wore on.
They stayed on higher ground for around 12 hours, McAleer said, "like a ship without a port," receiving updates via satellite telephone and making contingency plans on how to make it over Eureka Creek.
The staff's first plan -- to have a portable bridge trucked out and placed over the creek -- was thwarted by a flooded causeway at Wonder Lake that made the road impassable.
They moved on to the next plan and began to build a small pedestrian bridge across Eureka Creek using materials they had on hand, with the idea that they could walk across the creek and past Wonder Lake, roughly five miles.
Hours wore on and at around 9 p.m., help arrived. Kantishna Air landed an aircraft at the nearby Kantishna airstrip -- which had flooded that morning but had since dried -- and began shuttling guests out of the area. Two park-contracted helicopters flew in at roughly the same time and began "doing laps to Wonder Lake," where shuttle buses were waiting, McAleer said.
Both Grand Denali Lodge and Camp Denali North Face Lodge shuttled passengers from Wonder Lake to the park entrance. Both lodges were a "huge help," McAleer said.
Denali Backcountry Lodge staff then walked their guests' luggage across Eureka Creek over the bridge they had built.
By midnight, the staff, guests and their belongings had all made it to the park entrance, McAleer said.
By late Thursday, water had subsided on the property, McAleer said. The lodge's general manager and a few other staff members had stayed behind and were able to start the generators.
The lodge's propane tanks floated in the flood, breaking their lines, and would need to be put back in place, he said. The state Department of Environmental Conservation would also be checking the well water to ensure it hadn't been compromised.
Moose Creek's banks had eroded, but no other damage to the property was apparent Friday, McAleer said.
"We're very confident that within a week we'll be back up and operating," McAleer said.
For guests who are booked at the lodge in coming days, accommodations were being arranged at other locations in the park.
Road crews were preparing Friday to repair sections damaged by Eureka Creek and Friday Creek, according to a press release sent out by park spokeswoman Fister. Estimated time for the repairs ranged from from two days to a week, according to an email sent out by Emily Buhr, secretary for the superintendent's office at Denali National Park.
By LAUREL ANDREWS