Tuesday, August 6, 2013

2012 Montana--The Earthquake Area

New interpretive materials at the Earthquake Area
At 11:37 p.m. on August 17th, 1959, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3-7.5 on the Richter Scale rocked the Madison Canyon.  The quake was devastating and resulted in the deaths of 36 people.  One of the mountains along the river collapsed and created a massive landslide that displaced 80 million tons, or 40 million cubic yards of debris across the valley.  To get an idea of how much earth was displaced, 80 million tons of earth could create a two lane highway, three feet deep from Quake Lake to New York City.

Most of the deaths that occurred as a result of the earthquake were due to the massive landslides which buried several campgrounds in the valley below.  When the mountain collapsed the onrushing earth created hurricane force winds strong enough to move cars.  The landslide dammed the Madison River and created a brand new lake called Quake Lake.  Until the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in 1980 and created a new lake, Quake Lake was the youngest naturally caused lake in the world.

Last September, we took some of our friends up to see the Earthquake Area.  They had never been and we wanted to take them to see it.  We had been to the Earthquake Area many times before, but only one time since our return to the area.  Since the last time we visited to this time, the Forest Service had erected all new interpretive materials and made the whole experience so much more interesting.  The interpretive materials from before were old and not very detailed.  The new materials are a vast improvement.  I was very impressed.

The scenic byway is best viewed by heading toward Bozeman from West Yellowstone and taking the turn-off to Hebgen Lake.  Hebgen Lake is a manmade lake with an earth and concrete dam.  The first stop was the introduction to the Earthquake Area, and the first of the new interpretive signs.

The Whitings, Chimene and Haydn at the first new sign

Red Canyon

Fall colors
During the earthquake, the ground shifted as much as twenty feet in some places, leaving massive scarps in it's wake.  The scarps are big gaping scars that are still visible in many places in the Madison Canyon.

In places along the shore, the road dropped fell into the lake.  People gave reports of automobiles falling into oblivion in front of them.  The highway destruction is still visible in places.  Homes washed into the lake and a few of them are still submerged most of the year.  Only the roofs are still above water.

Unfortunately, on our trip last fall, the areas for highway destruction and the submerged cabins were closed to the public while they were finishing the construction of the new interpretive materials.  We did stop at one of the scarp sites for the first time in my memory.  It was really interesting.  There is a tree right along the scarp and some of it's roots are still visible twenty feet below.

There was smoke from forest fires heavy in the air and so most of the pictures from this trip are hazy.  We picnicked near the escarpment.

Road to the highway destruction and cabin destruction sites

Interpretive materials

Escarpment.  Rhys is at the base by the rootball and Garrett is at the top of the scarp by the tree

Another view of the escarpment, as you can see it is extensive

Fall colors at the escarpment

A ruined privy at the escarpment

Waterfall created by the earthquake

Nice view of the mountains

Fall colors

Another section of the escarpment

Another section of the escarpment
There was a resort on the river a few miles below the dam and the owner had pondered what would happen if the dam ever broke, how would he and the guests escape the rushing waters?  He had developed an escape route and a rescue point up the side of the canyon.  His forward thinking saved the lives of many people that night.  He helped avert greater tragedy by thinking and preparing ahead.

Since the roads were blocked by the earthquake, the only way in for a time was by parachute.  Supplies and medics and other rescue personnel were dropped near the gathering point and it became the main staging area for the rescuers and the survivors.

The dam held and the campers were spared the immediate onslaught of the waters, but the massive rockslide that dammed the Madison River created a new dam downstream and backed the waters into the canyon.  The water did flood the canyon, but it came from the other direction.  As the water rose through the canyon, the cabins in the resort were casualties and were lifted off their foundations and floated around in the canyon for several weeks until they came to rest as the waters receded.  They still remain where they came to rest all those years ago and are referred to as the Ghost Resort.

One of the cabins in the ghost resort came to rest on the side of the canyon wall and when I was a boy, it was still in decent shape.  You could enter into the cabin and walk around.  The floor was slanted and it was fun to stand inside the house with a couple of people face to face and another person outside the door with a camera.  If you framed the people in the door, it looked like one was leaning forward and the other was leaning back.  Of course, being a theatrical family, the one leaning forward was always the villain and the one leaning back was always the heroine.

Today, sadly the leaning cabin has collapsed and all we have now are fond memories.  On the short hike to the leaning cabin, though we saw bald eagle flying and lighting in the dead trees along the lakeshore, and we saw a very large cricket on the path.  He even posed for a picture.

Marker for Refuge Point

This is where the people were rescued

Interpretive materials about the ghost resort

Ghostly cabins where they came to rest

Another of the ghost resort cabins

And another

Ghost resort

Trail to the leaning cabin

Immature bald eagle soaring

Fall colors

Fall colors overlooking the lake

The leaning cabin in ruins

Part of the leaning cabin

All that's left inside the leaning cabin

The collapsed roof

Us at the leaning cabin

Our friends the Whitings at the leaning cabin



Fall colors

Friends and family on the trail

Say hello to my little friend
 It took twenty seconds from the time the mountain collapsed until the landslide came to rest.  Not enough time to run.  Hurricane force winds preceded the slide.  Strong enough winds to topple cars and send them flying.  Two massive dolomite boulders rode the slide from their starting point up on the mountain to their resting point on the other side.  They are regarded as the tombstones of the people buried under the slide.  There is a memorial plaque on the larger boulder.  No bodies were ever recovered.  One of the boulders is 3000 tons and the other is 2500 tons.  These boulders did not roll, they rode in place and came to rest at the top of the slide.  The evidence of that was the fact that there was undisturbed lichen on top of the boulders directly after the rockslide.  That would have been completely destroyed had the boulders tumbled.

Quake Lake was formed and the water began to back up immediately.  Not only did it wipe out the resort upstream from it, there was also the danger it would erode the Hebgen dam and create a catastrophic flood.  The Army Corps of Engineers were called and they carved a channel over the next several weeks and created a spillway to ease the pressure upstream.  The evidence of their bulldozers is still evident fifty-four years later.

This was the last stop on our trip.  There is a visitor's center at this point with movies and other interpretive materials.  It was undergoing a complete remodel when we were there.  We'll have to see it the next time.  I understand that there is a nominal fee to enter the visitors center, but it's very inexpensive.  Not a great price to pay for something as informative as this.

We took the walk up to the boulders and of course climbed the larger of the two.  Then we went over to view the evidence of the Army Corps of Engineers.  When the day was done, we drove home by way of Raynold's Pass around Henry's Lake Idaho.

Quake Lake

Dead lodgepole pines in quake lake

Where the mountain used to be

The smaller of the two boulders

The larger of the two boulders with my kids on top for scale

Another view of the smaller boulder

The memorial plaque

Side view of the larger boulder

Different point of view for the larger boulder

Different point of view for the smaller boulder


More schist

Schist with quartz veining.  Gold miners dig this kind of stuff.  Where quartz veins are, gold follows

The Madison River downstream of the slide.

Fifty-four year old bulldozer tracks from the Army Corps of Engineers

Where the two massive boulders came from

This tree is a survivor

Spillway dug by the Army Corps of Engineers
This was a fun day trip, and one I'd like to do again.  I'd like to do it during the spring or early summer to see the wildflowers.  I'd also like to do it again to see all the new interpretive materials we missed this time due to the remodel.  Time spent with family and friends is never wasted.  We had a good time.

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