By DOUG O'HARRA
Anchorage Daily News
September 14, 2005
"We've had slow runs before," said Kent, who's worked the Bristol Bay stream for 21 seasons and runs Painter Creek Lodge with his wife, Patty. "Anybody who has ever fished wild salmon knows that sometimes they're late."
But no salmon returned in July either, at least not on the river's upper section, which drains the flank of the icy Mount Chiginagak volcano and part of a national wildlife refuge about 350 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Then things got really nasty.
"The whole river was starting to turn orange," Kent said. "There was this weird reddish foam and scum starting to come down the river."
So Kent took a boat upstream to the headwaters and discovered a natural catastrophe in progress: red gunk flushing from Volcano Creek into Mother Goose Lake and, further upstream on Indecision Creek, dead plants and a sulfuric stench. Gulls were missing from an island, fish from the lake. Even the brown bears were gone.
He notified state biologists and scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, who were already scheduled to visit the area to study at Chiginagak's hazards and geologic history.
"No bears, no birds, no fish," is how the 56-year-old Kent put it. "It's like someone dropped a bomb on the place."
Something had poisoned the river and shut down the valley's salmon-based food chain. It also eliminated the lodge's summer season, canceling trips for up to 60 sport fishermen and putting six people out of work.
Blame Chiginagak's leaky plumbing, say volcanologists who returned from the scene last week.
A new 1,300-foot-wide crater lake near the 7,005-foot summit gushed through its glacial rim earlier this summer and spilled a foul slurry of volcanic sediment, water and ice, said volcanologist Janet Schaeffer. In addition to damaging the upper King Salmon system, the water also leaked into an unnamed drainage on Chiginagak Bay in Shelikof Strait, on the Cook Inlet side of the peninsula.
"For some reason there was increased heat activity in the summit region and it melted that ice cap," Schaeffer said. "It seems that this may be some kind of cyclical event. . . . We do see evidence that this has happened before."
The big flow deposited ash and rock on the mountain's south glacier and flooded Indecision Creek up to 6 feet deep before spreading downstream. It left part of the now-polluted river with a reddish "bathtub ring" and an acidic pH level of 3, according to volcanologists who conducted a hazards assessment in late August and early September.
The water remains so acidic that it would kill fish and be unrecognizable to salmon looking for home, said state commercial fishing biologist Paul Salomone, with the Department of Fish and Game.
"I think if there were fish in there when the event happened, they got toasted," he said.
Chiginagak is a little-known volcano with no recent history of blowing its top or spewing lava. It's not one of the 28 volcanoes, like Mount Spurr 80 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, actively monitored by the observatory. But Chiginagak isn't dead.
Sulfurous smoke steams from its north flank, and Kent said he saw a big plume rise a few years ago. There's no evidence that the volcano is about to erupt, but Schaeffer and the other scientists left behind a portable seismic station to find out if it's stirring. They won't have data for several weeks.
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