The Matanuska Valley proper sits basically between the Matanuska and Susitna Rivers, bounded on the south by the Palmer Hay Flats and the Knik Arm portion of Cook Inlet, and elsewhere by mountains-notably the Chugach Range where Pioneer Peak anchors the view, and by the Talkeetna Mountains which extend from the east to fall away into the Susitna Valley. Further to the west is Sleeping Lady Mountain (Mt. Susitna), whose alpenglow tinted profile is so photographed and beloved. It’s an expansive area, and runs from the coal mines in the Sutton area westward past Palmer’s farm lands, and on westward just north of the commercial core of Wasilla and beyond the former Point MacKenzie Agricultural project to end at the banks of the Little Susitna River there-or the Susitna River itself if you are quibbling with boundaries. In between are creeks, numerous swamps, and hundreds of lakes and ponds. A growing network of subdivisions, roads, arterials, and the two highways thread it all together-with a great deal of nothing in between. Nothing being the places you can’t drive through or to-yet.
Anyone who has been here even a short time, has heard about the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. Largest earthquake ever recorded in North America, it caused widespread damage in Anchorage proper and other communities as well. There is even Earthquake Park in Anchorage, and an award winning documentary about the quake is aired on the anniversary date each year. Everyone knows about the big fault system under Alaska’s largest city, and most know about the Denali Fault up north-but hardly any person knows about the biggest threat to Southcentral Alaska-The Castle Mountain Fault.
The Castle Mountain Fault starts near Castle Mountain, which is eastward of Sutton…and the main geological feature on the fault itself. From there, it runs in a generally southwest direction, eventually petering out just north of the village of Tyonek which is situated on the northern shore of Cook Inlet, a little south and west of Anchorage.
What makes the fault unique is both its type, and location; a strike-slip at the surface for a good many miles, and the population in the area. The fault has an average of 6 to 700 years between events, most of those between magnitude 6 and 7 as far as geologists have been able to determine. The last event was about 650 years ago, but core samples taken were impossible to analyze properly due to their composition. It’s not as long as the Denali Fault, at less than 200 km, but its proximity to the Cook Inlet complex was cause for concern-by geologists and emergency planners alike.
Most of the Valley’s population is well south of the northern side of the fault, which runs right through a wide spot on the George Parks Highway incorporated as Houston. If a person were looking at a map, and found the Little Susitna River, the fault itself runs just south of the bridge over the Lil Su (as locals call it) and continues on to the Susitna River-staying north of the popular Big Lake area and the new Port MacKenzie on the shore of Cook Inlet.
No one knew exactly how the Valley would fare when the Castle Mountain Fault finally let go. No one knew what the mix of glacial till, sand, silts, gravels and clays underneath the area would do, but now I know.
Ah, April in Southcentral Alaska. Nothing like it anywhere on the globe. The days are getting longer and the sun is helping the remaining snow and ice melt. Mud and gravel are beginning to streak the dirt roadways, dust is curling from tires on pavement, and nearly every vehicle is the same color-break up. A few spring birds have arrived, seeking last years’ seeds and the sap is rising in the birch. The skies are a bright, washed out blue due to the angle of the sun, and while it may reach 45 degrees during the day, it’s still below freezing at night. The pussy willows have already budded and sharp eyes can see the red tinge on the birch branches-a sure sign of buds to come.
At home on Born Lazy Way, I was anxiously awaiting the end of the month. I had already delivered some vegetable starts to the big greenhouse, but it was still too cold to chance putting plants into my own-even with the heater going, due to a cold spring. I was pretty much up to my eyeballs in starts as it was, with three more plantings to manage somehow in the pantry-already crowded with the big table and two grow light racks. Each morning the lights were turned on, flats checked for dryness, and turned if needed. It was worth the extra effort to pre-germinate those seeds, as every cell was full-much better than the previous year. Over 60 flats already out of the house, 50 plus in the pantry and another 32 at work, I was keeping pretty busy managing the germination, planting, flats, growing mix, water, and air flow. Just keeping track of what was planted when was beginning to become an issue, the further along I got into the season. Resolving to make up some sort of chart on the computer was the resolution of the day, April 12th.
But first, the rest of the household had to be attended. Snapping the lead on the Dane, I opened the side door of the garage to head to the barn. Peeking out, I could see a shimmer of slick on the discolored snow, made a quick u turn and changed from slippers into winter boots with better tread. With the sheltie at my heels and the big dog ranging ahead as normal, we hooked a right to go around the bank and head towards the anxiously waiting horses and chickens. This time, I kept the big dog in firm check as the previous morning his tug on the lead had caused me to loose my footing and take a spill. At my age, those spills leave aches and bruises and I was not about to have a repeat. When we paused for the morning ritual “only this spot will do to pee on”, I checked the skies to the north and east. Partly cloudy, temperature felt around 20 or so, and I was just thinking I should have grabbed a pair of gloves when the Dane paused to smell something. Weird dog, that Dooms. Notices everything, even watches the fans in the house some times, but I pay attention when he does. For a few seconds, I couldn’t tell what had caught his attention, but then I noticed the scrunched up piles of snow and ice across the driveway and I knew a moose had been across it recently. With a “Good doggie” we headed on up, the sheltie bounding ahead as usual.
After portioning out hay to the two horses, checking stock tanks to make sure they were not frozen over (no, thank heavens), and topping the chickens’ water and feed pans in their little new winter coop, I checked the temperature. Yep, 21 degrees out, at 5:45 am. With a mental note to bring home more hay from the shop if it wasn’t going to rain or snow, we returned to the warmth of the house.
Inside, I checked the wood stove and was pleased to see the gauge reading in the active zone. I closed the damper a bit, turned on the fan, and poured myself a refill of coffee. I checked the clock and saw I had about a half hour to myself, and debated whether to watch the morning news, or check email. Email it was, but as usual it contained mostly junk. I quickly checked the NWS website for the forecast, which promised clearing skies, and raising temperatures over the coming week. Good, I thought-I have hay to get unloaded and I need to do that before the driveway softens up much more.
I rousted my son Joey awake, and got us both ready for the day. Then it was the usual scramble to get all of us into my little SUV….both dogs, 11 year old son, his back pack, and all of our winter gear. In a couple of minutes, I was dropping Joey off at our neighbors so he could catch the school bus, and I was headed on into work. Only 13 miles, but taking much longer than last year with the addition of 4 extra stop lights.
Work was work, for April. The morning passed relatively quickly with a couple deliveries completed, and the phone was fairly busy. Towards the end of the morning I called my boss and let him know it looked like it was shaping up to be a fairly good early season for the company-always welcome news. Directing my driver to refill the delivery truck for the afternoon rounds, I finally had a chance to check my work computer. The Anchorage Daily News was reporting a “swarm” of earthquakes all around Cook Inlet-none large, but I thought it rather strange I hadn’t felt anything-other people had. I quickly checked the list of quakes on the AEIC website, and was stunned to see dozens and dozens of tremors, nearly all under magnitude 2.5, but under just about everywhere. A few were over 3, and there were so many listed on the Alaska Earthquake Information Center map, I could barely make sense of what I was seeing.
With that page still up on my machine, I got distracted by another customer walking in the door. Lunging for Dooms’ leash, I managed to snag hold of it before he came around the corner of the counter and scared the guy witless. After answering his questions, he must have seen what was up on my screen because he asked what was happening. I told him I didn’t know, but that it was kind of scary, the sheer number of quakes over the past 24 hours-over 250. He just looked me hard in the eyes, made an abrupt turn and was out the door in nothing flat. About that time the phone rang again, and it was Dan, my driver. He’d been hung up at home with a small snafu, did I care if he ran a little late getting back? No problem, I told him, the two deliveries scheduled were both “anytime” in the afternoon, and relatively close by.
With that, I hung up the phone and sat down at my desk. Dooms insisted on burrowing his head into my side as I tried to learn more about the quakes, with Jethro (the Sheltie) trying to get into my lap as well. Not finding much, I shot off an email to a couple friends about it, with a warning. As I was searching the news for information, I called my sis at her work, and told her-she’d heard nothing about it. I made her promise to head for higher ground at the very first hint of a good rolling quake, because she worked at nearly sea level in Eklutna. Both dogs curled up on their beds along the office wall, as I called my good friend Karen to let her know too.
About that time, Dooms popped to his feet, on alert. I didn’t hear anything but the normal traffic whizzing by on the highway about 50 yards away, so I stood up to see out the window. Jethro began spinning circles the way he does when he’s excited, but Dooms….Dooms was rock still, and as I glanced at him, I saw the hackles start to rise down his back. Dropping the phone onto the desk, I reached out to stroke his neck-the dog was literally vibrating now with tension. As I was wondering what the heck, he leapt over to the office window and stood up with his front paws on the sill. And the growls started. Deep, quiet growls, the growls that mean business from a big dog. I am looking out the window and I can’t see anything-just the highway, the stop light at the corner, the bike path with no one on it, no one is pulling up to the shop, nothing seemed amiss. The delivery truck is parked in front of the shop doors and my car next to it, but that’s it.
And then I heard something. Just something, a little something, a far away something in the distance. A rumbling, resonating sound. A heavy truck coming down the highway heading east to Palmer? National Guard unit training flight? I wasn’t sure. I snatched onto Dooms’ collar and pulled him down away from the window, instantly afraid. My hindbrain began jabbering, telling me to run run run RUN, but from what? I glanced again out the window and caught a glimpse of power lines across the highway….they were snaking up and down and that moment is when the Castle Mountain Fault and I met.
With an increasingly loud noise like a train or landslide, the ground began to quiver under my feet-at least, that‘s what it felt like where I was. The shop building itself was banging and the metal was squeaking and groaning and I could hear things falling. I just had time for a mental “My God I hope it’s not the Big One!” when the real rolling began. Heaving waves that caused me to grab onto the counter to stay erect, the clock to come off the wall and everything on the shelves to spill off. I had a split second thought of “rock and roll, baby!” when I realized I was an idiot to be inside a steel building during an earthquake. Slamming into the counter several times, I managed to get to the door, which literally popped open as I reached for it. Glancing out, it looked fairly safe and I yelled for Jethro and out the door we dashed, onto the paved parking area.
The building was now nearly shrieking, it was so loud with metal being stressed and ripped and I watched the 15 foot shop door crumple into warped sections and pop off the tracks, just missing the front of the delivery truck. I managed to stay on my feet with legs spread, one hand on the chain link fencing until it was yanked out of my reach. I scanned towards the road and watched a pickup veer wildly across the lanes, off onto the grassy area of the bike path and then back, the driver clearly nearly unable to control the vehicle, barely missing the oncoming minivan who traveled on a 100 yards then screeched to a stop. The street lights were whipping back and forth, and power poles dancing every which way, with wires being snapped like threads as I watched in stunned disbelief. And then, I was on the ground myself, with two panicked dogs attempting to be my lap at the same time, both growly and barking and frantic with fear and I was too, as I clung to them tightly.
After that, I don’t know how long it went on. I could only close my eyes and my thoughts, if they could be called that, were for my son. I was too frightened to think of anything noble, or smart, or propehtic, honest. When the sound went away, and the ground stopped moving, I was hyperventilating and in a full blown panic myself. Eventually my wits returned, but I have no recollection of time spent on the ground there. But when I became aware of myself and what had happened, I thought one thing:
This is it.