The Two Who Flew Over Alaska's Volcano

For days after Redoubt Volcano erupted Dec. 13, the weather was so bad that no airplane could get near the 10,197-foot mountain--except one.

That was a Cessna 185 flown by Hollis Twitchell, Lake Clark National Park's only year-round ranger and one of a handful of National Park Service pilot-rangers.

"It was a week-and-a-half before other planes (from Anchorage) were able to fly over the volcano. We were lucky. We were in the National Park where the volcano is located and we were upwind from the mountain," explained Twitchell, 39, a ranger in the park since its establishment in December, 1980.

"We flew to the peak, some 45 miles from our airstrip, made observations, shot still photos and videotaped the spectacular event," he continued.

Andy Hutchison, 55, Lake Clark National Park superintendent who is based in Anchorage in winter and spends summer in the park, happened to be at Lake Clark when the volcano blew its top a month ago.

Hutchison flew several times with Twitchell. The first photographs in newspapers and the first footage shown on TV around the world were shot by the two men.

After the initial eruption, "a lava dome a quarter of a mile to a half-mile across formed on the north flank of Redoubt beneath the summit. Then a second major eruption occurred Jan. 2. When Hollis and I flew over the volcano after that blowout, the dome was gone. It had been blasted 20 miles down the mountain into Cook Inlet," said Hutchison.

"Lava flowing out of the mountain looks gray like tooth paste," Twitchell said. "It isn't flaming red as one would expect. Cascading down the mountain through the Drift River drainage are smoldering boulders, steaming debris. We have been shooting close-ups of the amazing glacial melt."

Twitchell also described the towering ash plumes during the three major eruptions--Dec. 13, Jan. 2 and "the biggest so far, more than 8 miles high" last Monday. He mentioned the "incredible display of lightning horizontally, vertically, all directions, bouncing off snow-covered peaks" on the night of Jan. 2.

It was a plume of ash from Redoubt on Dec. 1 that choked off power in four engines of a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747, causing the jet to fall more than 2 miles before the engines restarted and the plane made a safe emergency landing in Anchorage.

News reports locate the mountain 110 miles southwest of Anchorage but fail to place the volcano in Lake Clark National Park. One of the reasons is because few have ever heard of, let alone visited, Lake Clark National Park and National Preserve.

The park and preserve together total 4 million acres, almost twice the size of Yellowstone. "A national preserve administered by the Park Service is something unique to Alaska. It's an area where hunting is permitted. Here, the principal game taken, in season, are caribou, moose, Dall sheep and bear," Hutchison said.

The national park and national preserve, which don't have any paved roads or any man-made trails, are so remote that access is almost entirely by charter planes, private planes and Lake Clark Air, a small commuter operation that flies 140 miles from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, which is on the shores of Lake Clark.

There are six small lodges on Lake Clark, open four months of the year and booked far in advance. The lodges have float planes to fly hunters into remote areas, where they are dropped off and picked up a week to 10 days later.

Mountain climbers, hikers, river rafters and fishermen are also flown into wilderness areas on float planes. But the park is so vast and visitors are so few, it is rare for anyone to encounter another human being in the spectacular back country.

There are hundreds of glaciers. One glacier alone, Double Glacier, 100 square miles, is bigger than most national parks. The park is riveted with cascading wild and scenic rivers, innumerable crystal-clear mountain lakes, a chaotic jumbo of towering peaks, serrated ridges and sheer granite spires.

The Tusk, a 5,730-foot monolith resembling a giant canine tooth, was scaled the first time a couple of years ago. Hundreds of other peaks have never been climbed. The terrain is so rugged that man has never set foot in most of the park.

The park and preserve are named after the 42-mile-long, 1- to 4-mile-wide alpine lake embraced by the awesome Chigmit Mountains. The unbelievably stunning lake was discovered by John W. Clark in 1891.

Port Alsworth, the only community in the park and preserve, has a year-round population of 30, half of them students in the Port Alsworth Elementary School. There are no stores, no restaurants, no doctors, no nurses.

Since the only landing strip in the park and preserve is in Port Alsworth, Twitchell lands his Cessna or Piper Super Cub on gravel bars, beaches, tundra, and frozen rivers and lakes in the winter to monitor wildlife populations and to mount rescue missions.

Every year during the last nine years, the pilot-ranger has flown search patterns for more than a dozen light planes that have crashed.

"This is a dangerous place to fly. Miserable weather closes in within minutes. Some private pilots overload their planes with game and passengers. There are many accidents and loss of life," said Twitchell.

He is the nearest thing to a doctor, rendering first aid to hikers, hunters, mountain climbers and fishermen who have heart attacks, falls or meet with other mishaps. Then he flies them to a hospital in Anchorage, 1 1/2 hours away by small plane.

Even with its own erupting volcano, Lake Clark will continue to be little-known and seldom-visited. Although the scenery is unrivaled, the National Park is too remote and too difficult to reach.

Park superintendent Hutchison expects a few people to charter airplanes and fly over the volcano when it quiets down. "But no one will be hiking up the mountain to look into the crater or walk the lava-encrusted path of debris," he said.

"There is nowhere nearby to land an airplane, and the terrain is inaccessible and too distant to reach on foot," he said. "Redoubt Volcano would be a tremendous drawing card in any other National Park, but unfortunately not here."

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