Earthquake Lake – Created in 1959

One of the most startling revelations that we’ve had since arriving in the Yellowstone Valley is how quickly a landscape or our world can change! In most of our country, we have come to rely on “things” being the same or basically the same, for years if not generations. Here in the world of geysers, mudpots, fumaroles and pools, it becomes clear how close this Earth as we know it can alter dramatically in an instant!

From Cooking Hillside we saw on the eastern side of the South Loop within the Park, where a swarm of earthquakes in 1978 (lasting about eight months) reduced a heavily forested hillside to an open field. The earthquake itself did not impact the trees, but the ground temperature soared to 2000F and literally cooked the roots.

The geysers, mudpots and fumaroles that are evident throughout Yellowstone are the result of the earth’s magma being so close to the surface that the boiling water and acid are forced out of fissures in the thin earthy crust. At Norris Geyser Basin (northern side of the South Loop), a scientific drill measured 4590F was just 1,087 feet below the earth’s surface. While Norris shows evidence of having had thermal features for at least 115,000 years, the features in the basin change EVERY DAY!

On Monday, we drove just 25 miles from West Yellowstone to the site of Earthquake Lake. On August 17, 1959, a 7.3 earthquake struck along the Madison River, causing an 80-million ton landslide that was 750′ long and 200′ wide. The landslide traveled down the north flank of Sheep Mountain at 100 mph, blocking off the Madison River and created massive damage and destruction.

Now – 43 years later, a few trees are evident

Campgrounds and cabins along the riverside were swept away, along with highways. In total, 28 people lost their lives that night. The wave effect (seiche) crested over the Hebgen Dam, threatening the integrity of the dam and all the communities downstream.

Grace Miller, a cabin owner in her early 70’s, was just falling sleep when the earthquake struck. She ran out of her cabin, jumped a 6′ chasm just as her cabin was swept away. Later, she was reported to have taken a boat ride several weeks later to view the remains of her cabin upright but under water except for the roof. Her comment was, “I sure hope it stays upright, my teeth are still on the dining room table.”

At a campground up from the riverside, the ground dropped away 12′ – literally dividing a campsite between the fire ring and the picnic table.

As we’ve mentioned before, geologists categorize faults into three types. The “slip-strike” fault such as the San Andreas Fault has the eastern side of the fault moving to the southeast while the western side is moving to the northwest, creating separation between the two sides. The “thrust fault” like those that created the Grand Tetons, forces one side of fault up and over the other side, which goes down and under. The faults that created this massive earthquake are known as “normal faults” where the stretching of earth’s crust causes one side of the fault to drop or subside relative to the other.

Over the course of the night, survivors reported multiple drops as they heard trees being ripped from the soil and boulders careening down the mountain crushing everything in their way. In total the “drop” totaled 22′. Some 250 men, women and children gathered at Refuge Point in terror, a high point of land. The following morning, a DC2 dropped Forest Service smokejumpers to lead search and rescue operations as well as coordinate rescue operations. A few hours later, a Chinook helicopter arrived to begin evacuating the injured and survivors.

Over the following three weeks, the river became a lake that was 5 miles long and up to 190′ deep, leaving only the “ghost trees” to give any indication of where the forest once came right to the riverside.

Landslide in the Distance – Ghost Trees in the foreground

We will ever be thankful that we DID have our opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area. We were in that magical window, created by a disaster, where the number of visitors was WAY down – so we were able to enjoy all the majesty without crowds, restaurants were open with no waiting lines, people were pleasant and the weather was perfect!

We retraced our drive across the northern shore of Earthquake Lake (some call it Quake Lake) as Contessa and the Toad, piloted by Captain Bill headed north to Missoula MT for much-anticipated service and repair for Contessa. Again, we were blessed the fabulous people to work with, the needed repairs and maintenance were done on schedule – AND the repair to the air leveling system WORKED! For perhaps the first time in our lifetime, Done Right RV Repair charged us for ONE-HALF hour of service – who ever heard of that!!

Then off we went to Coeur d’Alene to rendezvous with Brother Roger and meet our Niece, Kellie, and her family. Together we will celebrate the birth of our Nation!

Author: Contessa & The Toad Get Hitched

After years traveling this beautiful country by boat, the Captain and the Admiral are bound for land adventures. Whenever Contessa (the motorcoach) and the Toad (Jeep Grand Cherokee) get hitched (towing the car) - we’ll post our adventures!

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