The Long Trek to MH09
September 8, 2016
by Shelley Chestler
Uninstalling an earthquake monitoring (seismic) station is challenging. Most of the iMUSH (Imaging Magma Beneath St. Helens) sites are located off windy, gravel forest roads in clear cuts full of blackberry bushes, wasps, and red ants. Because the ground is strewn with tree stumps and other woody debris, walking (without carrying any weight) it treacherous. And we always had things in our arms. The equipment that makes up each site includes an action packer (or giant cooler), a 65-pound car battery, a 40-gallon trash can, 1-2 large solar panels, the solar panel mount, the data acquisition system, or DAS, (approximately the size of a shoe box), various cables, and of course the seismometer, which is the size of a 2-liter soda bottle but weighs 20+ lbs.
In short, to take out a seismic site, you stop the seismometer (or sensor) from recording, remove the data cards, disassemble the solar panel mount, dig up and remove the seismometer and trashcan (which makes up the sensor’s underground vault), unplug chords, and carry everything back to the car. The entire process takes 1-2 hours plus about 2-3 hours of driving time, so on average a total of 3-5 hours per site. Uninstalling the site called MH09 (which we now call the Monitor from Hell) took two 10-hour days.
The last 2.5 miles of forest road up to MH09 are particularly bad. There are small leafy bushes growing between tire ruts and the trees hug the road so closely you feel like you are driving a jeep through the Amazon rainforest or on the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland. The first time I went to MH09 to swap out data disks (this needs to be done 2-3 times per year), my partner Kelley and I got our car stuck in a tree that had fallen parallel to the road. The tree’s branches protruded into the road and got ensnared in the back wheel well. We had to cut ourselves out with a small handsaw.
MH09 took three full days to install. The first day, the install team drove up the wrong road, ran out of time, and had to return to our home base in Randle before even finding the planned site. On the second day, after the team drove up the correct road (hitting off a side view mirror in the process), a large, impassable fallen tree, half a mile from the site, blocked their progress. They had to lug all the equipment over the tree, to the site, and 50 yards straight up the road’s steep bank to the only place where the solar panel could get sun. After many hours of labor, the install team finally got the site up and running.
Taking out MH09 was also an adventure. I had the (unlucky?) opportunity to be on the uninstall team. After my previous trip to MH09, I was not looking forward to going back. To make matters worse, sometime during this past winter the road was completely washed out five miles from the site. Despite this extra roadblock (literally), because the site was located on National Forest land, every piece of equipment had to be removed. So, my team of three (Ken, Kayla, and I) planned to hike in with two wheelbarrows, one frame backpack with bungee chords, one backpacking backpack, and two smaller daypacks to carry water, food, and the tools we needed to take apart the site.
We arrived at the washout at 10:00 AM. It was way bigger than expected—50 yards across and 30 yards deep. There were whole trees jammed into the newly scoured channel and large, rusty drainage pipes that had been plucked from the hillside were now laying cockeyed in the creek bed below the washout.
View of the washout from the side of the road opposite from the car.
It was easy to walk around most of the washout, through the adjacent forest and over a bed of large cobbles that had been deposited at the top of the washout. But, right before we reached the road on the other side, the washout had cut steeply into the side of the hill. To get around this part, we climbed up and around a tree jutting from the slope. The path was so steep that we had to use ropes to pull the wheelbarrows around.
After navigating the washout, we started walking. Because of the wheelbarrows, we did not move especially quickly. But, we were all mentally prepared for the 5-mile slog.
We were not prepared for the second washout. After we walked about a mile and a half, the road ahead seemed to drop off. At a distance I thought that the drop off was a sharp bend in the road. It wasn’t. It was another washout, just a giant as the first one. We were lucky this time. The top of the washout was flat and wide, so we could get away with carrying the wheelbarrows around without using ropes.
Ken inspecting the second washout.
When we reached the third washout about a mile later we started to get frustrated. I had inquired about the state of the road at the National Forest service office earlier that morning. Because the ranger only knew about the first washout, we had not budgeted time into our day to get around multiple washouts. But, we had a job to do, so we made our way around the washout, again roping the wheelbarrows up and over a section so steep that Ken, who had originally explored the path around, advised Kayla and I to get up it with a running start.
Kayla and Ken roping a wheelbarrow around the third washout.
Our journey so far had taken us just over 2 hours (a pace of ~1 mile per hour). So, when we spotted the forth washout 50 yards from the third, it was almost comical. This washout was bigger and had cut right up to a shear rock face. At first glace, it did not seem like we could get around it. Kayla and I sat down and ate our sandwiches, but Ken was determined to find a way to the other side. He bushwhacked down to the streambed and returned to report that we could get around, but that the trees were likely too dense to get the wheelbarrows through.
So, we left the wheelbarrows and fought our way down to the creek, branches scratching our faces and clutching at our clothes and backpacks. We scrambled up the other side of the washout and finally reached the junction with the overgrown forest road. We then trudged the rest of the way to the site, crossing one more (smaller) washout. Overall, the trip took us just over 4.5 hours.
We uninstalled everything as efficiently as possible and carried (or rolled or tossed) the equipment down to the road. Without the wheelbarrows, we couldn’t take everything with us. Hence we rationalized that the important (expensive) stuff (seismometer, DAS, solar panels, cables) should be removed first. We bungeed the solar panels to the frame backpacked, carefully placed the seismometer and DAS into the backpacking backpack (with foam padding), and stuffed as much other equipment as we could into one of the daypacks. The remainder of our lunches, water, and tools went into the second daypack. We left the car battery, trash can, solar panel mounts, and a few other things in a neat pile.
It was 5:00 PM when we started back to the car. Ken had the sensor, Kayla the solar panels, and I had the two daypacks, one on my back and one on my belly. Walking down the overgrown road was more challenging with awkward, loaded packs, especially for Kayla who had to navigate intruding tree branches with solar panels sticking out a foot from either side of her.
Kayla and I, fully-loaded with equipment, after getting back around the third and fourth washouts.
Ken helped Kayla though the difficult sections of the washouts. He carried his backpack up and down the steeper slopes, then came back for the solar panels so that Kayla and I could scramble through with only the daypacks. We did not even try to take the wheelbarrows (still sitting near the fourth washout) back with us. A second team would have to come back to remove the remaining equipment another day.
We used the last bit of daylight to get up and around the final washout, arriving at the car around 8:30 PM. It had been a long and exhausting (but also fun and adventurous) day, and we still had to drive 45 minutes back to Randle (and cell service and dinner). The restaurant closed at 9:00, but luckily our other teammates had pizza and beer waiting for us!