Email this articleE-mail this story  Discuss this articleWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad
Witness to a landslide

Alone at a remote cabin, Nancy Jarrell-Hilderman experienced the raw power of nature

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Cli Lake (Aug 16/02) - Landslides are not unheard of in Nahanni country, but on Aug. 3 an avalanche of rock and earth hit too close to home for the Hilderman's, literally.

NNSL Photo

Nancy Jarrell-Hilderman: "It would just be heart-wrenching if that cabin goes into the lake." - Derek Neary/NNSL photo

On that day, Nancy Jarrell-Hilderman was at Cli Lake, an isolated but scenic location 100 kilometres west of Fort Simpson.

She and her husband, Garth, have a log cabin there that Garth built in the 1970s.

The Hildermans regularly spend August through December at their Cli Lake retreat.

Nancy's days are filled with reading, chores and, since having a range transported to the cabin two years ago, baking bread. Despite some horribly inclement weather over the previous few days -- including a wind storm on July 29 -- there wasn't anything unusual about the morning of Saturday, Aug. 3. That is until Nancy noticed an upright tree in the lake near her cabin, and then another.

"When I saw this forest floating by I thought, 'Wait a minute, something's not right here,' " she said.

Curious as to the cause of such a phenomenon, she climbed into their canoe and paddled out around the point to the west. It was only then she realized a landslide was in progress.

"This was more than just a rockfall. This was serious ... all of a sudden I saw this big crack, a fissure," she said.

"When I saw what was happening I paddled back as fast as I could."

Nancy said she returned to the cabin just in time. Nearly three-quarters of a kilometre of the nearby mountain gave way, causing a large wave to pound against the shore below.

"There was this huge whoosh and this wall of water," she said.

The landslide was a spectacle unlike anything she had ever witnessed before. Just hundreds of metres from her cabin, where she was standing, tons upon tons of gravel rumbled into the lake, boulders the size of houses tumbled down the mountainside, immense trees more than 100 years old were snapped like twigs from the sheer force. She said it sounded like a continuous roll of thunder.

"It was quite awesome," said Nancy, a retired vulcanologist and former earth sciences teacher. "I'm still in amazement ... I can't express it any more succinctly, it was just, 'Wow.' "

She radioed Garth, who was working 32 kilometres away in the fire tower at Lone Mountain, as he has done seasonally for the past two decades.

Lingering repercussions

With minimal damage to the uninsured cabin, and with nobody at North Nahanni Naturalist Lodge a few kilometres away, Nancy decided to stay put. Although with the resulting turbidity, she occasionally had to paddle to the middle of the lake to get clean water.

Little did she know the situation would go from bad to worse. The landslide remained active over the next few days, and the rockfall and collapsing trees seemed to be getting closer and closer. Finally the cabin began showing serious signs of stress: it shifted so the doors would no longer close, the floor buckled and daylight was now visible under the foundation logs. She radioed for a helicopter from Fort Simpson to pick her up.

"Wednesday night I didn't sleep at all. The cabin was groaning and moaning. One window was bowed out," she said. "I was afraid the cabin was going to collapse on us ... I was not going to stay in that cabin."

Nancy left on Thursday morning. Garth has since done an inspection and feels the cabin is relatively stable.

"He doesn't seem to feel there's anything he couldn't fix," she said from the Renewable Resources bunkhouse in Fort Simpson, where she stayed for four days before heading south for a reunion.

Still, there's a nagging worry that their cabin could yet be demolished by the unsettled earth. Then Garth's 30 years of toil, upgrading the cabin and building additions, would be lost forever.

"It would just be heart-wrenching if that cabin goes into the lake," she said.

See accompanying story, Effect on lake, Page 4