• Emergency crew responds by four-wheeler
By Naomi Klouda
Sherry Stead and friend Tracy Asselin were taking an early morning walk on Bishop’s Beach July 7, when a large boulder tumbled off the steep bluff and hit Stead — knocking her over.
The resulting injury is the first to be blamed on Mother Nature at one of Kachemak Bay’s most frequented beaches.
After being rescued by Homer paramedics on the beach, Stead is healing from a shattered ankle that required surgery and metal screws.
“There was no dirt, no debris, no warning,” Stead said. “The rock came so fast and from so high up, I didn’t see it coming at all. Tracy saw it from the corner of her eye.”
Asselin warned Stead to “look out,” but it all happened so fast, Stead didn’t get a sense of exactly what to look for. They were about two miles northwest of Bishop’s Beach, beneath what they estimated as 50-foot high bluffs.
“We were walking about 20-30 feet from the bluff (base) — walking at a good clip — and we were about four or five feet apart,” she said. “The boulder bounced and landed in between and in front of us.”
The boulder hit the side of Stead’s right knee, and her legs buckled underneath. Once she was knocked over, Stead said she was in a state of shock — and pain. With Tracy’s help, Stead hobbled on one foot to a flat rock and they called 911 at 5:30 a.m.
At 4:45 a.m., the day’s high tide had turned, and emergency responders couldn’t make it down the beach in regular vehicles. Barrett Moe, a volunteer paramedic and firefighter, heard the call for help. He hopped on his four-wheeler and was able to locate Stead and Asselin sitting on boulders two miles down the beach.
After a bumpy ride on his four wheeler, Stead was loaded in a waiting ambulance.
Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter said of all the beach rescues they’ve made during his 23 years as chief, he’s never had a person injured by bluff erosions.
“The bluff sees a combination of erosion and weather. There’s always things coming down,” Painter said. “This was just a freak incidence.
“We’ve had several people who have gotten lost or gone further than they thought, but this was the first time anyone was injured on the beach from anything coming down from the bluff.”
There may come a future need to put out warning signs that natural vegetation tends to come down following rain storms and high tides, and “to be cautious of stuff coming off the bluffs,” Painter said.
Stead was sent home from the hospital the same day, wearing a brace and a boot on her foot. Three days later, she underwent surgery that involved inserting seven screws. She is now laid up at home, but not completely housebound.
“I’m healing fine,” she said. “I’ve been told it’s a 12-week recovery period.”
Stead is not to put any weight on the injured leg, and is also undergoing physical therapy.
Her timing, however, was excellent. Stead’s husband Don retired from his position as construction inspector for Enstar Natural Gas on Friday. If the boulder had hit her this week, she would no longer be covered by her husband’s insurance.
“I’m really grateful for that,” she said.
The two friends, Stead and Asselin, are frequent participants at events and races. They’ve motivated one another to train for and finish events like the Breast Cancer Run, the Gold Nugget Triathlon and the annual Anchorage Mayor’s Race. They take regular beach walks in order to train for a planned trip to walk the El Camino de Santiago. That’s why they were walking fast.
“We were in training,” Asselin said. “This will put us back a year, since we were planning to go in January. But we’ll be all the more prepared the following year.”
Asselin tried to recall the size of the boulder, but the nearest she can remember is that it was as big as her arms when she links them in front of her.
“In my mind it’s probably, (when) I’m holding my arms out, a foot and half by a foot and a half,” she said.
In the emergency of dealing with Stead’s injury, “we never looked back at it again. We both thought of that afterwards. We didn’t even think about where we were sitting.”
The potential danger of more falling rock didn’t occur to them as they sat in the same area awaiting help.
Some people may be quick to chalk this freak accident up to Mother Nature and changing climate, but Alaska Geologist Ed Berg says, “not so fast.”
Berg has concentrated on bluff erosion hot spots from Homer to Anchor Point, particularly the potential catastrophe at Mile 153.3 on the Sterling Highway. In that stretch of highway, the erosion appears to be inching closer and closer to the highway.
The Alaska Department of Transportation is in the process of reinforcing the bluff with boulders, gravel and soil on top of a water-permeable membrane and drainage pipe. Based on Berg’s annual measurements of highway-shoulder loss, he told DOT he prefers to see the road moved. DOT has said this is too costly of an alternative.
But erosion on beach bluffs?
“I don’t think that has anything to do with climate change,” Berg said. “It’s been going on since the glaciers pulled back from Kachemak Bay 17,000 years ago.”
When the base is whittled away, the bluff grows steep and gravity causes things to fall off. When Berg consulted the Google Earth map of the area where the boulder struck Stead, he found it’s actually a steeper bluff than the casual person might think — more like 150 feet high.
“Things are constantly falling off the bluff,” Berg said. “Sometimes it’s boulders or small landslides; other times, it’s big slumps that have a ton of mud and rocks that run out on the beach,”
Climate change doesn’t offer the more exact answers, in Berg’s experience. More severe storms coming more frequently is cited as a sign of climate change, but Berg points out area storms here originate in the Aleutians, which is more attune to El Nino and La Nina weather patterns.
Nevertheless, Berg said he doesn’t think it’s a bad idea to look up and become aware of your surroundings while walking beneath beach bluffs.
“About a mile to the northwest of Bishop’s Beach, the bluff becomes higher. That’s where you want to start paying a lot of attention,” he said. “When you see all those boulders on the beach, just think about how they got there. They came off the bluff, and you don’t want to be in their way when they come down.”
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