On the Fourth of July we crossed over into the state of Washington. Bypassing Portland, we headed north on Interstate-5 for a short distance. Near the small town of Castle Rock we turned east onto a road named for a lake that was devastated 34 years ago, Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. It wasn’t long before we rounded a curve in the road and got our first glimpse. The mountain shows up on the horizon more than 50 miles away. Until 1980, Mount St. Helens was one of the most symmetrical cones in the Cascades, a mountain whose beauty was noted both in Indian legends and by early explorers. Today, it illustrates volcanic destruction and recovery.
In March of 1980 Mount St. Helens started to come alive. There were numerous tremors and scientists rushed to the mountain with equipment to measure them. There were dozens of minor earthquakes every day. At the time the area was a recreational getaway with cabins, summer homes, rustic lodges and even a Boy Scout camp. Soon the authorities evacuated an area within a 5-mile perimeter of the mountain, which experts of the day considered to be a distance of liberal safety zone. The mountain huffed and puffed and rumbled, but nothing major happened. Soon people clambered to have access to their homes and cabins. So the authorities decided to allow owners a one-day entry on the weekend of May 17th. Everything was organized and Saturday morning a large convoy of trucks and moving vans escorted by state police entered the restricted area. It went off without a hitch. The same thing was planned for the following day. Everyone was lined up at the barricades, receiving instructions and signing the releases. They were to enter the area at 9:00 am. They never got the chance.
At 8:32 the mountain blew. An employee of the US Geologic Survey, David Johnston, was stationed on a ridge 5 miles from the volcano. He radioed “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it.” His body was never found and the ridge and visitor center located there are named after him. A ham radio operator was in the area. He radioed in what was happening, that he was fleeing and that he didn’t think he would make it. He didn’t. Near the base of the mountain was Spirit Lake Lodge. Old Harry Truman was the owner, something like 88 years old. He had refused to be evacuated. His body was never found. Spirit Lake lies at the foot of the mountain, on its eastern side. Before the eruption, Spirit Lake was surrounded by lush forests and was a popular tourist destination. The largest landslide ever recorded came down off the mountain, slamming into Spirit Lake. Rock and mud hit the lake with so much force that the water sloshed several hundred feet up the opposite side. When the water ran back down into the lake, it carried with it downed trees. The landslide raised the surface of the lake by about 200 feet, but it also raised the bottom of the lake by 295 feet, resulting in a higher, but shallower lake. All told, 57 people lost their lives, all but 7 were outside the 5-mile zone. Something like 21 people were never found.
We landed in Seaquest State Park, named after a landowner, who deeded almost 500 acres to the state. The old road that led to Spirit Lake was destroyed by the eruption. Spirit Lake Memorial Highway that passes by the park is a new road that wasn’t opened until the 1990s. The mudslides and lahars that flowed down the North Fork of the Toutle River destroyed much of old State Highway 504. The new road travels a safe distance from the river farther up the hillside. There are at least 3 visitor centers along the way to the mountain, each giving a little different take on the eruption and the aftermath.
It’s been 34 years and the countryside looks pretty normal, at least until you arrive a Ground Zero. A lot of that normalcy is due to the reforestation that has been carried out by a lumber company. Weyerhaeuser is a major property owner on the western side of the national forest, and they lost 68,000 acres of timber, equal to 12 million board feet of lumber. They also lost logging camps, roads and bridges, railroad tracks and rail cars, and many pieces of logging equipment in the eruption. Although no replanting was done inside the national forest, Weyerhaeuser quickly salvaged what lumber they could from their property and began cleanup. They replanted millions of trees. This helped re-establish wildlife habitat and stabilize the soil to reduce runoff from carrying silt and ash to nearby streams and rivers. Weyerhaeuser replanted much of the area with Noble fir trees. Noble firs grow with a distinctive horizontal pattern to the branches, at least at the age of the trees were on these hillsides. You can see the horizontal pattern in the photo. We think the view has an optical illusion about it.
Once we set up camp, we drove the 40+ miles into the park to get our first look at the mountain. We were prepared to see a landscape of starkness and sterility; we weren’t expecting to see such a flourish of flowers. Even before the mountain came into view as we drove up the ridge, the hillsides were filled with colors of brilliant reds and purples and yellows.
The sight caught us totally off guard.
But the clouds were moving in that first evening, and to our disappointment our first encounter was tempered by overcast skies. With just a short visit from the top of the ridge, we had a first look and then drove back down the road. We hoped for better conditions on the coming day.
In 1982, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was established after the dust had settled. Encompassing 110,000 acres, the mountain’s shattered cone and immediate surroundings were set aside, to be administered by the Forest Service rather than the National Park Service. Several overlooks and visitors centers were constructed, trails were reconfigured, and observation stations were set up for ongoing monitoring. Biological research also continues as the blast zone recovers. The environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance.
And a new day brought better conditions for our second experience. We began with the first visitor’s center located just across the road from our campground. We took in a powerful movie of the eruption and its aftermath. An excellent ranger talk also helped to set the stage for us. But best of all, the weather cooperated and the mountain and its surroundings presented itself in fullest glory.
When it blew, the eruption was preceded by a huge bulge that formed on the north face. Having never encountered this occurrence before, scientists observed that it expanded at the rate of 5 feet a day. Something ominous, they presumed. Just prior to the eruption, the entire north face collapsed, causing the massive avalanche down into the valley. This opened things up and huge amounts of ash were expelled with hot gases. The landslide and the subsequent near-supersonic blast of hot gasses and debris from the eruption caused devastation as much as 19 miles from the volcano (so much for the 5-mile safety zone). The heat from the blast melted the mountain’s glaciers and snow cover, creating massive mudslides. The mudslides carried with them rocks and boulders. These cement-like slurrys are called lahars. Trees were blown over like matchsticks. In aerial photos taken after the eruption, the forests looked like freshly mown hay fields with the tree trunks all aligned and pointing back toward the volcano. Everything flowed down hill into the Columbia River and the depth of the river went from 50 feet to 14 feet, trapping numerous ocean-going vessels upstream. Living so far away we never had an appreciation of the devastation this caused out here.
For another perspective of the mountain and the land around it, there were helicopter tours. I’m sure it would have been a great experience, but we opted for the more intimate, ground-level point of view.
The mountain wasn’t the only attraction this day that caught our interest. About halfway through the scenic drive we passed a sign that beckoned us to stop awhile . . . Patty’s Place gave us a good taste of another local favorite.
Melinda chose the elk, while Chris relished the chicken and dumplings. Both selections made the stopover worthwhile. The fruit cobblers were another house specialty that, of course, made our lunch complete.
Our day ended up on Johnston Ridge. It is the nearest you can drive to view the mountain. An excellent interpretive center has been built here, constructed to fit into the surrounding landscape. Before the eruption, volcano experts thought that this rocky crest would constrain most of the explosive effects. In actuality, the blast and accompanying force simply washed right over the ridge and spread for many more miles. The barren landscape today illustrates the extent of that spreading force. The hills and ridges beyond have been scoured clean where once a dense forest stood.
The flowers seem to be the first to return and give life and beauty to what exists today. Amid broken trunks and fallen trees, color washes over the ground. It is an impressive sight that seems to stop everyone in their tracks. It is a place for reflection. The contrast is startling. The land is recovering.
It was near sunset as we drove away. We’d see the mountain fade into the distance behind us most of the way back. As we summited the ridgeline we pulled over to take in one last view of Mount St. Helens rising above the flower-strewn crest.
. . . and further on, many miles away, still the mountain stayed in view. One last stop for a twilight shot. Another day was done . . . and a very good one at that.
Now we’re on to the Olympic Peninsula where we will spend almost two weeks. So far our trip has gone as planned with no surprises. The camper is working perfectly and the weather is cooperating.
Leaving Mount St. Helens
for the wild O.P. of Washington,
Chris and Melinda