Mt. St. Helens

November 17, 2020 at 5:00 am (National Parks, Nature, Nature photography, Photography) (, , )

Mt. St. Helens, August 2020

As with many shocking events in our lives, those of us who were affected by the atavistic eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980 remember what we were doing when we heard the news.

I lived in Tacoma, Washington at the time, and when the mountain rumbled to life a couple months earlier, I visited the former Mt. Fuji of the Northwest to get a close-up view of the mudflows dribbling down its snow-white slopes like chocolate topping on a vanilla cone.

Those photographs are in slide form, and I’d be hard pressed to find and copy them now.

Spirit Lake

I didn’t realize that the two distant booms I heard around 8:30 in the morning of May 18 while walking the dog weren’t artillery barrages from nearby Fort Lewis. It wasn’t until an hour later as I drove to church that I heard on the radio that St. Helens had erupted big time. It was cloudy in Tacoma (the second boom was likely an echo off the low clouds) but if it had been clear we could have easily seen the plume of ash, which began drifting east. It landed in places far from Tacoma, which was much closer, but north and upwind. The news got worse as the day wore on – deaths, terrible destruction downstream, the old codger Harry Truman buried alive under hundreds of feet of mud at Spirit Lake. I had no desire to drive closer for a photograph.

Spirit Lake from Windy Ridge

Three years later, when my brother came to visit, we took a small plane tour over the still-smoldering volcano. Thousands of large conifers were flat on the ground, stripped of all vegetation and bark, and Spirit Lake was filled with giant toothpicks of dead trees. The entire landscape was ash-gray.

A log-jammed portion of the lake

Most of Spirit Lake is once again open water. I learned a lot of things I had never known despite the constant news on the aftermath for months following. Such as the logs and dirt and ash smothered nearly all life in Spirit Lake, but it has gradually returned. And the debris dams downstream that threatened towns if they burst, and the work the Army Corps of Engineers had to do to prevent that.

A view point

The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is one of those rare ones administered not by the Dept. of Interior, but by the U.S. Forest Service which is under the Dept. of Agriculture. USFS recreation websites are the suckiest ever, so I used the link to the USGS instead, which is much more informative.

The road to Windy Ridge is on Forest Road 25, a horrendously maintained (e.g. basically not maintained) pothole-filled hazard. It is a long, bumpy stretch of conifers, opening up only when you get to the monument itself.

I marveled at the amount of tree growth 40 years after the wipeout of every living thing. Many dead trees still stand in testament.

An old Grand Prix also rests a half mile from where its occupants died, 8-1/2 miles from the blast. Fifty-seven people in all died.

For months afterward, smaller eruptions occurred, and I saw several of them from Fort Steilacoom Park in Tacoma. One of my photos was even published in the Tacoma News Tribune.

On the north side the next morning, looking east

One of the most memorable close-encounters was when I was camped out directly west on the coast and we woke to mud falling from the sky. It was another eruption, and ash mixed with rain. We quickly bundled up the tent and drove home, most of the way through mud which we had to scrape off the windshield every so often because the washer fluid ran out.

Still steaming

The next morning on this current road trip, I drove to Coldwater Ridge (now Johnston Ridge, named for the geologist David Johnston who uttered the frantic words “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it” before he was killed by the blast.)

Erosion at the volcano’s base caused by the blast

Back then, I had a nice collection of buoyant pumice stones that traveled down the Toutle River and others to the Columbia River and out to sea. Most of them were round and smooth from the trip. I wish I still had them.

Closeup into the steaming crater

For many years afterward, craftspeople used Mt St Helens ash (or what they claimed was ash) in making pottery and souvenirs.

Six miles away

For me, the visit was a pilgrimage, to remember those strange days when something so prehistoric roared to life in the modern era. I’ve never forgotten that Mt. Rainier, one of the most special places on earth to me, could one day do the same, with far far more damage and death.

It was now my 65th birthday, and that’s where I was going next.

Photos and text copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre
Feel free to reblog or share
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1 Comment

  1. Angela Moyer said,

    Incredible photos and your testimony is amazing. What a traumatic event. Thanks for sharing your story and the history.

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