As I stood listening to the Washington State Parks ranger talk about the history of eruptions on Mount St. Helens – dating back to Native American oral history from the 15th century, my mind flashed back to Sunday May 18, 1980. The memories were as vivid as if they had happened yesterday.
I had returned to graduate school and was sitting at the kitchen table studying for a final. My husband, Gary, was watching basketball in the nearby rec room.
“Come here quick,” he called – and I joined him at the TV. The basketball game had been interrupted to show the plume, streaming lava, and river torrents from the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
We sat there dumbfounded and I forgot about my studies. There were frequent updates on the television for the next several days. We were able to observe area streams and rivers rise quickly as ice and snow on the volcano melted. We watched horrified as houses floated down the Toutle River and mud flows covered area roads and clogged rivers.
While the earthquake that triggered the eruption and massive landslide (the largest in recorded history) occurred at 8:32 am, the news coverage didn’t start until an hour or so later.
Since the volcanic cloud moved east, not much ash fell on Redmond, WA. Folks across the mountains had to wear protective masks and ash was several inches deep in some locations. The plume reached 80,000 feet into the atmosphere and deposited ash in 11 states. My parents, who were living in Coeur d’Alene, ID had to deal with the ash. My sister, brother-in-law and 5 year old daughter, Elizabeth, visited them that December and remember seeing an accumulation of ash still hugging the sides of the road.
After visiting me in Redmond, they then drove to Portland and stopped at some temporary trailers near Castle Rock that had displays of the eruption and aftermath.
Even though we didn’t have to deal with ash, the gases and particles in the atmosphere affected the weather that summer, resulting in much more rain. I was glad I had scheduled to take a summer class and couldn’t get out much on weekends to enjoy the normally glorious summers in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1982 President Reagan and the Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation, and education. It is managed by the US Forest Service. Inside the Monument, the environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance.
While it would be after 1993 before visitors would be able to drive into the blast zone from the west side, the road to Windy Ridge opened in 1983. In 1987 we read that a Visitor Center had opened and we stopped there on a summer outing.
I purchased a Christmas ornament made from ash from the volcano – it still graces my tree today.
As I flew into Portland the at the end of June, Mount St. Helens was unmistakable with its blown-off top
and I was glad I had planned to visit. I had not been back since our 1987 visit. I planned drive from Portland to Seattle, and definitely wanted to get a first-hand view.
After leaving the visitor center, opened by the Washington Parks Department in 2000, the Spirit Lake Highway (WA-504) wound through some small towns. Just past Kid Valley, I noticed a sign advertising Bigfoot and the Buried A-Frame. It didn’t hit me until I passed it again on my return that the A-Frame had been buried by the mud and was now a tourist attraction. The website claims that Bigfoot was killed during the eruption – once and for all!
My first stop was at Hoffstadt Bluffs where I enjoyed an elk burger on the patio overlooking the Toutle valley and distant Mount. St. Helens, still covered in clouds.
After lunch, I walked to the exhibit on the far side of the parking lot. (Click on the picture to read the full text of reporter Dave Crockett’s harrowing account.)
A KOMO TV news car had been damaged at this location while filming the after-math of the eruption. It remains as a testament to the destruction and tenacity of the reporter.
Not far beyond Hoffstadt Bluffs was a sign announcing that I had now entered the blast zone.
I stopped briefly at Weyerhauser’s Forest Learning Center, but didn’t have time to look at their exhibits.
Not far beyond the Learning Center was a sign indicating that the hillside had been replanted in 1983.
There were several viewpoints between the Learning Center and the turn-off to Johston Ridge Observatory, each one with a closer view of the mountain.
Forty-nine miles after leaving the Visitor Center just east of Castle Rock, I pulled into the packed parking lot
below the Johnston Ridge Observatory and walked up the hill. By then it was mid-afternoon. After showing my federal Senior Access Pass at the entrance, I had an opportunity to view the exhibits. The Visitor Center was named after the volcanologist David Johnston, who was camped out on this ridge observing the volcano when it blew. His final words were “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it.” He was never found.
I was struck by the somber tone and intense scrutiny visitors gave each panel with survivor stories and pictures.
I then filed into the auditorium for a video presentation about the eruption and the aftermath. When the video was over, the screen retracted and a screen rose on the window behind where the screen had been exposing the mountain.
Afterwards I hiked up the hill above the observatory. Lupine and Fireweed poked out of the volcanic earth and I thought about the ranger talk I had attended earlier in the day.
She explained that regrowth of the area had occurred initially because ground squirrels
and pocket gophers had been spared deep in their burrows. As they began to rebuild their tunnels, they pushed dirt with seeds up to the surface. The seeds sprouted in the fresh soil. Fireweed was the first plant to appear.
Elk wandered into the area and after eating the fireweed, deposited poop which further fertilized the soil encouraging other plants to grow. After five years, the population of elk and deer had been restored.
“Are the dead trees on the hillside from a recent event, or are they still there from the original blast?” I asked a volunteer at the top of the hill.
“They are from the original blast,” he replied.
It was amazing to think that they have remained for 36 years! I had presumed that the location was above the tree line, but then realized the hill where I stood was once forested.
In addition to eruptions that occurred in the summer of 1980, Mount St. Helens has remained intermittently active, and through early 1990 at least 21 more periods of eruptive activity had occurred, renewing again in October 2004 and continuing through mid-2008. Each of these period of eruption has slightly changed the landscape.
The following quote was in the Volcano Review, a newspaper-like publication I had received at the Visitor Center,
“The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 changed the landscape and changed the lives of many. Stories of loss and survival and of ash and darkness flowed from the Northwest on that fateful Sunday morning. Today, new stories are being written as new growth continues in the blast area and visitors experience this dynamic place for the first or 36th time.”
As I drove back to the freeway, I pondered the natural recovery and ecological processes I had observed. It was a day of somber remembrance, as well as a time to marvel at how nature evolves and renews.