Every generation has its events and locations seared into its collective memory. Those moments where you remember where you were or what you were doing. The WWII generation has its D-Day, Midway and Pearl Harbor. The Baby Boomer generation to which Gary and I belong has Dealey Plaza, Kent State and Mt. St. Helens.
When I began to plan this jaunt through the Northwest, I saw that we would be only an hour from Mt St Helens and wanted to divert from the Oregon coast to see it and learn more about it. And, yes, I learned a lot. There are 3 visitor centers, each telling part of the story. There is a Washington Visitor Center, a Weyerhaeuser Forestry Center and the National Forest Service Visitor Center. Then, of course, there is Patty’s Mile 19 cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, open from 9:00 to close. We hear that their cobbler is the best and they have 6 flavors. Sounds like a 2-day activity - just what we planned. (However, I’ve condensed it into one for this blog to tell the story as a whole.)
We left Portland about 9:00 and got to our campground in Kelso about 10:20. Long, exhausting trip. We’re only staying 2 nights so only hooked up the electricity and were off to the visitor centers. We thought we’d hit two of them today and then get to the actual Mt St Helens Visitor Center on Sunday. We first found the Washington State VC which was very good and we got a real beginning education about volcanos in general and this one in particular.
There were 5 separate events that make up the Mt St Helen’s volcanic eruption and they lasted the whole day. However, the mountain had been changing for quite a period before the actual eruption in 1980. There had been many small earthquakes under the mountain and a bulge had been growing on the north side of the mountain. Because of all of this activity the mountain was being monitored both by professional geologists and other scientists and by many volunteers who were helping. As the bulge grew, officials in the area, heeding all the warnings, closed a large area to both homeowners and sightseers. People complained bitterly that the zone they blocked was too large but, in the end, it was not large enough.
The actual eruption began on May 18, 1980 at 8:30 with a 5.1 magnitude earthquake which triggered a massive landslide on the north side of the mountain. It took off the top 1300’ of the mountain, rolled down the slope into the Toutle River moving at a speed of 150 mph. IN this picture the top of the mountain is gone and the large hump on the right of the volcano is the landslide including the top and lots of other rock and debris. You can see how much of the mountain has been sheared off.
As this was happening, the magma inside burst out and, flowing at the speed of 300 mph, vaporized trees and everything in its path as it overcame and passed the landslide. Over 1.5 million tons of sulphur dioxide were released into the atmosphere.
The heat of all of this then melted all the glaciers with their snow and ice on the mountain and, carrying loose rocks with it, a huge slurry with the consistency of wet cement rushed down the rivers destroying bridges, highways and everything else in the way. And, lastly a huge plume of ash erupted 12 miles into the air, an ash cloud that eventually circled the earth in 15 days. This ash fall lasted 9 hours covering everything for hundreds of miles. An awesome display of nature, each of these separate events would have been terribly destructive but all 5 together combined into a perfect storm.
The damage was far reaching, even to the Columbia River. In a matter of hours, the mud, debris and ash had reduced the channel in the river from its usual 40’ to only 15’. The river was closed to all ocean-going traffic. 24 ships were stranded at its mouth while 23 ships remained docked near Portland.
It wasn’t the first time that Mt St Helens has erupted nor was it the most explosive but previous eruptions occurred with little population around. But it was the deadliest and most costly volcanic in US history, 57 people died, 250 homes 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, 185 miles of highways were destroyed. Here are some stories of some who survived and how they did and two who did not survive, Gerry Martin and David Johnston.
At the WA Visitor Center we saw a movie which chronologed each of the separate sections of the eruption, describing their progress and destruction. This movie was almost a Hollywood production. It put you and your Go-Pro in front of the landslide rushing down the hill at 150 mph., taking a hard left into the river. Then you and the Go-Pro moved to the front of the magma overtaking the landslide at 300 mph. What a view of the destruction. Hollywood effects but real destruction.
We saw newspaper front pages on the eruption, got to go ‘inside’ a volcano, see a small display comparing Mt St Helens to other eruptions, read first-hand descriptions and see other exhibits.
Since I knew very little about the eruption except its bare outlines, much of this was news to me and I came away with a much greater appreciation for the power this volcano had.
I also learned that there have been subsequent eruption and about the growth of the lave dome inside the volcano core. This core is 92 million cubic meters (or enough to fill 36,800 Olympic pools) of lava that has been erupting from the volcano onto the crater floor.
Most National and State Parks are dedicated to preserving the past, to keeping it as it was so that future generations will have almost the same experience that we have. Mt St Helens wants future generations to have a markedly different experience than we have. The park brochure states that the real treasure of the Monument is the idea that this land should be preserved so that nature can work at its own pace to renew the land. This park is dedicated to change, to let nature change as it will without human interference. If trees and other greenery grows, let it. If rivers change their flow, let them. Change is the object.
But the rejuvenation of the forest was evident in only 20 days after the eruption when plants and animals were discovered in the damaged area. Here is the area a few weeks later.
And, here is the greenery we saw today.
Pocket gophers who had been protected underground, began to burrow out and their mounts now appeared atop the ash. As grasses grew, deer and elk began to appear. Interestingly, this area is more diverse than a forest since it is open and receives more sunlight than a forest with towering trees which block the sun.
After the WA Visitor Center, we drove up the hill to the Weyerhaeuser Forest Center. Weyerhaeuser was the largest private owner of forest in the damaged zone.
However, Weyerhaeuser quickly began to harvest those trees which could be salvaged. They then began a large reforestation of their forest. They learned that hand planting disturbed the ash covering the soil enough that water and air could reach the plant and rejuvenate the soil also. They completed the reforestation by June of 1987 and 45,000 acres had been replanted with 18.4 million seedlings one by one. Weyerhaeuser stresses that they look upon trees as a crop, like corn or soybeans, reaped and replanted to grow again. Their crop just takes a long time to regrow.
Here is Mt St Helens as we saw it. Beautiful capped in snow with the clouds scudding by, obscuring parts of it.
Of course, you know that we had to take the hike which took us closer to the volcano. Neat trail but some of it was rather precipitous. The trail was narrow, carved out of a nearby mountain and the drop below was long. the trail is the light brown path off to the right.
Here we are with Mt St Helens in the background. Note the brown terrain between. This is the north side of the mountain, the side that erupted and this terrain is what the landslide, the magma and the water rushed over. Actually, in the spring, when the weather warms, this is much greener with lots of grasses and wildflowers. Elk roam on these fields and pocket gophers build their homes. We just saw it before the spring green-up arrived.
On our way home, we decided to stop at Patty’s for the huckleberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. We weren’t the only ones, several families, several other couples and some groups of friends all found their way here for good food. We found ourselves talking with Patty’s husband who is a forest contractor. He manages other’s forests. Now, I didn’t know that individuals owned forests - I thought they were all government owned. Nope, there are lots of private forests and these owners want to manage them: cut their trees for the most profit, sell them, plant new trees for the future and clear the forest to prevent fires. Interesting conversation.
An amazing day. Such beauty combined with such destruction. Such destruction combined with such rejuvenation.