I finally visited Mount St. Helens last Sunday: September 23, 2012.
I pass the mountain for family visits, traveling between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. I always ponder a visit. I sort of visited a couple of years ago, but only near the base by Silver Lake. The Johnston Ridge Observatory is 52 miles of mountain road from Interstate 5, so I never make it.
This time, I did.
I usually turned back because of worry about reaching Seattle in time to prepare for the week. This time, I needed to visit that volcano top to prepare for the week.
To prepare for the week, I needed to shake off a lot of the past month. At least three loved ones/mentors passed away, and I was having a tough time of it. Before I left Portland for Seattle, my mom and I talked about the time our family drove near the top of Mount St. Helens. She told me we camped near there. I only remember bits of it, since I was pretty young. It was before the mountain blew…way before. I do remember it was really neat, incredibly surreal, bizarrely accessible. I mean, there are not too many volcanoes you can drive way up.
She shared my sentiment. So on my way back home, I turned off the interstate and headed up to Johnston Ridge.
It was incredible. There were lots of viewpoints and turnoffs. Lots of images from the news back in May 1980. Lots of memories of life changing. People died. One my family knew; many we didn’t. I’d later meet others whose best friends passed on May 18 during the eruption. They mourn still. Every May 18 is difficult.
So I stopped at some viewpoints. The first showed the Toutle River with the mountain at the far top. The Toutle River became a massive lahar on May 18, and for quite sometime afterwards. That river carried quite a bit of mountain, both its inside and top down to the ocean. The news that year showed several episodes of massive mudflows carving wider channels and destroying quite a few homes along the river banks. Those wide banks are now white with ash along the interstate, quite a few miles downslope.
Toutle River Lahar by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. The Toutle River carried mass amounts of volcanic mud, ash, rocks, and trees, carving a much wider path after the May 18, 1980 eruption. Mount St. Helens stands in the background.
I next stopped further up the mountain, at the Castle Lake viewpoint. Castle Lake is amazingly young. According to the viewpoint sign, it formed after the May 18, 1980 eruption when volcanic debris blocked South Fork Castle Creek flow.
This is a great lookout. Lots of elk stood on a small finger ridge just below us. Of course, when I got the camera out, they disappeared. However, the lake, which is tree rimmed and looks quite lovely, remained.
Castle Lake at Mount St. Helens by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Castle Lake formed a little over 30 years ago when volcanic debris dammed South Fork Castle Creek flow. The haze is formed by forest fires all over Washington and Oregon. Photo taken September 23, 2012.
From the Castle Lake viewpoint, Johnston Ridge was not far. State Road 504 took me over deep canyons, then down onto a side lahar near Coldwater Lake. Coldwater Lake is on the agenda for a future visit.
Then, the road ascended Johnston Ridge to the Loowit viewpoint and trailhead. At the trailhead and along the path itself, there were great views of the tree blowdown and lahar, and, of course, the crater. The ash and blowdown were the most amazing sites at that spot, however.
The force of the hot eruption winds blew down trees or left them standing dead. They lay in a pattern away from the crater all over the place. Some stumps stand. According to a sign along the Johnston Ridge Observatory further up the road, ridges protected them from the wind force. Another sign at the Johnston Ridge Observatory indicates that ash in the lahar below was an average of 150 feet deep. The lumps were bits of mountain.
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Tree Blowdown by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Eruption winds blew down trees away from the crater. Some dead trees stand on the ridges in the background. The ridges protected them from the winds, but not the heat. Photo taken September 23, 2012.[/caption]
After the brief visit to Loowit, I reached Johnston Ridge Observatory. There the crater is up close and personal. To be honest, it looks like it threw up, which I guess it kind of did. I’m afraid one of my volcanology professors talked about it in those terms in school, so that’s how I thought of it. On the bright side, my favorite flower bloomed along Harry’s Trail (it was blooming along the Loowit Trail too): Indian Paintbrush.
Finally, I caught site of my childhood camping spot. This isn’t the high mountain spot that my mom and I talked about, but the one we camped at every year: Spirit Lake. It was eerie. It used to be ringed with lots of trees. Lots of families camped there. There were lots of kids and canoes. Black bears walked between the tents at night scaring the bejeebies out of me.
No longer, although the bears may have returned. Otherwise it is quite brown, though bits of green are returning. Harry Truman no longer lives on the opposite side of the lake. He died there on May 18, 1980. There are no campers. I didn’t make it that close to the lake. I had to turn around in order to make it back to Seattle. The sun was threatening to set.
Mount St. Helens Memorial and Life: September 2012 by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License