"The pictures you make are like a connect-the-dots game that becomes the line of your life, as real and vibrant as the lines on your face and hands. We tell stories with our pictures. In turn, our pictures tell our story - what we did, and how well or poorly we did it, and very significantly, if we stuck with it." - Joe McNally
March 4, 2020 was the last photographic assignment I had before the imposition of stay at home orders in light of the novel Coronavirus pandemic. As the overwhelming majority of my work is in service to high schools and dance studios, with their closures came cancellations of concerts, theatre productions, dance concerts and recitals, and just about everything else. For twelve weeks I had no commissioned work to do.
One of the things I do each year for Santa Margarita Catholic High School's Talon Theatre program is to produce cast and crew members' headshots in support of their spring musical. Each year, these headshots are also used to create commemorative lanyards worn by family members during performances, and serve as mementos of these students' high school careers in theatre. To create these headshots, I bring in lights and a backdrop to build a studio environment in the school's black box theatre or in a classroom, wherever I can find the space. But with the closure of the school and the implementation of distance learning, setting up a studio environment for the students to cycle through became impossible.
To address this situation, I volunteered to set up a schedule to travel to each student's home, to photograph each participating student in costume for this year's production of "Into the Woods" somewhere in the exterior of the student's home. The idea came to me via a community of dance photographers during a Zoom conference, during which one enterprising photographer described her idea to photograph dancers in costume on their front porch while she (the photographer) sat in her car at the curb. Although that was a bit extreme, the obvious goal would be to photograph the student while maintaining social distance. That's pretty easy to achieve. Because each student's home would be different, and I wanted to make these photographs with a minimum of equipment (just a Fuji X-Pro2 camera and a choice of two lenses [35mm f/1.4 or 56mm f/1.2], depending on the distance and environment presented), the one criterion I insisted on was to photograph the students in open shade. This produced two distinct benefits. First and foremost, open shade would provide even, soft light on the subjects, without harsh, contrasty sunlight or the need for additional modification by off-camera flash, scrims, reflectors, or anything else. Second, the photographs straight from the camera would be usable without significant post production edits in Lightroom or Photoshop. My preference at the outset was to use front doors as background and framing devices, unless something else at the home presented a more compelling backdrop.
The obvious theme of this approach was to provide photographic documentation of the unprecedented (and hopefully never repeated) circumstance of the pandemic's affect on the production and the students themselves. The lanyards, consisting as they do of headshots and related graphics, would be the primary deliverable. But at the same time, I wanted to create a series of portraits, again in costume, but with the students wearing protective masks. The themes of these "mask portraits" were twofold: to convey the emotions experienced by the students who have been deprived of two months of "normal" school during the closure, or to show something about how the students have adapted to the stay-at-home restriction in pursuit of their hobbies or other activities they enjoy. Either theme would work, depending on the student's desire.
To create these portraits, I traveled over eight days to disparate locations in south Orange County, putting on nearly 400 miles on my car (which surprised me greatly). At the end of the process, I saved approximately 70 photos. I'm very pleased with the results. Here are some samples of the portraits for the lanyards:
The photo above was made at the front door of this student's home. The unique feature of this location was the roof over the walkway leading to the front door (providing shade), with an open courtyard immediately out of frame on the right, providing strong yet still soft, directional light. A wall to camera left provided bounce fill to open shadows on that side of her face. The result was nearly perfect Rembrandt light on her face.
And here are a handful of the "mask portraits". The emotions ranged from sadness, to strength, to abject boredom at being confined to home.
There was one photo I had in mind before I arrived at this home. Two actors, brother and sister, sitting for a "formal" family portrait.
I asked several students, "How do you spend your time at home, when you're not doing school work and unable to hang out with your friends?" Here are some of the results:
Each visit to the students' home generally lasted no more than 15 minutes. I was careful to emphasize the need to determine what time of day would present the home (preferably the front porch area) in open shade. That enabled me to get in and out relatively quickly, with results I could use almost straight from the camera. The only edits to these were to eliminate small distractions that might be present in the background, typically less than a minute's work.
Scheduling and travel were the biggest challenge in completing this project. Photographically, it was a piece of cake, and I think all of us enjoyed the experience. My only regret was that this talented cast, crew, and faculty advisors couldn't bring the production to the stage for a live performance before an appreciative audience.
Location photography is often a process of solving problems, mostly those dealing with light. Whether it's harsh sunlight outdoors, or providing interesting light indoors, the problem solving process is amped up significantly when you're dealing with a group. In this case, it's the 2017-18 Actors' Repertory class at San Juan Hills High School. One of the most fun things I get to do each year is to photograph this group, and the class photos are framed and hang on the wall in the school's Black Box Theater. Working with Cambria Beilstein, the performing arts department chair and director of the theater program, we try to create a different look for the group by changing up the location.
Up to now, Ms. Beilstein and I have come up with a concept, and I have determined how to light the group and the environment in which the photo is made. For the past three years, we decided to work in the school's theater; first placing the class in the audience and shooting from the stage, then putting the next year's class in the wings and lighting the fly ropes behind them, and last year placing them downstage facing upstage and augmenting the auditorium with speed lights (inspired by a similar shot by Joe McNally).
This year, we decided to photograph the class in the school's Black Box Theater. We also decided to ask one of the school's students, Olivia Price, a lighting designer I really like, to provide a lighting design for the group. Olivia and I discussed her approach, and I decided on how to supplement her design if needed with speed lights.
Problem one: my impression of Olivia's design was not Olivia's. I expected her lighting approach would be to wash (or spot) the back wall with colored lights. I would then supplement her lights with rims and frontal light if necessary. Or at least that was MY thought. When I showed up, though, it was apparent that Olivia's design was to light the group with ceiling mounted lights that were gelled, and not washing down on the background. Frontal light could be provided by a fresnel light aimed toward the group.
I should have stopped right there. Instead, I deployed my speed lights, two blue-gelled speed lights placed as rim lights on either side, and two gridded speed lights placed frontally to light the group. After spending way too much time dialing in exposures and placement for these four lights, here was the result:
Yuck... The light is flat, and all of the color provided by either Olivia's theater lights or my own gelled rim lights is gone. Moreover, the curtains behind the group reveal shadows created by my little speed lights. In short, this pretty much sucks. The details: ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/125 second. Slight variations in power settings or aperture made little difference in the degree of suckage.
Solution: kill the speed lights, and take a closer look at what Olivia had given me. Maybe add a little frontal light by the fresnel. But only as much as needed to provide illumination to the actors, without overpowering Olivia's top lighting. Jack up the ISO, and reduce the shutter speed to taste (as this is now no longer a flash-lit photograph, but an ambient-lit one), and here's the result:
Much better. The lighting is theatrical, as it should be. There are three different zones of light, each augmented with different gels, blue in the center, a sort of mauve on either side. The exposure is ISO 3200, f/5.6 at 1/10 second. Straight out of the camera.
After a few frames like this one, I decided to move up to the control booth, about twelve feet up above the floor, shoot down on the group, and take advantage of the industrial, organic look of the black box theater floor. The settings: ISO 3200, f/6.3, 1/15 second. Here's the result:
I like both of these frames. Both of these frames are straight from the camera, with no additional edits. The final result will be displayed on the theater wall with the others.
Two lessons are evident from today's shoot. First, take advantage of what the ambient (in this case, the designer's approach) gives you. In the theater world, it's probably better than anything you can come up with on your own. Second, when confronted with untenable circumstances (in this case of the photographer's own making), diagnose the problem(s), and work systematically to resolve them, usually one light at a time. Today, had I paid more attention to the first lesson, the second wouldn't have been necessary.
Still, it's always a great day when I get to work with this creative bunch.
I can't believe it's been seven months since my last blog post; time flies when you're busy, I guess. But this one's kind of special for me and the folks in the picture above.
Back in 2015, the Santa Margarita Catholic High School choir toured Ireland, including a stop in the little village of Timahoe, the ancestral home of SMCHS's principal, Ray Dunne, whose family emigrated to the US during the famine of the 1840's. Mr. Dunne accompanied the choir on that tour, and the visit was magical. It was the first time any touring choir had performed in Timahoe, and the locals turned out in force to welcome us. It was the kind of day that everyone would remember for years to come. We even got Mr. Dunne to dance a jig (not a stretch for him).
So, fast forward to today, as the 2017 edition of the SMCHS choir toured Austria, with performances where you'd expect them to be held: the beautiful cities of Salzburg and Vienna, with some "Sound of Music" venues along the way. A boat ride on the Chiemsee on our first day there. The salt mines of Hallstatt, and the church in Mondsee. But nobody knew what to expect from Altruppersdorf.
Director Francisco Calvo wanted to have another Timahoe experience during this Austria tour as well. It just so happened that Ortwin Eckert, one of the staff of our international tour operator Tumlare, connected with this little village of 300 near the Czech border, about an hour from Vienna, and the deal was done. But unlike Timahoe, where there was an obvious connection to our school, Altruppersdorf was another matter. All we knew was that we would spend the day in this village, play some football (soccer) with the locals (and get our clocks cleaned in the process), and have a concert in the village church. And, as it turned out, it would be pretty toasty that day as well.
But we had no idea of the warmth and generosity of the folks of Altruppersdorf, or the day they had planned for us. This day was pure joy from the moment we stepped off the buses. Just like in Timahoe, the people of Altruppersdorf had never hosted a tour like this (or any tour for that matter). Altruppersdorf is a small farming community, similar to many others in this beautiful but "off-the-beaten-path" area of Lower Austria. They grow wheat, barley, rye, and grapes. Several families have their own small wine cellars, schnapps, too. Their community is spotless, modern but not overly so. They gather in associations, perhaps foremost among which is the volunteer Feuerwehr (fire department). So they organized, and planned, and resourced, and delivered a day that we will never forget. It was a day they won't soon forget either, as the visit succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.
Right off the bus, everyone boarded wagons pulled by tractors. We had a tractor parade through downtown Altruppersdorf, and up into the countryside, passing fields of freshly harvested wheat, vineyards, and endless fields of blooming sunflowers.
The large group photo above was made during our tractor parade. One of the main organizers of the day was Gerhard, in lederhosen and the typical Austrian straw hat, who flopped down in front of the group. He was an instant favorite of all of us.
Working our way down the hill back toward town, we stopped at a forested grotto, with a natural spring and a small shrine. There were benches set up on the adjacent slope, making a wonderful little amphitheater. It was a perfect place to contemplate our faith, and an impromptu sing.
The folks were just as interested in us as we were interested in them.
A short walk away, we found ourselves in Gerhard's personal wine cellar, where those of us of age tasted some fine local vintages. Upstairs from the cellar, some directional but diffused light was something a photographer couldn't pass up.
Back in town, we were treated to a wonderful lunch of roasted chicken, potatoes, salads, and dessert, all prepared by the folks in Altruppersdorf. The choir members suited up for a game, in uniforms provided by the community, and (as anticipated) we got our clocks cleaned.
And it was indeed hot. Fortunately, the fire brigade was on hand. First, they did a hose deployment drill just prior to the start of the game.
And at halftime, they mercifully sprayed the players with wonderful showers.
While the players took a break at halftime, several of us went to an adjacent building for a tour of Anton Schreiber's private museum, filled with immaculately restored tractors, farm equipment, and some very sweet classic Mercedes sedans.
After the game, which ended in a generous "tie", it was time to clean up and get ready for the concert in the parish church. As expected, the entire town showed up, and the performance was energetic and enthusiastically received.
After the concert, we had dinner together in the local historic school, capped off by an amazing Lower Austrian sunset.
It was a long, but immensely enjoyable day. The entire SMCHS contingent agreed that it was the best day of the tour. The next morning we packed our bags and moved on to Vienna for the final performances in St. Stephen's Cathedral and, on our last night, the Minoritenkirche.
The final day in Vienna featured, among other things, a drenching rainstorm...
...followed by a clearing sky, in time for rehearsal prior to the concert. Little did we know that our friends from Altruppersdorf made the hour-long trek to Vienna to surprise us with a visit on our last night. That's everybody's favorite dog Frieda on the lower right.
At the end of an emotional concert, we took one last group photo, including the choir's new "mascot" Frieda, and the traditional end-of-tour photo of recently graduated seniors, and we were off to dinner with our friends from Altruppersdorf. Don Baker generously picked up the tab for the entire Altruppersdorf contingent.
This was truly an experience none of us will ever forget. Singing in historic and majestic cathedrals, touring culturally important cities, and tasting authentic regional cuisines are the main features of choir tours. But the real payoff comes with genuine connection with the local communities, whose language, customs, and traditions may be very different from ours, but whose hopes and dreams are very much the same as ours. We had a great time with our friends from Altruppersdorf; hopefully we can reciprocate if they come to visit us here in the US.
One of the most fun and rewarding things I get to do each year is to work with the most advanced theatre class at San Juan Hills High School, under the direction of Cambria Beilstein. The Actors' Repertory group is an amazing group of young men and women, dedicated to their craft, and challenged by Ms. Beilstein to stretch and grow as actors. I began to work with Ms. B three years ago, and one of the things I suggested to her at that time was to create a class photo. The first photo was a simple group shot in the audience of the school's theatre, photographed from the stage. That experience led us to create a series of annual class photos, each one a different concept. Last year, we posed the group in the wings of the theatre, similarly to the above shot, with the line set lit by ambient work lights as a backdrop.
As we contemplated the idea for this year's class photo, I happened upon a photo made by one of my photography inspirations, Joe McNally, earlier this year. It was a project designed to showcase the experience of a young professional dancer as she began her career in New York. The particular photograph that spoke to me, in the context of our own project, showed the dancer on stage in profile in a Bob Fosse-inspired pose, with one foot resting on a chair, a fedora perched on her head. If you know anything about Fosse, you can envision the pose. The camera position is upstage, pointed to the audience. Joe has placed seven speed lights in the audience, with some gelled blue, creating the idea of stage lighting, but using only small flashes. The dancer is lit with two speed lights placed off-stage, giving her rim lighting only.
I saw this photo and immediately saw the potential to replicate the approach, but with the Actors' Repertory class, a group of 21. Obviously, two speed lights placed off-stage would not work to light this group, but my previous year's strategy would certainly work. That strategy included just one overhead Elinchrom ELB 400 mounted in a large Rotalux strip box, with two reflective panels on the floor to provide bounce fill. My only concern was that this relatively large light source, covering a group this large, might wash out the reflections from the audience-based speed lights. A conversation with Joe's assistant Michael Cali confirmed that it would "probably" work. So two weeks prior to the shoot, I set it up, without the group, and verified that it would, in fact, work as conceived. When we ultimately assembled the group, it turned out that only five of the seven speed lights would be visible from the camera position; the other two are behind the group, providing rim lighting. Altogether, the shot required about two hours to complete, from building the seven speed light assemblies (light stands, speed lights fitted with Rogue Flash Grids, fired with Pocket Wizard radios), and the Elinchrom gear, followed by organizing the group. When the group was assembled, we needed to tweak the placement of the speed lights to ensure that they would be seen, given the structure of the group as posed.
I'm really happy with the result. The final deliverable is a poster layout featuring this photo, with some text below. To accommodate the text in the format we've chosen, I cropped off the upper section of the photo you see above, which is the empty balcony. The photo you see above is straight from the camera.
The group photo was made on Friday of a very busy week of shooting at San Juan Hills. On Wednesday, I finally was able to do a project I've long wanted to do, to create a series of full-body portraits of these actors on a muslin backdrop, augmented with some furniture pieces or not, as the actors desired. This project was inspired by an annual series of actors' portraits by David Cooper, with whom I've had three opportunities to photograph dancers in his Vancouver studio. David has photographed actors at the annual Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada, since 1980. Because the Shaw Festival presents several different productions, these photos are not specifically character-based. Instead, the actors are dressed however they wish, portrayed however they wish, but definitely showing the actor's personality and character. They are printed large and placed in the lobby of the venues, and used in the programs. For my photos, I used a simple muslin backdrop and lit the actors with two ELB 400's, one fitted with a 53" Rotalux Octa as a key light; the other fitted with a 41" Varistor diffused umbrella as a fill. We had four different furniture pieces on set to choose from if desired (they really liked the overstuffed chair), and let the kids do pretty much what they wanted. I frankly didn't care what concept they wanted to bring, as long as THEY cared. I'm presenting these photos to them in both color and black and white versions. The black and white conversions were made with Nik Silver Efex Pro. Presented below are some samples.
I'm really pleased with the results from last week. It was a hard week of photography, most of which consists (in the words of Helmut Newton) of moving furniture. In addition to these photos of the Actors' Rep class, I also made several headshots on a completely separate set, with a different lighting grid. A hard week, but a very rewarding one.
Since my first exposure in 1975 to John McPhee, the greatest non-fiction writer alive (in my humble opinion), I've had a fascination with geology. Starting with his influential Basin and Range in 1981, and through many of his travels with geologists, I have come to a better understanding of how our planet has come to be what it is, through the eyes of the geologists who explore it, and a writer who can translate the science with literary mastery. I love to travel, and started out as a landscape photographer (of little skill), combining my enjoyment of the open road and photography. I put away my cameras in favor of the joys and responsibilities of family life, and then ultimately became primarily a people shooter, but my interest in the physical landscape has never waned. I have a natural curiosity during my infrequent travels, always asking myself how did that mountain/river/roadcut, etc. come to be where it is? There's a geologic question around every bend of the road, and every turn of the head.
So although I don't get out and about as much as I might like, I have been to many places of majesty and wonder in the American West. Zion Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, Canyonlands, and many others. In each of these places, there's a story, and a sense of place. I could easily wrap my head around that story while taking in the views. But until just a couple of weeks ago, there was only one place that left me utterly slack-jawed, my first view into the Grand Canyon about thirty years ago. After a nine-hour drive from home to the park, I pulled into the first viewpoint from the entrance to the park, Mather Point, as I recall. I got out of my car and sat on the low wall at the rim of the canyon. Forty-five minutes later, i was still sitting there, staring into that massive abyss, in utter amazement at what time, uplift, wind, and water had created. I've been back to the Grand Canyon since, including a weekend hike to the bottom, with a stay at Phantom Ranch. With each visit, knowledge is expanded, but the wonder never ceases.
So on a recent flight to Vancouver, I was fortunate to have an unobstructed view of Mount St. Helens, the most active volcano in the US, which blew its face off on May 18, 1980. That view led me to read the best account of the event and its aftermath, Steve Olson's Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It's a fascinating book, chronicling the history of the timber industry and its decline in the Pacific Northwest, the railroads that had such a large influence on settlement and extraction in the PNW, the geology of Mount St. Helens, the story of nearby residents, loggers, visitors, victims and survivors of the eruption, and the battle to establish the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in 1982. I highly recommend this book, which instilled in me a strong desire to visit this place, which I did over a brief three day period last month.
Cut to the chase; my first, and nearly every view of this incredible place left me, for only the second time my life, utterly slack-jawed. Words and pictures simply cannot encompass the scope and impact of this eruption.
Here's the story in brief. In the spring of 1980, a swarm of earthquakes under Mount St. Helens convinced everyone that the mountain was awakening. Geologists' warnings were noted, but industry and local interests (as well as the few who lived near the mountain, most noted among whom was the irascible Harry Truman, owner of a lodge on the shore of nearby Spirit Lake) battled authorities over the limited access granted to those who wanted, or needed, to be near the mountain. Volcanologists set up equipment and sites to study and monitor volcanic activity. The closest on that fateful day was David A. Johnston, who manned a viewpoint called the Coldwater II Observation Site, about five miles from the peak, near the viewpoint of the photo above. This site was in a clearing accessed via a logging road, enabling Johnston to view the volcano over the tops of the old growth forest that surrounded him and led up the slopes of the mountain.
On the morning of May 18, a shallow 5.1 earthquake struck the north side of Mount St. Helens, triggering the largest landslide every recorded. The entire north face of the mountain slid away. Immediately upon the release of that overburden, the magma welling up inside Mount St. Helens, reached groundwater, which flashed to steam. The superheated gases emanating from the magma chamber blew out the remaining face and about 1300 feet of the peak of the mountain. These superheated gases traveled at speeds estimated at 300 mph, traveling up to seventeen miles away, devastating everything in a 230 square mile radius.
The affected area has been described in three zones: in the closest 7.5 miles from the eruption, everything was completely obliterated, including David Johnston, whose last recorded words were, "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it." Within a couple of seconds Johnston and everything around him were no more. From this radius, out to approximately 15.5 miles from the crater, is the "Blowdown Zone" within which nearly every tree from the old growth forest was literally blown down. This blast carried the rocks and trees in several directions, including northeastward toward Spirit Lake. It pushed the downed trees toward and into Spirit Lake, splashing the lake up the far side of the eastern hill about 850 feet upslope, filling the lake with mud and downed trees, elevating the surface of the lake by 200 feet. Obviously, Harry Truman and anyone else on Spirit Lake perished immediately.
Immediately following the blast itself, a huge pyroclastic flow erupted from the crater. Unlike the shield volcanos of Hawaii, where magma flows in rivers from the crater, Mount St. Helens and others in the Cascades are stratovolcanoes, subject to catastrophic blowouts and expulsion of massive amounts of debris, primarily ash and pulverized rock. Ash cools to pumice, which when mixed with water or other plastic material, flows like mud. The pyroclastic flow from Mount St. Helens traveled in three directions, southeast, northeast, and northwest, down the Toutle River, seventy five miles to the Columbia River.
Beyond the "Blowdown Zone" is the "Scorch Zone", extending up to three additional miles or so, depending on terrain. In this zone, trees were literally killed by hot gases, but not enough to knock them all down. They stand there today, white, naked trunks, gradually being succeeded by new growth.
I flew up to Portland on a Thursday morning, rented a car, and checked into a hotel in Battle Ground, Washington (site of an encounter, not quite a battle, between soldiers from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and local Native Americans). I decided to travel up the east side of the volcano, the only side from which you can see Spirit Lake. It's a long, but beautiful drive through old growth forests, some clearcut areas, roads closed during the winter, and not a few Trump-Pence campaign signs. Sadly, on this day, the area was under cloud cover, and much of the mountain was obscured. After a couple of hours, I entered the Scorch Zone. It was amazing to see the impacts of the blast, nearly eighteen miles from the crater itself.
Driving down the road a bit, I came upon the Miners' Car, about nine miles from the mountain. This car belonged to a family of miners who perished in their nearby cabin, which was incinerated by the blast. Their car was blown an estimated 60 feet into the air, coming to rest here. The car is now about two feet high, from wheels to top.
Approaching the end of state route 99, you finally get a glimpse of Spirit Lake. My previous expectation of Spirit Lake was that it would be a small lake, but it's not. There is no single point accessible in the protected National Volcanic Monument where you can see the entire lake. What you can see, however, are the millions of trees still floating in the lake, moving from place to place with the wind.
Looking around, you can see the areas directly hit with the exploding gases, surrounded by areas that were better sheltered either by terrain, direction, or snow cover on that day.
The next day, I went back to the Monument from the west side, where the route to Spirit Lake had been replaced with a new, often four-lane highway following the course of the North Fork of the Toutle River. This is the main entrance to the area, with a few visitors centers and vistas of the mountain from farther away. I was one of the earliest visitors to the area that day, ending my drive at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, five miles from the volcano, with a view directly into the north face and the crater. Although there are hiking trails that lead around the perimeter of the blast zone, and though experienced hikers can actually climb to the crater's edge, the entire Monument is basically off limits to human activity, as the site is now a massive laboratory of the study of recovery, a story all its own.
From Johnston Ridge, Mount St. Helens is backlit for most of the day, as the sun is in the southern sky directly in front of you. Also, atmospheric haze interferes with contrast, making most views a bit milky. My photos required a lot of added contrast and "dehazing" in Lightroom to bring out the details. Here's my best view into the crater itself, as the sun got high enough to fill the crater with light. You can see steam venting from behind the growing lava dome in the interior of the crater. That's melt water seeping down from snow into the hot rocks above the magma chamber, venting off as steam. This is a very tight crop from my Fuji X-Pro 2, fitted with a 55-140mm (205mm equivalent) lens. To get this view, uncropped, with a full-frame chip would require about 500mm.
Here's a good view of the Pumice Plain below the crater. Two things of note here. First, the "hills" toward the lower left are hummocks, entire masses of slope that were transported intact down the mountain during the eruption. Many of these are 500-650 feet high. Second, the gorges created by the headwaters of the Toutle River emanating from the mountain have cut through the pumice and other avalanche debris that is, at this point, about 300 feet thick. The gorges themselves are approximately 200 feet deep, to give you a sense of scale. Everything in this view, prior to the eruption, was covered with old growth forest.
The Johnston Ridge visitors center offers a wealth of information on the events of that day. There is a theater in the building that shows two videos, one covering the eruption and it's impacts, the other focusing on the amazing recovery of flora and fauna in the area. You enter the theater, sit in comfortable seats, and see a red theatrical curtain with a retractable screen in front of you. When each video ends, the screen is raised, followed by the theatrical curtain, revealing this incredible view of the mountain.
These two folks and I were the first visitors to Johnston Ridge that day.
Coming back down the highway, I took the opportunity to stop and look carefully at the areas owned by Weyerhaeuser that were planted in the years immediately following the eruption. These replanted areas were owned by Weyerhaeuser prior to the eruption, and negotiated out of the protected area when the Monument was established. Some of these trees are now approximately thirty years old, and they're quite large. But you can see the difference between the natural look of an old growth forest and the consistency of a planted slope. Not a value judgement on my part, but an obvious difference.
Looking down the Toutle River toward the west, you can see the extent of the flood. It's like this all the way.
The power of this place is almost mystical. It's difficult to wrap you head around the extent of the eruption's impact on the land and the people of the area. On that fateful day, 57 people lost their lives, and 113 were rescued in the following days. Two hundred homes were destroyed, as were eight bridges and the entire road to Spirit Lake. An estimated 1,500 elk, 5,000 deer, hundreds of bears, and countless smaller animals, birds, and fish were killed. The temperature of Spirit Lake rose to 100 degrees; nothing survived.
Yet the area is recovering, far ahead of what many expected, thirty-six years later. Somehow, fish have been reintroduced into Spirit Lake and clarity and chemistry have returned to normal. The Pumice Plain is covered with new vegetation. Animals, beginning with the pocket gopher and birds, began to repopulate soon after the eruption. Mount St. Helens is now a laboratory for the study of renewal.
Mount St. Helens has erupted several times since, and will erupt again. Who knows when, or how extensively? I can say this with certainty; I want to go back.