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.