A visit to Mount St. Helens - 35 years later

 

 
 
 
 
Johnston Ridge Observatory gives the best view of Mount St. Helens.
 
 

Johnston Ridge Observatory gives the best view of Mount St. Helens.

Photograph by: Andy Roth, PNG

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At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in southern Washington State erupted.

It was also my 15th birthday.

On May 18, 2015, I turned 50, which was also the 35th anniversary of the eruption. I wanted to be at the mountain on my 50th birthday with my wife.

The main road access in to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is about five to six hours south of Vancouver on the I-5. The turnoff is at the town of Castle Rock, which we used as our base to explore the region.

We began by stopping at some of the four interpretive centres on SR504, the access road to the mountain. The first, Silverlake, provides films and exhibits which go over the eruption’s scientific and historic aspects. We skipped Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Centre and went on to the third, the Science Learning Centre at Coldwater Lake.

At this point, the mountain was clearly in view and the only trees in sight were small, planted post-eruption. Mount St. Helens’ massive eruption consisted of an earthquake triggering the side of the mountain blowing itself apart and the massive energy released by the eruption then triggered a lateral blast. This created a blast zone extending hundreds of square kilometres. Within the closest part of the blast zone, the ground was stripped of trees and any vegetation.

Even today, what was once dense, lush forest still looks like a semi-arid desert. Further away but still within the blast zone, entire forests were levelled and there was kilometre after kilometre of trees broken off and lying on the ground like matchsticks.

At the Science Learning Centre, there were events commemorating the 35th anniversary of the eruption. We caught the tail end of a news conference where local officials and media were present. One volunteer gave us sage advice to proceed to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, where we could get the best and closest views of the mountain and crater.

Johnston Ridge Observatory is named after volcanologist David Johnston, who was killed by the eruption at his observation post near the mountain. In total, 57 people were killed. Within the Johnston Ridge Observatory building are exhibits featuring accounts by survivors.

Outside the observatory are lookouts where the mountain is in front of you. The features of the crater, including the smoke plume rising from the growing dome, are clearly visible. The mountain is still alive and further eruptions are possible.

Another feature of the crater is an expanding glacier, a surprising phenomenon in an era when the vast majority of glaciers in the world are shrinking.

On the way back to town, we stopped at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Centre. My wife talked me into taking a helicopter ride to top off my birthday. We were able to take in the effects of the eruption over the entire region, along with the smoking, growing dome.

The next day we drove north, then west so we could link up with National Forest roads 25 and 99. The latter is a seasonal paved road that heads south and ends at Windy Ridge Viewpoint on the north side of the mountain.

While the previous access road and its stops provide a more ‘manicured’ perspective, along NF 99 you turn a corner and are in the blast zone where very little has been done to repair the landscape.

It is a very sobering perspective. All around are jagged tree stumps, hillsides covered with fallen trees and, in some cases, completely stripped dead tree trunks still standing. One of the stops features the remains of a car. Its occupants were killed.

The heat, energy and force of the blast collapsed the car’s roof and melted its paint.

Also along NF 99 are lookouts over Spirit Lake. This is where local celebrity Harry R. Truman had a lodge and refused to evacuate before the eruption. He was killed and his lodge completely buried as a result of the energy of the eruption and the ash, debris and mud flows. Spirit Lake was altered and the water level rose about 60 metres. One end remains plugged with a cover of dead tree trunks which look like Mother Nature’s log boom.

I’m glad we went to Mount St. Helens on my birthday. The story of the eruption has negatives and positives. It is a story of destruction, death and loss.

It is also a story of regeneration, renewal and hope for the future — just like life itself as I look back at age 50.

 
 
 
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Johnston Ridge Observatory gives the best view of Mount St. Helens.
 

Johnston Ridge Observatory gives the best view of Mount St. Helens.

Photograph by: Andy Roth, PNG

 
Johnston Ridge Observatory gives the best view of Mount St. Helens.
The remains of a car caught in the blast zone.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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