September 12, 2020

Under the Volcano

by Rosemary

Captain George Vancouver, the British naval officer and explorer whose name was given to two cities, named a volcano in honor of Alleyne Fitzherbert, British Ambassador to Spain, whose title was "Baron St. Helens". The indigenous people had called it Lawetlat'la, Loowit, or Louwala-Clough, names that mean "Smoking Mountain" or "Fire Lady".

Mt. St. Helens became famous for a series of eruptions in March and April 1980, followed by a nine-hour eruption on May 18, the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people and thousands of animals died; homes, businesses, bridges, railways, and roads were destroyed. A 5.1 earthquake triggered a debris avalanche that reduced the mountain's elevation from 9,677 ft to 8,363 ft. The blast was heard for hundreds of miles, a mushroom cloud of ash and gasses shot 12 miles into the air, and ashes fell as far as 930 miles away.

Many of the trees still lie where they fell.

Today the area around the volcano is a national monument used for recreation, education, and research. When we visited in early September, the weather forecast had called for a high temperature of 65F, but it was actually in the high 80s.

There are several routes into the area. We chose the "Scenic Drive Adventure" on Highway 504, also known as the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The visitor centers and educational exhibits were all closed, but the gift shops and (fortunately) restrooms were open.

Our first stop was the boardwalk trail through the wetlands at the edge of Silver Lake.

In some places the plants are so dense it looks like solid ground. It isn't.

A little farther up the road, in Kid Valley, is the "Buried A Frame", a new house whose ground floor was filled with mud and ash. The home's second floor is now at ground level. I was surprised that some of the glass had survived.

As far as we know, Bigfoot wasn't involved in the eruption, but nevertheless, there is a tribute to him near the A Frame.

Built in 1992, Hoffstadt Bridge over Hoffstadt Creek is the longest and tallest of fourteen bridges on Hwy 504, and is the tallest bridge on a state highway in Washington. We stopped at the viewpoint for a picnic before crossing the bridge.

The shock wave from the explosion traveled 19 miles, creating a "blast zone" where all the trees were knocked down. Beyond that, the trees were killed but remained standing. As we learned on a trip to Sunset Crater in Arizona, it can take many decades, even centuries, for plants to appear after an eruption.

A $9,000,000 project sponsored by Weyerhaeuser (who already had tree farms here) has brought trees back to the area. Large sections of monoculture forest have been planted, to be harvested and replanted starting in 2026. A lot of natural reseeding has also occurred.

Castle Lake was formed when an avalanche caused by the eruption dammed the south fork of Castle Creek.

Coldwater Lake was also created by an avalanche.

The road ends at Johnston Ridge Observatory, named for volcanologist David Johnston. During the days leading up to the final eruption, he was camping on the ridge as part of his work for the United States Geological Survey, making daily reports of his observations by radio. His last words were, "This is it!"

From this spot, we have an excellent view of the volcano.

Nearby, we can see the stumps of some of trees that were left standing after the blast.

There are elk living in the park, but the closest we came to seeing them was this statue outside the visitor center.


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