The great river and the mountain

Yesterday, we left Kalama, WA by bus and went to the visitors’ center on the edge of the “red zone” around Mount St. Helen’s. The mountain erupted on May 18, 1980, ejecting thousands of tons of rock, ash, and pumice into the air. 

There wasn’t much to see. The upper reaches of the volcano were hemmed in by cloud cover; the roads that could have brought us closer are still knee-deep in snow. It’s the typical visitor center: interactive exhibits with buttons to light up displays, where each button has been hammered by so many schoolchildren that the bulbs or the buttons no longer work; sun-faded photographs laminated by plastic touched by so many fingernails that you’re not sure what you’re looking at; explanatory text blurbs that tell you everything and explain nothing. 

Why were this couple fishing on the river? Why did the logging company send a crew of four into the red zone on a Sunday for a regular work day? The mountain was bulging outward and upward at five feet a day for six weeks — a 210′ gain in elevation! Why would anyone go near it? What was so important about logging that they did this?

The lodge-master Harry Truman’s decision to stay in the house where he’d lived for fifty years makes more sense. “I am Spirit Lake,” he’s reported to have said, “and the lake is me.” He didn’t leave the land, and he and his house were likely buried beneath hundreds of feet of rock, mud, ash and water.

The land remade itself. This photo is deceptive, really: I was south and east of the mountain, and the region of devastation was north and west. It looks fully recovered here, but it isn’t. 

What is fully recovered, anyway? The volcano did what it’s supposed to: blow its top, shatter the trees, bury the lakes and remake the land. The plans and trees colonize the soil, remake it with the help of mycelium and bacteria and helpful insects. These happen in their proper time, not in human time. It’s only been thirty-seven years: both an eye blink and an eternity. 

The ash fell from the sky for weeks, all around the world. Among the things the ash did, was close the Columbia River to navigation. Today there are dozens of (currently empty) tanker ships waiting for cargo to transport to the world, thanks to the Coast Guard and the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

2 comments

  1. Yes, Harry Truman, his cats, the lodge: all buried under tons of ash and mud. Is the visitor center on Johnston Ridge? That was one of the geological watchposts when the mountain was bulging, and named for Dr. Daniel Johnston, who died there.

    I was obsessed with the eruption for years (can you tell?). If you ever run across a copy of the May 1980 National Geographic, it both goes into lots of detail about the days leading up to the eruption and immediate aftermath, and does so in a very personal way. The writer had been out there for weeks interviewing people and had gotten close to some of the geology crew.

    • No… that one is still closed due to snowfall on the mountain. We went to the Seacrest/Silver Lake one, which was pretty dated but is open year-round. The closer ones are all seasonal for snow removal reasons.

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