Mt. St. Helens, Part III: Epilogue

Morgen and I spent a few hours hiking in the blast zone of Mt. St. Helens. Around us were signs of recovery from that singular event. But in reality, it really wasn’t a single event, isolated in time. Especially for Washingtonians. The dramatic and deadly initial blast rightfully receives significant coverage when talking about May 18th. But for ten hours (hours!) afterward, Mt St. Helens continued to erupt rock fragments (tephra) that spread across eastern Washington.

Our base of operations was in central Washington near Yakima, 120 miles east of Mt. St Helens. After our hike, our host told us her story about that day in 1980 Yakima: The weather forecast was for sunny skies; Yakima gets 300 days of sun a year, you know. But as she readied for church, the skies began to darken. It wasn’t long before she recognized the event would be rather unique. She placed a small bowl outside the door to catch some of the falling pyroclastic material. With my geology background, she knew she had my attention when she said “I think I still have it around here tucked away in a closet somewhere…Would you want to take some with you?”

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Mt St. Helens ash that fell on Yakima, WA in May, 1980

Photo by my friend Ben (the Beekeeper). Visit the USGS site for a high-mag view of volcanic ash.

Read Part I (Rainier) and Part II (Mt. St. Helens)

Pat’s Field Trip (Guide?) to Mt. St. Helens, Part II

Pat: We left off last time resting our legs in the Sunrise Visitor Center parking lot. It was a good stop, but now it is time to leave Sunrise and continue on our way to Mt. St. Helens. Turns out our Sunrise jaunt lasted almost until sunset, so we’ll have to stop somewhere for the night. Fortunately, it is the offseason and we have our pick of spots in the La Wis Wis Campground. Definitely pick a spot along the Ohanapecosh River to get easy access to the riverside. Perfect for morning tea. In fact, I’ll step out for a moment to finish my cuppa, and let Morgen step in.

Sitting_by_river

Morgen: Morgen here! I’m the lady pointing at the river. Pat has (perhaps rather foolishly), left his blog in my hands, so I’ll do my best to help finish this story. First, a disclaimer:  I am not a geologist. I’m an environmental engineer studying bacterial motility, so if you’re hoping for lots of insightful geologic-y things, you’re out of luck. Thanks to Ms. Frizzle and her magic school bus, I know the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, but that’s pretty much it. Regardless, I will do my best to learn you a thing or two.

P: Try not to spend all morning down by the river. There’s still a two-hour woodsy drive to Mt. St. Helens. Unlike from the west, our eastern approach doesn’t yield any glimpses of Mt. St. Helens until you are within the park. It is a fun, windy road through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, with little indication of the nearby volcanic history. Then, suddenly, you get Mt. St. Helens’d.

Mt. St. Helens entrance sign
The Cascade Peaks overlook, on the edge of the lateral blast zone (location).

P: While not the first roadside pullout, the Cascade Peaks overlook is located on the edge of the lateral blast zone to the northeast. Some of the tall pines in this area are untouched, but many, like the one in the photo above, are skeletons of their former selves. Ten miles out, we are in the zone of the “standing dead”. Even here, the air temperature during the eruption exceeded 100°C (Winner and Casadevall 1983) and killed many trees, but the force of the blast had dissipated enough to leave them baking upright. A little further on and the landscape changes rapidly.

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The blast zone is readily apparent today, dotted by new growth. Mt. Adams looms in the background, thinking “Soon…”.

P: Those of you with a passing interest in volcanoes have likely seen photos of once-forested hillsides newly draped in a blanket of tree trunks.

M: Seeing this in person can be somewhat unnerving, given that trees are supposed to a) stand upright, and b) not be stripped of branches, leaves, bark, etc. It’s a stark reminder of the power the Earth periodically unleashes on the surface.

Trees_on_ground
Fallen trees aligned with the blast direction, interspersed with new growth.

M: The Windy Ridge Observatory lies at the end of the winding trek through the blast zone. It certainly deserved its name, and the constant winds may help to explain why the Johnson Ridge Observatory is the more visited of the two. A short hike brings you to a wonderful vantage point, from which you can see Spirit Lake, clogged with trees blown into it by the 1980 eruption, and St. Helen’s caldera.

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Spirit Lake and Johnston Ridge (on horizon about 1/3 from left) viewed from Windy Ridge.

P: Is there a word for the desensitization that follows word repetition? When you say, for example, “pine” ad nauseam: Pine. Pine. Pine, pine pine pine pine, pine pinepinepine. Eventually, “pine” becomes just another sound, and you lose the mental association with the tree (or cone). That, I think, is the dissonance that takes root when I see photos of Spirit Lake. We all know that the tan raft up there is made up of individual trees, but it’s all just “tree, tree, treetreetreetree…yeah, that’s a lot of trees. Look, water.” Being there, it is much easier to make that connection between the trees and the scarred hillsides from which they came.

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Mt. St. Helens from the top of Windy Ridge Observatory.

M: Mt. St. Helens’ caldera got its unique shape due to the nature of the eruption that created it. Before magma began building up, St. Helens was an almost perfect example of a composite volcano (imagine Mt. Fuji in Japan if you need a modern equivalent). Unfortunately, this perfection was not to last, as the magma building up under the earth caused the northern face of the mountain to bulge. When the eruption finally did occur, it blasted out, not up, leaving the inside of the volcano’s crater exposed.

Thirty-three years after that eruption, Pat and I decided that it was the crater, or as close as we could get without extensive permits and preparations, that was our destination for the day’s hike. This meant Loowit Falls. 

P: It was a park ranger that suggested Loowit Falls, which originates in Crater Glacier. Having hiked the trail herself, she was spot on with the timing, distance, and difficulty of the hike (plus a little extra for photos).

M: Leaving Windy Ridge, we embarked on a nearly ten-mile (round trip) hike through the blast zone. If you go, bring plenty of water, and remember to reapply your sunscreen often, as there is little in the way of shade. The path is pretty well-marked, but if you get confused (as happened to us repeatedly when we had to walk through dry stream beds) the park rangers have erected stone markers to guide you. Think 2010 Vancouver Olympics logo, and you have a rough idea of what some of the markers looked like.

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A herd of mountain goats lounging on Mt. St. Helens’ slopes.

M: While out and about, you may be fortunate enough to spot some mountain goats (see above). Unlike deer, who returned to the blast zone less than a week after the eruption, mountain goats have taken a little longer to warm back up to the place. However, this is mostly due to their need to eat butting up against the mountain’s lack of suitable vegetation.

P: We would have missed them entirely if not for stopping to talk with a Father/Son pair returning from Loowit Falls. It is easy to miss what you weren’t looking for.

Loowit_Falls
Loowit Falls from as close as we could get.

MPerhaps the greatest downside to this particular hike is that Loowit Falls is inaccessible from the trail. You can clearly see it from the trail’s end, but how close you get to it depends in large part on the zoom capabilities of your camera. While this is disappointing, it is also somewhat refreshing: The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is meant to afford scientists the chance to watch nature recover without (major) interference from people. The fact that we’re allowed to hike through this living laboratory at all is pretty amazing, so being kept back from a waterfall in order to preserve it (and, one presumes, our own safety and well-being) is a small price to pay.

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Hey, who’s that young lady walking so purposefully towards the Lonely Mountain…I mean Mt. St. Helens? She looks like she’d be really good at pointing at rivers during morning tea.

P: In reaching Loowit Falls, our visit to Mt. St. Helens has reached a turning point. As in, we have to turn around. Although the mountain is at our backs, we are faced with constant reminders that we are in a transient landscape. After 33 years, the Pacific Northwest is well on its way to reclaiming the environment. Willows grow dense along the banks where water is in plentiful supply, and together we wander through the remnants of May 18th, 1980.

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Mt. Rainier thoughtfully peeks over the horizon to make sure we’re okay.

MWell, the sun is setting, and we still have a two hour drive ahead of us, dinner to make, and an air mattress to exhaustively fall upon before going to sleep. Maybe tomorrow as we drive home we’ll get in one last hike. The White Pass ski hill offers some spectacular views of Mt. Rainier. Wait…what’s that, Self? You’d rather not hike anymore? You’d rather drive to Yakima and get a burger and fries at Miners?  Well, I guess we can do that instead.

Helens_Hike

P: Thus Part II concludes, having attained our goal of visiting Mt. St. Helens. What could be in store in Part III of our Mt. St. Helens guide? It’s starting to look like a Peter Jackson film. I’ll let Morgen have the last word since she was kind enough to help me get this post out there.

M: And so, good reader, I must bid you farewell.  I hope I didn’t bore you with my rock-less tale.  As a thank you for sticking with me, I’m going to write every geology-related word I can think of in 60 seconds:  Metamorphic, plate tectonics, magma, lava, plagioclase, olivine, mineral, thin section, crystal size distribution, titanium, microprobe, rock hammer, iron banded formations, calcite, sediment, cooling, partition coefficients, and ROCKS!
Best wishes!