Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Mt. St. Helens and relating to disaster

Thirty years ago, a relatively small by geologic standards volcanic eruption took place. In other words, MT. ST. HELENS EXPLODED, practically scything off one thousand feet of the top of the mountain and scouring the landscape north and northwest by landslides and blasts so powerful that in some place everything down to the bedrock was carved away. Fifty-seven people and innumerable animals perished. Nearly two hundred square miles of forest were destroyed or damaged. Spirit Lake just north of Mt. St. Helens was initially erroneously reported as being destroyed as well, when in fact it wound up becoming far larger as well as choked with downed trees. The factoid that's always stayed with me about the lake is that over time, some of the logs floating on the lake's surface become waterlogged and sink, slowly turning vertical as they descend in the water and, as I understand it, balance on the lake bottom. I imagine the result looking like a ghost forest in the gloom.

I was a 6-year-old Southern California resident at the time. I'd yet to even experience an earthquake. It took a while for the impact of the eruption to hit me: honestly, I probably was more focused on The Empire Strikes Back, which debuted the Wednesday after the eruption. I don't even remember my initial reaction to Mt. St. Helens; I wish I did.

Eventually, I paid the mountain the proper heed. I've been to the blast zone at least four times, and have been awed each time. In 1988, several members of my extended family and I drove the often one-lane road to Windy Ridge, on the northeast side of the mountain and at the time the closest non-scientists could get to the mountain. The ridge overlooks Spirit Lake. The ranger said how to find the location of the Spirit Lake Lodge, run by decades-long Spirit Lake resident Harry Truman. The ranger pointed out a sight on the lake. He then said "Now go one hundred feet down."

As I more clearly understood when I visited it again in 2005, scale is different in the blast zone. Because of the immensity of the blast zone, things can look deceptively small, except for the mountain itself, which looms. Even a thousand feet shorter than it once was, it looms. Cause-and-effect even looks different: there are lakes now, like Coldwater Lake, that didn't exist on May 17th, 1980, the day before the blast. Some aftereffects seem random: I was struck in 1988 by the sight of a snaking line of living, green trees on one hillside, surrounded by burned-away trunks on the rest of the hillside. That tongue of trees was partly shielded from the blast by another ridge. The particular force and angle of the explosion plus the local geography meant that this area was destroyed or damaged, and that area wasn't. And you see all these effects, and try to remember that Mt. St. Helens's 1980 eruption was small. Crater Lake exists because one eruption was enough to destroy the entire mountain that was there 7,700 years ago. Mt. Pinatubo in my lifetime was a bigger eruption than Mt. St. Helens, ten times larger in fact. Krakatoa was still bigger, and we have records of the immensity of that.

And even this small event was huge, if you get what I mean. It's a heck of a perspective-changer. I visited again in April 2006 to photograph the mountain at sunrise; the visitor center closest to the mountain wasn't even open for the season yet, but the roads (save the easternmost reaches of the Spirit Lake Highway) were. I like getting that perspective.

Today, Mt. St. Helens is a laboratory, letting scientists see how the mountain is reshaping itself. I wonder if it's the most closely watched volcano in the world. And it has a camera always trained on it, so we can study it, too. We can hike it, as long as we're careful; it's still an uncertain, dangerous area. Climber Joseph Bohlig fell into the crater and died in February when part of the crater rim collapsed.

And, in my current job, I have a 21st-floor view directly towards Mt. St. Helens. It squats on the horizon, currently snow-covered, and occasionally venting in the decade I've lived in Portland. The right amount of clear sky means I can see around Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Rainier, the next volcano to the north. Look in another direction and there's Mt. Adams; look in still another direction and there's Mt. Hood. All are places that have erupted over geologic time. Heck, even Mt. Tabor in Portland's city limits has erupted, though so long ago that it is -- we hope -- completely extinct.

It's a landscape I need to do my best to respect.

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