Inger and Jeff Latreille
May 18, 1980
~Sunday, October 16, 2022~
By the sound of things around here, it appears that deer hunting season is in full swing. Three guys just down a few sites from us, each got their prize early this morning. It made for great coffee conversation for the retired guys next to us. I’m just glad I didn’t see the “Bambis”. I guess Jeff and I are the exception to everyone staying at our campground. We’re surrounded by hunters so it would appear we are one of the few interested in seeing Mount St. Helens, which begs the question, if it weren’t for hunting and the eruption, would this area attract tourists at all?
Without cell reception, we hadn’t been able to research just where the active volcano was from where we were staying. But we did know we were the closest campground to it. Climbing about 2,000 feet, we arrived at the Forest Learning Center about 45 minutes later where we were met with smoke, barely able to see the mountain.
So is this how it’s going to be today? Except for the gift shop, we learned the center closed for the season in September (Google showed it to be open). It just seems odd that so many things are closed with the weather so nice. The center was built in partnership between Weyerhaeuser Company, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Noted as a worthwhile stop, we were pretty disappointed to find it closed. What we did see were a few interpretive signs on a very short, dilapidated trail, surrounded by a forest of snapped-off trees, upturned roots, gray ash and downed trees. The noble fir trees standing in this forest and the thousands that line Highway 405 towards the volcano were planted by Weyerhaeuser in 1983, three years after the blast. And what a healthy forest it is!
Climbing another few thousand feet, the skies became more pleasant, revealing clearly the mountain we came to see.
Maybe the heavy winds had come to help. Thank goodness the wall of smoke was south of us, revealing the amazing crater views of the lava dome and glaciers. We were astounded and awestruck to finally see the volcano that brought so much destruction 42 years ago; a thermal shock wave with superheated volcanic debris that raced across the landscape, traveling 6 miles in 2 minutes to what is now the Johnston Ridge Observatory, where we were standing. Named after volcanologist David Johnston, the observatory was built in 1997 at the location where Johnston witnessed the eruption from about 5 miles away. It offers fantastic exhibits, some interactive, that allow you a closer look at what happened on that fateful day in 1980. Scientists continue to monitor and forecast volcanic activity on this mountain and countless others like Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, for example. We saw an exclusive 30-minute film showing actual footage of the blast. It was incredibly disturbing to see such a perfectly shaped stand alone peak, transformed in a matter of seconds….1,500 feet of it gone. One of the things I took away from the film was that volcanoes are not the end of life, but part of a landscape created by disturbance. I guess in some sort of way, this helps us accept Mother Nature’s fury when it strikes. At the end of the film, the curtains slid open, revealing the 8,328 foot active volcano.
We read first hand accounts of what happened that day and read about the 57 people who lost their lives either caught by surprise or fiercely determined not to leave. We even saw a sample of a massive tree that lived
nine miles northeast of Mount St. Helens. Traveling 300 mph, the lateral blast reached this tree in about one minute, snapping the trunk as if it were a matchstick. The Johnston Ridge location where we were standing, is 4 miles closer, directly in front of the volcano.
There are numerous trails in the park that allow you to get up close to the base of the mountain, and of course, to the top as well, but by permit only. In some sections, there is evidence of blown down trees and developing forest. The eruption even left behind the third longest lava tube in the world at 13,042 feet, named Ape Caves. We’ll have to see that another time. But what we did have time for was the .8 mile walk on the Eruption Trail for a different perspective. At the top, we could see Coldwater Lake, formed by the eruption. Making the trip to finally see Mount St. Helens was well worth it.
On the drive back, the smoke was far worse than earlier in the day, making us want to turn right back around and camp overnight up the mountain. Camp host Ray stopped by to say “hi” , offering firewood if we were interested. It did seem rather crazy to have a campfire when the air quality was so bad. Postponing that idea, we could at least stock up; a wheelbarrow worth for the bargain price of $15. I accompanied our payment with a few banana muffins to which he eagerly accepted. Ray also gave us clearance to wash Billie Jean and Hank (a rare thing). With the sun quickly fading, Jeff did what he could on the trailer while I whipped up dinner……Rigatoni with a mushroom, sage, rosemary cream sauce. Deeeelicious! Over dinner, we decided to postpone our departure for Tuesday morning, so we could take advantage of being able to wash our vehicles. It would be nice to arrive at our RV park in Napa, blending in with those pristine Tiffins and Airstreams.