Mt. St. Helens: Really This Time

After an abbreviated ride to the south side, I still wanted to visit the volcano’s north side. This is the “business end” that blew out its side. Highway 504 to go see it is about an hour north on I-5 from Darryl and Marilyn’s place. That’s a long and uncomfortable highway ride on my KLR, which doesn’t do highways well. Since I’m traveling north anyway, there’s little point in going that far, then turning around and going back. So I made plans to work in the morning, head there in the afternoon, then stay at a nearby Walmart for the night, resuming my travels once again.

I had an uneventful drive to the visitor’s center in Castle Rock, just a few miles down 504 from I-5. I confirmed with the ranger at the entrance that yes, the road was open all the way to the Johnston Ridge Observatory at the end. After getting blocked by snow on every road I tried on the south side, I wanted to be sure I could get there this time. The ranger told me it was a great idea to leave the van at the visitor center and take the bike. The weather was good, and it was about to rain the next several days and even snow at higher elevations. This was my opportunity.

I was in no hurry, though. I was here for the full Mt. St. Helens experience, and that included checking out all the exhibits at the visitor’s center. The various displays give the full timeline of events leading up to and after the big eruption on May 18, 1980. There were numerous earthquakes and smaller eruptions leading up to it, which gave scientists and officials a chance to evacuate the area. This is why only 57 people lost their lives in the eruption, instead of the thousands it could’ve been.

I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the artifacts recovered after the eruption. These thermometers clearly didn’t work anymore, but it’s obvious they saw some serious heat.

After I was done in the visitor’s center, I returned to the RV parking area, unloaded the bike, and got ready to finish the trip. Unlike my previous ride, there was absolutely no chance of getting lost. This was just a simple 47-mile out-and-back ride to the end of the road. But I still brought my Garmin.

There actually was a short detour, which I took, leading to the sediment retention structure that was built in the aftermath of the eruption. This basin is designed to capture and hold large amounts of sediment in the event of a future eruption and prevent it from continuing further downstream. Enormous mud flows not only destroy bridges, but they also cause river water levels to rise, potentially flooding towns downstream.

I stopped to take in this view of the Toutle River. All of the exposed riverbed is what remains of the massive mudflows after the eruption. I tried to imagine what it must have looked like to see these mudflows, but I couldn’t.

Next, I stopped to take in the view of this massive bridge. Every bridge in the area is relatively new since the old ones were destroyed in the eruption. The signs informed me that this was also the edge of the eruption blast zone. I was still 20 miles from Mt. St. Helens, but the intense heat would’ve killed me if I was standing here that fateful day.

My next stop was the Mt. St. Helens Forest Learning Center. It, too, had various exhibits about the eruption and the area, as well as a short movie about it. A great deal of it was pro-forestry propaganda, which I saw straight through. There was a bit of truth in what they said, though. Many think of the forestry industry as clear-cutting vast areas of forest with no regard for the consequences. It’s been done this way in the past, and still is in some parts of the world. But here, they only harvest 2% of the trees per year. I went past countless signs telling what year various areas were planted. There were two clear-cut areas harvested just this year, and pink ribbons showed the new trees they’d planted to replace them. They’ll be given 50 years to grow before it’s their turn.

Forestry companies also helped the area recover from the eruption. They harvested as many trees blasted down by the eruption as they could, and planted new trees in their place, accelerating regrowth. It’s interesting to compare areas that were helped along like this, and others that were left to nature. At first, the difference was profound, but after a few years, the areas left alone started recovering all by themselves, without human help.

I was now close enough to start seeing Mt. St. Helens itself quite regularly. There were frequent overlooks I could stop at, but other times I’d just be riding down the road, go around a curve, and bam, there it was in front of me.

As I entered the blast zone, there were absolutely no old trees here. All of the trees are thin and whispy, not thick with massive growth on them like I’m used to seeing. Forests have regrown in the 42 years since the eruption, but nothing was older than that. I, in fact, am older than anything that lives here today.

Some areas of trees are so thin that they played tricks on my eyes. This section of forest looks like the camera is out of focus, but it isn’t. This is what it actually looks like. My eyes had just as much trouble focusing, which disoriented me a little bit. I had to make an effort to look at the road, not the trees, to stop myself from losing balance. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.

Finally, I entered the National Volcanic Monument area, which has been left to nature rather than repopulated like the logging company land. This area is still littered with trees blown down by the eruption, all facing away from the mountain. There are no forests here like there used to be — yet — but the revised landscape is very much alive. Grass and shrubs have regrown. The wind has carried in scattered pine tree seeds, which are starting to grow. Over time, these randomly scattered trees will reproduce into vast forests once again.

I reached the end of the road, the Johnston Ridge Observatory. It’s named after David Johnston, the USGS geologist who was monitoring Mt. St. Helens from this exact location when it erupted. He barely managed to make a quick radio call alerting headquarters in Vancouver of the eruption before the blast took him away. He was never found, though his trailer was during the construction of the observatory.

This felt like hallowed ground to me, the actual location of the Coldwater II observation post. Looking at the mountain itself, I completely understand why they set up an observation post here. Unfortunately, the observatory itself has been closed since the beginning of COVID, but the parking lot and outdoor areas were open.

Aside from clouds blocking the view of the top, this is a perfect view of not only the mountain but also the destruction the eruption caused. Spirit Lake is visible to the far left. The rolling hills in front of it are literally huge chunks of the mountainside that were blasted away and landed here. The rest of the landscape was ash and mud, which has had 42 years to grow into the green landscape you see here.

Look at how much snow is still on the mountain on June 2. Now imagine all of that snow melting instantly. Rapidly expanding steam added to the power of the volcanic eruption itself. According to the signs I read, debris exploded from the mountain at a speed of 220 mph, accelerating to 670 mph by the time it reached this ridge. No, those numbers are not typos. Between the impact itself and the intense heat, absolutely nothing could survive. As President Jimmy Carter would say after flying over the area days after the eruption, “It makes the surface of the moon look like a golf course.”

Life thrives here today, though. In addition to plant life, there were several packs of mountain goats roaming around. This mother and baby grazed just down the hill from the observatory. One feeling I got from this entire experience was just how quiet, serene, and peaceful this area is the vast majority of the time. While I appreciate the danger of being near the most active volcano in the continental United States, I can also understand how easy it would be to get complacent, and not believe that it could be any other way. The last time Mt. St. Helens erupted was 1857, long past living memory. While the crowds of people angry at the area being closed for their safety immediately before the eruption were wrong, I understand why they would feel that way.

Once again, like the battlefields at Gettysburg, physically being here gave me a much better understanding of how and why things happened the way they did. There’s no substitute for it. If there is a particular event or place that fascinates you, no matter what or where it is, go see it for yourself. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

The ride back was uneventful. Since rain showers were moving in, and I’d already stopped at all of the overlooks, I didn’t make many stops on the way. But I remained in awe of this entire experience, and still do as I’m writing this. Seeing this area for myself has given me a great deal more perspective, not the least of which is the long distance I had to cover before returning to what would have been a “safe” zone during the eruption. It took a long time, traveling at the 50 mph speed limit on a smooth road, to get there. Yet even now, I still can’t comprehend what the destruction must’ve looked like in the immediate aftermath of the eruption.

I returned to the visitor’s center, loaded up the bike, and drove half an hour north to Chateau Walmart in Chehalis to spend the night. The parking lot had excellent WiFi, so I caught up on everything I’d missed during my adventure, then had a good night’s sleep.

One comment

  1. Great photos and writing on your experience, and informative. Another great read about your journey I. Smokey! Thanks Justin! – Liz O.

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