For weeks U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey volcanologist David Johnston had been giving warnings that the volcano of Mount St. Helens was unstable and showing signs that it could erupt at any time. In his words, “The fuse has been lit. We just don’t know how long the fuse is.”
Nearby residents had been evacuated, but the mountain became quiet. Everyone thought the danger had passed. On May 17, 1980 a convoy of residents was escorted back to their homes by police to recover more belongings, and another convoy was planned for the next day.
On May 18th David Johnston was on duty monitoring the volcanic activity from an observation post on nearby Coldwater Ridge. A huge bulge had formed on the north face of the mountain as gases pushed up and became trapped by the surface crust. An earthquake, measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale occurred and the bulge started to slide. Johnston radioed his headquarters in Vancouver, WA “Vancouver, Vancouver, This is it!” That the last anyone heard from Johnston and his body was never recovered. He had been killed by the magma in St. Helens that burst in a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles
Being from Michigan we had heard of the eruption, but it wasn’t a big impact on our lives. That wasn’t the case in Washington. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed.
The collapse of the bulge mixed with ice, snow, and water to create lahars (volcanic mudflows). The lahars flowed many miles down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, destroying bridges and lumber camps. A total of 3,900,000 cubic yards of material was transported 17 miles south into the Columbia River by the mudflows. So much mud flowed into the Columbia River that ocean going vessels that traveled the river were going aground and the Columbia River had to be blocked to such vessels until it could be dredged. For more than nine hours, a plume of ash erupted, eventually reaching 12 to 16 miles above sea level. The plume moved eastward at an average speed of 60 miles per hour with ash reaching Idaho by noon and blocking the sun, turning the day into night. We had ash fall in Michigan and weeks later some of the ash landed again on Mount St. Helens, having been carried by the winds completely around the world.
On August 10th and 11th, Scott and his family, Elisabeth, Pat and I all drove to spend the weekend touring Mount St. Helens. We started at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center. This center is operated by the State of Washington.
The most informative part of our visit was the Ranger Talk that described the series of events that led up to the 1980 eruption and the resulting damage to the area.
We set up camp at the Kid Valley RV Park and then went to visit the North Fork Survivors Gift Shop and A-Frame House. The A-Frame House was within days of being completed when the 1980 eruption took place. The mud slide caused by the melting of the Mount St Helens glacier and landslide altered the landscape and destroyed many of the structures in the area. Today you can see how the entire first floor was completely filled with mud and debris. The focus of the North Fork Survivors was on Mount St Helens and on the Sasquatch or “Big Foot.” I must have expressed too much interest in the Sasquatch because the woman at the cash register asked me if I was a “believer.”
For dinner we hiked over to the Fire Mountain Grill for a good meal and even better view of the river. The place was packed with both visitors and locals.
On Sunday we drove to the Johnston Ridge Observatory (named after volcanologist David Johnston) where we watched a couple of videos and Ranger Talks about volcanoes and Mount St. Helens. I am always surprised, no matter how much you know about a subject, how much you can learn from these presentations. As we hiked around the ½ mile Eruption Trail we saw where trees were sheared off by the initial blast and boulders that were hurled miles by the force of the eruption. Wow! Talk about the power of nature.
Weyerhaeuser and other lumber companies have done much to renew the forested areas that were destroyed in 1980. The National Park Service has allowed the land under its control to renew itself without human intervention or assistance. It’s quite impressive to see how much the land has rebounded without assistance. It is an example of how resilient nature is and how it can renew itself.
There are a lot of things to do in the greater Seattle/Tacoma area, but make sure you include a trip to Mount St. Helens. It’s well worth your time.