September 5, 2021
Hiking season is winding down. One might think I would be cramming them in before the snows come. But these last weeks come every year and I’m done before the end. By my count, I’ve done fifteen hikes this season; almost one a week since the first one in mid-April. Plus four camping trips! I feel complete. Almost.
A North Carolina friend is coming for a visit, and she hikes! And I do love to show off my corner of paradise to friends who have never been here. And I do love autumn. I’ll get more September hikes in than usual, including my annual autumn Skyline hike to visit the spot at Paradise where I scattered some of my mother’s ashes, so I’ve been lying low on all these beautiful days. (Have I mentioned it hasn’t rained here since June? Seriously.) But . . . not having been out since my last camping trip, and knowing I would be glad once I was at the trailhead, or even out the door), I headed out for Mt. St. Helens this morning. Not only a weekend, when I never hike, but a holiday one to boot.
Norway Pass was on my repeat list this year. I didn’t figure it would be too populated, and I would be early anyway. Last time I was there—in 2013, just a year after I returned to the PNW—the sky, once I got out of the fog, was blue, But for the cloud bank in front of the mountain. Will the sainted Helens be elusive again?
The forecast at home is for overcast skies, but the closest weather station to Windy Ridge, the lesser visited entry point, is for sunny skies. I decide to chance it. But damn, it’s Sunday and the espresso kiosk doesn’t open until seven; sad. I set the coffee maker to start my brew at 4:30. I even foam some warmed milk. It will have to do. I’m out the door at 4:45.
I drive down US 12 toward Randle in the dark, with misty rain. I keep my hopes up, it WILL clear. I stop at a favorite viewpoint just before I get to Randle to wait for the sunrise. I’m not sure I will find another spot out of the trees in time. I decide to give it fifteen minutes. And stay forty-five. Waiting, waiting.
Turns out, had I left home ten or fifteen minutes earlier, I could have hit the sunrise spot mother lode, the rise in the east just left of the mountain. But I was right, given when I did leave, I would not have arrived in time. Now I know: two hours. But the sky is clearing! Shazaam!
I’ll let the photos (of which I take way too many: 180) tell the story.
The color phases of autumn, Sitka mountain ash.
My family spent many happy hours at this lake, camping and canoeing. It is closed to recreation due to the danger of those floating logs and to keep from interrupting its healing. Five miles from the crater, the eruption nearly blasted the lake to extinction. It is an example of extraordinary ecological recovery. I asked Google not too long ago when it might be open to recreation again and found no guesses. It’s been forty-one years. It will take as long as it takes.
I find a log to sit on and wait to see if the top cloud will clear. It does.
It’s such a curious place. To have known it before the eruption changed its face for ever. To have seen it completely devoid of vegetation, like I imagine the destruction of an atomic bomb. To watch its evolution, its return. She will never be what she used to be. She was lovely, then she was nearly gone. The trees, the flowers, they are slowly returning. She will be beautiful again, but she will be different.
She was never the beauty that Mt. Rainier is—a volcano herself, of course, that once had a conical top—save for the fact of this lake that comes to her flanks. And unlike Rainier, you could walk right onto the pumice-covered flanks of this mountain without special training and equipment, which we did in my childhood.
This place makes me weep. It’s a testament to the power of nature, both as a force of destruction and of recovery. Humans were not responsible for this cataclysm. But we are responsible for climate change that will change the planet. It won’t happen in a single day, but it is just as destructive, and it’s global. Will our ancestors be around to see its recovery? That’s why Mt. St. Helens makes me weep, she’s a warning.
You can revisit my first trip to Norway Pass here. You may wonder what my “big idea” was. I have no clue.
Also, you can watch the old visitor center movie about the eruption here. It’s powerful. (It’s since been redone, split into multiple, award-winning movies and includes the recovery.)
Finally, I want to invite you to visit my friend Bonnie Rae Nygren’s blog post. Her beloved cat, Gus, crossed the bridge on Saturday, and I don’t think I have ever read such beautiful writing. I never met Gus, but I am totally in love with him from the photos she has posted on Facebook in the years I have known her. I will miss him so much, I can’t begin to imagine her loss.
On this day after, Bonnie went to her favorite place, Sunrise. And this lenticular cloud over Rainier greeted her.
Read her “last days” post here. Have a tissue close at hand.