Adventure Log: Mt. St. Helens and Dem Bones

May 11, 2023 ▪ 5.9 miles

Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it! shouted volcanologist David Johnston into his transmitter. It was May 18, 1980. Did he know he was seconds from dying? Was he giddy? Afraid? His Wikipedia page says he felt scientists must do what is necessary, including taking risks, to help protect the public from natural disasters. And that’s what he was doing. He was just thirty years old, but he was doing what he loved.

I love sunrise over the prairie, so I don’t leave home early enough on Thursday to drive to the mountain in the dark in time for it there. Without planning, I time the prairie crossing perfectly. A pair of horses interrupt their grazing to look as I drive by; a tiny calf stretches up nose to nose to kiss its mother; ground fog blankets the land here and there. And the rising sun paints the sky.

Mt. Rainier over the prairie

Heading up to St. Helens, I meet a logging truck. A pick-up truck with an “oversized-load” sign approaches from behind me, accompanied by nothing. The only vehicles I’ve seen. I slow down when I get to an uphill passing lane, letting the truck pass me. I want to be the only one here.

As the elevation climbs, snow appears in the ditches, but the viewpoints are clear. It was probably a spectacular sunrise over Mt. Adams and St. Helens. The post-show is pretty great too.

I take the last sips of my formerly extra-hot latte before stopping at the Coldwater Lake picnic area, hoping for a restroom and finding them still closed due to felony-level vandalism more than a year and a half ago. (What is the matter with people?) The portables are disgusting and unstocked. I return to the car for my own supply of paper.

There’s a new campaign to get visitors to act right, I’m not sure I like it. So now we’re blaming the chipmunks for people’s stupidity?

My hiking plan is Hummocks Loop, but I pass by the trailhead to go first to Johnston Observatory, the road newly opened for the season. I’m hoping to get there before anyone else. I’m hoping to spot mountain goats. There are several elk crossings on the way up to Johnston Ridge, including some calves. Snow in ditches becomes a wall of snow.

The parking lot is empty and both it and the walk up to the visitors’ center are snow-free. It’s 45º when I leave the car, I leave my vest behind. No micro-spikes needed to walk between the snow-walled canyon.

I love the superimposing reflections through the windows of the locked visitor center. (It opens on Monday.)
The bones of trees vaporized in the blast
are slowly becoming part of the soil.

I haven’t climbed the paved path up the hill near the still-closed visitor center in many years. It’s always crowded in the summer, and I head for the less-populated trails, leaving this feature for those who will do only it. The last time I walked up and past the viewpoints and interpretive signs to the 360º view from the top, I was home for a visit. I took my mother to the monument and she hung out at the visitor center while I walked up the hill. On the way down, I dropped my camera, a Nikon CoolPix point and shoot. Was it my first digital camera? Either it or the one that replaced it took better photos than my current fancier Panasonic.

My mother in 2011.

There is no human affiliated sound, save the buzzing of tinnitus in my ears. Just bird song, a thrumming grouse, and the rush of the river. I read all the signs, prowling for words and phrases to describe the nearly incomprehensible. “Loowit” or “Louwala-Clough” (smoking mountain) had roared back to life in March, two months before the lateral blast, after nearly a century and a quarter of dormancy, spewing a mushroom cloud out her top and melting the snow. But she wasn’t finished.

The March 30, 1980 eruption, photo by my mother from the house.

On May 18, 1980, at 8:32am, as David Johnston’s words transmitted to Vancouver, St. Helens exploded out of its bulging north flank and the mountain collapsed into the South Coldwater and North Fork Toutle river valleys at 70 miles per hour. In less than ten minutes, fourteen miles of the valley were buried at an average of 150 feet deep. It took with it lush forests and wildlife, Spirit Lake where my family canoed and Harry Truman, the campgrounds where we camped and the huckleberry bushes from which we gathered fruit for my mother’s cobbler.

My sisters and me.

A super-heated stone wind, filled with pumice and volcanic rock and ash, roared across the land scorching and toppling 230 square miles of forest in three minutes. It boggles the mind. Ash rained over three states for nine hours and an ash cloud drifted around the world for two weeks.

At each viewpoint, I scan the slopes for mountain goats, the valley for elk herds. I see neither. But I do make note of the original post-eruption visitor center above Coldwater Lake. Last summer, on a lake walkabout, I discovered there was a trail up to it. The building closed in 2007, after just fourteen years of service, due to a need for extensive and expensive repairs the forest service couldn’t afford. After sitting empty for a few years, the Mt. St. Helens Institute, in partnership with the US Forest Service, currently offers a Science and Learning Center for fifth and sixth graders. There are more plans for development afoot. But right now, the only way to get there is in a school bus on the gated road or on a walk up from the lake. I decide this is a good day to check it out, and change my plan.

I head back down to Hummocks, planning to skip the loop now and hike a short way on the Boundary trail through the valley. I meet two cars heading where I just left, but the Hummocks lot is empty. The temperature is up a bit and I exchange my fleece hoody for just my down vest and head out. The geese are honking over at the lake, but I see no wildlife but for birds. Alone as I am, I pull out my feminine urination device, not wanting to use the nasty portables at the lake again. A hiker comes up over the rise a distance away from me. Busted. Ah well, he’ll have a tale for his buddies later.

Nearly back to the trailhead, I meet a chatter of middle schoolers on a field trip. My luck is holding, I’m out just in time.

The temperature at the lake is up to 57º and I leave both vest and hoody in the car. The lake is serene, a couple fisher people are out in the water, but no one is on the trail. It is only 8:30, afterall. Are there introvert and extrovert geese too? Several are cavorting loudly around the little island in the lake, and a solitary one is slowly and quietly gliding away toward a cove on the shore.

The trail is exposed to sun, but there are unexpected bits of shade. I soon stop to zip off the bottoms of my pants’ legs. It is all up, as was obvious, but the grade isn’t bad. It’s nice to get a different perspective of the mountain, mostly hidden from the lake and from the ridge I often hike on the other side.

Wildflowers are beginning to come: wood violets, mountain woodsorrel, skunk cabbage, horsetail, lupine leaves. Trees are budding. Bones are bleaching.

And there is an enormous screech of elementary school children at the top playing capture the flag or something. Apparently staying on trails, in spite of signage, is not part of their education.

Fortunately, I’m there ahead of their lunchtime, and I chase a couple stragglers off the porch and enjoy mine in relative peace. I fill my water bottle inside from their jugs and decide I don’t need to look for a bathroom.

I make my way back through the horde being told they have two more minutes, lunchtime. As I pass by the second set of bleached bones again (clearly this set of two skulls and a rack are staged), surrounded now by a small gaggle of boys and a chaperone who is taking a picture, I hear her say, “Pretend you are shooting them!” I’m so startled I just walk on, later becoming increasingly angry and wishing I had said something to her. Should they not be learning about natural predation and not about human supremacy—and guns? What the hell is the matter with people?

I decide to risk the portables again, what choice do I have? Turns out those at the boat launch are in much better condition.

The temperature has risen to 67º. After a stop at one of the viewpoints to sit for a while with the gaping hole in the side of Loowit, I’m back home at 2:00. I love where I live.

One day the volcano will again unleash its power on a new forest. Nothing is permanent except the power of change.

May 15 Update: The Spirit Lake Highway near Coldwater Lake, was covered by a significant landslide last night, cutting off Johnston Ridge. It is “closed for the foreseeable future.” The mountain is reclaiming solitude, hours before the visitor center was to open. And three days after I was there.

10 thoughts on “Adventure Log: Mt. St. Helens and Dem Bones

  1. Wonderful adventure and beautiful photos! I hope to cover some of that area in July, though I’ll be with grandkids. My first, though I feel it’s so familiar just from reading your take on it. Thanks for all this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As is often the case, you have once again brought something new to a long familiar place. I had no idea you could hike to the old visitor center and even looking this past week up from Coldwater, I still can’t picture how you do it. 

    I wonder what was going through David Johnston’s mind too. I’ll think of him this week as we remember the anniversary. Thanks for the always thoughtful first-hand remembrances of this storied place. Sorry you missed the goats, but loved seeing the mountain from a new perspective. Stunning photos*

    Liked by 1 person

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