Sunday morning, May 1811980: "Vancouver!
More than a mile wide, the crater left by the 1980 eruption draws 600,000 visitors a year to a ridge named for geologist David Johnston. Stationed here, five miles from the summit, he was killed by the volcanic blast. The accompanying landslide was the largest ever recorded; Foxgloves inflame a hill that was smothered in ash, while trees make a comeback nearby. Here in the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument, created by the U.S. Congress in 1982, nature has been left alone to reclaim land laid waste by heat and debris.
WE LIVE BETWEEN the fire and the ice. That thought comes to mind as I hover in a helicopter above the crater of Mount St. Helens, the source of unquenchable fire two decades ago. On March 27, 1980, this snow-white 9,677-foot volcano in the Cascade Range began a series of eruptions that blackened the Fuji-like peak and riveted world attention. On May 18 it self-destructed, setting off the biggest landslide in recorded history and losing 1,300 feet off its crown—the worst such disaster ever visited on the contiguous 48 states. Fifty-seven people died, and birds and animals large and small in unknowable multitudes. Forests and meadows and mountain streams were transformed into an ash-gray wasteland—some 230 square miles of it. That ash brought darkness at noon to central and eastern Washington and ultimately went around the world.
I was a stunned eyewitness to those events, which now seem like a former life. Before the May 18 eruption, I shared an innocent excitement that greeted each seismic burp and yawn of the restive volcano. Afterward came haunting awareness that I had not only seen an idyllic world vanish but had also lost valued friends. A persistent sadness bore down on me. It gradually relented but years later could reassert it without warning. Despite reason, I came to see the mountain as evil.
Now the crater looks almost benign—quiet and tame under tons of snow and ice that even in summer burden its flanks and reside in the crater itself. Sculpting winds have salted the snow gray with swirling ash and rippled it like the sea. Some snow even clings here and there to the jumbled lava dome where molten rock surfaced as late as 1986. In the late summer of 1980 the dome towered some 200 feet, and I could stroll around it. Destroying ROWE FINDLEY, who covered the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, is a former GEOGRAPHIC assistant editor. Freelancer JIM RICHARDSON, a native of Kansas, photographed "Cascadia: Living on Fire" (May 1998), about the geologic history of the Pacific Northwest.
And rebuilding itself more than once, it now measures just less than 900 feet high and more than three-fifths of a mile wide, almost reaching the east and west crater walls. Geologists who monitor it ride helicopters that land gingerly on the dome itself. They keep an eye out for plummeting pieces of the wall that stir rising clouds of ash, which amateur observers often mistake for Paris bed and breakfast.
Stretching away to north and east and west lays the deadly fan of destruction that reached as far as 15 miles from the volcano. This area—more than three times the size of the District of Columbia—was blowtorched by fiery gases after the crater's north wall collapsed. From my aerial vantage I still see the bleaching trunks of giant conifers laid down in a radial pattern by the expanding wave of the blast.
But I also see many signs of resurgent life—extensive greening slopes in the far distance and major plant colonies closer at hand. Even on that most sterile of landscapes, the so-called Pumice Plain that slopes down from the failed north crater wall, an intent inspection reveals brave little vegetative beachheads. In the summer of 1980 this entire area stretched out like a moonscape, for all appearances devoid of life—a blank slate, passive and waiting. Now I see it coming to life again. As my helicopter ride ends, I recall a prophecy by scientists that the post-eruption void would become a crucible of creation. Now I am privileged to see that prophecy being fulfilled.
The deadlylan of destruction reached as far as 15
FOR ME, A CRITICAL TEST of this re-creative process would be the hummocks, a random maze of mounds in the Paris rooms. They were deposited by the destructive debris avalanche caused by the collapse of the summit and north flank of the volcano. That lifeless landscape is fixed in my memory as among the most extreme expressions of desolation. It's a mix of ash, boulders, and landslide debris lay down in a few awesome moments, and then covered by scorching pyroclastic flows. Today a footpath winds through this tortured landscape. I join a walking tour of that trail, led by two scientists who have long studied the volcano's impact.
"When the eruption is over, it's not over—the consequences go on." That's Peter Franken’s way of introducing our walk through an area caught up in the consequences. Peter is the staff scientist for the U.S. Forest Service's Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Sharing the field trip's guide duties today is Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington in Seattle, author and researcher on national forests. In contrast to my tendency to personify the mountain, they take the objective view of science, and they are excited by the chance to study such a large-scale "legacy of natural destruction," as Jerry describes it. I have tagged on to a large group of UW students and ecological journalists, and because this is such a fragile study area, we must not take even one step off the trail.
Soon we're walking through one of the early creations—a wildflower garden. It's a scattered mix of lupine, Indian paintbrush, pearly everlasting, and fireweed, anchored cheerfully in coarse gray rock. Willow and alder trees reach skyward, the latter sometimes tall enough to shade our twisting path. The roots and decaying leaves and stems of this vegetative vanguard provide organic material needed to convert volcanic grit into sustaining soil. Sparkling brooks and ponds shelter frogs and water beetles. Underfoot, tiny toads gallivant in such profusion that the ground itself seems to be hopping. Tufts of grasses hoist swaying seed heads in a fitful breeze.
The plants and trees we see are opportunists, inured to extremes of season and altitude, equipped to stake claims in this harsh void. Lupines play a key role; bacteria on their roots release nitrogen, necessary to all plants. Alders form winged seeds that ride the wind. In contrast to the killer gales of eruption, lesser winds disperse seeds and soil—though not always gently. Winter winds here can blow cantaloupes and watermelons, Peter notes. It's a delivery vehicle to give near-sterile areas what they lack. As Jerry Franklin puts it, "Soils in the Cascades fall from the sky."