MOUNT ST. HELENS, Wash. – I kept telling my daughter that the worst was coming. That she’d see massive fir trees laid down in careful rows as if they were God’s hair, neatly combed. That she’d see a once-verdant mountainside scraped forever gray by a volcanic blast 500 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
I repeated it as we curved along the heavily forested paradise flanking Highway 504 off Interstate 5 in southwest Washington. We’d see destruction that was unleashed 25 years ago – May 18, 1980 – when a relatively small earthquake, magnitude 5.1, triggered the world’s largest recorded landslide. And that unleashed an eruption that sent a lot of this mountain into the Toutle River Valley.
Fourteen miles of valley was assaulted by, then filled with, 250 million cubic yards of ice, rock, melted snow and gathered debris. The water in Spirit Lake, up on the north side of the mountain, evaporated instantly or was blown to Seattle.
The water in the north and south forks of the Toutle was so hot that, it is said, fish jumped onto the shore, choosing asphyxiation over boiling to death.
Two hundred thirty square miles of river and forest – including 4 billion board feet of timber – surrounding the volcano were altered in the blast, silenced by the deaths of countless small animals, 7,000 big-game animals, 57 humans and 12 million salmon fingerlings.
I kept talking death and destruction and we kept driving and the land smoothed out considerably, but the green didn’t fade.
I realized then that where once there was nothing but ashen char, there was now a meadow.
At the Forest Learning Center, there’s even a place to view the now-thundering herd of elk that started coming back to the mountain only days after all that wildlife had been incinerated or drowned or crushed to death in the avalanche.
In the 25 years since Mount St. Helens showed us all what volcanoes can do to reshape a mountain and purge a landscape, the rest of nature is proving that it, too, has a say in how things will look up there.
I came here once 15 years ago; the mountain looked devastated. The valley looked wiped clean. The biologists were doing cartwheels over sightings of little clumps of moss and a random lupine.
Congress had told the National Park Service that it was to leave the region affected by the volcano alone, as a monument. And everybody waited.
The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument now includes multiple stunning viewpoints, caves, canyons, trails, campgrounds, two visitor centers and the Johnston Ridge Observatory, only 51/2 miles from the crater.
You can get as close as they’ll let you and learn as much as you want about the 1980 eruption – there is even a surround-sound movie at the observatory that puts you right there in Rumblevision – and about what came after.
Mount St. Helens has become a first-rate science project. The U.S. Geological Survey is monitoring every time a rock shifts or the Earth burps. The National Parks Service is watching (and explaining) how vegetation regenerates and how animals return.
The work of all manner of scientist is there for you to eavesdrop upon: the seismographs, the expanding lava dome, the volcano cam. There are replicas of the volcano to walk through and lava tubes to explore. Weyerhaeuser, the lumber company, is ever ready to explain how the trees are doing just fine, too.
A lot of the allure of seeing this place today is that you can compare the landscape, then and now. You can watch evolution, if you’re inclined. (You can also get the creationist view of things at Seven Wonders, a mom-and-pop museum on Highway 504.)
Since October 2004, the volcano has been rattling again. It blew out steam and ash. It rumbled. The little lava dome that was created in the years immediately after 1980 bloomed by as much as a dump truck load a second.
“In case of ash fall,” the signs at the visitor centers read, “remain calm.”
My daughter, who has seen plenty of little critters, lots of wildflowers, endless green and three movies about the 1980 eruption, was standing in the Johnston Ridge Observatory in front of the large seismograph, reading the activity in the crater. The red-inked needle jumped.
So did I.
“Remain calm,” my daughter whispered to me. “I think it’s just breathing.”
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