There are five active volcanos in Washington and in 1980 Mt. St. Helens drew the world's attention when it blew its top, killing sixty people, burying the northwest with ash, and altering the landscape beyond recognition. The event started with an earthquake; one side of the mountain came down creating the largest landslide ever recorded. The release of the pressure above caused the volcano to erupt. The eruption was not totally unexpected since it had been shaking and venting steam two months before. An eruption column rose fifteen miles into the atmosphere and deposited ash in eleven states lowering global temperatures. At the same time, snow, ice and several entire glaciers on the volcano melted, forming a series of mudslides that reached as far as the Columbia River, nearly 50 miles to the southwest. Devastation stretched for 230 square miles. Mudflows disgorged by the volcano swept down rivers, wrecking 27 bridges and 200 homes. Sediment filled shipping channels in the Columbia River, cutting off ports for days as dredgers worked to clear the rivers.
When we came here ten years later, St. Helens had been turned into a national monument. It was amazing to see how quickly Mother Nature covered over the raw, rocky countryside with soft, green vegetation. We took a flight over the area and could still see massive tree jams in the river. They had been blown off their roots by the initial explosion and washed down to the river by steaming mud.
Today it was interesting to see how things have changed in the intervening twenty-five years. Weyerhauser, the lumber people, planted trees over the hillsides where their lumber stock had been. A few trees were cut in 2010, but the company will not be able to recoup its investment until 2026. Today their forest has a very uniform Disney World sort of look. The areas where they could not plant are as rocky and raw looking as they were in 1990. We got a lot closer to the mountain than we did back then. The road from the expressway has been extended about twenty miles and a visitor center at the end overlooks the terrible beauty that is the mountain.
Volcanologists have learned a lot since the explosion replacing their instruments shortly after the eruption and learning how to better predict events before they happen. The volcano has oozed some lava and rock since the big explosion, but Helens is recognizable from far away because it is missing the pointed top that the other volcanos in Washington and Oregon have. In the bright sunshine the mountain was beautiful in a terrible sort of way.