Mt. St. Helen’s: Visiting Devastation

Mt. St. Helen’s. Photo and text by Merle Massie

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Merle Massie shares a snapshot of the field and an impression of the power and volatility of nature based on her recent trip to Mt. St. Helen’s.

The canopy of evergreens and deciduous shake sprinkled sunlight across our truck as we drove south from Mt. Rainier, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, following Forestry Roads 25 and 99 that, for reasons that were abundantly obvious to Canadian prairie folk, were closed in the winter. The gelatinous green tunnel left my husband yearning for something – anything – to look at. I preferred the tunnel to the glimpses of 1000 foot drops. Straight down. I gripped the wheel and stared past the hood.

But once out of the woods, the views shocked and awed.

The road to Windy Ridge Observation Point, overlooking Mt. St. Helen’s, is a trip I would recommend to any environmental historian interested in the intersection of humans and nature.

I remember when the mountain blew. In March of 1980, scientists at the United States Geological Survey warned of the mountain moving, growing a bulge on her north flank at the astounding rate of five feet per day. The USGS drew its ‘red zone’, under the expectation that the mountain would ‘blow its top’ straight up, as volcanos were wont to do.

Mt. St. Helen’s had other plans.

On a quiet, beautiful Sunday morning, the 18th of May, 1980, the northwestern bulge slid down the mountainside in what Forestry Reserve interpreters describe as the largest landslide in human history. It careened five miles down into Spirit Lake, raising the lake by nearly 200 feet. With the weight of millions of pounds of rock pressure released by the landslide, the mountain – in pyroclastic clouds of boiling hot ash – exploded. Sideways first, then up.

Trees melted to ash, adding to the debris. The 300 mile per hour lateral blast and landslide filled Spirit Lake with ghostly tree trunks that, thirty odd years later, float starkly white. Further out, the blast flattened the old growth forest, spilling it like toothpicks across the ground. At the edges of the blast zone, the heat scorched trees, killing them standing. They remain, sentinels and witnesses to that day. The volcano devastated 230 square miles of forest, rivers, lakes, canyons, and wildlife, completely remaking the landscape.

Fifty seven people died, most of whom were outside the red zone. The sun was blotted from the sky in nearby towns, turning day to night. Ash fell like grey warm snow across the Cascade and nearby Rocky Mountain ranges. Televisions and radios hummed. Disbelief reigned. Awe bowed heads.

Our visit combined memory with vision, tying the mental images from those long-ago days with the devastation of the countryside that, so many years later, stubbornly struggles back to life. The US Forest Service, acting on Ronald Reagan’s instructions, set aside the blast zone as the Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument.


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Merle Massie

Adjunct Professor at University of Saskatchewan
A writer, editor, historian, and farmer in west central Saskatchewan. Avid social media fan, cloud watcher, snow shovel wielder, reader.

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