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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mount St. Helens

It was an idyllic Sunday morning not unlike this one 34 years ago today.

I put a shredded wheat biscuit in my cereal bowl and reached for the milk and heard what sounded like a muffled explosion off in the distance.

Not very loud, just barely above the threshold of all the other ambient noise around. But noticeable. 

It was probably somebody's car backfiring I thought. But it didn't sound like that. Oh well. It was probably nothing.

My mom had Robert Schuller, a "possibility thinking" televangelist I never really understood playing on TV. But with my 12 year old mind in 1980, there was a lot I didn't understand about anything and especially her taste in everything.

Namely this guy.
About 10 minutes later, the TV broke in with a special report. Mount St. Helens had a massive eruption.

I changed the channel and immediately my mom told me to change it back. The same program came on another channel in the next hour and I told her Mount St. Helens had just erupted. 

We watched for most of that morning (sorry Schuller.) I didn't know much about volcanoes. Other than they were cool because they covered everything with lava everywhere, just like the documentaries they showed on TV.

Starting in March, something was happening at a mountain I never heard of before called Mount St. Helens. First a bunch of earthquakes, but the news reporters said it was a volcano and it could be reawakening. Then a week later, the worst was confirmed, it was going to erupt. The first crater on the top of the volcano appeared and ugly black ash had coated the peak of what was a nearly perfectly symmetrical mountain with a snowy white top.

Mount St. Helens, before eruption (with Spirit Lake below) was a postcard PERFECT picture from paradise. The air was fresh, the skiing was amazing and Spirit Lake was teeming with fish. If you were going to camp anywhere in the '60s and '70s, THIS was the place. Good times....

A first crater was formed at the peak of the mountain on March 27, 1980, followed by a second smaller crater in April (left) with a noticeable bulge on the north side of the mountain. But nobody could have predicted what would happen on May 18, 1980. The science of volcanoes overall is still little known - especially those that formed the Cascade Mountain range. Which are composed of several similar volcanoes, all of them active. Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle has had a swarm of recent small earthquakes and Mount Baker, which is a mere 40 miles from where I sit currently still has small steam plumes that rise above it occasionally, though nothing alarming.....For now.... 
When it was apparent Mount St. Helens was coming back to life, camping and all recreational activity was restricted from the volcano and people living nearby were evacuated. All complied without hesitation. 

Truman, a three times divorced, but then single old man (obviously) with 16 cats stubbornly refused to leave, fearing the government or developers would take his land. No amount of warning could convince him he was at serious risk. Yet he was frequently in denial of the magnitude of that risk, thinking the wilderness surrounding his lodge and Spirit Lake itself would protect him. "If the mountain goes, I'm going with it" he was quoted as saying. He became a minor celebrity but it was doubtful he actually enjoyed the attention. 

He became a folk hero to some, but disregarded as a foolish old man by many. He flatly refused to go.

His time during the last few months of his life on Mount St. Helens was made into a 1981 movie St. Helens, starring legendary actor Art Carney as Harry Truman.

But while Harry Truman stayed on his mountain, everybody else wanted to get the hell away from it. 57 people perished in the disaster. One very lucky Seattle TV photographer barely made it out alive.

The remains of Dave Crockett's KOMO-TV news car are still on view at the Mount St. Helens Historical Area.
However, the most unusual thing about the eruption was the ash distribution. Ash closest to the mountain was like coarse sand, yet further away it was a talc-like powder, which made it easier to be carried by winds. And while the north side of the mountain collapsed in the eruption, very little ash made it into the Seattle area beyond a trace dusting. The dense ash blew straight into Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. But the fine ash blew across the country mostly into Eastern Washington state, during day into night as far east as the Idaho panhandle and clouding skies into Minnesota and even Oklahoma with confirmed samples as far away as Virginia and North Carolina a few days after the eruption.

The eruption of course made for a quick industry in souvenirs. Millions of dollars were made by enterprising people selling Mount St. Helens ash to a history hungry public across America. But mostly in Washington State and Oregon.
Photo: Conclusions Drawn

 There were also other products....

Photo: Conclusions Drawn

 As well as songs about Mount St. Helens....

Mount St. Helens never had another major eruption since that fateful day. But don't let the returning forestry, wildlife, tourists and campers fool you. She's still very capable of re-erupting at any time. And living proof that no matter how clever we are, nature can and will surprise us at any time. And anywhere. 

And we don't hold a wet match to it.

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