Yesterday Ruth & I went to The Mount. We can see Mount St. Helens from our neighborhood, but we haven’t been up to Johnston Ridge for a few years. It was time. We first saw the damage caused by Helen’s eruption in the early 1990s, more than 10 years after she blew in 1980. The landscape still looked bleak when we first saw the damage. Today, except for wide river beds with only narrow water channels, you can’t see much evidence of the major eruption 37 years ago.
We have taken lots of visitors up to The Mount over the years. It’s a very popular tourist activity around here. Yesterday, however, there were fewer cars on the road because kids are back in school. A number of the people we overheard on parking lots and elsewhere were foreign visitors. Mount St. Helens is on their travel itineraries despite its remoteness. When they get to the state-run visitor center five miles east of I-5, the Johnston Ridge Observatory with its stunning close-up view of The Mount is still at least an hour away. If you just see both visitor centers and are traveling, say, from Seattle, you have spent at least 4 hours just getting to Johnston Ridge.
Ruth & I listened to Ranger Heather’s very fine talk on the deck at Johnston Ridge and wanted to take a ranger led hike, one mile and one-way, that takes another 75 minutes but presumably gets hikers closer to the blast area. The Wednesday weather was short-sleeve fine but the local forecast is increasingly ominous. Major rain is due Sunday with snow at 6,500 feet and above. Unusually, we haven’t had any precipitation since mid-June. Johnston Ridge is only about 4,000 feet, but The Mount is 8,364 feet. Johnston Ridge will completely close to the public at the end of October and won’t reopen until some time in May, 2018.
Heather did a great job of explaining how Cascade volcanoes are different from, say, the ones in Hawaii with their vivid lava flows. Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption began with a landslide that caused the mountain to literally fall apart. A lateral blast caused by released pressure was felt 17 miles down valley as more than 220 square miles of forest was leveled. Huge trees toppled over like mere toothpicks. More than 30 miles of highway was destroyed. Finally, an ash cloud rose 80,000 above the mountain while static electricity caused lightning inside it. This cloud traveled for countless miles depositing ash everywhere. Heather told us that smaller eruptions continued until 1986. She compared Helen’s lava to peanut butter. Because of its higher silica content it just piles up rather than flowing.
Mount St. Helens, like all the other peaks in The Cascade Mountains, will erupt again. It’s actually one of the more active volcanoes in this range. Maybe being able to see it from my neighborhood isn’t such a good thing. The closest big peak to it, Mount Adams, which can be seen several times along the road to the Johnston Observatory and at it, has only erupted once in the past 4,000 years while Mount St. Helens has blown more than a dozen times. The Cascade peaks have been unusually quiet for more than 100 years during which time only 2 have erupted. The other is Mount Lassen in California. Increased volcanic activity, like hurricanes, is overdue.
To me one of the more interesting displays in the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center centers on global eruptions like Mount Iriga in the Philippines and Mount Bezymianny in Russia. Mount Iriga looks a lot like Mount St. Helens. Mount Bezymianny is so remote that when it erupted in 1956 no human beings witnessed it. This is not a new exhibit. None of the exhibits in either visitor center have been changed for several years. The state-run VC near I-5 remains opened all year with reduced hours and provides a very distant view of Mount St. Helens through a treeless opening.