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The Volcano That Blew Its Top

[Mount St Helens National Monument, July 20, 2018]

On the agenda for that day was a long drive (3+ hours) from Lake Quinault to Mt. Rainier National Park. We enjoyed our breakfast in the Lake Quinault lodge restaurant as much as last night’s dinner. I had the sweet potato pancakes, which were amazing.

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We realized that we would be passing by Mount St Helens and we couldn’t resist the detour, even though it added a couple of hours to our drive. We were surprised to find out the modern name came from explorer George Vancouver. He named it in honor of his friend Alleyne Fitzherbert, the British Ambassador to Spain, who also held the title Baron St. Helens.

Mount St Helens is an active volcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which in turn is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, home to 160 active volcanoes. When it erupted on May 18, 1980, I wasn’t even born yet – my mom was about 12-15 weeks pregnant with me! The volcano erupted after two months of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes. Magma built up at a shallow depth below the volcano and created a large bulge on the mountain’s north slope. An earthquake on May 18th caused that entire north side of the volcano to  slide away, creating the largest landslide ever recorded. An eruption column rose 15 miles (24 km) into the atmosphere and deposited ash in 11 states. Mount St Helens lost 1300 ft of elevation by the time it was all said and done.

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Austin Post [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This was Mount St. Helen’s first violent eruption in 123 years. 57 people were killed as a direct result of the eruption. Among them was geologist David Johnston, who had been monitoring the volcano about 5 miles away at what is now the site of an observatory named after him. His last words on the radio were “Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!”

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The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits at the end of State Route 504. The original road was badly damaged in the eruption. When it was rebuilt, it was moved further away from the North Fork Toutle River, which it follows.

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The observatory and its visitor center are definitely worth checking out before embarking on the short paved trail outside. You will learn about the geological history of the area and read eyewitness accounts of the explosion and its aftermath, among which were amazing stories of survival. There is a movie theater that shows two different movies on the half hour. At the end of the movie, the screen lifts, the curtain opens, and this view of the volcano elicits ooohs and aaahs from the audience.

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We learned about the devastation caused by the eruption. There were mudslides, landslides, gas and ash clouds. The Toutle river and the nearby Spirit lake were filled with landslide deposits and felled trees. Hunders of buildings and miles of highways were destroyed. In the end, the eruption caused 1 billion dollars in damage (it would be 3 billion today). Looking at Mount St Helens now, so calm and beautiful, it was hard to believe the potential for so much destruction lies beneath the surface.

By the time we arrived at our cabin just outside Mt Rainier, we were tired from all the driving and ready to relax! I found Deep Forest Cabins while searching for lodging near the west entrance to Mt. Rainier, and they looked amazing. We stayed in the Mt. Home log cabin, complete with a full kitchen and its own hot tub. We purchased groceries on the way here and looked forward to cooking our own meals for the next couple of days. I was afraid B would find it too rustic, but it turns out he’d been wanting to stay at a true log cabin like this for a long time.

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Most of all, we enjoyed the hot tub on the deck in the back, among the trees.

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