Mount St. Helens, Then and Now

THEN. As a young woman, I climbed lovely, symmetrical Mount St. Helens three times. It had erupted in its early history, but wasn't considered particularly dangerous. At the top of 9,677' Mount St. Helens, I recorded my name in a "summit book" where my climbs became a part of the mountain's history.

Alas, I was never again to see my name in the summit book. On May 18, 1980, the mountain known by early natives as Loo-wit, "Keeper of the Fire," sent its fire ten miles into the sky. An earthquake of 5.1 magnitude caused an explosive blast out its north side within seconds. It was a tremendous eruption with huge ash clouds, a gigantic debris avalanche, mudflows, and hurricane force hot gases which swept the mountain and the surrounding areas. The blast was heard as far away as Canada. The summit books were never seen again.

If the eruption had occurred on a summer day, the demise of many more plants and animals would have happened. Because it was spring, most plant buds had not opened, small animals were still in their burrows under the snow, many migrant birds had not returned, and some of the salmon and steelhead were still at sea.

Before the blast, the area was surrounded by dense, coniferous forests. The eruption burned and flattened them, with all the trees lying in the same direction. The eruption lasted nine hours. People and animals had few ways to escape: 57 people died including Harry Truman the octogenarian owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake and his 16 cats. Deer, elk, and bear were killed by the thousands; and small animals by the hundreds of thousands. Birds were killed within a 200+mile range of the eruption.

The great mudslide contaminated many magnificent lakes and streams and filled the Toutle River with trees which eventually obstructed shipping lanes in the Columbia River. These violent happenings in such a diverse landscape created a patchwork of "disturbance zones" covering hundreds of miles. Would it ever be back to some kind of "normal"?

The main reason an ecosystem returns quickly to its usual state is the extent to which the land and water become enriched by nutrients. About six years after the eruption most lakes had rebounded and were on a par with undisturbed Cascade lakes. The trees and plants did not responded as quickly since the land was covered with nutrient-poor volcanic ash and rock.

NOW. Mount St. Helens is 1,314' shorter than before its eruption. Its elevation is 8,363' and climbers lucky enough to bag one of the sparsely distributed permits can climb to the edge of the crater's rim.

On the 17th of August, 1982, an act of Congress created the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which left 110,000 acres of devastated land entirely to natural processes. Ironically, the first wildflower to bloom was the fireweed.

Mammals which escaped from St. Helens's slopes have, for the most part, returned. Research has recorded more than 25 species of mammals and over a hundred species of birds back in the area. Elk and deer are now at pre-eruption numbers. Only the mountain goat population has possibly become extinct on St. Helens's slopes.

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