Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life returns

   In the spring of 1980 I was 16, a new driver, and had my first car. It was a 1962 Chevy Impala. The previous year our community and perhaps the world was ubuzz with the story of Mt. St. Helens. The mountain had come to life and the north face was growing at a rate of 5' per day. Geologists predicted an imminate eruption but could not forecast when or how large it might be. My family lived in the town of Castle Rock Wa. a mere 20 miles due west of the mountain. It was a warm spring that year and we had already spent the two previous weekends waterskiing on Mayfield Lake, a reservoir on the Cowlitz river. The weekend  of the eruption was no exception. In Washington you play when the sun is out or you don't play. 
   I awoke at 7a.m. the morning of Sunday, May 18th, and offered to drive a friend to his grandmothers house on the opposite side of the lake. A few minutes after 8a.m.,as we were crossing a bridge I glanced to my left at the exact moment the mountain let go. 
   It has been said that the mountain blew apart with the force of a multi megaton nuclear bomb. Within seconds the sky was filled with a dark cloud of ash, steam, and super heated gasses. Lightning erupted out of the cloud in all directions. The north face of the mountain blew out at super sonic speed instantly  leveling thousands of acres of old growth forest. The mountain was still covered with heavy winter snows in mid may. The eruption melted all of that snow at once. A wall of mud and debris hundreds of feet high raced down the pristine Toutle River valley destroying and burying everything in it's path. The eruption of Mt. St. Helens forever changed the landscape and the lives of everyone around her. That day is forever seared in my memory. The town of Castle Rock was covered in a foot of ash. The Cowlitz river valley flooded with mud and debris. The water was so hot that Chinook Salmon were jumping on to the riverbank to get away. Houses, bridges, logging equipment, and millions upon million of board feet of old growth Douglas fir, came down the river in a churning mire of melted glacier and volcanic mud. The shipping lanes of the Columbia river filled with silt and to this day dredges work constantly to keep commerce moving. Fifty two lives were lost that day including Harry Truman, the cantankerous old codger who refused to leave the mountain. Hundreds of homes were destroyed. A way of life all but ended. The east side of Castle Rock, including the fairgrounds, the race track, and my high school football field were burried under 10 feet of mud. The mud flow came within 20 feet of my High School. We were forced to evacuate until the flood danger passed so for a week we shared a home with 5 other families on a hill top out of town not knowing if we would have a home to come back to. 
   When it was over the Toutle and Cowlitz River valleys looked like a wasteland. Due to the poor soil quality of the dredge spoils along the river banks it was 15 years before vegetation returned. It took months before people could drive the freeways without sending up a cloud of volcanic ash. Dredge spoils line the river bank. Some are over a hundred feet high. Logging companies went bankrupt. Things change. The mud flow damned the outflow of creeks up and down the river valley creating new alpine lakes. The bottom of Spirit Lake is now 200 feet higher than before the eruption.
    Today, life has returned to the mountain. A new forest is springing up from the wasteland the eruption created. Wildlife is abundant. Large rainbow trout fill the alpine lakes.
    The Mt. St. Helens national monument is the Nations newest National Park. There are now over 200 miles of hiking trail in and around the blast zone. Herds of Roosevelt Elk abound in the mountains and on the valley floor. The mountain has the worlds newest glacier. The area was not replanted as is typical with logging operations but rather has been allowed to regenerate naturally. Scientists from around the globe come to the mountain to witness and study the rebirth of this landscape that only 30 years ago was compared to the surface of the moon.
  Sunday last, Mandy, our daughter, and I hiked the Coldwater Lake Trail. Coldwater is one of the new lakes created when the mud flow covered the valley floor. The lake is 5 miles long and is deep and crystal clear. It has  a boat ramp but power boats are strictly forbidden. On any given day kayaker's, and people in canoe's can be seen exploring the lake or fishing for the plentiful native trout. It is a beautiful tranquil place.
   The Coldwater trail begins at the boat ramp on the southwest end of the lake and follows the shoreline the entire length. It never rises more than 300' in elevation and has several areas to access the pristine waters. As you enter the trailhead it is easy to imagine the world at the dawn of creation. To the left the mountains soar up some 2000'. The trail itself is flanked on all sides by wild flowers and tall wheat grass.

In all directions a new forest struggles to survive on a rocky landscape that receives as much as 10' of snow in the winter. Life is everywhere. Beaver, otter, deer, elk, bear and the occasional cougar roam the hillsides. Wild berries are plentiful and very tasty.

Chipmunks and grey squirrels scamper about on logs and in trees. The sound of songbirds is everywhere. Honey bees and bumble bees cover the wild flowers. Every now and then a trout can be heard or seen jumping out of the water. Along the trail you pass small waterfalls and streams. At the far end of the lake you pass under palisades rising thousands of feet from the lake. A recent rock slide from one of these ancient rock formation spreads out over a hundred yards as you near the far end of the lake itself. It was so large that it narrowed the width of the lake by a third. At the end of the lake the terrain flattens and elk can be seen in the tall grass. There is lake access and primitive campsites here and also a sandy beach to lay out on.

At this point the trail begins to climb a few hundred feet and goes through a somewhat older forest that was protected from the volcanic blast by the steep hills that surround it. Once atop of the hill you descend to a wooden bridge that crosses Coldwater Creek.

It is at this point that the lake trail ends and the ridge trail begins. The ridge trail is poorly maintained and overgrown. It is a two mile trail that connects the lake trail to the boundary trail and with a 1200' rise in elevation it is not for the faint of heart. Those who throw caution to the wind are rewarded when they reach the top of the ridge with spectacular views of the volcano and the entire valley below. As we hiked up I began to wonder if we would ever reach the top.

After reaching the top it was 3.5 miles down to the east parking lot and a mile and a half to the truck down the highway.. After the hike I was exhausted but felt as young as the dawn of time. It was truly an amazing day shared with two of the people I love most in this world. Hiking through the back country of Mt. St. Helens helps me to believe that there is hope for this world. To see such beauty after complete desolation renews my faith and strengthens my spirit. Surely God is in control. Todd