By Dave Workman
Forty-three years ago, Mount St. Helens, often called the “Mt. Fuji of the Northwest,” finally erupted with the full force of nature after weeks of watching and anticipation, and as if to remind us of the anniversary, part of Highway 504 leading to the mountain was washed out this week in a mudslide.
No telling when the scenic highway will reopen, but it won’t be in time for the Thursday anniversary.
Now, more than four decades after that devastating event, it is sometimes difficult to look back and remember the morning of May 18, 1980 when my world took a turn due south.
At the time, I was working as the Washington editor of a now-defunct outdoor publication called Fishing & Hunting News. I’d joined the staff the previous November, coming over from a small town weekly newspaper. Volcanic eruptions were hardly part of normal “hook-and-bullet” journalism, but this was different.
St. Helens was in the heart of some good Southwest Washington deer and elk hunting terrain, and the Toutle River, with headwaters in the shadow of the mountain, was a premier steelhead and salmon fishing stream. These were reasons enough for the Washington editor to be paying attention after the mountain came to life in mid-March with a series of small tremors. As noted in a quick history of the event by NASA, “In the decades since the eruption, Mt. St. Helens has given scientists an unprecedented opportunity to witness the intricate steps through which life reclaims a devastated landscape.”
While other media in the region looked upon this as a science story, for the outdoorsmen and women who read F&H News, it was something else.
At the suggestion of an F&H News copy editor, I reached out to some folks with the USGS to get their perspective, and to ask questions about a worst-case scenario; i.e. “What if the mountain explodes?”
I wrote a story in late April, with an outdoors/conservation spin explaining how hundreds, perhaps thousands of deer, elk, black bears and small game, along with salmon and steelhead runs, could be lost in such an event. Some people thought it was just an effort to “get in on the story” rather than write mundane copy about fishing and hunting opportunities. I was trying to be “sensational.”
Just after 8:30 a.m. that Sunday, I was working on the Eastern Washington edition of the newspaper when the Sunday copy editor came out of his editing room shouting, “Dave! Mount St. Helens just exploded!”
As I scrambled to get some details, while keeping track of the calls I had to make for fishing reports from resorts all over Eastern Washington, the copy editor was back declaring, “Dave! Spirit Lake has been destroyed!”
Throughout the rest of the day, I kept tabs on news updates. The full magnitude of what had just happened didn’t sink in for a while, and I was reminded about the St. Helens story from a few weeks before. It was, indeed, the worst case scenario, and suddenly the effort I’d put into writing that story didn’t seem like such a waste of time, or an attempt to do something to make myself “relevant,” as some people had quietly suggested (mostly behind my back).
The mudflow down the Toutle was nothing short of catastrophic. Roads and bridges were obliterated. Forests were flattened. Fish and wildlife had been lost.
And 57 people had been killed.
Scores of popular fishing spots across eastern Washington, including nationally-famous Moses Lake and Potholes Reservoir, were in the direct path of the ash fallout. Yakima and Naches, two communities about a hundred miles from the mountain, went dark as tons of ash descended. Nearby Wenas Lake, another popular fishing spot, was covered with ash.
All the way over to Spokane, about 300 miles away, it was the same. The path of falling ash grew wider as the cloud got farther away from the now-decapitated volcano. Years later, one can still find mounds of ash in some spots.
The area has rebounded. Fish runs in the Toutle and lower Cowlitz rivers came back of course, and big game herds are doing okay. The landscape has changed dramatically.
And the mountain is there to remind us that Nature has a way of slamming us hard, and recovering.