Each generation holds memories unique to a time period, influenced by place. I have no doubt all of us alive today will forever remember the impact the novel coronavirus makes on our lives, creating unique but oddly similar stories, many of them sad. For people living in the Pacific Northwest on May 18, 1980, the eruption of Mount St. Helens is another: we are eager to share our story of where we were and what we were doing. If we are particularly lucky, our memories also include the mountain and its companion, Spirit Lake, before.
My family members all hold memories of Mount St. Helens before: an ice cream scoop of a mountain. My dad was one of those kids who went to YMCA camp, perched then on the shore of Spirit Lake. A generation later, our fortunate family spent a week together several summers at Harmony Falls Lodge – a rustic camp outfitted with guest cabins with access only by boat across the expanse of Spirit Lake. Most memorable to all was the view of Mount St. Helens as it reached to the sky across the rippled Spirit Lake.
The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. Most sources report that 57 people died in this event, although some claim we don’t know for sure. Hundreds of homes were destroyed along with bridges, and miles of railways and highways. Late on that Sunday afternoon of May 18, 1980, I descended by bike down Missoula, Montana’s Rattlesnake Canyon to return to my dorm room from my volleyball coach’s house where our Grizzly team was enjoying a barbecue. I will never forget the dark cloud that was blowing into the valley and how my eyes began to sting and fill with ashy grit. I write briefly about this in My Music Man, and how little news we received that first night, phone lines jammed and causing me worry about my family in Portland. The University closed for a week, we wore bandanas if we dared to go outside and not heed the (false) warnings that our lungs could be damaged. I holed up with my then boyfriend at his place so I wasn’t stuck inside my dorm room. I learned my parents were safe in Portland, where they had walked from their home the one block to the Vista Bridge (decades before guarding put in place), joining other Portlanders to view the mountain, 60 miles to the northeast.
I imagine in the initial moments of the eruption that Dad didn’t realize how much his public information job at the Port of Portland would be affected with shipping virtually at a standstill on the Columbia River until dredging operations could open the channels by clearing ash. The dredge “Oregon” worked around the clock everyday for several weeks to unlock the Columbia River channel, joining two other dredges. Some people were reminded as to why the Port of Portland and the Army Corps of Engineers needed to be in the dredging business, without which ships wouldn’t have been able to get into or out of Portland as quickly as they did. And like some others then and some essential workers today, many of these folks involved in dredging hardly rested or slept during those weeks of work. I don’t know how much material was removed in the end, but at one point it was estimated that 22 million cubic yards of material would need to be removed from the Columbia channel.
Many years later in 2014, just a few months before Dad died, he invited me to accompany him to a special reception at the Oregon Historical Society’s History Museum to initiate the opening of an exhibit about dredging the Columbia, and including when the mountain blew.
My own story continued on into the next year when I spent the summer of 1981 working in the back county for the National Park Service at Mt. Rainier National Park. At the height of the fire season while I was re-stationed up at the Shriner Peak Fire Tower (instead of my usual Three Lakes cabin on the PCT) I only reported two “smokes” in the surrounding area but I saw wisps of ash and steam escaping daily from the Mount St. Helen’s crater, just 50 miles south of my location. Mount St. Helens had produced an additional five explosive eruptions between May and October 1980, and by early 1990, at least twenty-one periods of eruptive activity had occurred.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of this eruption, and some are doing it up by releasing three new books. The volcano remains active, with smaller, dome-building eruptions continuing into 2008, creating new stories for those who today visit Mount St. Helens National Monument, learning about its history and geology, and to hike the area.
Change is constant, we are reminded. Some of it so slow we barely know tomorrow to be different. And others, like eruptions, exert a monumental change immediately. All of it allowing each one of us the opportunity to create our next stories. What is yours?