Two decades afters its eruption, the volcano among us awakens with new life
It's been 20 years since Mount St. Helens blew its top in May 1980. In that moment, it ceased being the symmetric, snow-capped Northwest icon that photographers loved to photograph. What remained was lifeless mud, ash and mountain rubble. Featured in a new book by veteran Northwest nature photographer Marka Lembersky, the active volcano in our midst reveals opportunities to capture images of a landscape in transition.
thoughts soon focused on what tasks would face me the next day at the office. Little did I know it would be weeks before my colleagues and I were permitted to closely inspect the devastation, first viewing it from the air and eventually landing our helicopter in the blast zone. I hope I never again experience such an otherworldly scene.
Since we didn't know when the next "volcanic event" might occur, the helicopter rotor was kept spinning. The pilot remained at the controls monitoring the emergency frequency on the radio, and our group never moved out of earshot. In every direction the land was gray. The collapsed mountain and barren landscape were covered with pumice and ash.
In subsequent years, I have photographed along the few U.S. Forest Service roads open to the public and flown over the area by helicopter several times. Immediately after the blast, most predictions were that it would be years, if ever, before life returned. Yet on my early return visits, I was amazed to see both pockets of vegetation and even some elk in the impact zones. In the years since, I have returned in all seasons and weather conditions. I am always impressed by the contrasting patterns of recovery. Many areas continue to rapidly fill in with plants and animals, yet other areas seem immune to recovery, looking almost as they did on that first post-eruption trip.
Today, unrestricted access to Mount St. Helens on new all-weather roads offers the perhaps false sense that the danger has faded. Photographing the mountain requires only the willingness to rise early and drive into the impact zones. There are three quite different routes. All end close to the volcano. Unfortunately, while the road ends are almost within eyesight of each other, there are no connections. For example, to go the few miles, as the crow flies, between the terminus of Forest Service Road 99 (at Windy Ridge on the east side of the volcano) and Johnston Ridge (at the end of State Route 504 on the north side of the crater) involves backtracking and takes about four hours. Thus it makes sense to photograph Mount St. Helens in three separate outings.
From the west along Route 504
This 50-mile route takes you from Interstate 5 to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, 5 miles due north of the crater. Along the North Fork of the Toutle River beyond the junction with Route 505 is the site of the largest mudflow of the eruption. Evidence remains of the mudflow churning through here in places, but even better photos lie ahead.
At about Milepost 21 is a short side road to the interesting Sediment Retention Structure. It was built to capture and hold back the enormous volume of volcanic deposits carried by the river. There is both a viewpoint and a short trail onto the dam itself.
Route 504 beyond the sediment dam is the replacement road built in the hills above its buried predecessor in the valley.
From the Sediment Retention Structure to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument's western boundary at Elk Rock Viewpoint, there are many places to photograph the still-scoured Toutle River valley. It suffered the effects of an 80-billion-cubic-foot debris avalanche that was unleashed when the north face of the mountain collapsed, sending a huge landslide traveling 15 miles down the river. Here the hillsides above the valley are covered with large, attractive forest tracts on lands reclaimed and replanted shortly after the eruption.
From Elk Rock eastward to Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, the volcanic monument lies immediately south of the road. No replanting has occurred inside the monument, and trees lie as they fell when blown over by the enormously powerful lateral explosion of gas and rock that shot out of the volcano through the opening created by the landslide. These trees form delightful, almost abstract curved patterns on the ground.
Also, this is the area to spot elk herds roaming within the monument. While all large mammals in the vicinity were killed by the eruption, elk were seen back on the debris avalanche within weeks.
From the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, the road heads south toward Johnston Ridge. Signs of vegetation diminish as you approach the inner blast zone. At road's end is an unearthly and eroded pumice plain between the ridge and the volcano. You can use your telephoto lens to peer directly into the 1-mile-wide crater and its almost 1,000-foot-tall lava dome.
From the east along Forest Service Road 99
It's a long drive to Forest Service Road 99 from Interstate 5. It's best to start your visit before sunup after a night at a lodging or campground near Randle, northeast of the mountain.
Driving along FS 99 through typical Cascade forests, you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself in the blast zone.
As the road winds towards the mountain, it provides many chances to photograph standing dead trees on the edge of destruction and the large zone of blown-down trees. Here you also find abundant signs of re-established plants of many species. There are now splashes of color to photograph that were absent in the dense, pre-eruption forests that covered this area.
Spirit Lake is a predominant feature along FS 99. It can be photographed from several overlooks, and its covering of floating logs makes for fascinating compositions. Trees were pulled into the lake off the surrounding hills by a huge wave triggered by the eruption landslide.
At the end of the road are Smith Creek Picnic Area and Windy Ridge Viewpoint, both excellent for close-in images of the volcano, especially in early morning light. At Windy Ridge, you are just 4 miles from the crater.
Around the south side and Forest Service Road 83
Neither the landslide nor the lateral explosion of the 1980 eruption affected the south side of the mountain. It did receive mudflow damage, primarily visible today in the Muddy River lahar at the end of FS 83.
But don't sell this side of the mountain short. You can photograph dramatic evidence of older eruptions. Try your luck at both the lava tube at Ape Cave and the lava casts at Trail of Two Forests. Then explore the south side's roads and trails for other images of ancient volcanic activity. Also, take a dawn drive up the spur road to Climbers Bivouac to find adventurers there readying themselves for a summit attempt.
After photographing the many different possibilities at the Muddy River lahar, carry your gear along the upper portion of the nearby Lava Canyon Trail for unusual images of a narrow gorge formed by water action on large volcanic rocks.
For more information
The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website (www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm) contains maps, trip planning information, current climbing conditions and a "volcanocam" live image of the volcano from Johnston Ridge Observatory. The monument headquarters phone number is 360-247-3900.
The U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory website (vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/MSH/) focuses on the science of the volcano. It offers seismic and hydrologic data and a photo archive from the 1980 eruption.
At least two area helicopter tour operators fly visitors to the blast zone, an unforgettable experience. The Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (mt-st-helens.com) tour operates May through September from the north side of the mountain. The tour is 35 miles round trip, lasts 30 minutes and costs $89 per person. From Interstate 5, exit 49, the visitor center is 27 miles east on Highway 504. Tel. 800-752-8439. If coming from the south, or for a custom itinerary, try charter service Blue Bird Helicopters (bluebirdhelicopters.com) of Cougar, Washington. Tel. 360-238-5326.
Photographer Mark Lembersky has lived in the Northwest for more than 30 years. Photography has taken him all over the world, from far above the Arctic Circle to Antarctica and from the mountains of Patagonia to the Himalayas. His work includes many images of the northwestern United States. Lembersky's photographs are featured in a number of permanent displays and visitor centers, and in his earlier book with David George Gordon, Nisqually Watershed: Glacier to Delta, A River's Legacy.