Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mt. St. Helens Field Trip

Thirty years ago today, Mt. St. Helens erupted, blowing away it's almost perfectly formed Cascade volcano cone in a large lateral blast to the north, felling trees with the blast and with a resulting pyroclastic surge or flow, sending an ash column 19 km into the atmosphere, and sending debris avalanches, lahars, and mudflows into the Toutle River and others. A map of the devastation area can be seen here.

USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Austin Post.

For an exhaustive supply of before, during, and after May 1980 photos of Mt. St. Helens, go to this page of the CVO Website; Ron Schott, of Ron Schott's Geology Home Companion Blog, has an August, 2009 Gigapan of Mt. St. Helens right here.

Two things immediately happened in my world upon the climactic eruption of Mt. St. Helens. First, my SO (at the time called "POSSLQ") — later husband, later deceased husband — immediately left for eastern Washington to make an ash-sampling traverse across the state using his VW bug, a field vehicle that was impervious to ash fallout because of its oil-based air filtration system.

USGS Photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation, 1980.

Second, the district manager at Northern Exploration Comapny (NEC) released two company Broncos so we could, on our own time and dollar, drive to the volcano.

All told, there were eight of us: a couple permanent geos and a half dozen contracts types.1 We were young, all of us in our late twenties to maybe early thirties, and we were ready for adventure, or would be as soon as we could get out of the office. After grabbing some topo maps and the keys to the two Broncos — one mine, the other belonging to our pfearless leader [sic] — we loaded up some company camping gear: a large, manager-type tent that would sleep more than eight comfortably, and whatever else hadn't already been "64NZ3D" [this "word" is based on someone's real name] appropriated by a certain outlaw geologist.

We piled in and headed north. Mt. St Helens had just blown, the company was providing the means for us to go check it out, we were excited at the prospect of the trip.

North from Reno we went, stopping in Lakeview, Oregon, to fill the Broncos with many six-packs of relatively cheap beer (think: Bud, Bud Lite). We drove up the back side of the Cascade (that would be the east side for those of you not familiar with local terminology), stopping briefly at Mt. Hood. We camped, and awoke the next day under cloudy skies.

On that cloudy second day, a couple or three days after the eruption, we continued what would be a mostly overcast field trip by crossing the Columbia River, probably on I-5. We thought we'd attempt secretive, backroad entrance to the volcano from the southeast side, which was away from the blast zone, and which we figured (incorrectly) would be less heavily guarded. Those Forest Service and other roads in to the mountain were all blocked off — though with our topo maps and the first Bronco driver as acting leader, we drove up every road shown. Each road was blocked by manned barricades — the USFS (or others?) didn't want any people going in only to have to be rescued or worse.
stop"But we're geologists!"

"We're researchers investigating the eruption!"

"We don't need no... stinking badges!"

Nothing we tried worked, and we hadn't attempted getting in through USGS and university contacts (and I'm not sure those contacts could have helped anyway). Still, we kept attacking the problem, painstakingly checking out each and every road on our maps, however small or jeepish they appeared to be.
Finally! We found an unblocked road! We drove in, expecting to hit a barricade, literally, at any second. After winding our way through fairly dense trees, the dirt road turned back to the south, and — typical field experience — we came up on the wrong side of one of the roadblocks!

"Where are you coming from?" "How did you get in here?" We had to explain that we came in on a road they hadn't closed off. Displeased with us, and having already seen us drive up to the south side of their blockade less than an hour beforehand, they moved the orange and white contraption aside and let us through, with a warning: don't try that again.

We were disappointed not to get in farther, but pleased that we'd managed to crash the gates, even if only for a mile or two.

We gave up on the southeast non-entrance attempt, and drove over to the west side of Mt. St. Helens, thinking that we could at least get a look at her blown top from a distance. No luck! She was still hidden by clouds. The access roads in from that side brought us a little closer, but they never delivered us a view of the volcano. Instead, we found our way up the Toutle River. We talked to a couple local landowners who had experienced some mud-flood damage, drove around a bit, and took a few photos.

USGS Photograph of I-5 bridge (below) taken on July 6, 1980, by Lyn Topinka. Other I-5 bridge photos with people and stop sign (above) taken May 21±, 1980 by DMCS.

After the day's excursion, we drove south into Oregon, picked a campsite, drank some beer while hanging around the campfire in the off-and-on light drizzle, and in the morning — with the weather and views not looking any better — we drove back to Lakeview to turn in our empties for the highest can deposit around (Oregon), thus saving a few bucks.

It was a rowdy, fun, good time — with singing, drinking, and story telling — but all we saw was a muddy, lahar-flooded river, a few washed out roads, drizzle, and lots of barricades.

1Contract geos at NEC fell somewhere between temporary help and permanent geos in status, longevity, and benefits. Contracts were unrelated to consulting; they usually lasted one year and were renewable. We wouldn't see all the benefits unless they kept us on through a five-year vesting period, which didn't happen unless you were promoted to permanent status.


Chris M said...

Great story!

Gaelyn said...

Nice try on your parts. St Helens was an awesome place to work in the 90s.

Tony Edger said...

Beautiful. Smacks of Kerouac.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, all, glad you enjoyed it! Don't know about Kerouac - it turns out that I haven't read any of his books. Too long winded? (Haha!)