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20 years after eruption, nature revives, residents thrive

Life is returning to the blast zone around Mount St. Helens, and people are profiting from tourism.

Once this was a picture-perfect volcano, cone-shaped and snow-capped, nestled in a dark green blanket of old trees. The people who lived and hiked and picked huckleberries in its shadow saw only beauty, no threat.

Then on May 18, 1980, the mountain exploded with such fearsome force that it spewed debris in a 230-square-mile blast zone. Fifty-seven people died, along with countless animals, birds and fish. Scorching winds up to 670 miles per hour snapped millions of massive trees. Ash and pumice buried homes, bodies and rivers under an inches-thick blanket of grim gray. People saw apocalypse, and wept.

"It makes the surface of the moon look like a golf course," President Jimmy Carter said of the eruption that sent an ash cloud thick enough to create total darkness at noon in Spokane 250 miles east before wafting its way clear around the globe.

This is not a disaster story. It is a story of survival: of purple-blue lupine digging its roots into harsh pumice; of wind-borne alder seeds sprouting into trees; of fish surviving in ice-covered lakes, and gophers saved from destruction by their burrows. It also is a story of resilient people who quickly turned their own disaster into dollars.

Today, Mount St. Helens' summit is 1,314 feet lower than it was 20 years ago. Its north face is no longer a cone but a hollowed-out amphitheater. Its former innards are scattered for miles around its base, where they have formed new hills and lakes that make even old-timers lose their bearings.

But its landscape isn't lifeless. There is a light fuzz of spring green on the nearby hills, and tourists and scientists come from around the world to learn not just about destruction but about regeneration.

"It was very hard to go up there at first," said Jan Finkas, 70, lifelong resident of the tiny town of Toutle, where she and her daughters run a restaurant and gift shop. "But then I could see these little twigs. I said, "Oh my, there's a tree.'

"The blackberries that came in after, they were so thick they were a senior citizen's paradise. The fields of lupines were so blue. There were acres and acres of fireweed. Then, I didn't hate that mountain so much anymore."

The whole nation got to know some victims, people like geologist David Johnston, who was camping near the mountain when the massive landslide, the largest in the Earth's recorded history, began at 8:32 that Sunday morning. Grabbing his radio, Johnston called out what would be his last words: "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!" Now those words are repeated in a high-tech film that shows continuously at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a visitors center.

Before he died, cantankerous 83-year-old Harry Truman, who ran Mount St. Helens Lodge on Spirit Lake just northeast of the mountain, became a celebrity by refusing to evacuate. Truman, his 16 cats, his lodge and more than 100 nearby houses still lie buried under hundreds of feet of rubble.

Truman and Johnston and everybody else in the region knew what was coming, for the mountain had been sending warning signals for two months. There were dozens of rumbling earthquakes, and thunder from the cone. The north side of the volcano started bulging ominously outward. Then, on the night before the eruption, all nature for miles around was silent.

Despite the evacuations, a few people wouldn't budge or actually moved closer, unable to resist the desire to be near the action. They were found dead, many still clutching cameras.

There are two ways to tell the story of the mountain, said Peter Frenzen, scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a U.S. Forest Service-run territory of 110,000 acres Congress set up in 1982 to preserve the post-eruption landscape.

One is the human story: the tragedy of the deaths, the view of the explosion as pure disaster; the other is the natural story, of cycles of destruction and rebuilding, in which the 1980 explosion is just one of many, past and future, and 20 years are the blink of an eye.

That is the story being told here daily in an outdoor laboratory where scientists have been closely documenting each transformation, from the flying chunks of pumice and wind flattening trees to slow, inch-by-inch recovery.

Within two years of the cataclysm, those looking for signs of life could find them over much of the blast zone, Frenzen said.

"Very quickly we were hit with surprise _ surprise that as many things survived as they did," he said, as he pointed out a small Douglas fir, just about the height of his knee, on a trail littered with hills formed by chunks of debris, known as hummocks.

Snow was still on the ground around the mountain when the blast occurred, protecting some small plants and animals sheltered below it. Some plants were still dormant; their roots survived. Huckleberries sprouted in clumps of sod held in the tangled roots of felled trees. Rampant erosion in the early years uncovered plants buried deep under debris. The first signs of green brought foraging elk, now back to their pre-eruption levels, who left in their feces seeds from other places. Dead trees and plants played a part as well, slowly turning into mulch that fosters life.

"Mount St. Helens has taught us that large-scale disturbances really leave a lot behind," Frenzen said, "and recovery is very messy and chaotic. It's not orderly, starting with the smaller life forms and progressing to larger ones, like we learned in classic ecological theory. It's full of chance but rare events that allow for survival."

Chance has been key for people here, too, who jumped to capitalize on worldwide curiosity. Today tourists can watch a film of the explosion in jiggling "eruption seating" at the Mount St. Helens Cinedome. Gift shops are crammed with creations made of Mount St. Helens ash: ash-filled plastic pens, before-and-after salt and pepper shakers, statuettes of smiling dolphins and mice on skis, "pumice people" with googly, pasted-on eyes.

"Aren't those just adorable?" asked Marty Cryderman, 56, as she sat behind the counter of the Volcano Country Mount St. Helens T-Shirt and Souvenir Center in Toutle, looking out over shelf after shelf of crater crafts.

Then she began telling the story of the day the picture-perfect volcano changed her life.

"I woke up and I said, "It's 8:30 in the morning. Why is it still dark?' " she began. "You never really believe it will happen until it does."