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Every now and then someone asks me if it is safe to visit Portland. It catches me off guard every time that happens. Then I will realize there must have been another report of a steam cloud or jiggle from Mt. Saint Helen.

St. Helen is still cloaked in white clean snow this spring, and many days is in full view. My long standing relationship with this topless mountain will always intrigues me. Being our family’s memory-keeper, I possess a picture perfect vintage 1949 photo of the mountain and Spirit Lake. Helen rests about 65 miles from our Oregon home and can easily be seen from many places in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington.

“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” radioed researcher David Johnston.

Sunday, May 18, 1980 I was up early to attend a birthday brunch. As I made my way down the hill to do barnyard chores I was bothered by the air quality that morning. Ash appeared to be heavy in the air and was leaving a layer over everything. I didn’t smell smoke. I never heard any rumble or felt anything shaking. Confused, I covered the water barrels and left the animals inside.

(Keeping with my May is Music Month theme, this video is worth playing just to enjoy the music. It also shares a time lapse of the volcano’s eruptive phase from 2004 through 2008.)

The phone was ringing when I got back to the little farmhouse and I learned that Mt. St. Helen had just blasted her way into history books. I remember looking at my child and I wanting to hold her close to me. Everyone had talked about the mountain for months but this was my first hand experience with a volcano. The jet stream carried the bulk of the ash away from Portland. Later we would learn more about the damage endured by cities to the east of the mountain. I found summer of 1980 was darker and cooler than normal years as ash circled around the planet in the jet stream.

It would be days before the death tally told of the 57 lives lost in the eruption. Researcher David Johnston’s body was never found. His observation station was five miles north of the mountain and a ridge has been named after him. Harry Truman and his 16 cats would no longer be at his Spirit Lake Lodge; if anything he would be 150 feet below Spirit Lake.

Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helen 1949

Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helen 1949

Remarkable stories and photographs began to emerge. Two of my personal friends (not even living in the same city) did not know each other, but their parents turned out to be best of friends, and it just happened that both sets of their parents were flying in a tiny plane around the mountain the morning of the blast. I have been told I am the last person to own a full set (18) of the outrageous scary photos they took of each other in the air that day. These folks were having a great outing and had no idea of the immense real danger they were in. Judging from the photos, angels must have been what carried them safely back to us that day.

The big blast blew 1,300 feet off the summit, changing the mountains elevation within moments from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet.  A gaping crater opened on the mountains north side. Washington State’s ninth highest mountain was now its 30th highest mountain. (I have also read reports that the mountain was originally the fifth highest.) No longer is Helen said to look like Mt. Fujii.

Update: The Oregonian newspaper reports that a small army of volunteers have joined with the US Forest Service. I am happy to learn the Pine Creek Information Center on Forest Service Road 90, in the Washington state’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest is scheduled for a grand re-opening on Saturday, May 23, 2009.

This center was closed by the U.S. Forest Service in 2006 two days after I visited.

There are other stories to be told about the mountain but this is enough for one day. I will be adding more pictures as the week progresses. Thanks.

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