Living Columns & Blogs

Vacation to Mount St. Helens becomes a family history and science trip

Earlier this month, our family spent a few days exploring Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

As we drove past Randle through the Gifford National Forest toward Windy Ridge, my husband and I recounted our personal stories of the May 18, 1980, eruption.

I was only 7, but I definitely remember the event. My mom wasn’t a picture taker, but that day she grabbed a camera and snapped some photos of me in our front yard in Yelm, with a backdrop of the billowy smoke plume in the sky.

My husband’s family lived in Spokane, but they were visiting Missoula, Montana, at the time. He was 10, and assumed the powdery white ash that fell later that day was from a spring snow. He scooped a few handfuls up to try and make a snowball, but ended up scratching his family’s vehicle. (It’s funny how our boys always seem to pay closer attention to stories about their dad getting in trouble.)

We both recalled wearing medical masks outside during school recess. When our disposable masks became too dirty to use, the teachers made new ones out of coffee filters and rubber bands.

Meanwhile, my husband’s grandparents lived in a trailer park in Packwood. Hot ash that fell from the sky melted both umbrellas Grandpa used as he checked on neighbors.

One of Gram’s favorite stories was about how she cooked for days, feeding dozens of people who were stranded in the area because of road closures. “Everyone took care of each other,” she’d always say.

We hope that our family’s stories resonated with the kids. But I don’t think the magnitude of the eruption sunk in until we attended a ranger-led interpretive talk at Windy Ridge.

Our kids’ eyes widened when they saw poster-size photographs of the blast.

They learned about volcanologist David Johnston, who saw the explosion from 6 miles away. Just before he was killed in the blast, he transmitted a radio alert: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

The children heard about the aftermath: how Spirit Lake was poisoned, how bugs inside of trees survived the fires, and how the blast zone was left barren. Later scientists observed nature’s own recovery.

After 34 years, the 110,000-acre monument still doesn’t match the surrounding forest. But it has an entirely new ecosystem.

And the ranger told us that geologists recently put sensors on the mountain to map its seismic activity.

The four-year project involves creating small explosions on the mountain, and will help scientists get a better sense of what’s going on inside the crater. In fact, the project, known as iMUSH (Imaging Magma Under Saint Helens), is getting a lot of attention and has helped boost the number of visitors to the monument this summer, according to Diana Perez, acting public affairs officer with Gifford Pinchot Forest.

A few days later, we explored a different area of the mountain: Ape Cave, a huge lava tube near Cougar, and the Trail of Two Forests. Our kids enjoyed learning about the ancient history that formed those lava tubes.

If you want to check out the monument, here are some things to consider:

• Many of the activities at the monument are seasonal, because of weather conditions, and are usually closed from Oct. 30 to May 18.

• Some areas require a recreation pass or fee. If you only plan to go once, a National Forest Recreation Day Pass is $5. For more information, go to www.

• Wednesday is National Public Lands Day. “That’s a fee-free day — right now, we’re in the process of selecting the projects for volunteers to help us with,” Perez said.

• If you visit Ape Cave, you’ll want to wear sturdy shoes and bring a jacket. The cave itself stays at 42 degrees year-round. Bring a flashlight or rent a lantern at the ranger’s station.

“The best part is going with an interpreter because they can talk about the science and geology of it,” Perez said.

• The Coldwater Science and Learning Center offers explorer backpacks that can be checked out for free for the day. Perez said they’re great for families that want to explore the monument on their own.

“They have binoculars, a compass, a first-aid kit, a map of the area and identification guides,” she said.

• Leave your furry friends at home. Dogs aren’t allowed in certain areas of the monument.