Reliving the spirit of Spirit Lake

Local family has happy memories of mountain cabin

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photoSpirit Lake is now within the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, under jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service. This photo was taken in May 1982.

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photoA sign similar to this one established the Red Zone that prevented Roy and Sandy Ford of Kelso, pictured with granddaughter Shelby Poage, 7, from vising their cabin near Spirit Lake after Mount St. Helens first erupted in March 1980.

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There are pictures of Sandy Ford sunbathing atop a snowdrift in her halter top and shorts. And the story of the woodpecker boring into the second floor of the family cabin. Not to mention the unforgettable sight of pre-eruption Mount St. Helens filling the front window.

But what the Ford family misses the most are the people they made memories with around Spirit Lake.

“We had a good time until the mountain blew,” Roy Ford says with a sigh as he and wife, Sandy, page through photo albums of nearly a decade of good times at their chalet.

“That was going to be our place away from home forever,” Sandy adds. “Then she went away.”

She being the cabin, which went away under the 3.7-billion-cubic-yard avalanche enough to cover the state with a half-inch of debris that buried some 50 Spirit Lake cabins when Mount St. Helens erupted May 18, 1980.

“It affected our youngest daughter worse than anybody,” Sandy says. “She couldn’t remember not going to the cabin.”

Roy and Sandy Ford hail from Kelso. Their first cabin, at Silver Lake four miles east of Castle Rock, burned in the late 1960s. They borrowed cabins in the Spirit Lake area for the next two years and then purchased a small piece of a homestead 31/2 miles north of Mount St. Helens and a mile west of Harry Truman’s St. Helens Lodge.

They built a small cabin and used it year-round. In the winters, when snowdrifts reached 11 or 12 feet, they snowmobiled to their place. The last few summers, Spirit Lake warmed to the point they could swim and water ski.

Shocked

 Mount St. Helens’ sudden shift in temperament shocked the Fords.

“In 10 years, we never felt an earthquake,” Sandy says. “When it did its first thing (in March 1980) I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it.’”

Then-Gov. Dixy Lee Ray established the Red Zone, which closed the area around the mountain to the public, after the comparatively minor March 27, 1980, eruption. The mountain soon quieted and cabin owners became vocally resentful about being locked out.

Ray eventually gave cabin owners May 17 and 18 to collect personal belongings. Sandy and the couple’s oldest daughter, Deena, headed for the mountain the first day. Deena wasn’t yet 18 and was forced to stay outside the Red Zone.

Eruption

Sandy and Roy Ford planned to go boating and barbecuing on the Cowlitz River the morning of May 18. Instead, a friend summoned them to Mount Brynion, about three miles east of Kelso, to watch Mount St. Helens launch ash and steam 15 miles high.

They suspected their beloved cabin was gone. Indeed, just prior to the eruption, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake triggered a landslide that thundered northward and buried the Spirit Lake area.

“If you drew a line through the center of the blast area you would draw a line through the center of our cabin,” Roy says. “They have not found one trace of any of these cabins. Not one single 2-by-4.”

The avalanche also dammed Spirit Lake. Federal officials worried the rising lake would breach the avalanche debris dam and flood the Toutle River and Longview. They condemned the avalanche area, strung a pipeline to Spirit Lake and pumped water out of it until the threat passed. In 1985 the Army Corps of Engineers drilled a 1.6-mile tunnel through a ridge to allow Spirit Lake to drain into the South Fork of Coldwater Creek.

Roy has never returned to the cabin site. Sandy came close while driving pilot cars for the trucks hauling the heavy equipment that was used to build Johnston Ridge Observatory.

The Forest Service and cabin owners, meanwhile, ended up in a standoff over how much each property owner would be compensated. Roy soon was leading negotiations for the Spirit Lake Relocation Association, which represented about 35 of the cabin owners.

“He was very nice to deal with,” recalls Paul Prigge, who was assistant lands staff officer for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Roy’s group persuaded the Forest Service to give the cabin owners land instead of cash. A few owners took sites in the Olympic National Forest; a few went to the Wenatchee National Forest. But most, including the Fords, built new cabins on the south side of Mount St. Helens, not far from Marble Mountain.

The Fords sold their Marble Mountain place in November. But not before there was another major disaster.

The Swift power canal collapsed in April 2002, destroying a portion of state Highway 503 and temporarily cutting off access to their cabin. By Roy’s count, that means one Ford family cabin was burned, one was buried, and access to a third washed out.

That’s country life.

“People forget the back country is nature,” Roy says with a smile. “And nature doesn’t let you keep the status quo.”

Originally published: May 15, 2005