Memories on three decades of volcano coverage

Commentary: Allen Thomas

By Al Thomas, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Thirty years ago come Tuesday, Mount St. Helens launched its geologic cannon blast, leveling much of the Southwest Washington backcountry, killing deer and elk and turning the Toutle River into a heated surge of mud.

It’s a day I’ll never forget, and I can’t even begin to count how many post-eruption stories I’ve done about the recovery of fish, wildlife and recreation in the Mount St. Helens area.

I was in a rubber raft on Chamberlain Lake, a backwater of the Columbia River at Lyle in Klickitat County, the Sunday morning the mountain blew.

I checked my fishing log (it goes back to 1969) and I caught four smallmouth bass, two largemouth and two crappies that day.

Along the shore was a young angler from Lyle who asked if my fishing partner and I knew about the eruption. We thought he was just talking about the minor ash spits that had occurred to that point.

The radio in my Ford Pinto station wagon-fishing car did not work, so driving west on state Highway 14 I was in the dark. It wasn’t until I got home and turned on television that I learned.

After watching TV for a while, I had to see this with my own eyes, so I drove up Rawson Road east of Hockinson to a spot near Larch Corrections Center that has a commanding view of Mount St. Helens.

Being two years into this job as outdoor writer, I then went to The Columbian office, knowing I’d be expected to do a fish and wildlife story that would be a small component of Monday’s mega-coverage.

I started calling state fish and wildlife biologists at their homes, as if they had any more insight or knowledge than any of us in those first hours of chaos, death and destruction.

The first one I reached was Hugh Fiscus, a fish biologist. Fiscus has a dry wit and the gift of understatement.

I asked him a bonehead question like: “What do you think the impact of all this is on salmon in the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers?’’

His response: “All I’ve seen is what’s on television, but I don’t think it’s good.’’

Ironically, the state Wildlife Commission met in Kelso on May 19, in a regularly scheduled meeting. Although they had an agenda, the eruption was all anyone was talking about.

Bruce Crawford, another state biologist, put a thermometer in the Toutle that morning and got a temperature reading in the 90s.

There were concerns the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Toutle River was at risk due to the mudflow and massive amounts of wood and other debris.

So the Olympia-centric Wildlife Commission and the department staff, not wanting to get caught on the south side of the Toutle if the bridge was closed, adjourned the meeting and reconvened it a few hours later in Olympia.

The fact their decision would put those of us from Southwest Washington on the wrong side of the Toutle was not a factor.

But the eruption of Mount St. Helens — and its recovery — has resulted in so many opportunites I’d never have otherwise had.

I think the most memorable was in 1982, when the Forest Service took a contingent from the The Columbian in by helicopter to Spirit Lake and then to the lava dome in the crater itself.

Immediately, editorial writer Jay Bookman and myself started climbing the dome. Roland Emetaz of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest — more fit than either of us — was there too.

It was a surrealistic world. There was a swirling dusty blue haze, most of it coming from the constant rockfall off the sides of the crater wall.

I’ll always remember Emetaz’s words:

“This is some of newest land on earth. It’s got some settling to do.’’

Allen Thomas covers outdoor recreation for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4555 or al.thomas@columbian.com.