COLDWATER RIDGE — Four and a half years after its closure, the old Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center near Mount St. Helens expects to see new life this year.
Just don’t call it by its old name.
The U.S. Forest Service will reopen the site as the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater — hoping to transform the 19-year-old building’s identity and mission.
“What we’re trying to do is re-purpose it for its next life,” said Peter Frenzen, monument scientist at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
The facility won’t maintain regular public visiting hours like it used to. Instead, the Forest Service plans to use it for special events, scheduled educational activities and research. Officials hope to eventually incorporate group campgrounds into the landscape.
The learning center hosts its first official event next week, an appreciation for volunteers. But there’s plenty left to do inside.
“It’s a work in progress,” Frenzen said.
The Forest Service shuttered the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center in 2007 amid a growing maintenance backlog and ongoing financial struggles. But federal stimulus dollars have helped the agency pour in close to $1 million in recent renovations. The fixes haven’t drastically altered the look of the building, but have made it more resistant to harsh weather conditions.
Among the changes: new windows and frames built to withstand the strong winds that frequently batter the building. Crews also resealed the parking lot and upgraded the building’s heating and ventilation.
Extreme weather had gotten the better of Coldwater in the past. When rains arrived, it was common to see buckets collecting leaking water in the main atrium, Frenzen said. Strong winds rattled and bent the old windows. One glass panel even collapsed and fell on an exhibit, said Todd Cullings, assistant director of the nearby Johnston Ridge Observatory.
In the atrium, glass skylights have been replaced with more sturdy wooden roofing. But one thing hasn’t changed: the breathtaking floor-to-ceiling panorama of Mount St. Helens, towering over Coldwater Lake below.
“It will be nice to get this view back in our toolbox,” Frenzen said.
The Forest Service has rearranged parts of the building to prepare for its new purpose. Former exhibit areas have been cleared out to accommodate presentations and meeting spaces. A series of touchscreens in one corridor will soon be replaced with computers and workstations for students and researchers. With a commercial kitchen still available, officials hope to accommodate more overnight groups and activities at the learning center, Frenzen said.
The revamped facility brings back a unique experience that Johnston Ridge doesn’t bring, according to Cullings. He leaned over the learning center’s deck, noting a diverse, rich canvas of forest and terrain at the mountain’s foot. The scars left by Mount St. Helens’ catastrophic 1980 eruption are less evident here, he said.
“Here, I can feel and sense how much this landscape has changed over the last 32 years,” Cullings said. “This offers a much different story to the visitor that I think a lot of people missed.”
Visitors are free to make the trip to Mount St. Helens today with the reopening of state Highway 504 all the way to Johnston Ridge. The observatory there will hold a kickoff event of its own to start the season.
At the Coldwater learning center, Frenzen expects a growing number of opportunities and events as the facility grows into its new role. Staffing and other logistics will fall into place as that role evolves, Cullings said.
Some plans will have to wait. Campgrounds won’t become a reality until the Forest Service can find money for the necessary infrastructure, Frenzen said — a potentially multiyear process.
Officials may try to secure money through fundraisers, Frenzen said. But it will take more than dollars and cents to lift Coldwater into its new potential, he said.
“I think part of the campaign,” Frenzen said, “is people realizing what it can be.”