Thirty-four years ago today, the top blew off Mount St. Helens, destroying life, property, and memories.
The mountain has been on a long mend from that devastating day, and we’re slowly getting used to new wonders of our volcanic neighbor. It is returning, not to its old beauty, but to a new one recreated by extraordinarily strong forces of nature.
The story of the mountain’s fearful explosion and the sight of its verdant recovery offer a unique experience for those who come to revere the natural environment. Add to the mix visitors fascinated by Bigfoot folklore, and you have one of Southwest Washington’s top tourist attractions just up the road from Vancouver. Yet Mount St. Helens and its environs remain remarkably free of commerce — the tasteful and the tawdry — that surrounds many spectacular natural wonders.
The mountain’s proximity to the Portland-Vancouver and Puget Sound metropolitan areas helps explain the absence of a strong tourist vibe. It’s an easy day trip from big cities to the mountain, and even out-of-towners can rent cars to take bus tours to the mountain and return to the city in time for dinner. And while some distant visitors take rooms in Kelso-Longview or Castle Rock, St. Helens hasn’t become enough of a magnet to attract a destination resort or hotel.
Yet business opportunities exist for those willing to take risks. Jeremy Johnson recently purchased the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar, a town south of the mountain that can barely be called a wide spot in the road. Johnson’s new place includes a 35-space RV park, an 18-unit motel, and a pizza cafe that he wants to appeal to a diverse clientele of hunters, bicyclists, cave explorers, mushroomers, hikers, climbers, boaters, and people gathering for reunions.
It’s a big leap for the former Arizona resident looking for a better way of life. But he’s a veteran of the hospitality industry and sees opportunity for growth.
A different type of business, the North Fork Survivor’s gift shop in Toutle, lives off tales of the eruption and the legend of Bigfoot. A statue of the mythical monster is an offbeat roadside attraction at the gift shop on the road to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the mountain’s crown jewel destination that draws 230,000 visitors a year. Carolyn Johnsen, who’s worked 11 years in the gift shop, sees visitors from across the world and Americans with a newfound interest in vacationing closer to home. As for the locals, the lifelong area resident finds that many are thinking less about the mountain and lake that were lost and embracing she calls a new, different beauty in the ever-changing, still rumbling mountain.
New activities and traditions are emerging. Mother’s Day set a new post-eruption mountain climbing record, with 971 permits issued on the last weekend before the summer limit of 100 daily permits kicks in. Many climbers dressed like mothers, following an idea that has spread through the climbing community, says Luke Wakefield of the Mount St. Helens Institute, a not-for profit that manages activities in a partnership with the Forest Service.
Wakefield likes what Mount St. Helens has become — a place that is so far without crowds where nature is unfolding in unknown ways. It’s up to us, even as we allow commerce to thrive, to protect for future visitors the jewel that we too easily take for granted.