The edge of renewal


Before I get started tonight, I have to say RIP to Don Rickles. One time in my life I bought something from an info-mercial and it was the entire set of Dean Martin Roasts.  I gave them to my Dad because he used to let me stay up late on the bedroom floor watching them.  Red Buttons, Jonathan Winters and Don Rickles were the funniest thing I’d ever seen; or, frankly, have seen since.  I miss a time when we could just all laugh at ourselves and each other without getting all wound up about stuff.  The guy was all love and I will probably be up all night re-watching funny clips of him.

Today was my day to visit the volcano.  Thirty-seven years or so ago, Mt. St. Helen’s erupted surprisingly in the worst volcanic explosion in the history of the United States. Seismologists say the mountain went from dormant to active to explosive in a flash.  The lack of preparation/predictability meant lives lost and massive property damage. Occurring prior to the advent of countless experts on the television, the footage was just a simple narrative of what looked like Armageddon.  Visiting today, I was a bit awestruck; but not by devastation, by renewal.

The ride up from the coast was a slow climb along the southern shore of the Columbia river into the heart of timber.  Along the river, great processing plants for wood chips, paper and saw timber sprawled out with shipping docks on one side and rail lines on the other.  While severely industrial, unlike the refineries of say, Port Arthur — also on the edge — the product of these facilities is visible.  Neat stacks of freshly cut trees spread over acres awaiting the saw blade, great mounds of bark steaming the morning sun ready for shredding, and perfect squares of tightly wrapped 2×4’s headed for the Home Depot near you.  These are the factories of a renewable resource, obvious because they are surrounded by acre after acre after acre of more trees and clear cuts and fresh plantings.  I can’t argue for the practice of logging by clear cut, but I can rest easy knowing that there will always be trees.  These guys are making sure of that.

The view across Silver Lake to the cloud-wrapped Mt. St. Helens
At one point, before leaving the river to head east, there is a lowland area where the crop of choice is birch trees. I’ve never seen a birch tree farm before, but it is marvelous.  Straight and white and just beginning to shade green with new buds, the neat rows are mesmerizing and beautiful.  Even and precise they are like a tightly looped carpet over the ground that you can somehow see through.  I’m certain they too will be cleared one day, but I’m equally certain more will be planted.  I’m glad I caught these at the right time.

I leave the Columbia to head north to Castle Rock and then east on the Spirit Lake Highway to Mt. St. Helens.  It’s a 52 mile drive to the endpoint near the crater. Shortly after starting this last segment I swing into the Ranger Station to bone up on the details and there I learn that damn near the whole place is closed down.  The road to the observatory is closed about 4 miles from the top, the entire southern access is buried under a foot and half of snow, and every information center along any route is closed.  So, I go as far as I can.  Through Silver Lake and along the Toutle River up as far as just past South Coldwater. This means I enter the blast zone a little over halfway through the route.

Hoffstadt Creek Bridge

I enter the blast zone at the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge to the northwest of the crater.  This means I’m on the southwest edge of the zone because the blast was mostly to the north of the crater.  The total zone was roughly 150,000 acres of complete devatastation.  There was nothing left. For some perspective, the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge was gone and had to be rebuilt.  The bridge is over 2,300 feet long and 370 feet high. It was just one of 19 bridges, 16 miles of railroad, and 659 miles of road lost.

I never once today had any sense of any devastation at all.  Only the churning, chocolate milk Toutle River provides any indication of the massive amount of sediment/ash that once covered all of this. The Corps of Engineers had to build a special catch-basin to help contain the sediment.  Everything else, everything, looks fresh and new and beautiful. Certainly a great deal of credit goes to the timber industry.  Weyerhaeuser spent over $9 million in the early 80’s replanting damn near every tree.  Nature did the rest.  There are deer and elk, birds and fish, and everywhere trees.  There are open areas where you can see the stumps of trees blown down when a pyroclastic flow of rocks, super-heated steam and highly charged gas screamed down the mountainside.  But like the meadows of Yosemite, these open areas are vegetated with grasses and flowers and provide a nice foil to the deep green of the forests.

Castle Lake and Mt. St. Helens

I watched a documentary last night about all this and listened to scientists say that everything we thought about the natural recovery, all our understandings and long-held beliefs, and settled science, were wrong.  Within weeks of the eruption, they found gophers that had survived.  Next were Prairie Lupine, growing where they shouldn’t be. Soon came insects, salamanders and more.  The work of the timber industry meant forests were back sooner and, in short, we re-wrote our understanding of what nature can do.  So today, Mt. St. Helens feels fresh and renewed, and my long-distant memory shard of devastation is re-written as well.

On the way back to the coast where I left off, I stayed on the north side of the Columbia following the official Lewis and Clark Trail.  Somehow someone determined that while the terminus is on the south side of the river at Ft. Clatsop, the approach was on the north side.  It’s much nicer.  You can feel the great river spreading out and it breaks into braids of relaxation as it nears the coast.  I expect the explorers felt the ocean was around each bend.  The valley of Columbia and then the Grays River here on this side are stunning, with deep green pastures flush to the river edge full of grazing elk.

Out for an afternoon snack along the north shore of Grays River

Just east and north of Astoria, Oregon, I angle north to the edge of what is Willapa Bay.  Broad clam-rich tidal flats spread out in all directions dotted with locals up to their calves in the muck leaning on their rakes for a bucket of bi-valves.  Around Southbend at the head of the bay, I follow state road 105 back west to stay hard on the edge to Westport, and around South Bay to Aberdeen.  These protected bays mean the topography here in Washington is almost exclusively peaceful beach, complete with fishing villages and all manner of stout craft for making a life here on the edge.

The head of Willapa Bay looking west

Tomorrow I will complete the western edge and turn east at the Straits of Juan De Fuca.  I’m due to pick up my son in Seattle on Sunday for a sojourn deep into the Olympic National Park and by then, I will have completely circled it.  But until then, I have a few more days on the edge.  And, after today, I too am feeling renewed.

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