Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

We lived in Alaska when this volcano blew spectacularly in 1980. Two months later, we flew from Seattle to the east coast, and the pilot flew over the great mountain, so everyone could get a glimpse at the destruction. Yet, it wasn’t until ten years later that we made the trip to Southern Washington and visited the monument itself.

My husband and children and I stared in horror at the skeleton trees still standing, and at the grey scar that extended for miles down the mountain. In that moment we felt the cataclysmic power of nature. Other than the dead trees, the landscape looked like it could have been on the moon or some barren planet.

Ten years later my husband and I returned, and this time we were amazed by the rebirth of forests, the greenery. You could still see the damage the eruption had caused, but much of the forest was verdant again. Amazingly green and vibrant.

This interesting book tells the story of the eruption, but also provides much more.  It covers the history of logging both in the northwest and in the Mississippi River Valley through the lens of the Weyerhaeuser Company who own and owned most of the land surrounding Mount St. Helen National Monument.

It also tells the story of conservation in the area, particularly of the group that pushed hard for creating a national monument from the old growth forest and the valley, once almost pristine, scarred by the eruption.

No eruption like this had occurred in mainland North American since Mount Lassen had erupted at the beginning of the 20th century, so scientists had no idea what could happen. They did expect an eruption, but thought it would rise straight up and be less dangerous to the area. Weyerhaeuser did not want to stop its logging operations for something that might or might not occur. The controversial and iconoclastic governor of Washington State, Dixy Lee Ray, did not want to make an executive order that would hinder commerce in any way. She was a hundred per cent pro-business, and didn't think the risk was great enought to stop the forest cutting.

Several scientists predicted the exact disaster, a sidewise eruption of incredible power that would cause flooding over twenty miles into the valley, but most of the volcanologists had come from Hawaiian where the eruptions are routinely less dramatic, and the lava flows smoothly and slowly, and the mountains themselves do not blow apart.

In fact, for most of the month before Mount St. Helen erupted, the scientists located their observation center on a site on the north facing side of the mountain, the side that protruded out and eventually blew, a mere five miles from the volcano itself.

By May 20th, the day of the disaster, the scientists had persuaded the government to keep many people off the mountain. And luckily, it was a Sunday, so even less people wandered or drove nearby. One old codger illegally stayed in his cabin, and several groups had chosen that weekend to hike or go fishing. Most of them were killed instantly. 

An eruption column rose 80,000 feet high while the North face of the mountain slid and blew sideways. It spread ash into eleven Western states (and you know how big those western states are.)

One amazingly lucky family with two very young children including a baby, were camping in the old growth forest, on the north side of the mountain. They survived in an illegal cabin, and then had to make their way over giant downed trees and rivers of ash until a helicopter rescued them.

If you like learning about the natural world, this book will provide you with a riveting read.