Last month you read about forested recovery in the most densely recovered areas of Mt St Helens’ 1980 eruption. Working our way out of forested recovery and into the more patchwork areas, the high ridges and south facing slopes between 5 and 13 miles from the mountain have begun their own recovery. These areas received the brunt of the lateral blast, the closer to the volcano the more the blast stripped the soil down to bedrock. Gone are the alder in these areas, as the lack of rich soils and water means that surviving here becomes more of a struggle. Douglas fir and mountain hemlock have begun their seeding here, with small trees no higher than one’s knees and chest intermingling with the blasted tree trunks and seasonal wildflower blooms of lupine, paintbrush, penstemon, foxglove and other wildflowers that bloom in the summer months. An occasional larger tree as tall as 15 feet stands out conspicuously in these areas where fallen tree trunks may still be found. Trails in this zone of recovery include the Independence trail, more of the Boundary trail, and the Norway Pass trail headed into the Mt. Margaret Backcountry where camping is allowed by permit. Growth in this area includes lakes that were snow covered at the time of the blast. The blast melted the snow on the lakes but the protective layer of snow managed to shelter the life inside these lakes from the full impact and temperatures of the lateral blast, allowing them to survive the initial eruption relatively unscathed. Meta Lake, on the northeast side of the volcano, is a perfect example of what many of the lakes in the blast zone now look like. Their shores are lush with grass and wetland reeds, with 10-15 foot high hemlock and Douglas fir trees surrounding their shores.
Special mention must of course be made for Spirit Lake, accessible only via the Harmony trail. Buried under avalanche debris and scorched by searing hot gases from the blast cloud, the lake at first was indistinguishable from the surrounding blasted landscape. Initial reports in local newspapers said the lake was “gone”, and it was only later that they determined that the felled forest and mud were simply floating on its surface. Since 1980, the lake has gone from a mud choked pit to a shining gem of a blue lake, its waters even richer in life than before the 1980 blast. Spirit Lake’s only evidence of the eruption is the ever present carpet of floating trees, awaiting their turn to sink to the bottom to add to the already present underwater forest.
Moving onward, one of the last zones of recovery within the northern blast zone has been the Pumice Plains. Prior to the eruption these “plains” were a thick forest of mountain hemlock and Douglas fir. Blown apart by the lateral blast, buried by the debris avalanche and finally cooked to extreme temperatures by pyroclastic flows and surges, the Pumice Plains have been the slowest to recover. Rivers carve channels and stir up the soil, allowing alder to gain a foothold. As nitrogen dependent lupine flourish on the plains, they die and enrich the soil in an area, allowing more growth to spread from these islands of nourishment, spreading outward till they mix with another island to form an even larger one. The wildflowers in this landscape completely take over the area and timing a hike right can result in hiking in a constant overwhelming floral bouquet of the scent of lupine. The Plains of Abraham as well as the Loowit trail traverse these great plains, where the grass blows in the wind and the wildflowers soak in the sun. A long time from now, the wildflowers will give way to the alders, which will in turn give way to the hardier evergreen trees, and a true forest will be born to rival the one that has vanished under the earth.
The final landscape to begin recovery didn’t begin until 2007, when a group of geologists monitoring the lava dome and growing Crater Glacier discovered to their surprise, a few tiny Douglas fir saplings inside the volcanic crater. Colonies of bacteria and a steady flow of water and hot springs have also allowed grasses and other hardier but smaller plant life to begin colonizing the crater. Wherever soil begins to form or erosion is halted from washing out an area, plants have begun to slowly appear. Animals too have been spotted in the crater, the largest of which was a group of mountain goats, observed by geologists meandering inside the crater in one of the creek beds on the crater floor.
As the land heals itself and vegetation takes over, the remains of the eruption have dissipated. While hiking the many trails in the northern reaches of the monument, it is not hard to imagine that one day shattered tree trunks will be scarce, and a great expanse of ash will diminish, as each year green becomes the more dominant color over grey in the lateral blast zone at Mt. St. Helens.
Mt. St. Helens trails discussed:
Boundary trail -Stretching the entire length of the monument, the portion of the Boundary trail discussed in this segment begins at the Johnston Ridge Observatory and continues on as far as your feet will take you headed east through the monument and off into the Dark Divide area of Mt. Adams. A good dayhike begins at the Observatory and ends with a spectactular view just before a trail junction with the Harry’s Ridge side trail and the Truman Trail down onto the Pumice Plains. This segment is 5 miles round trip with very little elevation gain but a lot of ups and downs as you gain and lose elevation. If you have a fear of heights this may not be the trail for you as a significant portion is roughly 18 inches wide on a windswept exposed ridge slope for 1/4 mile on eroding pumice. Each year the trail tread is a little sketchier as rainwater carves gullies through the trail. This trail is best hiked from late spring to early fall but be aware of lingering snowfields early in the season.
Loowit Trail (Plains of Abraham) -This round-the-mountain trail is the St. Helens equivelent of the Wonderland Trail, clocking in at 27.1 miles in a loop with a total gain of 6,570 feet and a total loss of 5,880 feet. It is most directly accessible from the south side of the mountain via the June Lake trailhead, but also easily connects to the Windy Ridge area and trails via the Windy trail to the Plains of Abraham trail segment. Primitive Backcountry camping is not permitted inside the northern areas of the blast zone, but is permitted outside those zones. See forest service maps available at the monument or online for more detailed information. Also of note, as of 2009 large sections of the trail had washed out on the western slopes of the mountain. The forest service at this time advised hikers and backpackers not to attempt to hike the route without previous route finding experience on the trail. Washington Trails Association (WTA) work crews did trail maintenance in 2010 but caution and research should be used before attempting the loop. Best seasons to hike this trail is summer or fall when the southern and eastern trailheads are free of snow.
Independance trail -Accessible via Forest Road 99 on the mountain’s east side, this trail varies from 3.5 miles (one way) to Norway Pass, to distances up to 7.4 miles as a loop via other trails. The views begin shortly after the trailhead and get better and better the closer you get to Norway Pass. As with all trails accessed via FR 99, this trail is only accessible in the summer and fall seasons. It is considered a moderate hike, with relatively little elevation gain overall as it skirts the sides of the ridges surrounding Spirit Lake.
Mt. Margaret Backcountry (Norway Pass trail) -Accessible via Forest Roads 25, 26 and 99, the Norway Pass trail is the trailhead used to access the only campsites inside the Mt. St. Helens blast zone. Reservations are required and sites are limited, mostly available from Late June until early October. The Mt. Margaret Backcountry website is: http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04mshnvm/backcountry/ and contains updates on trail conditions and campsite information, as well as links to the permit applications. The trail is 2.3 miles (one way) to Norway Pass, with additional mileage needed to reach the campsites stretching toward the highpoint of Mt. Margaret 6 difficult miles from Norway Pass.