30 Years Ago: Mount St. Helens

Volume 13, Issue 19; 18 May 2010; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Remembering another ash cloud.

File this under small world.

Earlier today Randal Schwartz reminded me that Mt. St. Helens erupted thirty years ago today. He was in Portland, OR. I replied because I thought it was pretty cool that we should both have been nearby. I was in Coulee Dam, WA. Shelley Powers trumped us both. She was in Yakima, WA. Ringside seats. (Portland is closer, but Yakima was much more directly in the path of the ash cloud.) She posted her story. This is mine.

We heard it, or believe we did. Blasting for various construction projects wasn't uncommon in the area around Coulee Dam, but there was an explosion that morning that stood out as different. Different, but not loud enough to make us think it was the eruption, not that we'd expected to hear the eruption anyway.

We remembered that particular explosion because my father made an off-color remark about dinosaur flatulance. That seems in horribly bad taste now, but at the time of course, we didn't know what it was.

It was an ordinary Sunday. We went about our lives without ever turning on a television or radio. At some point, I went to the grocery store in Grand Coulee with my mom. You'd think we'd have overheard conversation about it; maybe we did, but I don't recall that. Here's what I do recall, my most vivid memory of the event.

From the supermarket parking lot, you could see the dam which adds a slightly surreal flavor to the landscape. That thing is big even at a distance. Above us and to the east was a brilliant blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. Above and to the west, the sky was…inky black…with puffy white clouds. (This was before I had taken up photography, alas.)

In the short few minutes it took to drive back to Coulee Dam, night fell and fine dusty ash filled the air. I don't recall how long it fell or exactly how much accumulated. An inch or so is my best guess. Deep enough to make sweeping it off the patio tedious.

School was closed for three days because ash got in the ventilation system. Ash got everywhere.


Small world, indeed.

I used to love stopping in at Coulee Dam on our way to Seattle from Kettle Falls, where I lived until I was 13.

It's funny, we had warnings that the mountain could blow, but none of us _believed_ it would blow. Color us surprised when it did.

—Posted by Shelley on 19 May 2010 @ 07:33 UTC #

Talked to a friend yesterday who grew up in Ellensburg (~90 miles downwind). Similar story to yours and Shelley's; big boom, approaching dark cloud (with lightning), midnight dark by noon. They had about half a foot of ash. People had to sweep it off their roofs because they were sagging under the weight. They brought out the snow plows to clear the roads.

One thing I learned from Google Maps is that Spirit Lake appears to be *still* filled with floating trees. You can see them in the satellite view. They move around on different zoom levels.

—Posted by stand on 19 May 2010 @ 08:56 UTC #

I was a high school senior in Coeur d'Alene, ID. I was working at a restaurant and we watched the news from Spokane. We saw the soot cloud turn the sky pitch dark in Spokane. About 30 minutes or so later it hit CdA. Then it passed and the sky lightened to a weird orange. Not so bad we thought. Then the ash came and fell for three days. We missed two weeks of school. The school district bagged trying to make up the days so we got out of finals and had to go with our grades at the time of the eruption.

The ash was amazing stuff. After the ash fall stopped, I helped clean the parking lot of the restaurant I worked at, which was right on I-90 where it came down out of the mountains from Montana and went around Lake Coeur d'Alene. You could push it with a broom and it would flow like viscous mercury. It was too heavy to make dust.

While we were working a car came down out of the hills and pulled into the parking lot. It was two senior citizens trying to make it to town because the wife's meds had run out. We opened the hood, pulled the air cleaner, and just poured ash out of it. We sent them on their way.

The ash fall was amazing--total silence, no animals, birds, cars, anything. I had a war surplus gas mask so I went out into it one afternoon. Very surreal.

—Posted by Eliot Kimber on 22 May 2010 @ 06:21 UTC #

We heard it here in Vancouver BC and people all over the province heard it as well according to news reports.

The following year (or maybe it was '82) I was in Auburn for a soccer exchange (I would have been 11 or 12). My exchange family had some stories to tell about the thick layer of ash that fell on their property and I still have a jar full that they gave to me. It has a pretty unique texture a little bit like very fine grey sand about the consistency of talcum powder, very dusty (if you shake it), and a tiny number of very small black chunks about 1mm in diameter.

—Posted by Derek Read on 26 May 2010 @ 09:00 UTC #