Monday, August 2, 2010

Blowing One's Top: Thirty Years Later

Mt. Adams (left) Mt. Shasta in CA (distant middle) and
Mount St. Helens (right)

With Ellensburg in our rear view mirrors we headed south on Hwy 821 and traced the Yakima River south to Yakima, then turned west onto Hwy 12, which passed through the Snoqualmie National Forest on our way to Packwood, WA. We had a reservation at the Packwood RV in that put us within a convenient distance of Mt. Rainier National Park.

Mt. Rainier

As we arrived at Packwood RV it was unsettling to find a worn and outdated park with a "this property for sale" sign. The office was closed with a "back at 1:00 P.M." sign taped to the door. It was 12:20. We killed time wandering around the park to determine a good site. One of the park "regulars" approached to offer assistance. Apparently the park's owner had suffered a stroke and following her surgery required lengthy naps. The gentleman did his best to assist but the sites were not well marked. There was a difference of opinion as to which hookups belonged to which site. As we talked another large rig pulled in looking for a site.
We eventually settled on a pull-through near the office and weighed anchor. As we finished setting up the owner arrived. She turned out to be genuinely friendly and helpful (mainly about what to see in the area) but clearly someone who would be happy to sell the property and move on. Upside was that as a Passport America park, the rate was very reasonable.
Our 100 mile drive from Ellensburg left us with a good portion of the afternoon for a drive into to Mt. Rainier NP. We pondered either a drive up to Paradise or to Sunrise. Based on our 1996 visit to Mt. Rainier, our recollection was that Sunrise was more scenic so it was off Sunrise. Paradise could wait.

Sunrise Lodge parking lot and surrounding Alpine habitat

When we reached Sunrise we found the trails to be snow-covered and closed (unless one had snowshoes). Bummer. Most if not all of the Alpine habitat was still snow-covered with no flowers. The only flowers we glimpsed were those found along the roadside where snow had melted. Still, the scenery was nothing to sneeze at and on the plus side, the parking lot was wide open. We had beautiful looks at Mt. Rainier and the surrounding landscape. We drove back down to Packwood and settled in for the evening to sort out the best route to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument on the following day.

Mount St. Helens

Following breakfast at the only place in town that served breakfast (Peters Inn - well worth a stop) we spent the day driving the Mount St. Helens "Windy Ridge Loop" which took us deep into the blast zone and to Spirit lake. 2010 was the 30-year anniversary of the eruption of the volcano. Hard to believe that thirty years had past!
The road up the east side of the mountain passed several pullouts that offered views of the lateral blast areas and extensive blown-down forests and culminated at Windy Ridge. A young park ranger - she hadn't been born yet at the time of the eruption - was on hand to give a brief overview of the changed and changing landscape, focusing mainly on the geology of the area. Ash and smoke could still be seen rising up from the still active crater. A better view of the mountain was had by taking a steep climb (over 400 steps!) up to the Windy Ridge observation deck (it was indeed windy!).

Some of the 439 steps up to the Windy Ridge observation deck and
the view from the deck looking back at Mount St. Helens

Devastation was still very much evident although compared to thirty years ago, many of the blown-down trees were harder to see. The weight from snow packs each year have pushed the trunks further into the ground. Intense seasonal wetting and drying of the wood has lead to more rapid deterioration. Many blow-downs were still visible along the shore of Spirit Lake although most have sunk to the bottom.
Spirit Lake was so severely impacted in 1980 that there was a complete loss of the lake's living matter. The waters were transformed into a primordial soup consisting of heavy metals and organic matter covering a floating log mat. The lake was effectively divided into two lakes in one - much of the lake is cold and deep and biologically unproductive (like many high elevation lakes in the Cascades). Conversely, the shallower waters host vibrant ecosystems returning to pre-eruption conditions.
Massive landslides at the time of the eruption blocked two creeks creating Coldwater and Castle Lakes. The irregular shape of the landscape also formed several new ponds and wetlands; new habitat for a resurgence of an array of amphibians, birds, insects, mammals and plants.
After we spoke with a local forestry service worker about the area's transformation (she was a little girl living in the area at the time of the eruption), we wished we had visited Mount St. Helens in 1996 so we too could have had a better benchmark to draw our own before and after comparison. Suffice it to say, the "after" was most impressive.
By late afternoon we were back at Packwood RV for the evening and planned our next move. Next up - the Washington coast.
Awning Update: Having given up on Apache RV in Portland, we turned our attention to trying one of the top fifty rated RV dealers in the country. Our dealer in Wisconsin is one of the top fifty. We deduced that a dealer doesn't get that award without providing excellent service. Looking at our route we determined Gauranty RV in Junction City, Oregon, to be a logical choice. We contacted their service department who seemed very excited about helping and sent them all the part numbers and all other pertinent awning info. Time will tell.

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