Friday, August 27, 2010

Mt. St. Helens National Monument: Take the Detour off I-5!

How many times have you zipped along I-5 between Portland and Seattle and noticed the signs for Mt. St. Helens National Monument…and not turned off?

Not even once?

Me neither. Until today.

For years I pooh-poohed the visitor center at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Too touristy I figured. I’ve climbed to the summit from the south side and peered down into the crater (which I highly recommend), so driving to a visitor center seemed too crowded and tame.


If you want to see up close the aftermath of geologic forces that make the Pacific Northwest such a spectacularly scenic (and sometimes dangerous) place, take that exit off I-5 at Castle Rock and keep on driving. Besides awesome views and good hiking trails, the film at the visitor center has an ending more stunning than anything Hollywood could conjure. Plus there’s a bonus on the way back (keep reading…).

About an hour north of Portland, I turn off at 4 p.m. for the 55-mile drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a bit late in the day since the center closes at 6. What I didn’t factor in was time to stop at the numerous viewpoints along the way and do much hiking. Next time I’ll go earlier with my hiking boots, pack, and water.

The Drive
While climbing gradually, the two-lane highway winds along the Toutle River valley, in and out of forest, and crosses some impressive bridges traversing gulches along the way. As you get closer, St. Helen peeks eerily above the foothills, its blown off summit a stark contrast with the forested green foothills.

The Loowit Trail
Less than a mile from the observatory, well into the denuded blast zone, I stop to take a short hike on the Loowit Trail that circumnavigates the mountain. I don’t have time to go too far, but views of the still-smoldering volcano are amazing (note, you can enter the off-limits zone via the Loowit Trail only).

Purple lupine and bright orange Indian paintbrush are emerging alongside the remnants of splintered tree trunks, reminders of the devastating 1980 eruption. If I’d been here when the north side of the mountain collapsed and unleashed a superheated cloud of ash, I would have been quickly incinerated—a sobering thought. A little over 60 people within the blast zone lost their lives that morning, including David Johnston, the young geologist and namesake of Johnston Ridge Observatory.

The Johnston Ridge Observatory
Arriving at the Johnston Ridge Observatory parking area is a surprise because I don't see the building. In a nod to environment-sensitive design, it has been built right into the hillside and isn't visible from the road.

I get to the observatory just about 25 minutes before closing, which doesn’t give me much time. Over the P.A. system, they’re announcing seating for the last showing of the 16-minute film, so I scoot in and grab a seat. As the lights go out, ominous music starts playing as scenes of trees being mowed down by the pyroclastic blast fill the screen.

“Mommy, I’m scared!” says a little boy seated behind me.

It’s not all scary, but quite informative. A haunting touch is the replay of David Johnston’s last words over the radio to the U.S. Geological Survey office in Vancouver, Washington. “Vancouver! This is it!” he yelled frantically as the mountain collapsed directly in front of him.

When the film is over, but the lights are still out, we’re asked to remain seated. Curtains rise behind the raised screen, and in front of us sits the star of the show – the gaping, open maw of Mt. St. Helens just a few miles away, still puffing steam. Because we’ve just seen eruption footage, it’s a jaw-dropping moment.

Before heading back down to the lowlands, I dash up the concrete pathway to a viewpoint above the observatory and twirl slowly around to take it all in. Thirty years after the 1980 eruption, old-growth tree trunks still lie flattened from the blast on the surrounding ridges. A bit of Mt. Adams is visible above the ridge to the east.

The Bonus
Earlier on the drive up, I’d noticed a sign for homemade cobbler, so of course I’m watching for it carefully as I head back down. Just around a bend as I enter Kid Valley, there it is, like a cute Grandma’s house surrounded by a tidy lawn and profuse colorful flowers.

Patty’s Place at 19-Mile House sits perched above the North Fork of the Toutle River, cozy and inviting in the golden glow of a summer evening. Inside the warm wood-paneled dining room with hand carvings and Mt. St. Helens memorabilia, I grab a corner table and order a wild mountain berry cobbler a la mode with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream. Dinner.

“The huckleberry ice cream costs more, is that okay?” asks the young waitress.

“How much more?”

“It’s $5.19 instead of $4.99,” she replies.

I think I can handle that. As I dive into the fresh warm cobbler (before snapping a picture, sorry!), I'm happy, sharing the room with other happy people on this soft summer night. The cobbler is wonderful, tart-sweet fruit with a crispy-yet-crumbly topping.

Flush with mountain fresh air and a marvelous little road trip, I flashback to family vacations when I was a kid, which were about driving around the West and taking in its grandeur. Then I head back to I-5 with a smile on my face.

When You Go
There are two roads into the Mt. St. Helens National Monument. Farther north on I-5 is the turnoff to Windy Ridge, which overlooks Spirit Lake. The Johnston Observatory closes for the winter at the end of October. This year admission to the visitor center is $8 for adults. If you plan on hiking, be sure and take lots of water.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Stargazing with Rose City Astronomers: Rediscovering Wonder

When was the last time you saw a shooting star? Or just stopped to gaze at the stars on a dark night?

To me there’s nothing like lying on my back on a summer night with a sky full of stars above to bring wonder back into my life and put things into perspective. Our little planet is just one of billions and billions (insert Carl Sagan accent) in the universe. It’s humbling, awe-inspiring, and, when you do see a flash of light blazing across the sky in the blink of an eye, breathtaking.

I’m still floating on the high of my night and early morning with Rose City Astronomers (RCA) watching the Perseid meteor showers, which peak in early-mid August every year in the northern hemisphere. And this year the almost-new moon conveniently slides below the horizon just after sunset for a darker sky.

Star parties aren’t just for Hollywood glitterati. With windows down to let in the warm evening air, I drive east from Portland on Interstate 84 up the Columbia River Gorge to Rooster Rock State Park for the annual RCA and OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) Perseid star party. I get there about 9:20 as the western horizon is turning shades of crimson-orange and the stars are just starting to emerge.

Right along the riverbank telescopes of various shapes and size are set up. The most impressive is the reflector telescope that Robert McGown of RCA has set up. A tall, friendly man, Bob patiently answers questions about the telescope and the night sky as people wander by.

By 10 p.m. night has fully descended and the gauzy white Milky Way is visible running north-south above us, against a backdrop of stars bright and dim sprinkled across the sky. Living in Seattle, I can’t remember the last time I saw the Milky Way!

Bob excitedly points out a constellation low on the southern horizon in the shape of a teapot, if you use your imagination to connect the dots (uh, stars). “There’s Sagittarius! That’s one of my favorites.” I love that a long-time stargazer still gets pumped about spotting things in the night sky.

He then points to the really bright star directly overhead, Vega, which is part of the Lyra constellation. As Bob tells me the Greek myth about Lyra, I remember the sky is full of stories that stretch thousands of years back in human history. It makes me feel connected to the ancient Greeks, Arabs, and the whole of humanity over the millennia who have looked up at the night sky in wonder.

“Whooooaaa!” I cry along with several other people as we see our first meteor slip quickly across the sky. A thin white line pierces the black sky and disappears just as quickly. Did I really see that? Over the next hour I count about 15, although I miss several. You can always tell when you miss one because somebody else sees it and whoops or gasps and cries “Wow! Did you see that?”

About 11 p.m. I leave to get a few hours of sleep before my star-gazing continues predawn. Another RCA board member has invited me to join him atop Rocky Butte, an extinct volcanic cinder cone in northeast Portland, to catch the early morning show and sunrise.

Although the alarm goes off at 3:55, by the time I meet Matt at Rocky Butte, the sky is already beginning to lighten toward the long, slow summer dawn. I can barely make out the pointed silhouette of Mt. Hood on the eastern horizon just a tad south of us. We lay out pillows, blankets, and sleeping bags and lie down to watch the sunrise. About four meteors streak across the sky as we’re watching.

I do notice constellations that weren’t visible last night. Orion the Hunter with his three-star belt lies sideways in the eastern sky, pointing up to the Pleiades star cluster, which we can still see for a while before it gets too light.

With elegant Mt. Hood to the east, the Cascade foothills and Columbia River below, Mt. St. Helens to the north, and the Portland-Vancouver area spread out below us, it’s a stunning vista as the sky turns from dark blue to pink to orange to daylight.

What a way to start the day!

When You Go
RCA sponsors numerous lectures and star parties throughout the year, some east of the Cascades where there’s less light pollution. In the Seattle area, the Seattle Astronomical Society sponsors regular lectures and events as well. In Spokane, check out the Spokane Astronomical Society. Go meet some geeks and learn a lot. (I refer to geeks with affection, not mocking! Those guys and gals are a font of information.) If you’re in the Portland area and want to learn more about things astronomical, such as the lore, history, and techniques to locate stars and galaxies or even telescope-making techniques, Bob McGown offers classes. Email him at

And ladies, I recommend grabbing your sweetie or guy friend to join you for the Rocky Butte sunrise rather than going alone. You never know who else might be out there. When we got there we saw a jogger, a guy with his tripod set up to photograph the sunrise, and a couple who had a screaming fight in a car below us.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Weekend at the Lake

Across the Pacific Northwest and America, summer weekends for some involve a beloved ritual: packing up and heading to the lake (or island) house for the weekend. Are you one of the lucky few to have such a house in your family?

I’m not, but I am fortunate to have friends who do and who graciously invite me to join them now and then. I always try to be a helpful, fun, and pleasant guest.

I just spent the weekend at a lake in the Cascade foothills with some friends—a lake that has transformed dramatically since my first trip there when I was 9. Back then the scattered cabins were small and rustic, and deep evergreen forest fringed much of the shoreline.

Not so much today.

But it’s still beautiful.

Coming to the lake is a throwback to my water-skiing, sunbathing youth. In the intervening years I’ve trended more backpacking-kayaking camper, out howling for wolves, sitting Zen, or seeking solitude on craggy mountain peaks on the weekends. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to mix it up. I’m thrilled to get another invite to hang out with these friends and cruise fast across the lake surface in a speedy little ski boat.

Who doesn’t love playing in the water on a sunny summer day?

Some head to their weekend getaways for quiet, some head to party, but everyone goes to relax. (Well, maybe the kids and teenagers aren’t looking for relaxation.)

Since this is America, dinner on these weekends is often barbeque. Tonight we have grilled chicken and flank steak for 12. Then there’s an evening boat ride to a party across the lake. And later, dancing. (I have some pretty fun friends.)

But my favorite time is still the evening and early morning quiet, when the wind dies down, people settle down, and the beauty of the surroundings move forefront.

I hope you’re also fortunate enough to have a few summer weekend getaways in a beautiful setting with good friends.