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Mount St. Helens gives a lesson in power of nature

Darcy Mitchum was just 10, but she won't ever forget the Sunday morning the mountain blew up.

Neither will anyone else who lived through the eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington 15 years ago this month.

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"There was a blue-black cloud that was above us and behind us like a giant umbrella," Ms. Mitchum told a hushed group of parents and children who were touring the still-devastated area. She explained that she had grown up in the nearby small town of Toutle.

A tour of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in southwestern Washington is a first-rate lesson in the power of nature to destroy -- and then heal itself. Children and parents alike can't help but be awed by the sight and heartened to see animals return and trees once again begin to grow.

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Even though Mount St. Helens had awakened two months before, shooting steam and ash into the sky, no one was really prepared for what happened Sunday, May 18, 1980.

Natural devastation

First an earthquake rocked the mountain, triggering a huge avalanche that buried everything in its path. A 12-mile ash cloud shot into the air and eventually circled the globe. Floods of water and debris rushed down streams and rivers, washing away homes, cars and bridges, including the one Darcy crossed to get to school every day.

"It didn't blow up, but it blew out the side," explained Ms. Mitchum. "One of my uncles outran the avalanche on an old logging road. It got so hot that vinyl was peeling in the vehicle."

Five million tons of ash spewed into the sky, blanketing neighborhoods hundreds of miles away to the north and east. People had to shovel it like snow.

Scientists had been watching Mount St. Helens carefully for two months when it began to stir, and most of the nearby area had been evacuated. Earthquakes were occurring deep under the mountain, and molten rock was being squeezed up in the volcano, like toothpaste in a tube. Scientists could see a huge bulge on the north face growing rapidly -- at the rate of five feet a day.

Indian legends had warned of the dangers. The Yakima Indian Nation named Mount St. Helens "Lawalitetlah," Fire Mountain. Native Americans had seen the mountain erupt many times over the centuries, but it had been quiet since the 1850s.

Still, no one was prepared for the magnitude of what happened in 1980. Spirit Lake, at the foot of the mountain, was completely buried by the avalanche. Thirty-six people and thousands of animals died. The blast leveled 230 square miles of forest. Damage totaled $1.5 billion. The beautiful land in the blast zone -- a mecca for campers, hikers and fishermen -- suddenly looked as barren as the moon, complete with craters.

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Today scientists continue to study the volcanic landscape and monitor its natural recovery. A new hands-on Weyerhaeuser Co.-sponsored Forest Learning Center, just 10 miles down the highway from the monument's Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, concentrates on the vast reforestation efforts to help speed the recovery. Ms. Mitchum now works there as an assistant director. "This is another piece of the story," she explained. (The center is set to open in mid-May. Call [360] 414-3439.

Outdoor classroom

The entire area has become an important source of information about volcanoes for tourists and scientists alike. It's about a two-hour drive from Portland and Seattle and, in my book, is a must-see on any tour of the Pacific Northwest.

But getting to Mount St. Helens involves some driving on long, winding roads. Be forewarned that roads don't traverse the monument, so it is important to plan your trip carefully.

For information about the monument, call (360) 750-3900. Two good bets to introduce the family to the history here are "Fire Mountain" by William Boly (Cathco, $9.95) and "Discovering Northwest Volcanoes" ($3.95), an activity book for kids. Call (360) 274-2100 to order.

Start your visit at the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, and the kids will feel as if they've arrived on another planet. Dead trees are strewn around like giant toothpicks. Everywhere there are mounds of rock and mud called hummocks. To get a close-up look, take the quarter-mile-long Winds of Change Trail. Check to see if interpreters are giving talks along the trail or in the visitor center.

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Hardier hikers might want to head to Windy Ridge on the east side of the volcano. Take the Truman Trail to the closest point to the lava dome inside the volcano's crater. The one-mile Harmony Trail provides the only legal way to get to Spirit Lake. Hikers also give a thumbs up to the Lava Canyon Trail over the Muddy River to see the waterfalls.

Look for the animals. Scientists were surprised at first at how many in the blast zone survived: gophers, which live underground, frogs that burrowed deep in the lakes. Birds began flying back as soon as the ash settled.

If the kids in the bunch are up for spelunking, go to Ape Cave, one of the longest continuous lava tubes in the country. The lower cave, rangers say, is relatively easy, just three-quarters of a mile. But the adventurers in the group would like the upper cave better. It's twice as long and requires clambering over big rocks. Wear long pants and sturdy shoes.

Our gang opted to head to the shore of Coldwater Lake, which has been restocked with mountain trout. There's even a discovery area where the kids can try their luck balancing on logs.

No one knows when Mount St. Helens will erupt again. Next time, everyone will be ready.

Eileen Ogintz is the author of "Taking the Kids to the Pacific Northwest" and travel guides for children on the American Southwest and Northern and Southern California.

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Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Send them to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.


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