The Johnston Ridge Observatory

Most visitors who want to get close to Mount St. Helens, drive the 48 miles on the Spirit Lake Highway to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Here you are a mere 5.5 miles from an active volcano. This is well within the former Red Zone which was restricted to visitors in the winter and spring of 1980. Only certain people where allowed into the Red Zone and one of those was David Johnston, a volcanologist, who was there to monitor the volcano.

Johnston was really not supposed to be there the morning of May 18 but out of kindness he switched shifts with a colleague who was busy meeting with some foreign graduate students.

At the time of the eruption, Johnston was 30 years old and he had been working as an volcanologist who specialized in the study of volcanic gases and how these gases might help in the prediction of volcanic eruptions. He was at Mount St. Helens as one of the many scientists that were here to help monitor the volcano and to carefully watch the bulge on the north side of the mountain that was growing by five feet a day.

On Saturday May 17, Johnston stationed himself outside a USGS RV at a location called Coldwater II, 5.5 miles from the volcano. On the following morning Johnston made some measurements and observations and then at 8:32 AM, he radioed the USGS headquarters in Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

This field sketch is from the approximate position of Coldwater II, the observation position of David Johnston on May 18, 1980.

This was the last radio transmission from Johnston.

At 8:32 AM there was a 5.1 magnitude earthquake under the volcano causing the north face to fall away from the mountain causing the largest landslide in recorded geologic history. The avalanche travelled 14 miles before coming to a rest. This uncovered the over-pressured core of the volcano, releasing ash, magma, and rocks, fifteen miles into the atmosphere. The eruption of Mount St. Helens was now underway.

Johnston’s body was never found. The ridge where he was on that fateful day in 1980 is now named after him.

The memorial to the 57 who lost their lives and it’s cause in the background. David A. Johnston is one of them. The memorial is a short hike from the Johnston Ridge Observatory and it is this viewpoint that is in the featured sketch.
The incredible vista of Mount St. Helens from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

The Panorama From Windy Ridge

Perhaps the best view of Mount St. Helens, takes the longest drive, but the payoff is worth it.

This is Windy Ridge, five miles from the crater of Mount St. Helens. From the viewpoint you can see the U shaped peak of the volcano to the left and Sprit Lake to the right. Everything before you was part of the devastation zone.

All these year later the Pumice Plain still looks like a moonscape and Spirit Lake still has a raft of fallen logs that travels around the lake with the wind.

The matte of logs, looking here like toothpicks, from the 1980 eruption at Spirit Lake.

To capture this expansive panorama took four pages in my panoramic journal. In the field, I sketched in the forms of the landscapes with a sepia brush pen.

Mount St. Helens from Windy Ridge.

Sasquatch and Mount St. Helens

Pre-1980, pre-eruptions, it seems that Sasquatch or Big Foot, was a tourist cottage industry around the slopes of Mount St. Helens.

Many a story was told around campfires on the shores of Spirit Lake about the time a creature attacked five miners near Ape Cave in the 1920s and how the miners valiantly had fought off the beast’s attacks.

What really kickstarted the Sasquatch craze was film footage reportedly of a female Sasquatch or Bigfoot walking along Bluff Creek in Northern California. The 1967 film is now known as the Patterson-Gimlin film and iconic, Frame 352, shows the creature looking back towards the camera with arms extended away from it’s dark hairy body in it’s simian lope. The famous imagine, included in the featured sketch, is the blueprint for many subsequent representations of Sasquatch. This is the iconic “Big Foot” imagine that is recognized around the world much like the Surgeon’s photo of the Loch Ness Monster. Both images have been claimed to have been faked, but there are those who will always believe.

Of course that all changed after the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens where seeing a live volcano was a major draw for the tourist dollar and poor Sasquatch receded into the past. More volcano tourist attractions and museums appeared around the mountain, selling tourist trinkets with imagines with erupting volcanoes, pushed Sasquatch swag off the shelves.

This cartoon, printed in the Columbian in 1980, highlights the conflict between Sasquatch and the now famous volcano.

One such tourist attraction is to be found along the Spirit Lake Highway near Kid Valley. This is the North Fork Survivors Bigfoot & Mt. St. Helens Interpretive Center. The attraction sits across the highway from the Toutle River. This has it all for the Mount St. Helens/ Sasquatch fan.

When the volcano erupted it sent mud and melted waters from glaciers and the snowpack racing down the North Fork of the Toutle River, which destroyed everything in it’s path: forest, bridges, and homes. One home that survived is the A-frame house that was half buried by the mud flow. The house is left as it was on May 18, 1980, still furnished but now filled with 200 tons of ash, mud, and silt. You used to be able to explore the interior but it has now been deemed unsafe and is now a nesting site for barn swallows.

On the other side of the parking lot is the 20 foot statue of Sasquatch, leaning on a branch for support, like someone at a wedding, who has had a tad too much to drink. This is what attracted my sketching eye and I began to render the statue in pencil and ink.

The butt-end view of the Sasquatch statue at North Fork Survivors Bigfoot & Mt. St. Helens Interpretive Center.
It’s all about Sasquatch around Mount St. Helens. This is a road I found on the south side of the mountain on my way to Windy Ridge. I had to pull over and take a photo.


Harry R. Truman

Soon after the earthquakes started in March of 1980, Harry Truman was urged to leave the lake and lodge he loved.

Harry R. Truman was born on October 30, 1896 in West Virginia. When he was a child, his family relocated to the state of Washington and settled in the eastern part of the state on 160 acres of farmland.

Harry first came to Spirit Lake in 1926. He then ran a shop and gas station that also rented boats. Over the years he built up Mount St. Helens Lodge which was on the shores of Spirit Lake and at the base Mount St. Helens. He ran his lodge for 52 years with the help of his third wife Edie.

Sprit Lake was a summer paradise, ringed with many camps, resorts, and lodges. Visitors enjoyed swimming, canoeing, and fishing on the cold waters and enjoyed stunning views of the mountain that loomed over the lake. Harry was looking forward to visitors for the upcoming summer season (being a curmudgeon, perhaps he was not so optimistic). But then the mountain started shaking.

Residents close to the mountain where evacuated but Harry refused to go. He had lost his wife five years previously and he had been wedded to the lake, the resort, and the mountain for fifty years. He was not going to leave.

Truman became a media darling and a folk hero. Many reporters where flown in to interview him. Truman often had his favorite drink in his hand, Coca-cola and Schenley whiskey. Harry once told a reporter that he hates to drink but people drive him to it. He also told another reporter, “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it. This area is heavily timbered, Sprit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”

He could not have been more wrong. Just like the government officials, the press, and some members of the USGS who underestimated the incredible power of the sleeping giant that is Mount St. Helens. They certainly found out at 8:32 AM on May 18, 1980. But for Harry, he had little time to reassess his situation.

It has been estimated that Harry had about 22 seconds from when the landslide started to it’s arrival at his lodge. Harry must have heard and felt it coming but could do nothing to save his life.

He would become the first of the 57 causalities of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. And his body has never been found but is buried under 300 feet of the landslide that was the northern flank of Mount St. Helens. The mountain that Harry had loved and hiked upon now was his earthen grave.

This Roger Werth photograph of Truman sitting on the front steps of the Mount St. Helens Lodge was taken the day before the volcano erupted. The only thing missing from the photo is his cap and his drink.
Trumans name on the memorial to those that perished during the May 18, 1980 eruption of the mountain behind the memorial.