Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mt. St. Helens and an Homage to My Second Grade Teacher

I was barely 5 when Mt. St. Helens erupted, and I lived on the east coast. So, the first time I remember hearing of the eruption was two years after the fact, when I sat at my wooden desk in Mrs. Haak's second grade class, and twenty-four seven-year-olds passed around a jar of ash from the eruption. The story, as I remember it, is that her brother lived out in the general eastern Washington, northern Idaho, Montana area, and either he sent her the jar, or she went out and visited him and collected the ash herself.
Mt. St. Helens.
I thought a lot about Mrs. Haak this weekend because I drove down to Mt. St. Helens. Usually the story where she comes up is the one where I tell people that I went on a health kick in second grade. I can't remember which came first....a math unit on...numbers (and reading nutrition labels)? Or a science chapter on health? Actually, neither of them really seem plausible. I think Mrs. Haak was just into a healthy lifestyle, and she taught us how to read nutrition labels, specifically, the sugar content. Thanks to her, I convinced my mom to buy a box of Grape Nuts, and then I nearly broke my teeth trying to eat a mouthful (to this day, I have never purchased another box of Grape Nuts). Two other things come to mind when I thought of Mrs. Haak this weekend:  Frank Shorter and Beezus & Ramona Quimby.

Frank Shorter, before he trained for and won the Olympic Marathon, grew up in a town not far from where I grew up. Well, because the town where he grew up was where we bought our groceries and nearly every other household item, it essentially is my hometown. Anyway, he was a big deal in town in the early '80s, and to Mrs. Haak.  Running for fitness was all part of the healthy lifestyle that she was trying to instill in us.

As for Beezus and Ramona, Mrs. Haak would read chapters of Beverly Cleary's books about the sisters during quiet time, which was neither recess nor work time.  (It wasn't Purgatory, either, if that's what you were thinking.) I find this memory rather poignant because a movie about the Quimby sisters is playing in theaters right now....

Back to the present. My drive to Castle Rock, WA, the gateway to Mt. St. Helens, lasted close to three and a half hours, so I had lots of time to think.  I tried to compare Mrs. Haak to other elementary school teachers that I had.  Being me, I actually could remember the names of all my teachers, but I couldn't remember anything extraordinary about them that I still carried with me. Yet, I could remember at least three things about Mrs. Haak that have resonated with me at one time or another in my life. Well, now four, seeing as I finally made it to Mt. St. Helens.

A former roommate, Charlotte, and her husband, Aaron, now live in Bend, OR, and we all met at Seaquest State Park, just outside Castle Rock, where we spent Friday night before driving up to Johnston Ridge Observatory on Saturday morning. Although we had planned long in advance to backpack near the Monument, we didn't finalize our plans until Friday morning. Unable to get permits to climb St. Helens itself, and having another permit request caught in limbo, Aaron chatted over the phone with a ranger and got us a camping permit for Dome Camp, off the Boundary #1 trail in the Mount Margaret Backcountry.

Permit in hand from the rangers at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, National Parks passport stamped, a little rearranging and distribution of gear among us so that I wouldn't be carrying 45% of my body weight, and then we set off up the Eruption Trail (the paved path for more leisurely Monument visitors) just for kicks and then merged onto the Boundary #1 trail.  By the way, this past weekend was possibly one of the hottest in the area recently, hitting the low to mid 90s in Seattle and who knows what elsewhere. The Boundary #1 trail is not particularly shaded, but on our way out, there was a decent breeze. Anyway, the trail crosses in "front" of the crater and then contours around a hill. Oddly, this single track would seem wider on the way back, but on the way out, it seemed insanely narrow, especially as people came toward us. The trail wends its way over and around hills. As for the trail surface, it was essentially soft ash/dirt.  My ankle flexors are still sore from the workout they got.
Charlotte & Aaron on the trail.
As we hiked, Mt. Hood to the south emerged, as did Mt. Adams to the west. The tip of Mt. Rainier made cameo appearances, and at one point, you could pan a 180 degree arc and see all three, plus St. Helens, of course. What a treat! There are also views of Spirit Lake, which was drastically altered after the 1980 eruption. The trail contours into some hills above the deep pool of St. Helens Lake (I'm pretty sure that's what it is), and Aaron was pretty taken with the patterns made by the scorched tree trunks floating in both St. Helens Lake and Spirit Lake. 

Aaron is an outdoor recreation instructor, which is rarely a bad person to have along in the backcountry. Particularly when you're eating wild huckleberries and wild strawberries. Actually, I think that huckleberries are wannabe blueberries, but that's just me. At any rate, you don't want to be eating the fruit next to the non-poisonous one and then turn the page of your naturalist guidebook only to discover that you've pulled a Chris McCandless. That'd put a damper on things. So, Aaron declared one particular wild strawberry patch the BEST WILD STRAWBERRY PATCH he'd ever seen. Me, I'd never seen a wild strawberry patch, so I'm taking his word for it.
THE BEST WILD STRAWBERRY PATCH EVER!
We arrived at Dome Camp just before 7pm, and what a view! One of the great things about this campsite is that there are only 2 sites available, and I think a maximum of 4 people allowed. It took us some time to figure out where exactly the tent platforms were – the map the ranger gave us wasn't a topo and only depicted two tent platforms separated by a toilet. It turns out that one tent platform was downhill from the composting toilet and the other was probably 300 feet uphill. I mean, UP hill. And the penthouse tent platform was in ill repair  only three beams and a PVC pipe denoted that it was the site. 
 The orange tent is on one tent platform, and 
the photo is taken from the other tent platform

But WHAT A VIEW! And a perfect site to watch the Perseids meteor shower, which had peaked the night before. The only downside was the unexpected light pollution from Olympia and the wind. I've no idea if the wind is a usual occurrence, but brrrrr! Oh yeah, and flying ash everywhere. Bring sunglasses or some other protection for eyes from ash/dust if you're out this way.
The next morning, before anyone else woke up, I walked up the hill behind my tent to see what was there: more trees that had been knocked down in Mt. St. Helens' lateral blast, and instead of a USGS medallion, a USDA/USFS Camera Point marker. I've no clue what that is, but here's a photo. 
Another treat:  right before we headed back out onto the trail to return to the trailhead, Aaron spotted mountain goats headed up a far ridge.  Holy cow, what a good eye!
Hey!  It's the Backcountry.com logo!  In real life!
Nothing out of the ordinary occurred on the way back in. We gazed at both of the lakes and longed to take a plunge. You know, other than the fact that it would be a huge climb back out onto the trail. The return hike back to Johnston Ridge seemed shorter, and I do think that there are slightly more downs than ups on the way back in. Which is good for me since I hate going uphill for no reason.  Good thing there was a view at the "top!"

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