Lawetlat’la / Loowit – 35 Years After

Photo credit: McChord Air Museum

On 18 May, 1980, at 8:32 a.m., the mountain known as Mt. Saint Helens in Washington State erupted, blowing down and scorching 230 square miles of forest. The mountain shrunk by 1,314 feet (401 m) that day; 57 people were killed in the eruption and subsequent avalanche of debris. From the USDA / Forest Service website:

Shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. In a few moments this slab of rock and ice slammed into Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.

The avalanche rapidly released pressurized gases within the volcano. A tremendous lateral explosion ripped through the avalanche and developed into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges and toppled trees. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing.

At the same time a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night as dark, gray ash fell over eastern Washington and beyond. Wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scoured all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of pumice poured from the crater. The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments.

A vast, gray landscape lay where once the forested slopes of Mount St. Helens grew. In 1982 the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation, and education. Inside the Monument, the environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance.

I and my family were in Alaska at the time, but our relatives in Seattle and Renton called us within minutes to tell us of the event even before it made the evening news. The mushroom cloud produced could be seen for miles, and the falling ash blanketed everything. Some people collected the ash and still have it saved in jars in their homes; others lamented the damage done to their vehicles when they tried to wash the ash off – powdered pumice and other igneous rocks scratch paint badly!

We took a motorcycle ride to the mountain last summer – it was a perfect, sunny day and we took the route through the Columbia River Gorge that leads through the tiny town of Cougar. It’s a crappy little place, so if you decide to visit the mountain, avoid Cougar like the plague and pack your own lunch. There are far better places to eat at! Carson / Stevenson have some decent restaurants, right there in the Gorge.

Anyway, the landscape on the mountain is fascinating to observe, especially all of the downed trees. Years later, there is still much fallen timber scattered like so many toothpicks for a Titan. I don’t go for the touristy things, usually, but the various Visitor’s Centres and museums on and around the mountain have some worthwhile exhibits.

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I would be remiss if I omitted the local lore of the First Nations peoples who lived here: the (extinct?) Multnomah and the widely-dispersed Klickitat. All of the volcanoes in the area have fascinating tales behind them, and the one behind fair Loowit is, of course, tragic…as all good myths should be. From Wikipedia:

Native American legend[edit]

Native American lore contains numerous legends to explain the eruptions of Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes in the Cascade Volcanic Arc. The most famous of these is the Bridge of the Gods legend told by the Klickitats. In their tale, the chief of all the gods, Tyhee Saghalie and his two sons, Pahto (also called Klickitat) and Wy’east, traveled down the Columbia River from the Far North in search of a suitable area to settle.[7]

They came upon an area that is now called The Dalles and thought they had never seen a land so beautiful. The sons quarreled over the land and to solve the dispute their father shot two arrows from his mighty bow; one to the north and the other to the south. Pahto followed the arrow to the north and settled there while Wy’east did the same for the arrow to the south. Saghalie then built Tanmahawis, the Bridge of the Gods, so his family could meet periodically.[7]

When the two sons of Saghalie both fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Loowit, she could not choose between them. The two young chiefs fought over her, burying villages and forests in the process. The area was devastated and the earth shook so violently that the huge bridge fell into the river, creating the Cascades Rapids of the Columbia River Gorge.[8]

For punishment, Saghalie struck down each of the lovers and transformed them into great mountains where they fell. Wy’east, with his head lifted in pride, became the volcano known today as Mount Hood and Pahto, with his head bent toward his fallen love, was turned into Mount Adams. The fair Loowit became Mount St. Helens, known to the Klickitats as Louwala-Clough which means “smoking or fire mountain” in their language (the Sahaptin called the mountain Loowit).[9]

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