Northwest observations and surprises

To this couple largely attached to the east coast, our driving tour of Washington state and Oregon has proven interesting and occasionally surprising. Here are some of my notes and observations over the past few days:

  • I expected the “Cascade Curtain” (the Cascade Mountains) to let across more moisture than it does. In fact, it seems to stop most of the moisture rolling in off the Pacific coast, making the change startling when you cross over the divide. Very quickly the landscape devolves into desert. It is a desert that looks substantially different than the desert I was more familiar with in the American west where the latitudes are lower. No cacti to be found in eastern Washington state, but there is plenty of sagebrush. During the summer, the land seems awash in pastel colors, principally brown and shades of off-yellow but also a grayish blue from the sagebrush. With its lower humidity come a lot more summer sunshine and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures were particularly noticeable in out of the way places we visited, like Othello, Washington where temperatures hovered in the nineties.
  • Near Othello, Washington is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which few visit but where more should. We ventured deep down gravel roads and into small lakes where wildlife mostly lurk and where visitors can wade into cool, clear lakes such as Soda Lake very far from the maddening crowds. The terrain includes gently rolling mesas that are largely unseen by tourists and that are populated by more than 230 species of birds. It is worth the drive, but our AAA tour book somehow missed giving this off road experience the Gem attraction status it deserves. Maybe it’s best that fewer go there. With more tourists, something doubtless would be lost.
Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
  • The Columbia River in Washington State provides so much water that it seems it can provide limitless irrigation. This is probably mostly an illusion, as the many dams along the Columbia create huge backstops of water. I have eaten plenty of delicious Washington State apples, but I had no idea so much else was grown on what would otherwise be desert land in eastern Washington State. Fruits and vegetables of many kinds can be found growing along the roads of the state, all artificially watered from the sometimes quite distant Columbia River. So many of these crops require humans to harvest them, which probably explains the large Hispanic population in eastern Washington state. Many of the towns we stopped in (such as Othello) seem to be largely overrun with Hispanics with English signs hard to find. Presumably they provide the bulk of the migrant labor the area needs. We stopped at a Laundromat in Wenatchee where we were the only English speaking people in the place, where cashing checks was a big business in the store next door, and where soccer in Spanish played loudly on the TV in the Laundromat. It was a strange experience to feel an alien in my own country.
  • The Tri-Cities area of Washington State consists of the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick. We spent a night at a Red Lion in Richland and found Richland to be a delightful and well maintained small city. It was a short walk from our hotel down to the banks of the Columbia River where we found a city dock and dozens of people happily swimming in the water, whilst trim joggers and cyclists inhabited the walkway next to the river. If I were looking for an eclectic place to retire, Richland would be it. It surprised us. It was also delightful to know that the Columbia River was so clean that people could frolic in its waters without a care.
  • And speaking of the Columbia River, a scenic drive along the Columbia Gorge should be on every traveler’s list of journeys. It is a bit like a raft ride through the Grand Canyon, except that for much of it you are hugging the interstate on the Oregon side of the river. The bottled up river gives it a surreal look because it is surrounded by desert hills and mountains. The contrast of the blue Columbia River water compared with the brown hills is startling and the scenery rarely changes over hundreds of miles. For the most part the basin lacks the massive rock strata one sees in the Grand Canyon, but this may be in part because much of it is submerged underwater.
Columbia River Gorge
  • We discovered a few hidden gems along the Columbia River Basin. One was the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum a few miles east of The Dallas, Oregon. While relatively small, it is beautifully constructed and has a prime view of the Columbia River. Inside there are exhibits talking about both the geological and historical history of the gorge along with films you can watch that will kill a couple hours. There are also wildlife rehabilitation specialists at the museum who gave a talk on the many raptors in the area. We got to see up close a great horned owl and a red-tail hawk that were too injured to be released back into the wild and were sheltered at the center. We watched enrapt (and somewhat squicked) as each devoured a dead mouse, skull, tail and all.
  • The museum also provided us with a map of old U.S. 30 that sits next to I-84. Doubtless most of the tourists zipping up and down the interstate are wholly unaware of a set of spectacular falls along this road that dump into the Columbia River. Taking the route proved fortuitous, not only for viewing these spectacular waterfalls, but to get around the traffic that was bottling up westbound I-84. Perhaps the most spectacular of these falls is Multnomah Falls, which plunges 620 feet. It is the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Niagara Falls gets many more tourists, but even if you find yourself not too impressed by Multnomah Falls, there are a half dozen others along a short stretch of U.S. 30 to enjoy as well.
Multnomah Falls
  • It’s been five years since I was in Portland, Oregon. This time I am here for pleasure, and this time there is not the unrelenting rain I encountered in 2005. Instead we are blessed with beautiful sunny days and temperatures that don’t quite make it to eighty. Portland is but a shadow of its big brother city Seattle to its north, but arguably it is a much more livable city. Light rail makes getting around much of the city easy. The city is very bike friendly, and its moderate temperatures make biking year round to work a realistic option for many commuters, even in the rain, which rarely amounts to a driving rain. It is a strange mixture of progressiveness and conservatism. On the conservative side is its strange tax structure, which forgoes a sales tax but levies a hefty income tax instead. The result in economic downturns is not pretty and include shortened school years and talk of four day school weeks this year. Yet there seems to be money to extend its light rail system. The city feels clean and safe. Like Richland, Washington the City of Portland also feels like some place that I could comfortably retire.

Mount St. Helens: One Badass Volcano

As I sit here on the east coast recuperating from jet lag my mind is still on my recent west coast trip. I was in Portland, Oregon last week to attend an information technology exchange meeting. On Thursday many of the attendees including myself were bussed two hours or so north into Washington State to spend 90 minutes or so at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which overlooks Mount St. Helens. (I work for the U.S. Geological Survey, so this was an obvious choice for a field trip, although not all of us are geologists.) Mount St. Helens, as you may recall, left its calling card twenty-five years ago on May 17, 1980 when it ferociously erupted.

As you know from recent news reports it still simmers today. Let us hope that if it blows again in our lifetime it does not wreak the same devastation it accomplished in 1980. At 8:32 a.m. on that May morning the mountain erupted sideways with a force that is still hard for us to comprehend. One could compare the force to an atomic bomb but really it was a much, much larger force than a mere atomic bomb. It was the equivalent of about one thousand atomic bombs. While it did not release radioactivity it did knock down old growth forest trees seventeen miles away. In the course of a few hours the 9,677 foot peak was reduced to 8,364 feet. The smoke from the eruption circled the globe. The swath of destruction reached for 234 square miles.


Unlike Hiroshima though when Mount St. Helens blew up it did so largely far away from people. But there were casualties. 57 people were known to have died as a result of the blast. Included in the statistics was USGS geologist David Johnston who had the dubious privilege of being the geologist on site on the day of the explosion. He was stationed at the Coldwater II observation station at least five miles from the volcano and likely died almost instantly. No trace of him or his equipment was ever found. This is not too surprising. Within several miles of the blast every living thing was vaporized. The power of the explosion was so severe that old growth forests in the inner circle of the explosion were not just sheared off but they completely disintegrated. After the explosion all vegetation in the inner core was gone and only sheer rock remained. Further from the blast zone 87,000 acres of trees snapped in two as if they were match sticks. The eruption melted seventy percent of the snow and glaciers on the mountain, causing boiling mud to come down the mountain, carrying trees and debris, clogging rivers, and making parts of the Columbia River unnavigable. Ash as white and fine as talcum powder appeared hundreds of miles away in Montana. In short it was the defining natural event in America during my lifetime. And yet apparently it was not nearly as big an eruption as have occurred in the past on the mountain. This one was more like a sneeze.

Getting to the mountain by car is more difficult than it seems, but involves a lovely bucolic drive north on I-5 from Portland and a turn east on Route 504. There is a visitor’s center near Toutle, but it is more than 25 miles from the volcano itself. The visitor who really wants to get a close look at the volcano needs to keep driving east following the North Fork of the Toutle River over many a twisty and steep road toward the Johnston Ridge Observatory. It is a drive is worth making, not just for the destination but also for the awe-inspiring beauty along the way. I was glad I wasn’t doing the driving since some of the turns were not the type that allowed much margin for error. 25 years later much of the vegetation has returned. Elks are grazing in the hills again. Trees can be found on the hillsides again too, although they are clearly fairly young trees. Outside the immediate blast zone though one can still see many of the casualties of that day, including the remnants of trees from the explosion. Today the streams run clear again.

We found Mount St. Helens much like Portland: mostly cloudy with periods of pelting rain. The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits above a pumice-filled plain and about five miles due north of Mount St. Helens. At 4300 feet it was a bracing place to be in mid May. I found that when I was outside I needed to put on my gloves. The wind is a constant presence on the ridge. Often passing clouds obscured the volcano. You may prefer to watch the volcano from the relative safety of the observatory, which includes a museum, gift shop and a large amphitheater. The multimedia show of course highlights the destruction that occurred in 1980. I found my umbrella to be useless. The wind was too brisk. So I had to dodge the pelting rain to grab a few pictures. Fortunately as we were leaving to return to Portland the sun broke through at last and I could take a few pictures of the mountain that were not obscured.

Looking over the edge of Johnston Ridge and down into the Pumice Plain is a feeling comparable to looking over the rim of the Grand Canyon. While the view is not quite as majestic as the one from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, it is awe inspiring nonetheless. When the fleeting weather permits the view of the volcano both inspires and unnerves. But what really rattles the nerves is imagining what it must have felt like to be there on the ridge on that day in 1980. It is hard to fathom the 800-degree heat and the ferocity of the explosion that destroyed and pulverized all but the impermeable rock. After all there are five miles between you and the volcano. The immensity of the space between you and the volcano feels grandiose. Nothing manmade would have survived those moments, but I wish there could have been a camera that caught it all anyhow. So imagination will have to suffice.

Back in 2002 my family and I visited the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s big island. That was also an impressive volcano. But Kilauea is an oozing volcano, not an explosive volcano. The bedrock of the Cascades mountain range is much different than that in Hawaii. At Mount St. Helens you are more likely to have massive explosive eruptions than slow oozing eruptions.

There are volcanoes all along the Pacific Rim, of course. But Mount St. Helens is likely the most active volcano of all of them. So while we can expect that the volcano will continue to sputter at us we need to be vigilant. There may be bigger and larger surprises from this volcano in our lifetime. It has surprised us before.

But while it is in a state of relative slumber it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Pacific Northwest. My feeble words do it little justice, nor does the Volcano Cam perched on Johnson Ridge. In its slumbers it is a place to visit if you want to grasp the awesome power of nature.