Mount Saint Helens was the last stop on my recent trip south to Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. Any longtime reader of my blog will know that I have a special reverence for Green Lake in Mount Rainier National Park but Mount Saint Helens is the true reason that I eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest. Back in college, I really became intrigued by the eruption and subsequent recovery of the landscape following the event. I studied geography in college with an emphasis in computer mapping and remote sensing. At that time, no one had done an analysis of the recovery using remote sensing (basically an analysis using satellite imagery) and this really surprised me given the 20 year plus archive of imagery at that time. Anyways, it was this seed that actually encourage my first ever visit to the northwest.
Although I’ve climbed the mountain from the south side several times since moving up here in 1999, my last visit to the blast area was in 1997 or 1998. I was definitely overdue for a return visit! What I decided to do was head to Johnston Ridge for sunset, hang out overnight for some star photography and then shoot sunrise before finally heading home. I still had an entire day to get to Johnston Ridge so I made another trip up the Lewis River drainage to explore a little more. The initial weather was pretty good for stream and waterfall photography with mostly cloudy skies and nice, even light. Far too quickly, however, it changed to mostly and completely sunny skies. On my way up the valley, I stopped off near the Ape Caves and visited the Trail of Two Forests interpretive trail. I almost visited it last year while up in this area but a busload of school kids at the site kept me going. On this day, I had the area to myself.
The trail is a small, 1/4 mile boardwalk trail with several interpretive signs pointing out several volcanic features from a previous lava flow event such as lava tubes, log dams, and tree molds where the base of trees used to be (before being burned by the lava). It was a nice spot to explore and I did manage to come away with this shot of one of the lava tube openings. After completing the trail, I headed further up the Lewis valley making several stops to poke around. The forest floors here are rich with vanilla leaf and I’m a sucker for trying to capture a representative scene of this. Today was no exception…
The bright sun made it painfully obvious that I wouldn’t be photographing much else of what I had hoped to. I turned around and began my drive back to I-5 to make my way to Johnston Ridge. Just before you reach the Volcanic Monument, you pass Weyerhaeuser’s Forest Learning Center perched atop a cliff overlooking the Toutle River valley with the mountain in the distance. It’s free and does have some nice views so it’s worth a stop at least once. Keep in mind they are a commercial logging company so the center is a bit of a “hooray for us” PR piece where they strongly tout their reforestation efforts. While they are impressive, monolithic stands of Noble Firs doesn’t necessary qualify as “recovery” from an ecosystem perspective and takes on a somewhat Children of the Corn appearance (in other words, eerie).
As I approached Coldwater Lake, I was greeted by an intersection with my travel direction blocked by a manned and closed gate. I did not remember this from my last visit so I pulled over to go talk with the Forest Service employee. After setting me straight with directions, I was asking him about my intended plans for the evening. I was informed that, although they do not close a nightly gate, the Johnston Ridge area is closed to the public from 9pm to 7am. So much for my night and sunrise plans! Sunset on this evening was literally minutes before 9pm and that pretty much restricted my options for sunset. From the Visitor Center, I walked west and found one spot with some wildflowers in the foreground. I had some time to work with so I headed east from to see what other options there may be. I didn’t want to go too far east because parts of the ridge would begin to block some parts of the Plains of Abraham. I eventually found another spot with some Indian Paintbrush in bloom and set up my camera as well as my GoPro for a timelapse.
I started my timelapse and sat down to watch sunset. Things were looking good- stringy, wispy clouds were scattered across the sky. About a half hour before sunset, those wispy clouds had been pushed further east and I wasn’t left with much. The light on Mount Saint Helens just smoothly changed from white to yellow to orange to pink without much fanfare. The time of sunset arrived and I technically had just minutes to be back at my truck and leave. I forced myself to stop my timelapse and quickly packed up my gear for the hurry hike back to the parking lot. There was a slight rebound in the light and it killed me that I couldn’t really stop and photograph it (or capture it with my timelapse). At one point on my way back, I had a view down at the parking lot and my truck was the only car in a lot that held hundreds of cars. Today, I would be the last person to leave Johnston Ridge. Before I did, however, I enjoyed the silence a little bit longer. I expected to see a Forest Service employee sweeping the area clear but that didn’t happen. I really wanted to stay but…I left.
But where to go for my night and sunrise plans? Weighing my options, I made my way back to the Castle Lake Viewpoint. I arrived to an empty parking lot (and it would stay empty overnight and through sunrise). Now it was a matter of waiting for it to get dark and for the stars to come out. At 10:30-11pm, it was finally dark enough to start experimenting. Ideally, I was looking to take a photo with the Milky Way arching above the mountain but that looked to be hours away. Several sequences in, I attracted a visitor. Although I never saw it, the yelp from a (presumed) coyote kept sounding off in the darkness off to my right. At one point, the yelps suddenly were off to my left. All right, I admit- this was a bit freaky. About a half hour after my visitor made its vocal appearance, high clouds really started to roll in from the west. Soon enough, I lost any chance to take more star shots. I took that as my cue and hunkered down in my truck for a cat nap.
To my surprise, I got about 4 hours of sleep and woke up at about 3:30am to a crescent moon which had risen. I could see my surroundings better and could also see that those high clouds were still around. To the east, however, was a nice sized clear window. I really was hoping that the sunlight would flood through and reflect off of the cloud ceiling. For ONCE I was ready and in position! Once again, I started my GoPro and waited for the light show. And waited. And waited some more. Still waiting. Oh- it tried! I could see a faint show of color immediately near the horizon but not the explosion I was so eagerly awaiting. I held out hope but no dice. Once it officially was sunrise, I waited just a little longer to make sure I was shut out. I was- but there was a subtle surge of orange color. I set back up and focused on the mountain where the color was a contrast to some brooding clouds behind and to the east of the mountain.
So now it was finally time to head home. Hold on- why did that car stop? As I scanned the slopes below where the car stopped, I finally saw what they were looking at: a herd of elk heading down to the Toutle River valley. Comically, I run and get my camera & telephoto lens and set up again. My telephoto lens at 300mm was still a bit too far but you work with what you have. I was fortunate enough to capture a sequence of some playful sparring between a couple of young elk. Ok, now I’m REALLY leaving! A few hours later I was back in the Puget Sound and back on the grid. My phone was catching up with all its notifications and one of them was a message from a friend from the previous night. The message I didn’t get was an alert to look for the auroras. So- while I was enjoyed cloudy skies, the auroras were out and being photographed by people as far south as Crater Lake in Oregon. Perfect. My luck sometimes….