Our Nation's Treasures

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Majestic Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens is just 40 miles or so into Washington from Oregon, and we want to visit now, 26 years after its May 18, 1980 eruption, because who knows when it might blow its top again?

The road into Mt. St. Helens from I-5 has three main visitor centers and a couple other learning centers too. At the first visitor center, Mark and I peruse the informative museum and see the 25-minute movie about the eruption. When we leave the visitor center, I stand to hear a ranger program while Mark buys water from a kiosk there.

Mt. St. Helens is the first and so far the only mountain that has erupted laterally. It was quite a surprise to geologists, who thought volcanoes could only erupt out their tops. The ranger shows us a rock about the size of a T-bone steak that the eruption blasted 17 miles traveling at a speed of 670 mph! The eruption wiped out the top 1300 feet of the mountain and flattened 229 square miles of forest. We learn that Mt. St. Helens is continuously active today, billowing up molten lava at a rate of a dump-truck load every 5 to 10 seconds. At that rate, the mountain will rebuild to its pre-eruption mass in about 40 years.

The visitor center was constructed to give a good view of the mountain, yet our view is obstructed by ash—from the eruption 26 years ago—blowing around. People with trailers are warned not to go to the top because winds are up to 75 mph!

About halfway up the access road, we stop at the trailhead for the easy hike along Clearwater Lake, which was formed after the eruption dammed a stream. True to its name, the lake’s waters are clear and so blue. A large boulder sits in the middle, and timber lines the edges of the lake, all resulting from the eruption. We see a carcass on the trail, guessing that it is an elk’s.

Just a quarter mile up the road is the Hummocks trailhead. We are not particularly interested in seeing the hummocks, or small hills, that resulted from the eruption: we know what hills look like. Yet we want to give the wind time to die down so that we can hike up top, around the mountain. The ranger told us there was a dangerously narrow strip of rock to traverse; I’m always up for thrilling.

The Hummock Trail is moderate, but we make it strenuous as daylight is running out, and we are anticipating the final hike. In the car on the way to the last visitor center and the trail around Mt. St. Helens, I realize I pushed myself too far on the last trail; my legs are shaky. Wind is significantly less than what it was earlier in the day, but gusts are still fairly strong we notice when we get out of the car at 4:55 p.m. in time to tour this final visitor center before its 6 p.m. closing.

From the patio outside through the yet ashy air, we can barely see the eruption, the lava oozing out of a single point to the right of the caldera, like foam pouring over the sides of a beaker during a chemistry experiment gone bad. Inside the visitor center, Mark looks at the displays while I listen to a ranger program. It is the same information I got from the other program upon entering the park.

The unique display in that final visitor center concerns animals and how or if they survived the eruption. Some insects survived; few fished survived; nothing else did. But of course in the 26 years since, all species have made the mountain their home again.

We decide since we have no snacks, it is still a bit windy, the day is late, my legs are fatigued, and the trail is slightly dangerous, we will skip the hike around the mountain.

We give one last look to Mt. St. Helens, with reddish brown ash from the day’s winds covering the snow. Majestic.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Winter Day in Delaware

Over Presidents Day weekend I had a book signing in Newark, Delaware. My oldest brother and his family live there, so I stayed with them. This picture is from the Hagley Museum Website.

Early Friday afternoon my sister-in-law collects me from the airport and drops me at Hagley Museum while she runs errands. Hagley is the site of the DuPont gunpowder works. The DuPonts amassed their fortune on the foundation of gunpowder manufacture, and this is where it all started in the early 1800s. The 235-acre park includes restored mills, a workers' community and the DuPont family home and gardens.

The museum is two floors of exibits, and I am the only visitor. I see what the downstairs has to offer before stepping out the back exit—a step back in time.

My first sight is the icy Brandywine River lined with 10 or so three-sided buildings that in the early 1800s were used for separate steps in the process of making gunpowder. The irregular rooms, open to the river, are small, 12-15 feet across, and the walls of gray stone are about eight inches thick, to contain an explosion should one have occurred.
I cross from the museum straight to the lookout over the bend in the river and realize that Delaware’s weather is just as Ohio’s this mid February, with snow fall covered with thick ice. I don’t fall, but I walk gingerly.

I shuffle along among the bare trees behind the stone shacks leaving no footprints on the ice to mar the tranquility of the scene. The river’s surface is frozen thinly near the bank, and though I’d like to take a closer look, I dare not as I’m alone this afternoon. One slip, and I might be MIA for hours as no one knows exactly where in the park I am.
My time in the frigid weather reminds me of a time 10 years ago or more when I hiked some snowy trails at Caesar’s Creek, along State Route 73 near Waynesville, and found it so peaceful then. I’d forgotten how nice hiking—or simply visiting a park— in the winter is.

After I pass the last stone building on the river, I take the icy bridge to the road, cross and climb into a wooded area following deer tracks that must have been left before the icefall. I’m hoping they will lead back to the museum, where my brother will meet me when he gets off work.
About a quarter mile into the wood, it hits me that a deer would likely not have an aim for the museum. So I turn back to the road.

Walking on the paved surface for just a couple steps, I realize that walking on ice-covered snow is lots more fun. I cross to the river side and meander back to the museum in time to meet my brother, and I tell him how much I enjoyed being the sole visitor to Hagley that afternoon.

While Hagley Museum was interesting, focusing on early American industry, and the grounds were pleasant and refreshing, the point I want to make with this story is that we are lucky enough here in Southwest Ohio to experience the four seasons and also lucky enough to have parks close to where we live, and just because there’s snow on the ground should not keep you from enjoying them. You’ll awaken new senses visiting a park in the winter. You’ll see new things with the leaves off the trees. You’ll feel that instant of refreshing coolness deep inside when you breath the brisk air. You’ll experience solitude as perhaps the only visitor to the park.
Oh, wait; I’ll be there. See you after the next snow.