Stranded In The Southland

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Mt. St. Helens

[I'm feeling kind of unsatisfied with the "And then we..." style of blogging, so I'm going to try to blog more about specific events or anecdotes, rather than providing a real strict chronology.]

What kind of Volcano Tour omits the most recently active volcano in the continental US!? It seemed kind of vital to check out Mt. St. Helens, even though we were due in Seattle that night. It's an hour's drive up to the mountain on a twisty two-lane road (goody!) and an hour's drive back (the road pretty much goes to the mountain, and that's it), so we were under some time constraints.

We started off, reasonably enough, at the first visitor's center. It's a pretty big building, with a kind of cheesy, cathedral-like architecture, but we had high hopes of gaining some insight into this whole active volcano thing.

Then we noticed the $3 fee to enter. And the fact that this wasn't a National Park Service visitor's center, but was run by the State of Washington. As a guy who grew up in Florida, a state that is whole-heartedly devoted to separating the tourist from their money, I just couldn't deal with the idea of paying for a visitor's center, let alone a second-string visitor's center (M. is of the same mind, but it may be because she's cheap). We turned on our heels and walked out.

During the trip up, Washington had placed something like three other visitor's centers, some offering glass blowing for the tourist (what that has to do with vulcanism, I'll never know). We skipped 'em all.

We did stop at a few vista points -- after all, ya gotta build that sense of anticipation on the way up, 'cause none of the vistas are going to be interesting after you've been to the top. Unfortunately, M. and I have different philosophies about checking out vistas. I wanted to stop at every one for just a minute or so, then bop on up the road. M. wanted to fuss around with her stuff, get out, take a few pictures, use the binoculars, then skip a bunch of vistas 'cause we were out of time. Sadly, this stylistic difference persisted throughout the trip.

At the penultimate vista point, we did get to see little puffs of steam coming out of the caldera. With the binoculars, we could actually see lots and lots of steam; the caldera certainly looked as busy as anything we saw at Yellowstone last year. Woo hoo.

The final visitor's center on Johnson Ridge, was actually worth it. It was run by the National Park Service, and, while it cost $8[*] apiece, we really appreciate the various videos and seismographs and other toys. Johnson Ridge is the site where vulcanologist David Johnson was engulfed and crushed by debris just a few dozen seconds or so after the beginning of the 1980 eruption; it was amazing to stand there and look at the distant mountain and think about the force of that eruption.

Currently, the geologists are studying the mountain using several-hundred pound instrument packages, "Spiders", which have a big-ass battery, seismograph, camera, and ad hoc wireless networking software. They drop 'em onto the mountain with a helicopter, and gather data as long as the packages survive. A few wind up falling off of growing lava domes, or crushed under rockfall, but that's kind of the point of putting an instrument package up there instead of a geologist.

The fascinating part is that a bunch of folks at my day job work on wireless instrument packages like this, but they use Motes, which are powered by AA batteries, and easily fit into the palm of your hand. It was kind of cool to see the giant motes that could only be lifted by helicopter (or a couple of beefy grad students, I guess). How fun!

In any case, at this point, we had to get outta there and haul ass towards Seattle. It's too bad that the road just stops at Johnson Ridge, and that you have to drive something like 50 miles before you can take off on another road, as it kind of limited our options. :-(

[Although, we actually came back a week later to drive up to the mountain from the south and hike through a lava tube, but I guess that's another story.]

[*] Well, I just bought the interagency pass for $80. I have to pay $30 a year for a pass to go hiking in the Angeles National Forest, and with the $16 for the two of us, and a few other sites we visited on this trip, it came close to paying for itself already. Hopefully I'll hit a few more sites before it expires next year and it'll be worth it. If only we hadn't had the free day at Lassen, it'd've worked out closer! Darn those park service free weekends! Even if it doesn't work out to be a deal, it's still cool that the money goes to the park service.