Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Wildlife

Mt. St. Helens: 40 Years Later

A field of red and purple flowers with a tent and mountain views in the background
A tall volcanic peak dotted with snow rises behind a field of bright red wildflowers

The volcanic cone of Mt. St. Helens rises above grassy slopes covered with scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata).

This past May marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant natural disasters in U.S. history: the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. 2004 to 2008 brought another series of eruptions, but today Mt. St. Helens is quiet. Stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens generally provide some degree of warning (often in the form of earthquakes or surface deformation) before erupting. Given that Mt. St. Helens is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the U.S. (if not the world), the lack of activity in recent years has once again made the surrounding landscape a recreational destination.

The northeast side of Mt. St. Helens is just a few hours from our front door, accessed via a series of forest service roads that, while technically paved, are in such poor condition that one pines for the sweet rhythm of dirt washboards. Much of the land most directly affected by the 1980 eruption is protected as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established two years after the eruption. Camping and off-trail travel is restricted across a large swath of the monument to allow scientific study of how the landscape evolves post-eruption, with minimal human disturbance. Recently, we took a short backpacking trip to the northeast flank of the mountain, where camping is allowed, but where recurring volcanic activity has still left the landscape relatively devoid of tall vegetation. The result is spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens itself and the surrounding terrain (and, it turns out, any bright comets that happen to be gracing the skies.)

This was my third visit to the area but first in about 10 years. My previous visits had been in late summer and early fall, when the only wildflowers to speak of were some hardy stalks of late-blooming fireweed. On this visit, in early July, the grassy slopes of the lower mountain were awash in what can only be described as a riot of wildflowers. Paintbrush and penstemon dominated the scene, resulting in slopes that glowed red and purple from miles away and absolutely lit up at sunset and sunrise. It was truly one of the most spectacular wildflower displays I have ever seen!

A field of red and purple flowers with a tent and mountain views in the background

Scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) and Cardwell’s penstemon (Penstemon cardwellii) frame our campsite on a barren pumice slope on the northeast flank of Mt. St. Helens.

We settled on a campsite located on a small, barren ridge of pumice and ash where we could set up for the evening without impacting the gorgeous display all around us. Shortly thereafter, a handful of mountain goats came wandering through…with a good deal less regard for the wildflowers. While this was slightly concerning at first, as mountain goats can be aggressive, they seemed to be enjoying the buffet too much to notice our presence. We watched them slowly eat their way up-slope behind our campsite for well over an hour (as we somewhat nervously heated up our cans of soup and baked beans, while hoping that they continued to find the scent of the penstemon more attractive) before they finally bedded down on a distant ridge for the evening.

A mountain goat grazes a field of bright purple and red flowers

A mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is paralyzed by indecision while looking at the wide array of tasty offerings, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington. 

Two mountain goats graze a field of bright purple and red flowers

“The paintbrush looks tasty!” 

A mountain goat grazes a field of bright purple and red flowers

Mountain goats, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

A white mountain goat looks out over the lower slopes of a volcanic peak

A mountain goat surveys the lower, barren slopes of Mt. St. Helens.

On just a few hours of sleep, we hiked back out to our car the next morning and enjoyed some day hikes to the north of Mt. St. Helens over the next two days. This area provides the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the 1980 eruption. The blast reduced the elevation of Mt. St. Helens by over 1,000 feet, replacing the formerly sharp summit with a massive crater. Part of the crater has since been filled in by a lava dome extruded in the months following the eruption, and again during the eruptive sequence of 2004-2008. Another dramatic feature of the landscape is Spirit Lake. This once idyllic destination was directly in the path of the eruption on May 18, 1980. The massive landslide associated with the eruption filled in a large portion of the lake with debris, pushing the entire lake northward and raising the water level by about 200 feet, burying numerous buildings, camps, and, unfortunately, Mt. St. Helens Lodge owner Harry Truman, who had steadfastly ignored evacuation orders in the weeks leading up to the eruption. To this day, a massive raft of logs floats on the lake surface, the remains of trees uprooted in the 1980 eruption.

A volcanic cone rises behind a lake covered with floating logs

Mt. St. Helens from Bear Pass. In the foreground is Spirit Lake, covered with floating logs: the remains of trees uprooted by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens and washed into the lake.

Thousands of logs float on the surface of a high mountain lake

The log raft as seen from lake level at the end of the Harmony Trail, the only legal access to the shore of Spirit Lake.

As a geologist, I find the landscape around Mt. St. Helens endlessly fascinating. Changes since my last visit 10 years ago were clearly visible in many places. Mt. St. Helens is the most active of the Cascade volcanoes and will certainly erupt again. Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is ultimately temporary.


Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation
A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)


Alaska (Part One)

A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river
A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river

Dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) along the banks of the Toklat River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A highlight of summer 2019 was a hastily arranged trip to Alaska at the end of June and beginning of July. With a summer of unemployment (translation: freedom) looming, we obtained surprisingly cheap tickets from Seattle to Anchorage and then rented a car for a two week journey around the state.

It was a fun yet somewhat strange trip, for a number of reasons. For one, Alaska was experiencing record high temperatures (90 degrees F in several places that we went) and extensive wildfires during our visit. Two words that summarize the trip would be “hot” and “smoky”. We were prepared with a LOT of warm clothes and rain gear and used hardly any of it.

We were not mentally prepared for the omnipresent light. Even though we never ventured above the Arctic Circle, and thus the Sun did technically set each day, it did so only for a few hours between about midnight and 3 am, never getting far enough below the horizon to result in true darkness. It’s one thing to know in your mind that it won’t get dark out, but another another to actually experience it. It’s even more disorienting when you are sleeping in a tent or the back of a Subaru Outback most nights. I hadn’t really considered (again, a hastily arranged trip…) the photographic implications either. With the ideal light for photos coming in around 11 pm-midnight and 3-4 am, it was hard to be out and about at the “golden hours” while also taking advantage of the few pseudo-dark hours to actually sleep.

Anyways, after a day of stocking up on supplies and food in Anchorage (I’m told there is a gorgeous mountain range at the edge of town, but we never really saw it), we headed north to our first stop: Denali National Park. We were fortunate enough to catch a distant and smoky view of Denali itself as we approached the park. While we would be much closer to North America’s highest mountain later in the trip, we wouldn’t see it again.

View of snowy peak through a layer of smoke

Denali, the highest point in North America, seen through the smoke from Denali State Park.

Denali National Park is unique in that, while a road does exist, you can’t take a private vehicle into the heart of the park. Travel along the main park road is on foot or via concessionaire-operated school buses. We opted for the cheapest bus option, the “un-guided” tour that allows you to get off the bus pretty much where ever you want in order to have a look around. We took the bus into Denali on two consecutive days, made a few short forays on foot into the backcountry, and explored some of the maintained trails near the park entrance:

Gray clouds hover over a landscape of scattered trees and shrubs

A roadside scene in Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscape of barren rock, green vegetation, and distant glaciers and snowy peaks

View of the Teklanika River Valley and Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscapce of brown and red rocks and soil, and green vegetation

Oxidized volcanic rocks of the Teklanika Formation on the slopes of Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

Bright pink wildflowers growing on a rocky slope

Scammon’s springbeauty (Claytonia scammaniana) clings to a rock slope on Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

A river flows through rocky crags, as someone stands on a bridge over the river

Exploring a trail along the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A caribou stands alongside a river flowing out of a snowy mountain range

A caribou grazes along the banks of the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

Aside from the geological scenery, Denali is also crawling with wildlife. I can emphatically say that the bus makes for a pleasant and safe place from which to observe grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and other potentially threatening organisms at close range. A few of the wildlife encounters we had off the bus were decidedly less enjoyable.

Three grizzly bears amble in a field of green grass

Three damp grizzly bears in a grassy meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo taken from the bus. 

Three moose forage in a pond

Three moose browse the bottom of a shallow pond, Denali National Park, Alaska. Not a bus photo, but we were at the top of a hill several hundred feet above the pond. 

Several white sheep clamber among a cliff of rocks

Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) scramble on rocky cliffs high above the Denali Park Road. 

A tourist stand alongside a river scanning the mountains with binoculars

One human (Homo sapiens) observes the previously pictured Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) through binoculars.

After four days in Denali, our rental car no longer possessed a complete set of safe and functional tires, resulting in a new rental car and an unscheduled detour to Fairbanks before our next destination: Kennecott and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Until next time!