Tag Archives: Mount St. Helens

‘Vancouver, Vancouver … this is it!’

When you grow up in a part of the world full of natural beauty highlighted by snowcapped peaks all along your eastern horizon, you take for granted that they’ll always be there … as in always.

Forty years ago today, that notion changed for those of us who lived west of the Cascade Range, a long string of volcanic peaks stretching from British Columbia to Northern California.

Mount St. Helens blew apart on May 18, 1980. I was at home in Portland, Ore., about 50 miles south-southwest of the peak. We couldn’t watch the event occur in real time, as the sky was overcast that Sunday morning (yes, imagine that, if you can). But oh brother, we knew about it.

There are things in life you really don’t expect to witness or experience up close. An erupting volcano, to be honest, was not on my list of life experiences. However, that day it damn sure did etch itself into my memory.

The peak began rumbling to life in March. The ground beneath the then-9,677-foot summit in southwest Washington was quaking regularly. The peak began collapsing as craters formed atop the pristine summit of Mount St. Helens. I was editor of a small daily newspaper in Oregon City. We felt compelled to cover the story as it was developing. One of our reporters, David Peters, drove to near the peak with his fiancée to visit with a young man assigned by the U.S. Geological Survey to study Mount St. Helens’ evolution from dormant to active volcano.

The young man was David Johnston. He gave Dave Peters a statement that proved hauntingly prophetic, which was that if the mountain were to blow up then and there, they all would be killed. Happily for my friends, it didn’t. They returned home and Dave wrote a wonderful story for the newspaper.

I had another thrill, flying in a single-engine airplane over the summit that day as the mountain was quaking and shuddering. Only after we returned to my acquaintance’s hangar in Mulino, Ore., did I learn that federal aviation officials clamped a no-fly restriction for miles around the summit. They didn’t bust us, for which I will be grateful.

Then came the blast that changed the history of the Pacific Northwest. The mountain’s north face slid away from a huge earthquake, releasing an torrent of ash, fiery gas and rock. Thousands of acres of virgin timber were destroyed. Spirit Lake filled with logs and all manner of volcanic debris.

David Johnston radioed immediately to his USGS headquarters, “Vancouver, Vancouver … this is it!” 

Then he was gone. The pyroclastic flow from the beastly mountain incinerated the young volcanologist in an instant.

Oh, man. The memory of it all.

Time of My Life, Part 39: Beating out the big guys

Everyone appreciates recognition. We appreciate especially when it comes from one’s peers.

My journalism career wasn’t full of such recognition. I have said I enjoyed some modest success over 37 years as a reporter and editor of daily newspapers. One such moment presented itself early in my careers.

The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in 1981 awarded the newspaper I was editing at the time its annual award for Best Continuing Coverage of a Single Issue. What made the honor so special was that our newspaper, a five-day-per-week afternoon daily that circulated to about 7,000 subscribers, won out over much larger, more well-endowed newspapers in Oregon.

The issue we covered like a blanket involved a proposed “resource recovery” plant in Oregon City. Officials in the city wanted to build a plant to burn garbage and turn it into energy generated from the landfill. Our newspaper, the now-defunct Oregon City Enterprise-Courier, comprised a staff of six reporters. One of them, David Peters, received the assignment to cover this story for the newspaper.

Dave did a magnificent job!

The plant never got built. The story we presented was thorough in the extreme. We talked to all sides on this complicated issue. We reported every possible benefit and down side of this project.

What made the honor so sweet is that it came to us in 1981, the year that the Portland Oregonian was covering the eruption of Mount St. Helens in nearby Washington state. Oh, did I mention that the Oregonian circulated about 300,000 copies daily, or that it employed a staff many times larger than our little ol’ newspaper?

The state also comprised other much larger newspapers … in Eugene, Salem, Medford, Astoria, to name just a few communities served by healthy daily publications.

ONPA saw fit to honor us.

Yes, that was our moment. I am proud to have played a part in it.

Time of My Life, Part 4: Staring down a volcano

I long have been proud to say that my career allowed me to do things that most folks don’t get to do . . . such as fly over an erupting volcano!

But in late March 1980, I had that singular honor thrust on me.

You’ve heard of the cataclysm that occurred on May 18, 1980 when Mount St. Helens exploded, wiping roughly 1,400 feet off dirt, ash and rock off its summit. It killed about 65 individuals and wiped out Spirit Lake, Wash., and thousands of acres of virgin timberland.

What you might not recall is that the eruption began two months earlier.

I was editor of the Oregon City (Ore.) Enterprise-Courier at the time. I had written a feature story about a father and son in Clackamas County who restored vintage aircraft; the son gave me a ride in a biplane, which was a thrill in itself.

I got back to the office and a day or two later we got word of Mount St. Helens rumbling; the earth was trembling under the mountain. The U.S. Geological Survey sent teams to the region to monitor the quakes. The USGS then determined quickly that the mountain was entering a pre-eruptive phase. It could blow at any minute.

I called my young friend who gave me the biplane ride and said something like this: “If Mount St. Helens starts to erupt, can I call on you to fly me to the mountain to take pictures?” He agreed.

Then came the pre-cataclysm. St. Helens began to “erupt,” meaning that the quakes began creating craters along the summit. I called my friend. I drove out to his airfield. We boarded a two-seat single-engine prop airplane and took off. In the meantime, a colleague of mine at the newspaper, David Peters, drove about 75 miles to the USGS station near the foot of Mount St. Helens, where he would interview a young man who became a legendary figure in the Pacific Northwest; more on him in a moment.

My pilot friend and I arrived at the mountain and buzzed the summit repeatedly. I threw open the window on the passengers side of the plane and snapped hundreds of pictures of the summit as ice and snow began caving into newly created craters on top of the 9,600-foot peak.

Now, full disclosure time: The plane had no working radio. We were unable to hear any warnings from the FAA or the USGS about the “stunt” we were pulling off in the moment. I would learn upon returning to the airfield that the FAA had placed a no-fly zone around the summit. We were unaware. The statute of limitations ran out long ago, so I won’t be prosecuted for this admission.

As for Dave Peters’s assignment, he interviewed a USGS volcanologist by the name of David Johnston. On May 18, 1980, it was Johnston who radioed to his headquarters in Vancouver, Wash., from a ridge north of the mountain as the peak exploded.

He yelled: Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it! The pyroclastic flow of white-hot ash and rock that sped across the ridge vaporized Johnston in an instant. He was gone. The spot where he told the world of what was occurring now carries the name Johnston Ridge.

I was enabled because of the work I did to have more fun in pursuit of that job than I really deserved. That event in March 1980 pretty much tops the list of unique experiences.

I caught my breath. We published some pictures in the newspaper. Dave Peters wrote a wonderful feature on Johnston.

My wife shared with me the thrilling experience I had on that fateful day. I told Mom and Dad about it the next day.

They, um, were not pleased.

Kilauea produces thrills and fright

Most of those of us who live in the 48 contiguous United States of America don’t have to worry about the forces of nature that are putting the folks of Hawaii in such peril at the moment.

Kilauea is erupting on the island of Hawaii. It’s showing no sign of letting up. It’s covering streets and highways with lava. I haven’t heard of any loss of life. The volcano has become — for years, apparently — part of people’s daily existence. It is getting worse.

My heart goes out to those in harm’s way.

I have been reading some material in the New York Times and other publications about comparisons between what is happening in Hawaii and what could happen along other volcanic mountain chains in the United States.

I was particularly struck by the speculation surrounding the Cascade Range, which traverses north and south from British Columbia, through Washington, Oregon and into California.

Of all the things one never expects to see in their lifetime, a volcanic eruption was one of them. That all changed for me in the spring of 1980, when Mount St. Helens, a peak that once stood about 9,700 above sea level in southwest Washington, exploded in spectacular fashion. The volcanic explosion occurred on May 18, 1980, killing about 70 individuals. It was the story of the decade for those of us living in the Pacific Northwest.

I was living in the city of my birth, Portland, Ore., about 50 miles south of the peak, which now stands at about 8,400 feet, given that so much of its peak was blown apart by the titanic blast.

Mount St. Helens’s eruption produced a vast crop of armchair vulcanologists who became “experts” based on what they heard, read and possibly felt in their bones about what might happen to any of the other volcanic peaks along the Cascade Range.

Mount Hood stands like a sentinel to the east of Portland. It’s a glorious peak that stands 11,250 feet along the horizon. Will it blow apart? That’s been the subject of some discussion since Mount St. Helens blew apart. If it does, I’ll tell you it will create serious damage along its southern face, which was shaped by its latest eruption, which occurred, oh, a long time ago. The mountain is considered “dormant,” as it seeps gas out of the caldera near its summit.

So, it is with some interest that many of us are watching the drama unfold in Hawaii. We’ve lived through it, too.

Full-time blogging is just so much fun


This is the latest in an occasional series of blog posts commenting on upcoming retirement.

I feel compelled to give you an update on the status of this blog.

I call it High Plains Blogger because that’s where I live: on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle; the Llano Estacado; or what I call — with great affection, of course — the Texas Tundra.

I created it in 2012 after leaving a career in daily print journalism. The end of that career came rather quickly. It wasn’t how I envisioned a nearly 37-year career would end. I’ve told folks for years now that all I wanted was a going-away party, with a sheet cake and frosting that had a message wishing well and thanking me for a job well done.

It didn’t happen that way … but what the hey, that’s life, man.

I created this blog and was able to transfer a lot of the blogging I’d done at the Amarillo Globe-News into High Plains Blogger’s archives.

My traffic of late has shown tremendous growth. Indeed, over the lifetime of High Plains Blogger my daily “hits” — which include page views and something called “unique visitors” — has increased about five-fold.


It’s not where I want it just yet, but it’s creeping its way toward a more acceptable level. I don’t have an end point. I haven’t said, “When it gets to a certain level, I think I’ll cap it right there.” Oh, no. You can’t have too many readers, too many followers, too many people willing to offer comment.

My intention is to keep self-promoting whenever I feel it is appropriate. Today seems like an appropriate time to call attention to this blog.

Full-time blogging is far more fun than I ever imagined it would be. Yes, I enjoyed writing for The Man. I did it for nearly four decades. I enjoyed some success. I had a hiccup or two along the way.

All told, it was a career made more fun by the people I have encountered along the way and some of the amazing things I was able to do: Flying over an erupting volcano in March 1980 on a picture-taking mission was one of them; landing on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in 1993, the USS Carl Vinson, and then being catapulted off the deck is another.

Blogging, though, is a new career I intend to pursue for as long as I can as I enter full-time retirement. You see, this full-time blogging pursuit is something that co-exists quite nicely with full-time retirement. Neither title — blogger and retiree — is mutually exclusive.

So, with that, I say “thank you” to those who read this blog regularly and to those who have offered comment. Yes, I even want to thank the critics. You know who you are. I try my best not to take it personally, as long as the criticism doesn’t call me nasty names.

Let’s enjoy the ride for as long as we can.

Some things you think you'd never see


When I was growing up, if anyone ever thought to ask me if there was something I’d like to witness but would never get the chance, I might have said “a volcanic eruption.”

I grew up in Portland, Ore., about 50 or so miles west of a chain of volcanic peaks along the Cascade Range. Most of the peaks were considered to be in various stages of dormancy. Some of them are extinct. They’ll never erupt again.

One of them, though, just northeast of our city, was considered “most likely” to erupt. Who would have thought we’d actually witness it.

Thirty-five years ago, on May 18, 1980, good ol’ Mount St. Helens blew apart in a cataclysmic blast no one likely ever thought they’d witness.

It was a Sunday. It was overcast in Portland that morning, so we didn’t actually witness the ash cloud blown 50,000 feet into the air over Washington state. Aerial photographers took plenty of pictures, though. It was a huge day in the lives of those of us who grew up looking eastward along the Cascades.

Portland’s signature actually is Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon. To the north of Mount Hood is Mount St. Helens.

Prior to the blast, Mount St. Helens cut an impressive and pristine figure against the sky. It looked almost geometrically perfect. Some folks called it the “Mount Fuji of the Americas,” as it bore some vague resemblance to Japan’s famous — and perfectly shaped — peak.

The cataclysm took care of Mount St. Helens’s appearance. It blew about 1,500 feet of dirt and rock off the top of the mountain, scattering it as part of that pyroclastic flow of hot gas and ash that ripped through the Douglas fir forest, filling Spirit Lake with fallen timber.

The mountain had been rumbling for a couple of months prior to the blast. I had the thrill of a lifetime when I flew over the summit in a private aircraft to take pictures of the crater’s early beginning. One of my colleagues at the paper where I worked drove that day in March to interview individuals who were monitoring the mountain’s activity for the U.S. Geological Service.

My colleague, Dave Peters, caught up with a young geologist named David Johnston, visited with him about what he was witnessing as the mountain started rumbling. Dave returned and filed a fascinating feature about Johnston and others he met that day.

Johnston would die in the blast a few weeks later as he was perched on a ridge that would be renamed in his memory. As the once-gorgeous peak blew apart, Johnston yelled into his radio to the USGS headquarters: Vancouver, Vancouver … this is it!

And then, just like that, he was gone.

That amazing day is etched in the memories of those of us who were aware of the volcanoes that dotted our skyline to our east.

I doubt any of us ever thought we’d witness what we saw on that Sunday morning 35 years ago.

Who knew?

When a pristine peak blew its top


Admit it. You’ve thought at least once in your life that there are things in this world you thought you’d never see, certainly not up close.

I’ve had a few of those thoughts in my life. But if you live long enough and are fortunate travel and see a few places around the world, you get to check many of those things off your “bucket list.”

I never thought I’d ever witness a volcano explode, even though I grew up in a part of the country — the Pacific Northwest — that features a range of mountains, the Cascades, that includes a string of dormant and extinct volcanos stretching from British Columbia to northern California.

On May 18, 1980, that all changed.

Mount St. Helens, a once-pristine peak that sits about 60 or so miles northeast of my hometown of Portland, Ore., erupted in a massive cloud of gas, ash, rock and magma. The prevailing wind took the massive cloud northeast over the Yakima Valley, Spokane, the Idaho Panhandle and over much of Montana.

The world had been following this story for months prior to the explosive moment. The U.S. Geological Service had sent a team of scientists to study the earthquakes that had been rumbling under the peak since February 1980. Washington Gov. Dixie Lee Ray had issued warnings to residents around the base of the peak to get out. Most of them did.

One who didn’t leave was a crusty old fellow named Harry Truman. “I ain’t goin’,” he’d say, or words to that effect. He and his cats stayed put and were buried under several hundred feet of volcanic mud.

It was a Sunday morning when the mountain blew. We didn’t see it actually explode from our house in Portland, as it was overcast that day … imagine that, eh? But it erupted and blew roughly 1,500 feet off the summit of what used to be a nearly perfect cone-shaped peak, one of several that dominates the horizon north and east of Portland.

We would see subsequent eruptions later that summer. One, in July, sent an ash cloud actually higher into the air that the May 18, 1980 cataclysmic blast. The mountain has experienced minor eruptive episodes in the years since and I believe the USGS still classifies St. Helens as an active volcano.

Arguably the most memorable quote of that remarkable moment came from a USGS scientist, who, when the mountain blew was perched on a ridge across Spirit Lake. David Johnston had been monitoring the mountain for weeks, reading seismic equipment and feeding data back to his headquarters in nearby Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland.

Then the blast occurred, prompting Johnston to exclaim: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

Then, in an instant, David Johnston was vaporized.

The rest of us remember the event well.

Mount St. Helens pictures stir scary memory

The story attached to this blog has brought back some chilling memories of my own relating to Mount St. Helens.

I’ll share them here.


The story tells of pictures that the late Reid Blackburn took in April 1980, a month before the mountain blew apart. He was a staff photographer for the Vancouver (Wash.) Columbian. Blackburn died May 18, 1980 when the north side of the volcano exploded.

I’ve got my own Mount St. Helens story that I don’t tell too often.

It involves an acquaintance I made when I was working for the now-defunct Oregon City (Ore.) Enterprise-Courier just south of Portland.

I wrote a feature story about a young man who, along with his father, refurbished old airplanes. He took me on a flight aboard a bi-plane he had fixed up. We were airborne for maybe 30 minutes. We landed and then I asked him for a favor. Media were reporting that Mount St. Helens was about to erupt and would he take to the mountain in the event of an eruption — or some activity that lent itself to pictures?

He agreed.

In late March (I think it was the 27th) the wires began reporting that earthquakes had started rumbling through the mountain and that smallish craters were forming around the summit. I called my “new best friend.” He was available. I drove quickly to his place in the country, and climbed aboard a single-engine, two-seat Cessna. We took off and headed straight north.

The flight lasted about 45 minutes. We got to the summit, I had gotten my camera out and we buzzed the summit repeatedly, watching the craters forming; ice would fall into the newly formed fissures.

Back and forth we flew. I guess we were in the air over the mountain for maybe 20 minutes. I snapped dozens of pictures.

We flew back to his landing strip just south of Oregon City.

A point of information: We had no radio aboard. Thus, we were not advised that the Federal Aviation Administration had declared the airspace several miles around the summit to be off-limits.

The statue of limitations now allows me to confess to breaking federal aviation law that day.

Happily, no one ratted us out. My pal never got into trouble. I got some memorable pictures, which we published in the next day’s paper. And I will keep those memories with me forever.


One post script: I told my dad about what we had done and he gave me a royal butt-chewing.

Then we laughed.

Semi-retirement beginning to sink in

Note: This is the first of an occasional series of blog posts discussing the onset of retirement.

I’m beginning to like being semi-retired.

It was nearly a year ago that my life was turned upside-down. I walked away from a career I had enjoyed beyond my wildest imagination. My journalism career had exposed me to some of the most interesting experiences possible. Not many folks can say they’ve attended presidential nominating conventions, interviewed a future president of the United States, a sitting vice president of the U.S., made a tailhook landing on nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (and been catapulted off the flight deck), covered stories in nearly a dozen countries around the world, exposed corruption in government, commented on a whole array of public policy issues or flown over an erupting volcano.

A management “reorganization” scheme this past summer forced me to make a decision I wasn’t prepared to make, which was to resign my job rather than seek a lesser-paying job at the company where I worked — with no guarantee I’d get even that.

My boss told me I no longer would be able to pursue my craft, which I had done for nearly four decades at three newspapers in two states. So I called it quits.

I’ve been working part-time ever since. And now my wife and I are relishing the role of semi-retired citizens. We recently purchased two vehicles: a 3/4-ton pickup and a 29-foot fifth wheel to pull behind it.

We’ve taken the fifth wheel out for a three-night “camping trip” across town, at an RV park — where we got acquainted with our new vehicle. We learned how the plumbing works, we’re getting quite good now at hooking and unhooking the fifth wheel to and from the pickup. Driving the assembly is a piece of cake.

We’re anxious to take our vehicle out for a real trip, which we’ll do in due course.

I’ve learned that we’re entering an exciting new world of discovery.

Our brand new granddaughter is growing up before our eyes, even though she lives with our son, daughter-in-law and her two big brothers a six-hour drive away. Our retirement travel plans include the kids, all of them. We’ll arrive at that point eventually.

For now, we’re both feeling better in our semi-retirement skin all the time.

I’m working three part-time jobs and enjoying all of them immensely. I’m betting we’re going to really enjoy full-time retirement even more when that day arrives.

We’re in no particular hurry for it to get here. As my late mother used to admonish my sisters and me when we were kids: Do not wish your life away.

Not going to do it, Mom. Life is pretty darn good as it is — right now.