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A key lesson is the importance of "biological legacies"—fallen trees, buried roots, seeds, gophers, amphibians—that survived the blast, thanks to snow cover, topography, or luck. Ecologists had assumed rebirth would happen from the outside in, as species from border areas encroached on the blast zone. But recovery has also come from within. Starting with a single plant Crisafulli discovered in 1981 on the barren, 3,750-acre expanse known as the Pumice Plain, purple prairie lupines became the first color in a world of sterile gray. In life they were nutrient factories, food for insects, habitat for mice and voles; in death they, and the organisms they attracted, enriched the ash, allowing other species to colonize. Gradually the blast zone began to bloom.

Take a broad view, and you see that humans are also part of the St. Helens experiment. What captivated the country 30 years ago was not just the size of the blast but that it happened to us, to people we understood and a landscape we loved. Now, as nature springs back and memories fade—and budgets and visitor numbers fade as well—humans are becoming restless. Some say the monument should be wrenched from the Forest Service and made a national park. Others hear tales of two-foot trout and wonder why Spirit Lake is still off-limits. Last spring a bill to open it to limited fishing passed 95 to 1 in the Washington State House before stalling in the senate. Some locals grumble that 30 years of research is enough—that it is time to open the restricted zone. None of this should surprise us. Even on a human scale, St. Helens is an ecosystem trying to find equilibrium.

What I remember from my swim in Spirit Lake is not a sunken forest but an underwater jungle. Last August I drove behind Crisafulli on a sinuous two-lane road along Windy Ridge, through a damaged gate secured by a makeshift chain—"You'd think there'd be enough money to buy a new damn gate," Crisafulli said—and down a scary, slopeside jeep trail into the restricted area. At the edge of the Pumice Plain we began the two-and-a-half-mile walk that the lean 52-year-old has taken thousands of times. His ponytail swung with each step. He talked ecology almost nonstop, his New York accent still discernible after 30 years in the blast zone. Behind us was the volcano, snowless and gray, its northern wall collapsed, its crater exposed. In front was the lake, its surface calm and two-fifths covered by the "log raft," a shifting mass of thousands of floating logs. Along the trail were fir saplings, lupines, and Indian paintbrush, 15-foot-tall thickets of willow and alder, and, near a stream, hordes of toads and tree frogs. At the lake's edge, we got into warm fleece overalls that Crisafulli called bunny suits, into dry suits and masks and snorkels, and into a Zodiac raft, which motored into Duck Bay. And then into the frigid water.

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