High above, two majestic eagles soared toward the stunted volcanic dwarf of Mount St. Helens. But their real target was fish returning to the silt-choked Toutle River below them. And that, a year later, was a good sign.
On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 on a crystal-clear Pacific Northwest morning, Mount St. Helens blew her top with a force greater than that of any nuclear weapon in the American arsenal.
To the north, the blast wave swept more than a dozen miles, incinerating first, asphyxiating next, splintering forests of giant Douglas fir like mere matchsticks, killing at least 62 persons, burying pristine Spirit Lake and its legnedary mountain-man guardian, Harry Truman, under hundreds of thousands of tons of mud and debris.
The sonic boom could be heard 300 miles away in Canada. The effects would be felt still farther.
The the east, volcanic ash and fine silicates baked as hard as tiny diamonds buried small towns and farms in eastern Washington, then swept on to Idaho and Montana and finally crossed Washington, D.C., and New York on a stratospheric trip that altered sunsets around the world.
To the west, the dregs from the mountain and the water out of Spirit Lake rushed down mountain valleys to kill the Toutle River. By the time the debris reached this little town it was a wall of forest trees and housing planks and mud and water 30 feet high.
The water temperature, headed by magma from the bowels of the earth, rose to 100 degrees. Salmon and steelhead, the prize fish of these northern rivers, arched out of the hot water and then fell back dead, floating grotesquely on their backs in the wake of the holocaust.
Now, a year later, nature is renewing itself -- quickly, in some cases, like the cruising eagles looking for a new generation of fish now making their way up the Toutle; slowly, in others, one-celled algae being the only life to return thus far to the much of Spirit Lake.
The volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens left many human legacies here -- scientific man attempting to get a better grasp on nature's powers, pragmatic man trying to fight and control the same powers, bureacratic man trying to cope with it all through law, naturalistic man tryig to live with it in harmony.
For the scientists, nature's giant belch has provided a chance of a lifetime. It has given them new knowledge and new puzzles to grapple with. The volcano has erupted eight times since the first explosion -- none nearly as seriously -- and the region has been shaken by 10,000 earthquakes.
Scientists have attached seismic wiretaps to the sides of at least four other "dormat" volcanoes in the Cascade mountains, a chain of more than a dozen volcanoes stretching from southern British Columbia to northern California. And they now are wondering if the mountains are "talking to each other" -- an old Indian belief that sophisticated white men had scorned until the past year.
"Before Mount St. Helens became active, I would have said no, volcanoes don't talk to each other," says Steve Malone, a University of Washington seismologist who has been monitoring the activity. "I'm no longer sure this is an unreasonable hypothesis."
Malone and other scientists speculate that it may be only a matter of time now before other volcanoes -- scenic peaks like Mount Baker, which has been bubbling and burping since 1972, and Mount Adams and Mount Hood -- kick up the way St. Helens did.
Time, of course, is measured in geological terms by scientists -- millenia certainly, centuries perhaps, decades or years maybe. Mount. St. Helens, the most active volcano in North America, last blew in 1837 and kept rumbling for 14 years. Others in the chain erupted 20,000 years ago. Mount Lassen, one of the southernmost of the Cascade volcanoes, erupted early in this century.
Pragmatic man, of course, can't handle that kind of time measurement. So, like the salmon and the steelhead, he is coming back to the Toutle. Bridges are being rebuilt, highways repaired, felled timber methodically salvaged by loggers trudging through four-foot layers of volcanic ash further upstream.
In the past year, the Army Corps of Engineers has removed 75 million cubic yards of volcano-produced silt and gravel from the Toutle and its sister river, the Cowlitz. The corps will dredge continuously for the next decade, piling the dirt into 40-foot flood-control mounds along the once glacially pure stream.
Along the shoreline, some people are rebuilding ravaged homes. Tourists flock to the scene, eying Mount St. Helens T-shirts the disaster-struck locals hang from clotheslines strung across mud where crops and orchards once bloomed.
Far to the east, in the orchards and wheatlands of Eastern Washington, the great ashfall is beginning to turn into nature's fertilizer instead of nature's curse. Crops are doing well, apple harvests promising to be good. Along the Toutle, however, where the mud sometimes is 10 feet deep, little grows except the grass seed sown by helicopter to prevent further erosion. It grows wherever it fell, poignantly sprouting on the roofs of half-buried ranch houses.
Bureacratic man was probably the least succesful of all the participants in the explosion of Mount St. Helens.
Shortly after the eruption, Dixy Lee Ray, then Washington's governor, dramatically faced off President Carter and demanded, spelling it out -- M O N E Y -- to save her state from unprecedented disaster. Former senator Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, romped almost $1 billion in volcano-relief funds through the Congress.
All three lost in the 1980 elections. And their disaster money seems to have been lost, too. Of $951 million appropriated for disaster relief, far less than half has been spent, the bureaucracy uncertain how to make the money work in such an unusual case.
Of the $86 million given to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with ashfall clean up, about one-third of the money has been spent. In Yakima, Wash., where two inches of ash covered the town and blew into five-foot drifts, FEMA decided federal funds could be spent on brooms but not shovels.
Of the largest chunk of volcano aid, $430 million for Small Business Administration loans, $68 million has found its way to victims. It takes up to six months to process the paperwork and SBA laws weren't written for volcano victims.
"A lot of people don't fit inside the programs," laments an aide to Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.), in whose congressional district most of the damage was wreaked. "We have to take a new look at disaster assistance laws to make them more flexible. We've had hundreds of complaints."
A year ago 74-year-old Sam Hornstra stood in his riverfront filbert orchard, or what was left of it. A few days earlier he could walk beneath the graceful boughs of his trees. So much mud had poured out of the Troutle that the filberts looked like gray, ground-hugging rhododendrens instead.
Now, a year later, all but five of Hornstra's 800 filberts are dead. He hasn't seen a dime and he is beginning to think the government, like the scientists, measures time in geologic terms.
"How the hell are you going to to farm this?" the old man asks, waving an arm across the bleak mud flats. "We're hanging on by the skin of our teeth.Somebody has to get this thing on the road."
Hornstra has been letting the Corps of Engineers pile their dredging along his riverfront. Next year, he says sardonically, he may charge them rent.
Perhaps naturalistic man -- that rare breed that tries to meld himself with nature without a fight or a question, that views time as a continuum neither geologic nor human -- was coping best.
On the day the mountain blew 1,300 feet off its top, after months of forewarning rumbles, tree-planters were doing their chores just four miles below the southern summit, the relatively safe side of the mountain. They were planting litte fir seedlings that couldn't mature till long past the planters' lifetimes.
On May 18, 1980, heat lightning from the roiling volcanic plume chased the planters off the mountain. Pyroclastic flows of hot gases and rock destroyed their infant trees, just as the mountain's killed the centuries-old timber to the north.
A year later, the planters were back, tucking their seedling into the ash-covered soil on the side of a mountain that could go again any moment, nurturing little fir trees that won't become a forest until, if the scientists are right, Mount St. Helens is ready to make a billion board feet of matchsticks again.