Mount St. Helens, flanked by Mount Adams (far left) and Mount Hood, is settling fitfully back into the volcanic landscape. Three decades ago the mountain’s eruption killed 57 people and destroyed more than 200 square miles of forest.
Beer cans once lay at the bottom of Spirit Lake. Mark Smith remembers them perfectly: 20-year-old Olympia flattops, their shiny gold lettering somehow preserved by the clear, cold water. He remembers ten-inch rainbow trout: planters for the tourists. He remembers a sunken rowboat from the YMCA camp, its bow resting on a submerged stump. A teenager when he began scuba diving in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, he remembers the lake as it was before the May 1980 eruption, before the top 1,300 feet of the volcano—more than three billion cubic yards of mud, ash, and melting snow—avalanched into it. Before the lake became twice as big but half as deep. Before virtually all evidence of life, animal and human—the cabins and roads and camps and cans—were obliterated. Before the lake became a stinky soup, devoid of oxygen and covered with a floating mat of tree trunks ripped from the landscape. What Smith remembers best is what he called the "petrified" forest: a ghostly stand of sunken, branchless firs, buried upright dozens of yards below the surface. The underwater forest was a mystery to him until the mountain exploded. Then it made perfect sense. The trees were evidence of a past eruption—a sign Spirit Lake has always been in the line of fire.
Three decades later, Spirit Lake holds a new mystery: How did fish, now twice the length of those pre-eruption rainbows, reappear? Everyone has a theory. Smith, who runs Eco Park Resort at the edge of the volcanic monument, thinks the trout slid down from smaller, higher St. Helens Lake during a flood year. But that lake has only mackinaw—and the Spirit Lake fish are rainbows. Biologist Bob Lucas of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife believes someone illegally planted them. In the late 1990s, an anonymous call to his home seemed to confirm it: "I'm the one who stocked the fish." Preliminary genetic testing by Forest Service ecologist Charlie Crisafulli also suggests the trout did not descend from the pre-eruption population, but he's given up on figuring out their origin. "There are as many stories as there are fish tales," he says, "and all of them start, 'I know somebody who put those fish in there.' " To him the important question is not how they arrived but how they grew so big. On the 30th anniversary of the May 18 eruption, one of the only things certain about the trout in Spirit Lake is that they've given everyone—environmentalists, scientists, fishermen, congressmen, rangers, and business owners—something else to argue about.
Mark Smith grew up at the lake, where his family ran the lodge one down from the one owned by Harry Truman, the famously cantankerous 83-year-old who shared a name with a President and was among the eruption's 57 victims. As a boy, Smith fished there. Today he'd have to break the law to do so. He's not saying he does, but if ever I want to join him, he is, ahem, very familiar with where a poacher could sneak in. "We were lost!" he yells, practicing his alibi. "We just saw this and started fishing!" The 2,700-acre lake now sits at the center of a restricted research area taking up roughly a quarter of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which Congress set aside in 1982 "to protect the geologic, ecologic, and cultural resources … in as natural a state as possible, allowing primarily natural geologic forces and ecological succession to continue unimpeded." Mostly closed to the public, this part of the blast zone has become one of our planet's grandest experiments.