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From Picture Postcard Beauty . . .

Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake

Long before settlers arrived from the east, Mt. St. Helens was a sacred place to the local Indian tribes.  They had been witnesses to its long history of eruptive behavior and ancient legends caused them to give the mountain a wide berth.  Some of the names given to the mountain were Lawelatla ("One From Whom Smoke Comes"), Louwala-Clough ("Smoking Mountain"), Tah-one-lat-clah ("Fire Mountain") and the most commonly used name today Loo-wit ("Keeper of the Fire").  The local tribes would not fish in Spirit Lake, believing the fish, with heads like bears, held the souls of the evilest people who had ever lived.  They also believed the lake shores were populated by a band of rogue demons.  Only young warriors out to prove their bravery dared climb to the timberline and spend the night.  Later, legends claimed the evil spirits of the mountain were punishing the local tribes for allowing the white men to settle at her feet.

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy spotted the mountain from the deck of his ship Discovery as he sailed past the mouth of the Columbia River.  He gave the peak its present name after a fellow countryman and friend, Alleyne Fitzherbert, who held the title Baron St. Helens and was at the time the British Ambassador to Spain.

Below is one of the legends of how Loo-Wit came to be and a wonderful poem by Wendy Rose about the mountains reawakening.  The poem has been a favorite of mine for years but I am not even sure where I found it. 

by Wendy Rose

The way they do
this old woman
no longer cares
what we think
but spits
her black tobacco
any which way
full length
From her bumpy bed.
Finally up
she sprinkles
ash on the snow,
cold buttes
promise nothing
but the walk
of winter.
Centuries of cedar
have bound her
to earth,
huckleberry ropes
lay prickly
on her neck.
Around her
machinery growls,
snarls and ploughs
great patches of her skin.
She crouches
in the north,
her trembling
the source
of dawn.

Light appears
with the shudder
of her slopes,
the movement
of her arm.
Blackberries unravel,
stones dislodge;
it's not as if
they were not warned.
She was sleeping
but she heard the boot scrape,
the creaking floor,
felt the pull of the blanket
from her shoulder.
With one hand free
she finds her weapons
and raises them high;
clearing the twigs from her throat
she sings, she sings, shaking the sky
like a blanket about her
Loo-wit sings and sings and sings!







Keeper of the Fire

Long ago, when the world was young, all people were happy, The Great Spirit,
whose home is in the sun, gave them all they needed.   No one was Hungry, no one was cold. 
But after a while, two brothers quarreled over the land.   The elder one wanted most of it,
and the younger one wanted most of it.   The Great Spirit decided to stop the quarrel.
One night while the brothers were asleep he took them to a new land, to a country with high
mountains.   Between the mountains flowed a big river.

The Great Spirit took the two brothers to the top of the high mountains and wakened them.
They saw that the new country was rich and beautiful.

"Each of you will shoot a arrow in opposite directions," he said to them. "Then you will follow your
arrow. Where your arrow falls, that will be your country. There you will become a great chief.
The river will separate your lands."

One brother shot his arrow south into the valley of the Willamette River. He became the father
and the high chief of the Multnomah people. The other brother shot his arrow north into
the Klickitat country.   He became the father and high chief of the Klickitat people.

Then the Great Spirit built a bridge over the big river. To each brother he said, "I have built
a bridge over the river, so that you and your people may visit those on the other side.
It will be a sign of peace between you. As long as you and your people are good and are friendly
with each other, this bridge of the Tahmahnawis will remain.

It was a broad bridge, wide enough for many people and many ponies to walk across at one time.
For many snows the people were at peace and crossed the river for friendly visits.
But after a time they did wicked things. They were selfish and greedy, and they quarreled.
The Great Spirit, displeased again, punished them by keeping the sun from shining.
The people had no fire, and then the winter rains came, they were very cold.

Then they began to be sorry for what they had done, and they begged the Great Spirit for fire.
"Give us fire, or we will die from the cold," they prayed. The heart of the Great Spirit
was softened by their prayer. He went to an old woman who had kept herself from the wrongdoing
of her people and so still had some fire in their lodge.

"If you will share your fire, I will Grant you anything you wish," the Great Spirit promised her.
"What do you want most?"

"Youth and beauty," answered the old woman promptly, "I wish to be young again, and to be beautiful."

"You shall be young and beautiful tomorrow morning," promised the Great Spirit.
"Take you fire to the bridge, so that the people on both sides of the river can get it easily.
Keep it burning there always as a reminder of the goodness and kindness of the Great Spirit."

The old woman, whose name was Loo-wit, did as he said. Then the Great Spirit commanded
the sun to shine again. When it rose the next morning, it was surprised to see a young
and beautiful maiden sitting beside a fire on the Bridge of the Gods. The people, too,
saw the fire, and soon their lodges were warm again. For many moons all was peaceful on both sides of the great river and the bridge.

The young men also saw the fire--and the beautiful young woman who attended it.
They visited her often.   Loo-wit's heart was stirred by two of them--a handsome young
chief from south of the river, whose name was Wyeast, and a handsome young chief from
north of the river, whose name was Klickitat.   She could not decide which of the two she liked better.

Wyeast and Klickitat grew jealous of each other and soon began to quarrel. They became
so angry that they fought. Their people also took up the quarrel, so that there was much
fighting on both sides of the river.   Many warriors were killed.

This time the Great Spirit was made angry by the wickedness of the people. He broke down
the Bridge of the Gods, the sign of peace between the two tribes, and its rocks fell into the river.
He changed the two chiefs into mountains. Some say that they continued to quarrel over Loo-wit
even after they were mountain peaks. They caused sheets of flame to burst forth,
and they hurled hot rocks at each other. Not thrown far enough, many fell into the river
and blocked it. That is why the Columbia is very narrow and the water very swift at the Dalles.

Loo-wit was changed into a snow-capped peak which still has the youth and beauty promised by
the Great Spirit. She is now called Mount St. Helens. Wyeast is known as Mount Hood, and
Klickitat as Mount Adams. The rocks and white water where the Bridge of the Gods fell are
known as the Cascades of the Columbia.

-------Clark,Ella (1953) Indians of the Pacific Northwest (renewed
1981). The Regents of the University of California

-This version of the legend is based on a summary which Mrs. Lulu Crandall prepared for a
pageant performed at The Dalles, Oregon, in 1923, Mrs. Crandall, a pioneer teacher and local historian,
had known the Indians of her area since childhood.

Thank you to Mardon Erbland for allowing me to use these photos
 he took on a trip to Mount St Helens in February of 1968.

Skiing near the base of the mountain. 

Mt St Helens Lodge run by Harry Truman.  Harry, his 16 cats and the lodge are now
 150 feet or so under the Spirit Lake lakebed.

It's not as if they were not warned . . .

After 123 years of silence, St. Helens showed her first signs of life on Thursday, March 20th with a 4.1 magnitude earthquake centered beneath the volcano.  Most northwest newspapers completely ignored this earthquake because President Carter's announcement of the Moscow Olympics boycott dominated the news.  

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One week later, on March 27th, the mountain smudged the usually pristine snow at her summit with its first puff of ash.  No one on the groud knew what had happened at first because the top of the mountain was encased in clouds for her first show.  The small explosion left a 250 foot wide crater in the otherwise perfect cone.  On March 30th there were a record 79 earthquakes recorded on the mountain.

Mount Saint Helens blackened

On April 3rd, the first harmonic tremors were recorded signaling the movement of magma somewhere deep within the dome. The crater was by now 1,500 feet wide. Explosions of ash, rock and ice chunks were almost a daily occurrence by this time.  The mountain had taken on an eerie, sinister look with her ash covered slopes.

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photo by David A. Swanson, USGS

For safety reasons, a "Red Zone" and a "Blue Zone" were mapped out around the mountain. Swarms of tourists wanted to get as close as possible to the waking giant but because of the scientists inability to predict the time and magnitude of an eruption, they needed to keep people out of harms way.  Despite the best efforts of local police, there were too many small logging roads that criss-crossed the area to keep out all of the curious onlookers.

In late April a noticeable "bulge" began to form on the north face of the mountain.  The bulge was created by  the building pressure of hot gases and magma inside the mountain. All through early May the bulge grew at an astonishing 5 feet per day. The mountain soon lost its perfect cone shape that had characterized it as the "Mt. Fugi of the West".

Mt St Helens bulge on North face
photo by Peter Lipman, USGS

On May 17th, frustrated home owners living  in the "Red Zone" threatened to break through roadblocks to get to their homes. A convoy of 35 home owners were escorted in by police to retrieve personal belongings from their homes and summer cabins. Another trip into the "Red Zone" was planned for the next morning, May 18th, at 10 a.m.  

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photo by Gerry Lewin

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This page last updated June 06, 2006.