Explosion of Beauty

The disaster of Mount St. Helens created the splendor of Coldwater Lake
June 26, 1994

In May 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted spectacularly, killing 57 people, closing the interstate between Portland and Seattle and blocking the shipping channel of the Columbia River. At Ryan Lake a camper was suffocated by hot gases; at Meta Lake a family of three died when their cabin was destroyed. Spirit Lake, at the foot of the mountain, was inundated by debris, and the first reconnaissance teams in the area, flying in helicopters, reported that the lake had ceased to exist.

Coldwater's story is different. This lake wasn't there at all before the mountain blew its top. Mount St. Helens devastated 230 square miles of forest; the eruption turned an area twice as large as Seattle into a landscape less inviting than Pluto's. Yet it also created two new lakes, Coldwater and nearby Castle. "The irony," says Peter Frenzen, a scientist at Mount St. Helens national monument, "is that the eruption of this fiery mountain, with all its pent-up heat and molten rock, has meant an increase in wetlands and lakes in the Mount St. Helens area. It's certain-Is not at all what you would expect in the aftermath of such a blast."

Coldwater Creek was once a clear stream, cutting its way down from Coldwater Peak to How unimpeded through Coldwater Valley and then into the north fork of the Toutle River. Coldwater held between its banks a few cutthroat trout, of interest only to local fishermen. The creek was visited mostly by loggers on lunch breaks, men who otherwise busied themselves clear-cutting timber on the west side of Coldwater Valley.

By late March 1980 scientists at an observation post above Coldwater Creek were monitoring earthquakes at nearby Mount St. Helens. Less than two months later the mountain gave way, and while most of its top 1,300 feet slid down its north side into Spirit Lake, the eruption also sent a river of rocks, mud, trees and pumice, piled as high as 600 feet, thundering down the north fork of the Toutle. A blast of hot gases poured tons of ash and rock directly into Coldwater Creek; the avalanche not only buried the Toutle but also dammed up a half dozen of its tributary streams, including Coldwater.

With nowhere to go, Coldwater Creek became Coldwater Lake, a debris-choked witches' cauldron of water bubbling with methane gas. Huge chunks of what had been Mount St. Helens sat stolidly in this primordial soup. The surrounding hillsides lay barren, throttled by ash and fallen trees, some of which had slid into the lake and remained floating on its surface. "The creek became sewage sludge in a matter of minutes," says Frenzen. "Take an entire forest, shred it and heat it, then dump it into a lake. Coldwater was choked to death by the remains of the forest that had once surrounded it."

Two hundred feet deep, five miles long, a half mile across at its widest point, Coldwater astounded scientists by quickly transforming itself into a clear mountain pool. Bacteria ate the sludge in the lake, clearing it within only three years. Fresh rain and melted snow fed clean water into the lake, and waterfowl brought seeds and spores. The lake is now clean enough to drink from, its outlet a biologically rich wetland inhabited by elk and beaver.

In October 1989 the Washington State Department of Wildlife stocked Cold-water with 30,000 rainbow trout. The fish surprised biologists by more than doubling in size in a mere nine months time. Last summer the lake was opened to fishermen. You will find them there in the early morning, enticed by the prospect of catching stupendously large trout and of wading in the shadow of an active volcano that will inevitably rearrange these waters once again.

PHOTOPETER FRENZEN/USDA FOREST SERVICEColdwater was pristine by 1985 (right), though nearby terrain still bore witness to the eruption. PHOTOJIM QUIRING/USDA FOREST SERVICE[See caption above.]

David Guterson's novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars," will be published this fall.

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