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toothpick SnagsThis is an adventure cut short, from a forest knocked down some 30 years ago; an adventure to Panhandle Lake in the Mt Margaret backcountry of Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument.  Mt Adams and Mt Hood in the distance to the left and at center. At right: Looking over norway pass at Spirit lake and Mt St Helens.

Images follow the story below

Driving there we crossed up out of the forested valleys and into the suddenly bare hillsides – bare not from logging, but from that massive landslide and lateral blast which devastated 230 square miles of forest around Mt St Helens.  (Check out the Mount Saint Helens website for some interesting information of the events and history of Mt St Helens’ volcanic activity.)  Solid tree trunks lay everywhere, flattened in the same direction as a stream flattens the grasses in a flood.

As we began our hike, to the left and right of us, the landscape was filled with the dry weathered logs.  Mostly strewn about, with some still standing solitary stumps reaching into the cool air.  The clouds were gray, a typical fall day, but not yet raining.  Rather a lot of lovely wildflowers were scattered about, and many mushrooms pushing up through the ash and pumice.  Gaining altitude, we could see beyond the immediate ridges and notice the dark-green forests outside the blast zone, and the gray peaks of Mt Adams, Mt Hood, and Mt Rainier.  Cresting Norway pass we gazed down at Spirit Lake and across it to the flanks of Mt St Helens.  There the gaping wound left in the side of Mt St Helens by the massive landslide of May 1980 merged callously with the stacks and stacks of driftwood logs piled up against the shores of Spirit Lake.

The Lakes Trail dropped down, curving away, and yet still in the middle of so much destruction, so barren.  No wildlife but for a few ravens cackling and circling above.  The extent of that blast is incredible, blasting mountain sides free of dirt to expose cliffs, and barreling down the sides of those ridges to knock down more trees.  Over time those logs have piled up in some of the drainages making curious piles of ‘pick up sticks’.

Here and there some trees were returning.  Particularly in the more sheltered gullies.  Small trees which had been covered in snowpack when the eruption occurred were spared the destruction and were the first greenery to reappear after the blast.

And the topography of the Mt Margaret backcountry is readily apparent, laid plain before our eyes.  The curious hillocks which a forest would hide, the various drainages, the waterfalls, the lakes, and the bare rock faces on steep hillsides.

A smaller lake – Grizzly Lake – was heart-shaped and lovely, with a mass of floating logs I wished to run and play on.  It emptied crystal clear waters down a steep walled ravine becoming choked by willows.

We passed Obscurity Lake (and a lovely waterfall over red stained rock) and came up over a little ridge to arrive at Panhandle Lake.  Panhandle Lake rests sunk between cliffs rising steeply up to Mt Margaret and a gentle 30 foot slope rising to a ridge encircling the opposite shore.  Beyond the ridge and across a valley is Goat Mountain, framed between tooth pick stumps.  The sun was gone, but after settling camp I went to chase it a bit.  The tent pad was lovely, near the calm lapping waters of the shore, and across a stream from funky solar composting toilettes… of which I am skeptical, but they are a good idea.  Someone had made a fire pit (sadly) but the sitting logs around it were cozy and a nice place to cook and hang out.

Steaming string beans in a jet boil works well.  Grain always takes forever to cook.  Garlic is nice.   clear skies and a full moon rising is special.  cookies are wonderful.  It was nice to have an extra tarp to wrap our packs in and open up extra breathing space in the tent’s vestibule.

The next morning was full of rain, but paused and gave us sun for a late breakfast, to break down camp, and have a bit of exploring.  But some 30 minutes down the trail the rain was back, rain-flys went on the packs and we let the rain slowly seep in.  Back at the ridge near Norway Pass the rain was still a 6 and the winds were biting.  So we said ‘save it for another time’ and returned to the truck the way we came.  No mountain views this time.  We drove down the road, through the mists and rain, to emerge back into the embrace of towering Douglas Fir Forest.  Passing through their dripping limbs of green moss and lichen we found a shelter to eat a late meal at.  Warm tea, good humus, fatty avocado, simple things.  We continued to drive, but knew of no other campgrounds.  So in the dark some few hours later Portland welcomed us with dry beds on which to rest our heads.

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