Excitement for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse had been building throughout the summer, and Onur and I were getting excited too. We were mulling over options to travel to Oregon when the Mount St. Helens Institute announced a guided eclipse hike to Coldwater Peak.
Although we'd only experience a partial eclipse from Coldwater Peak--about 97%--we thought it sounded like a fun activity to do together. The field trip included camping on Coldwater Ridge the night before, as well as dinner, breakfast, and lunch. Onur would have the chance to visit the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a place he'd never been before, and we'd also be able to do something new together as a couple: camp together!
Our adventure started on Sunday afternoon, August 20th at the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center, located at milepost 43.3 on State Route 504 / Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The Science and Learning Center was opened in 2012, reborn out of the same facility that used to be the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. That Visitor Center was shuttered on November 5, 2007 after harsh winter weather wreaked havoc on the facility and it became too costly to maintain. Today, the Science and Learning Center is host to a fantastic series of educational programs, including workshops, field programs, and activities like star-gazing parties.
The nearby Johnston Ridge Observatory, about 10 miles east of the Science and Learning Center, was opened in 1997 and named for volcanologist David A. Johnston, who perished while monitoring Mount St. Helens from his namesake ridge on the day of the eruption: May 18, 1980.
Late Sunday afternoon, after driving south on I-5 and stopping in Olympia, we sat on the deck of the Mount St. Helens from the Science and Learning Center, taking in the view. Ray Yurkewycz, the affable Executive Director with two young kids and a puppy on the way, came out to welcome us and invite us to set up our tent at the center's private campground on Coldwater Ridge. From the Science and Learning Center's parking lot, the campground is a short, 1/8th of a mile hike on a dusty dirt path to 19 primitive campsites.
We set up our tent and gear, packed our backpacks for the following day, then headed back down to the Science and Learning Center for dinner. In between forkfuls of comforting penne with thick veggie tomato sauce, toasty garlic bread, and salad, we socialized with an eclectic group of retirees, active couples, outdoorsmen and women, professionals, and weekend warriors, all excited about the field trip.
Afterwards, we gathered outside as the sun was setting to talk about the eruption and Mount St. Helens. Ray reminded us of our 4:30 a.m. wake-up time—necessary to eat breakfast, pack our lunches, and hike to Coldwater Peak in time for the partial eclipse at about 10:15 a.m. We also met the friendly volunteers who would be assisting Ray on the hike: Gary and Eduardo.
Eager to make our camping experience special, I had packed our camp chairs, my JetBoil, tea, and special camp mugs. My romantic camping idea involved Onur and I enjoying a steaming mug of tea, covered in blankets, and gazing at the stars. Rose-colored visions of couple camping evaporated quickly, however, when I realized that drinking tea right before bed spelled disaster for us getting a good night's sleep. After several instances of tent unzipping and zipping in the middle of the night, with Onur waking up each time I got up, our evening ended up like a Seinfeld skit. So much for dreams of tent bliss.
Bleary-eyed, we woke at 4:15 a.m., dressed in our tent, donned our headlamps, and reconvened back at the Science and Learning Center. After downing veggie breakfast burritos and packing our lunches (pb&j for Onur, turkey and swiss for me), our group drove to the Johnston Ridge Observatory parking lot, the start of our eclipse hike.
Our pace was brisk—starting at 6:15 a.m., our group had 6 miles--one way--and over 2000 feet of elevation gain to cover in about three hours. The trail's path was well-defined, well-signed, and energy-zapping. Hiking in the blast zone at Mount St. Helens can wear you out quickly, mainly because it's an exposed hike throughout, with little shade and tree cover.
As Ray, Gary, and Eduardo lead us through the blast zone, we marveled at the sheared-off tree trunks from the eruption, a herd of elk, curious chipmunks, wildflowers and huckleberries, and views of the lava dome inside Mount St. Helens. Ray pointed out hummocks, the rolling mounds deposited in the blast zone that are remnants of the top of Mount St. Helens, carried by a debris avalanche during the eruption.
We arrived at the summit of Coldwater Peak a little after 9:30 a.m. The moon had just started passing in front of the sun, and we all scattered to viewing spots, pulling out our sack lunches and eclipse glasses. We were glad for a breeze at the summit and a sugar hit from the milk and dark chocolate Hershey kisses Ray brought for us.
The views from Coldwater Peak were incredible: Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and of course, Mount St. Helens, were all visible and made for a breathtaking panorama above St. Helens Lake and Spirit Lake. It was clearly a great choice for our eclipse watching adventure.
Although we didn't experience totality, we did feel the chilly change in temperature, a silvery- metallic cast of light, warm sunset-like colors on the horizon, and for me personally, a thrill of adjusting my camera settings as the light changed to photograph Mount Rainier from the peak.
Onur and I agreed that we would try for totality in the next eclipse to pass through the United States on April 8, 2024. Aside from our tea before bedtime mishap, we also agreed that camping together was ultimately a fun adventure that we plan on doing again soon.
As for the Science and Learning Center, I've already got my eye on their Into the Crater Hike, a guided hike with a professional geologist into the actual crater of Mount St. Helens. Their Foraging for Wild Mushrooms seminars, coming up this fall, sounds like a great way to learn how to identify and harvest wild mushrooms!