A close call at Mt. St. Helens puts life in perspective
By Lawrence Nagel
After spending many summers in my younger life at Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake, three friends and I made our final visit to the lake in March 1980, just two months before the eruption. We had arranged to stay at Harmony Falls Lodge and visit acquaintances serving as winter caretakers at this rustic resort on the eastern shore.
Arriving from Portland along the Spirit Lake Highway, we hoisted our backpacks and skied across the frozen lake. That evening we gathered around the lodge’s fireplace to tell stories and share a meal. Snow was deep, but temperatures warming.
The next day we decided to ski further across the lake to Camp Loowit (the Longview YMCA Camp of my youth). Loowit is one of several Native American words for the mountain: “Lady of Fire.”
We skirted a large melt pond, shed our skis, and climbed up on the deck of the main lodge, new since my days there many years earlier, and much larger than the old dining hall of my youth. I peered through the windows and, with delight, was able to make out the original swimmers’ board that had once hung in the old dining hall, a hand-painted history with the names of campers and staff who had accomplished the various distance swims across the lake over the decades. I was amazed to see my own name, remembering the long evening hours of lap swimming we’d been required to complete in order to qualify for the long, cold, lake swims, and the shivering exhilaration of finishing the laps under a summer’s night sky, a luminous August moon casting Saint Helens in a faint glow.
After exploring more of the northern-most cove of the lake, we skied back to Harmony Falls, said our farewells, and prepared to ski back across the lake to Duck Bay. About half-way, offshore of the Donnybrook campsite and, we thought, about on track with our out-bound route, two of us were perhaps 50 feet ahead of our friends. We had ventured further from shore than we realized.
In a flashing moment of terror, the ice began to give way. Spirit Lake was very deep, very cold. The two of us in the lead, with the added weight of carrying the backpacks, were breaking through. Our reaction was abject panic as we thrashed and lunged and willed ourselves forward, sideways … any way we could … and somehow fought our way from terror to firma.
Apparently, some sub-strata of slushy ice prevented the full catastrophe — sinking into a frigid catacomb. Our friends, naturally, panicked as well, though fortunately, without the added weight of backpacks, were able to avoid this fragmenting field of ice and move quickly closer to shore, all four of us a chorus of incredulous fright and flight. Finally on firm ice, we trembled, gasped, and tried to gather our wits and the courage to continue on.
Hugging the shoreline like leaky canoes, we managed to make it back to Duck Bay, our car, and its heavenly heater. Our drive back to Portland would alternately be filled with the conversation of stunned bewilderment, silent contemplation, a reinforced bonding of camaraderie, and a levitating bliss of peacefulness.
Over future years, I have often reflected on how terribly close I’d come to a frigid grave in the lake I loved so much, at the foot of the mountain that had always been a cornerstone of my youth, a formative place for finding a renewed sense of peace as I follow the pathways of my life.
Lawrence Nagel lives in Ashland and now confines his skiing to snow and mountains. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Richard Carey (email@example.com).