Mount St. Helens- Revisiting Childhood Memories

As I journey around the country I’m frequently asked by people I meet, “Where is home?” If I’m standing in a campground or at a pull-off enjoying some stunning vista it’s easy to point to “The Beast” with a smile on my face and say, “Two years, full time.” That is usually met with a “Wow” and springs into much deeper conversation.

If it’s true that “home is where the heart is”, then a huge chunk of my heart resides right alongside Elissa in Texas. I hope she can feel it swirling and dancing and singing around her, and lifting her up with love and joy and positive energy every single day.

Another place that has always held onto a piece of my heart is my home state of Washington. I have been away for more than thirty years, and still the northwest feels like home to me. As I said in my last post, my folks and brothers and their families are all here. Many of my most cherished and carefree memories are here as well… with my family and my childhood friends… surrounded by natural beauty. My young “love affair” with the great outdoors, unbeknownst to me then, embedded itself so deeply into my soul that it became a living part of me… a part that always thirsted for more, and for many years was often left unquenched.

During a recent interview with Tom Paulu of The Longview Daily News I shared the story of my journey. I told many tales from the road… places I’d been, hikes I’d done, people I’d met… highs and lows and a few frightening moments. I told him what I’d “sacrificed” in order to pursue a simpler lifestyle and travel these roads with blind faith. Then it occurred to me that what I was able to share in an hour-long interview couldn’t come close to telling the whole story. I suggested to Tom that he might find two posts I’d written early on the journey enlightening. Me In a Nutshell, not a professional bio, but who I am as a person (and more importantly, why I am who I am), and The Fork in the Road, which explains my personal turmoil and ultimate clarity leading up to this journey. I explained the important roll my childhood played in the journey I would ultimately take by telling him, “If I had not grown up with four brothers… and spent my formative years tromping around the woods of the northwest… I would not be the same person, and surely would not be out here today.”

When I look back on the most precious memories of my childhood, there is no place that stands out more vividly than Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake (which once sat serenely at her base). My family spent a week every summer in a cabin on that lake while my father (now retired MD) tended to the medical mishaps at the surrounding Boy Scout, Girl Scout and YMCA camps. Those camps and a handful of private cabins was all that was there, and you could not get to any of them except by boat or hiking. It was pristine wilderness and by far the most cherished and sacred place in my memories.

I know my brothers agree that the very best and most carefree days of our youth were spent there. Side by side we hiked and rowed and fished and swam. We spent many hours at the Boy Scout camp making moccasins, shooting archery, and sharing meals in their lodge. At night we went to their bonfires and sat with rapt attention and wide eyes as the leaders told many Indian legends of the lake and mountain. When the fire burned down to glowing embers we braved our way back through the woods to our cabin. With our trusty little Eveready flashlights in hand we trekked down that trail for what seemed like miles (but in reality was far less than one)… tripping over roots hidden in the shadows and making loud bear-scaring noises all along the way. These memories are so vivid I can feel the cushy pine-bed of the forest beneath my feet and smell the deep, moist, pungent aroma as if I were standing there at this moment. Every single time I step into a forest those memories come rushing back to me. More importantly they take my spirit rushing back to my youth.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18,1980 was a phenomenal event, but to those of us who loved this place it was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine I’m alone in feeling that it was like losing a part of myself. This precious piece of my youth disappeared from this earth in a matter of moments! It took me more than 15 years to go back because I couldn’t bare to see the devastation. When I did go, it was only to share the amazing bit of history with Elissa, who couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 at the time. Our trek up that familiar highway wasn’t to my beloved mountain, but to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. This is an impressive place and well worth the visit, but to me… on that day… it felt more like standing at the grave of a loved-one.

It was another 15+ years before I finally made the journey back again this summer. This time it was to share the place, the memories, and a day hike with my friend (and recent transplant to the northwest), Joe Cilli.

As we drew near on Hwy 504 the mountain was hidden beneath a dramatic layer of clouds. Although they were constantly moving, teasing us with little snippets of the mountain throughout the day, they remained… as if guarding what is left of this Indian Maiden from view. (Legend of Loowit)


Mount St. Helens hiding in the clouds

Mount St. Helens, Washington

Curious chipmunk

break time

the gear (and snack) at my feet… camelback full of water hidden within

After a visit to the Johnston Ridge Observatory we headed back down the highway to hike the 12+ mile loop around Coldwater Lake. Interestingly this lake did not exist in my youth, but was formed when the debris from the eruption dammed up what was once Coldwater Creek.

Other than this brief trail report I’ll let the following images tell the tale of the hike;

The more frequently traveled “north trail” was a very easy and scenic hike with little elevation change. The continuation of the loop (south trail) was much more challenging with an elevation gain of 1600′, and because it is far less traveled, the vegetation at the eastern end of the lake is very overgrown and the trail unmaintained. The vistas, however, were nothing short of stunning!


Coldwater Lake


Coldwater Lake and Minnie Peak


Fallen trees from Mount St. Helens eruption


Minnie Peak


Colorful fungus


Coldwater Lake trail

Coldwater trail, Washington

Joe enjoying the hike


Coldwater Lake from the south ridge


Cable machinery destroyed in the Mount St. Helens eruption

Coldwater Lake, Washington

Enjoying the view from the south rim

Wildflower, Washington


One memorable note… as we entered the woods in the image below for the final few miles of our hike the ground came alive beneath our feet. Much to our amazement we were sharing the path with thousands of tiny little frogs! For awhile we walked cautiously, trying to shoo them out of the way. In reality many were unavoidable and I feared what I would find on the bottom of my hiking shoes at trails end. No surprise that we came across several very happy snakes along the trail as well.


South Coldwater Lake trail

Tree on Coldwater Lake trail


Minnie Peak above Coldwater Lake


Coldwater Lake

Although the day started out quite brisk, the temperature increased substantially in the afternoon. By the end of the hike, covered in dirt and sweat, this beautiful lake proved to be irresistible and we cooled off by jumping in. 🙂

We were just about to head back down the highway near sunset when the mountain, as if in reward for our homage on the trail, finally revealed herself in the most spectacular way! (I should note that we did not encounter another soul along the trail.)

Pinchot National Forest, Washington

Mount St. Helens finally reveals herself near sunset

Pinchot National Forest, Washington

Days end in the mountains

Pinchot National Forest, Washington

New forest growth since Mount St. Helens eruption

One last note about the day… during our morning drive I told Joe about two memorable videos I hoped he would see at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. One was about a Mount St. Helens legend, Harry Truman, who was warned of an impending eruption but refused to leave “his mountain” and died there. We saw him every summer on our way to the lake and remembered him fondly for his character. The other of a reporter who was “drawn to be there” and ultimately ran for his life down a road he could not see. Neither story was shared at the observatory, but I think they’re worth sharing. Eruption and Harry Truman and Dave Crockett story.


While home I shared some special time with many of the afore-mentioned friends and family members. Not all were captured by my camera, but I must share a few…

Within days of my arrival we celebrated our (dare I say) 35th Mark Morris High School class reunion. My class has been unique I believe, in our attendance and unbelievable abundance of fun! We took this “class shot” early in the evening while there was still enough light. Many more showed up throughout the night. We danced! Oh man did we dance! 🙂

Mark Morris High School

My classmates

Days later, while Elissa was still visiting, we drove to Longbeach (WA) for a Murphy family reunion. Mike Murphy is my step-father and this is his clan (and some of his step clan). It was a fun weekend of catching up at… it just so happens… the first ocean beach I ever stepped foot on. (The Reisner clan transplanted to Washington from Nebraska when I was a child.)

Murphy family reunion

Murphy family reunion

Several days later Mike took me salmon fishing on the Columbia River. It was a spectacular day, and we were surrounded by… as Mike would put it… hundreds of our closest friends. We set anchor in a “hog line”, a short distance upstream and downstream from two more hog lines. I will resist indulging in my “big one that got away” story. True story, but I’m still licking my wounds.

Longview, WA

Salmon fishing on the Columbia River

The girls got to enjoy some time at the Columbia River as well. They are always happy campers when they can run freely in the sand.

Chillin' with Sadie and Jazzy along the Columbia River, photo credit- Joe Cilli

Chillin’ with Sadie and Jazzy along the Columbia River, photo credit- Joe Cilli

Much of my time was spent with my Dad and his side-kick Rollie… high on a hill overlooking the Columbia River. Although not my childhood home, Dad’s place is home when I go “home”.

Longview Washington

Dad and Rollie

Longview Washington

Sunset from Dad’s house

There’s more… family and friend time… favorite places revisited… Seattle, Mt. Rainier, Olympic National Park. I’ve been back on the road for a couple weeks now and I’ve still got all of that to share and then some! Whew! This one was exhausting and difficult to write because of my deeply emotional connection to the subject matter. The next few will be easier (and briefer) and I will get right on them… as soon as I find internet connection again! 🙂

I haven’t said this in awhile, but I thank you all for following my journey. I stumbled upon some words the other night that struck a chord with me… “Happiness is only real if it is shared”. I find much happiness out here on the road, but maybe more importantly it is you that I share it with. Thank you for making my happiness real!


Side note… my 2014 Journey In Focus Calendar is available for order now. Check it out here, and/or order here. Pre-print discount pricing runs for a few more days!!!

2014 Journey In Focus Calendar... year two on the road

2014 Journey In Focus Calendar… year two on the road!

4 thoughts on “Mount St. Helens- Revisiting Childhood Memories

  1. Fran , excellent pictures again and an interesting narrative. Good to see the trees are rebounding after the Mount Saint Helens eruption. Looks like you are having a great time with family and classmates.

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