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St. Helens Lake (Almost)

Just north of Mount St. Helens but still within the boundaries of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument lies St. Helens Lake. The lake was centered directly in the path of the 1980 blast that leveled the surrounding forest. While the scars of that eruption are still very much present after nearly 40 years also evident is the lands remarkable rejuvenation. Growing through the bleached remains of the forest that once stood here are Douglas fir, white fir, hemlock, cedar, cottonwood and alder, the first generation of the next forest.

Perched in a small cirque just below Coldwater Peak the view looking over St. Helens Lake is nothing short of spectacular. From its northeast side you can view the entire lake and the out-flow stream as it cascades out of the lake and also peer into the crater of Mt. St. Helens as it looms in the background. It was the potential of this scene and the fact that I’ve seen only a handful of images of the lake, that first drew it to my attention more than a year ago.

With the lake sitting in a southeast facing cirque, sunrise was going to offer the best light. The lake is also located in the monuments restricted zone which prohibits off trail travel and backcountry camping which meant this would be a very early morning hike. At 3:00am, after picking up my daughter Hayley and enduring a few minor traffic construction delays along the way, we arrived at the Johnston Ridge visitors center and the trailhead. Hayley and I put on our headlamps and headed down the trail. With sunrise at 5:30 this gave us a good two and a half hours to hike the 6 miles to the northeast end of the lake. I knew this would be pushing it but certainly achievable, or so I thought.

What I failed to account for was that the majority of the 2,300 ft. elevation gain was in the last two miles before reaching the lake and, with this being the first long hike of the season, I was not in hiking shape. Additionally, it was a classic blue bird morning without a cloud in the sky. In these conditions the soft morning light disappears very quickly and replaced with the harsh mid-morning light so being in position on time is crucial. After reaching the top of Coldwater Ridge it was obvious that we would not beat the sunrise. Today would only be a scouting trip and photographing the lake would have to wait for another trip. Hayley and I relaxed on top of the ridge, had a quick bite to eat and enjoyed the views as the rising sunlight washed over the landscape.

While I didn’t make it in time to photograph the lake this trip I also didn’t come away empty handed. From the top of the ridge there are spectacular views and I was able to capture a few images looking into the crater of Mt. St. Helens and of Mt. Adams as it seemed to float above a sea of ridgelines in the distance. For me photography isn’t the end goal but rather a vehicle to explore the natural world and more importantly on this day, share the experience with my daughter.


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