George Vancouver and Mount St. Helens

Two anniversaries to mark this week, both on May 18.

May 18, 1792 - George Vancouver and his crew in the HMS Discovery spent their first night in what they called Admiralty Inlet. They anchored off Bush Point on the west side of Whidbey Island. Although often cited as the first time that Europeans entered this waterway, it wasn’t. Vancouver, Archibald Menzies, Peter Puget, and several others had first ventured in on May 7 in three small boats. The crews had traveled south ending up in what they called Hood’s Canal.

They traveled the length of the canal noting the people, plants, and animals. Puget wrote: “In strolling about the beach, one of the gentlemen knocked down an animal about the size of a cat with a stone and as he was going to pick it up it ejected a fluid of the most offensive smell and impregnated the air that no one could remain any time within some distance of where it fell. I satisfied myself however that it was the skunk.”

After the initial night’s anchorage, the Discovery continued south, ultimately settling at what Vancouver named Restoration Point, in honor of “that memorable event,” the restoration of Charles II to the British monarchy in 1660. They stayed at this location for ten days, during which time Vancouver sent Puget, Menzies, and others to survey further south. In Vancouver’s words, duty in the open, unprotected boats would be “extremely laborious, and expose those so employed to numerous dangers and unpleasant situations.”

When Puget and his team returned to the Discovery, Vancouver wrote in his journal: “Thus by our joint efforts, we had completely explored every turning of this extensive inlet; and to commemorate Mr. Puget’s exertions, the south extremity of it I named Puget’s Sound.” 

May 18, 1980 - At 8:32 AM, following a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, which landslided the northern face of the mountain, Mount St. Helens (named by Vancouver for Alleyne Fitzherbert, who held the title ‘Baron St. Helens’) erupted. I distinctly remember the day, watching footage on our little black and white television. It was incredible to see images of the plume of gas, cinders, and bits; the ash clouding out towns to the east; and the blasted out trees.

Just the year before, I had been on a field trip inside the lava tubes under the mountain. Good timing on my part. Then in 2004, when Mount St. Helens became active again, three friends and I were on the summit, the day before they closed the mountain because of renewed activity; a week later it erupted.

I have also been lucky enough to venture down to the mountain several times and seen how life has returned to the slopes. Last time I was there, about three years ago, we walked in areas so dense with 30-foot-high vegetation that we felt lost and couldn’t see the summit, less than a mile away. If you have the chance to venture down I highly recommend it and if you want to get the full story of the mountain’s changes over time, you should read Eric Wagner’s After the Blast.

Upcoming events:

May 25 – King County Library System: Newcastle – 6pm – I will give a presentation about Homewaters. Co-sponsored by the Mercer Island Historical Society.
May 26 – Edmonds Bookshop – 6pm – I will be interviewed by my friend, the wonderful artist and author Tony Angell. Sure to be some good laughs. 
May 27 – Fort Nisqually Living History Museum –  7:00 PM – I will be interviewed by Tacoma Metro Parks Art, Culture, and Heritage Administrator Claire Keller-Scholz.