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Once it was a gleaming, symmetrical Northwest landmark, but now, 14 months and half a dozen minor eruptions since it exploded on the morning of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens looks like an old molar, hollowed out by decay. Before it blew, it was the fifth-highest mountain in Washington (9,677 feet); now it's the 77th (8,300 feet).
In its huge crater, an ugly lava dome has risen up like a great scab covering a fresh wound. A wreath of steam rises from around the base of the dome, as if the dome were a cork capping the seething forces inside the mountain.
Beyond the crater's lip lies a wasteland of weird shapes and strange textures. Puffs of steam drift across the shattered slopes, and the stench of sulphur hangs thickly in the air. Nearby is Spirit Lake—not the scenic Spirit Lake of old, but a shallow, shabby ruin of a lake. Its water is the color of blood, and gas bubbles rise lazily to its surface, bursting with a sigh. The lake is littered with the floating corpses of the stately firs that once stood around its shores.
Nothing grows here. It looks as if nothing ever could. But elsewhere, on the edges of the area ravaged by the May 18 eruption, life is beginning to return.
The fish had swum in during the night, and now, on this rainy morning in June, they were shifting nervously in the collecting station's holding pens—half a dozen late winter-run steelhead and an equal number of spring Chinook salmon.
Bob Lucas was glad to see them, especially the steelhead. They were among the first to return to the South Fork of the Toutle River, which had been all but obliterated a year ago under a steaming flow of mud from Mount St. Helens and on which the collecting station is located. For Lucas, a fisheries biologist with the Washington State Department of Game, the steelhead represented hope. They would be spawned artificially and their progeny raised to migratory size for release into the river, to rebuild the run.
The salmon in the trap were a bonus. Still bright and fresh from the sea, they may have been strays from the North Fork of the Toutle, which suffered even greater damage from the eruption. They would be trucked upstream to the South Fork, perhaps to spawn naturally.
Leaving the collecting station, Lucas drove upstream on dirt roads along the South Fork, past a low dam built last spring by the Army Corps of Engineers to trap debris swept down from the mountain. Giant dredges were working in the river to remove the accumulated silt. Below them the river was muddy; upstream it was flowing clean and clear.
Past the dredges Lucas stopped his truck, got out and walked along the river's edge, pausing now and then to lift a rock from the shallows and turn it over. On many he found tiny mayflies and stone fly nymphs, important food for young steelhead and salmon. Out on the river, a single bright yellow mayfly adult lifted off the surface, shining like a spark in the misty morning light. It fluttered through the soft rain to settle on a pockmarked boulder at the river's edge.
The South Fork of the Toutle, which many people had written off as a dead river after the eruption, is coming back to life.