March 18, 2023

FTV: Geological Ramblings


     The late Tom Hartzell and I were having a discussion about the Pacific Northwest in the lunchroom one day.  Tom mentioned he and his wife would be vacationing there in the near future, so I took the opportunity to ask him a little favor.  I said, “Well, if you happen to find an ashtray made from Mount St. Helens ash, buy it for me and I will pay you back.”  Tom raised an eyebrow:  “You don’t smoke.  Why would you need an ashtray?”  I explained;  one of the videos I showed in my Geography/Earth Science classes showed how some enterprising craftsman turned the voluminous ash fall from Mt. St. Helens’ 1980 eruption into a cottage industry.  For most, the choking layers of ash that blanketed much of the region were a nuisance, but this group of artisans figured out how to press souvenir ashtrays from glass created by melting the ash.  When the molten glass was pressed in a custom made mold, it came out with a replica of the volcanic mountain in the center.

     When Tom got back, he apologized for not scoring me an ashtray:  “But I did find sculptures made out of pressed volcanic ash.  I hope this will do.”  When I retired, this is the one special artifact from my case of geological curiosities that came home with me and it is now proudly displayed on our piano.  It depicts an otter laying on its back cracking open a clam or oyster shell.  Tom wouldn’t let me pay him for this sculpture that was created by the Evergreen Trading Company in Seattle, Washington (“Handcrafted from real volcanic ash” it says on the logo).  This Mt. St. Helens sculpture is a favorite memory piece from my teaching days.  While I am still half heartedly looking for a Mt. St. Helens ash tray (I still don’t smoke but they look kind of cool), but I am perfectly content with the ash otter sculpture.

     Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time I was gifted with stuff from the Mt. St. Helens eruption.  My old friend Mitch has lived in the Portland, Oregon area since the early 1970s and for a while, his folks lived there as well.  Mitch and I were quite the pair in high school and spent so much time at each other’s homes, we referred to our parents as Ma and Pa I and II, depending on whose abode we were holding court.  Ma and Pa II had a grand view of Mt. St. Helens from their living room window until the day of the eruption.  Mitch said when they could not see the distant mountain as it was shrouded in gray that morning.  The layer of ash covering their driveway was a good hint of what had just happened.  They scooped up a couple of baggies of the fine gray dust and mailed it to me along with numerous newspaper clippings about the event.  I never thought about trying to melt it down in the art room kiln, but there probably wasn’t enough to make an ashtray anyway.

     When I graduated from NMU in 1975, I treated myself to a trip to Oregon to visit Mitch and his roomie Jack.  At that time, they were sharing a townhouse in Lake Oswego just outside of Portland.  On days when both Mitch and Jack were at work, I would hike up the hill to the community recreation center to shoot some hoops, take a steam bath (not a sauna, mind you, a true ‘steam room steam bath’ like in the mobster movies), or to take a dip in their Olympic sized swimming pool.  Not being a horse person, I did not take the time to check out the indoor equestrian center they had next to the main complex.  It was a kind of ritzy place – did I mention that Bruce Springsteen’s first wife grew up in Lake Oswego?

     When Ma and Pa II sent me the Mt. St. Helens clippings, there was an entire section about volcanic activity in that part of Oregon and Washington state.  I always lamented being a Geography teacher who taught students about volcanic activity but had never visited one myself.  Scanning the newspaper supplements, I realized I had actually had trod the slopes of a volcano without being aware of it.  The community of Lake Oswego is built on the flanks of an ancient cinder cone volcano so each day I walked up the hill to recreate, I was trodding upon a volcano.  When I retraced my path on the map included, I further realized that some of the mounds I passed by, over, and through were small secondary cinder cones lining the much larger cone the subdivision was built on.  I had to change my volcano lament to ‘I have never visited an active volcano’.

     More recent visits to the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau in Eugene, Oregon has lengthened my list of volcanic site visits.  On my first visit there, we drove to the top of Skinner Butte after  seeing pillars of black columnar basalt exposed on one side.  These resemble man-made columns but were actually formed deep within the Earth as molten basalt slowly cooled eons ago.  Later on that same trip, we climbed Spencer’s Butte just outside of town.  With the peak reaching an elevation of 2,058 feet, it was quite a hike to the top and the view was spectacular.  This peak is a volcanic feature formed when molten magma pushed through layers of existing sandstone.  When the surrounding sandstone layers were eroded away, the harder lava intrusion was left to stand guard over the landscape.

     One of the most fascinating volcanic landscapes we have visited required a drive uphill to the east to an area known as the McKenzie Pass.  There is a large tourist pull out at the top of the pass as well as a paved path around and up to a stone observatory.  The pass sits at an elevation of 5,325 feet from the viewing the area*. One’s first thoughts turn to, “How on Earth did they manage to build a road through this landscape of broken blocks of volcanic rock?”  The road was built on a former wagon trail that follows an earlier footpath, but the scope of the project is still mind boggling.  There are places where a wrong step off the walking trail would put one into the bottom of a thirty foot deep crack (of which there are many in this broken, blocky landscape). *The stone viewing observatory is named after Dee Wright, a Forest Service packer and foreman of the CCC construction crew that built the observatory.  Made from lava stones, the Dee Wright Observatory sits near the center of the 65 square mile lava flow created by molten rock flowing from the nearby Belknap Crater. 

       In one direction, there are a couple of low peaks (Belknap Crater and Little Belknap) and farther to the north lies Mount Washington.  In the other direction, the snow capped Three Sisters volcanic peaks dominate the southwestern horizon.  I remember seeing the Three Sisters in the distance on my first visit to Portland back in 1975, but this was different.  They now seemed close enough one could just reach out and touch them.  It is a rugged landscape to say the least and no great wonder many pioneers found alternate routes to bypass this rubble field of lava rock.  The road is evidence, however, that some intrepid souls decided to hack a route through the heart of the old lava flows thus blazing the way for the current Highway 272.  I am not the only one to think the area looked like the surface of the Moon.  NASA did indeed use lava flows at this site to train astronauts for future explorations of the lunar surface.  

     The grand-daddy of all the ancient volcanic features to visit in Oregon is Crater Lake.  We took a day trip there from the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau in Eugene.  We made our final approach from Eugene on the Willamette Highway (Rte. 58), State Highway 97 and finally Rte. 138 (the North Umpqua Highway).  We turned north on the North Entrance Road which crossed the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as we neared Crater Lake.  The N. Entrance Road crossed a barren area called the Pumice Desert and a grassy meadow where the tree line ended.  The open areas had not returned to forest land in the wake of the Mount Mazama eruption.  Before it became Crater Lake, there was a stratovolcano we now call Mount Mazama that stood some 12,000 feet tall.  The souvenir keychain I purchased at the gift puts Crater Lake’s current elevation at 7,076 feet.  A major eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago didn’t actually blow the top off the mountain like Mt. St. Helen’ eruption.  Mount Mazama collapsed to form the caldera in which Crater Lake sits, a lake deep enough to best Lake Superior by a couple of feet.  As we crossed this treeless plain, we could see the ridge that forms the northern edge of the crater jutting upward like so many jagged teeth.   Some of them reach over 8,000 feet.

     We decided to take the most direct route to the Rim Village and followed the Rim Road that parallels the crater’s western edge.  Not being familiar with the layout of the Rim Village, we managed to drive past the entry road and halfway to Mazama Village on the southern side of the crater where the Rim Road meets the Crater Lake Highway (Rte. 62).  When we finally found a place to turn around, we drove through a road construction site for the second time, eating the dust from a rather long line of cars.  Living in a small town with no traffic lights, it was interesting to run into two on the road between Mazama Village and Rim Village.  Okay, they were those temporary ones used when road construction closes one lane of a road, but it was still funny to tell people, “I live in a town with no traffic lights but there were two on the road to Crater Lake.”

     Finding a parking spot was a bit tricky because it was a very busy place.  It was worth it, however, as the view from any point on the rim of Crater Lake is a hundred times better than any photo I have ever seen of the park.  There were about forty stairs leading down to a ‘cave’ excavated in the side of the crater where various displays were set up explaining the geology and history of the place.  I was a little concerned when we made our way back up the stairs.  Halfway to the top, it became apparent I was getting winded.  After sitting on a rock wall for a few minutes, it dawned on me:  the 7,000 foot elevation was 6,000 feet higher than my normal elevation back home and the thinner air was the culprit.  Interestingly enough, both Eugene, OR and Ontonagon, MI have close to the same 600 foot elevation above sea level so hiking around in Eugene was no problem at all (that is my normal elevation).  I had a similar experience the first time I visited Boulder, Colorado but it only took a few days to acclimate.

     Like the rest of the tourists, we pulled off at several different places to take in the view.  The Rim Road is closed part of the year due to the immense snowfall so we were not surprised to find patches of snow still hanging on in August.  We refrained from getting into a snowball fight like the bus load of Boy Scouts did at Rim Village, but we could not resist a photo op standing on a pile of snow in our shorts and tennis shoes.  There are boat tours one can take from the north rim, but after struggling with forty stairs, I had no desire to descend a mile long trail into the crater.  It would have been interesting, but the climb up to the parking lot afterward would not have been fun.  We likewise resisted the urge to hike to the top of Garfield Peak near the Rim Village as we watched the tiny people inching their way up toward the 8,060 foot summit.  With my trusty Oregon Atlas in hand we set off back to Eugene after one last stop along the Rim not too far from  the boat excursion parking lot was located.

     Having an atlas along for the trip gave me ample time to look for other places I would like to visit in the future.  I had done the same thing when we had visited the McKenzie Pass and ended up in the town of Sisters for lunch.  Instead of retracing our route home via the Pass, we took a loop to the north along U.S. Highway 20 (a route known as the McKenzie Pass – Santiam Pass Scenic Byway).  Not far from Sisters, Black Butte is hard to miss as it rises to some 6436 feet.  Like Mount Mazama, Black Butte is an extinct stratovolcano that last erupted in the Pleistocene Era, some 1.4 million years ago.  The atlas shows there is a road that connects to a trail closer to the top where a fire lookout ground house stood until it was burned by the Forest Service in 2016.  This would be an interesting hike, but I also took note that there are two openings at the north base of Black Butte situated about 200 feet apart.  The two springs issuing forth from these openings combine to form the headwaters of the Metolius River.

     Driving along U.S. 20 we were treated to scenic views of a jagged peak known as Three Finger Jack as well as Mt. Washington and Mt. Jefferson.  Turning south off of
U.S. 20 on to Rte. 126 just past Santiam Junction, our last leg stretching stop of the day was at Sahalie Falls.  All volcanic activity does not necessarily produce mountains.  In this case, rivers running across old lava flows encounter multiple steps that send their waters cascading downslope.  I asked a Forest Service Ranger how she enjoyed working in a beautiful spot like this.  She replied, “Oh, I don’t usually work in this area.  I am just here to advise people where they shouldn’t go because there is a forest fire burning southwest of the falls.  Luckily, we were able to continue southward on 126 toward the McKenzie Highway without having to reroute due to the active fire (although we did see quite a few Forest Fire vehicles parked at the entrance of the roads leading to the actual fire).

     Crater Lake was a great destination but it was also a long trip that consumed an entire day.  If I have a chance to revisit the McKenzie Pass again, I will jump on it.  It isn’t that far from Eugene and the lava fields and volcanic cones are truly fascinating.  We have an ancient volcanic history in the Great Lakes Region, but the continental glaciers that scrubbed the land surface multiple times over the eons left us a different type of volcanic landscape.  I also find it interesting to see signs marking the thousand foot elevation benchmarks along the highways.  With our highest peak in Michigan (Mount Arvon) reaching only 1,979 feet above sea level, seeing an elevation sign for 5,000 feet was a unique experience for me.  There are more trails to explore at the McKenzie Pass Summit – maybe I can get to the top of Little Belknap cone without getting too winded.  The pass is, after all, only 5,325 feet above sea level.


Top Piece Video – I don’t know about songs about Geologic Rambling, but there are ‘rambling’ songs . . .