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It Happened Here: Yakima church group experienced Mount St. Helens eruption from 30 miles away

Forty years ago, a group from a Yakima church went on camping trip to Packwood Lake and came home with an unforgettable experience.

The hikers from Englewood Christian Church had an almost ringside seat as Mount St. Helens erupted roughly 30 miles away. After being pelted with ash, they wound up spending a couple of days on the west side of the mountains, only to come home to the moonscape the Yakima Valley had become after the mountain blew.

“It was quite a weekend,” recalled Paul Brunn, one of the hikers.

Brunn, now 77, was part of a group of about 25 church members who regularly hiked and camped in the mountains. One weekend, they decided to visit Packwood Lake, about 77 miles west of Yakima between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

To the southwest was Mount St. Helens, once regarded as the “Mount Fuji of America” because of its conical shape rising above Spirit Lake. But the mountain was stirring, the first sign being an earthquake centered near Mount Margaret to the north on March 20.

By the time the Englewood church group arrived at Packwood, Mount St. Helens was clearly showing signs that it was waking up, belching steam and ash from vents on the mountain.

The campers spent May 17, 1980, pitching their tents and fishing in the lake, with plans to fish some more the next day, according to an account from Dick Cowin, another member of the group.

Sunday morning, Cowin recalled getting out of a tent and admiring the cloudless blue sky. Because of the lake’s location in a valley, they couldn’t see the mountains around them.

Shortly after 8:30 a.m., the campers heard a rumbling sound that kept getting louder. Cowin said they initially thought it was a squadron of jets flying over, while Brunn recalled it sounding more like a thunderstorm.

Brunn also saw a cloud come over the lake.

The mountain had just erupted with a force 500 times greater than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima. In seconds, the mountain lost more than a half-mile in height as the blast that came out its side tore a swath of destruction through the woodlands, rendered Spirit Lake a toxic soup and sent floodwaters, mud and debris down the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers, while spewing millions of tons of pulverized rock and volcanic glass into the atmosphere.

Fifty-seven people died from the blast, including some who were in what scientists said was a safe area away from the volcano.

Back at Packwood Lake, Brunn and Cowin both noticed something was splashing in the water, like hail. Instead it was debris from the volcano as an ash cloud came over the lake and turned the sky pitch black.

“Then we knew the mountain did blow,” Brunn said.

“We literally could not see our hands in front of our face,” Cowin said of the ash that darkened the sky.

Cowin got a 50-foot rope from his backpack for everyone to grab so they wouldn’t get lost as they looked for the trail and a cabin they had passed. They found the trail with their hands and made their way a half-mile to the cabin, a trip that took them an hour.

There, they rode out the ash fall for two hours before the storm passed and it got light enough to make out the trail. Then, the men and teenage boys in the group went back down the trail to break their camp and bring the gear to the cabin.

They then hiked 2 miles down the trail to their cars, with Cowin writing the date and place they were at in the ash covering the car.

Brunn swept ash off his bumper into a container as a souvenir of their adventure.

“We thought, ‘We’ll have things to tell the people in Yakima about,’” Brunn said. “We put (the ash) in containers and thought we got the real thing.”

Cowin turned on his car radio to find out what was going on, and he heard an announcer asking anyone who knew the whereabouts of the Englewood backpacking group to call in. And then the radio lost reception.

The group made its way to Packwood, their vehicles kicking up ash clouds, and found out they were not going to be able to go home. White Pass, like Snoqualmie Pass, was closed due to ash.

They spent a night in a senior center before being moved to a school gym that was converted into an emergency shelter.

After a couple of days, they were able to leave for Portland, where the aunt of a church member had a home and they could spend the night.

The next day, they made the trip up the Columbia River Gorge toward Yakima. Near Goldendale was a viewpoint with a sign showing the mountains that were visible, and which way to look for them. Someone had taped over the Mount St. Helens reference on the sign after the eruption.

The group made it back to Yakima, where their ash containers were just a drop in the bucket compared to what people were brushing off their roofs and scraping from the streets.

“We had no idea there was going to be this much ash here,” Brunn said.

The eruption did not really scare them much, Brunn recalled, and he said the group did go on other camp outs after that.

Brunn said some of the group members had planned to mark the anniversary by going back to Packwood Lake, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic forced some of them to cancel. Brunn said he planned to go on a day hike to the lake with family.

It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com. Sources for this column include an interview with Paul Brunn, a written account by Dick Cowin and Yakima Herald-Republic archives.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or https://www.facebook.com/donaldwmeyersjournalist.

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