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Original Issue


A lake now embraces the old plunge pool at the foot of the Dry Falls, where the Columbia River once fell 400 feet over a front 3½ miles wide. Those ancient falls surely were among the greatest the world has ever known, but today the Columbia flows far to the west, and, except for the lake, the Dry Falls are as dry as their name implies. They lie in the arid reaches of central Washington, north of the town of Ephrata, surrounded by sagebrush and loose soil that blows in the hot, swirling winds.

The lake is nearly eclipsed by the towering walls and turrets of the Dry Falls, but it is an intriguing stretch of water. From the 40-foot-deep plunge pool it sprawls southward into shallow, weedy bays and channels amid a labyrinth of rocks that still show signs of battering from the river. And those shallow bays are inhabited by fat, strong rainbow and brown trout that feed on the lake's abundant snails and prolific insect hatches.

It was the trout, as well as the spectacular view afforded by the ancient falls, that had brought us, and other anglers, to Dry Falls Lake on May 18. It was a flawless morning. I had launched my little aluminum pram and was rigging up a pair of fly rods while Joan, my wife, brewed a morning pot of coffee. Our two children, Stephanie, 10, and Randy, seven, were busy exploring the margins of the lake, watching in fascination as fat, stubby dragonfly nymphs crawled out of the water to hatch.

I was sipping the first cup of coffee when the sounds came. At first there was just a gentle ripple in the air, so soft and indistinct that I was uncertain I had heard it. But then it came again, louder, a deep, ominous rumble like distant thunder. Then more sounds came, sharp and distinct, a series of heavy detonations as if distant gunners were lobbing shells ever closer to us. Finally came the loudest crack of all, a mighty swell of sound that washed against the coulee walls like a wave breaking on a rocky shore, echoing and reechoing around the great horseshoe-shaped amphitheater of the Dry Falls.

Frightened, the kids came running to ask what was happening. Fathers are supposed to know everything, but there was no apparent answer for these violent cascades of sound. They weren't sonic booms. Nor did it seem likely they could have carried from the Army's Yakima Firing Range; it was too far away. But then I had a joking thought: "Maybe Mount St. Helens [130 miles to the southwest] blew her top," I told the kids. They laughed and ran away, returning to their play.

The sounds ceased as abruptly as they began and we soon forgot them. The day was still bright and growing warm, and I finished the coffee and shoved off in the pram. Out in the shallows the trout were dimpling, and I began casting to them with a floating line and a favorite nymph pattern.

The fishing was good. Several strong rainbows took the nymph and flashed away in long runs over the shallow, weedy banks. After the initial run it was a struggle to keep them from diving into the thick weed. The hatch came up, the trout rose well and the morning passed quickly, as mornings always do when the fishing is good.

When I glanced at my watch it was a quarter to 12. Simultaneously, I noticed for the first time a long, dark cloud creeping over the coulee rim. A thunderstorm. I thought, heading our way. It looked as if it would be a bad one. But it was yet some distance off, so I continued fishing until a little after noon. By then the cloud had edged closer, dark and threatening, and it seemed as if the storm must soon begin. I decided to head for shore and eat lunch. Perhaps the storm would pass quickly and there would be more fishing in the afternoon. Most of the other anglers seemed to have the same idea. There was a sudden migration of small boats heading for shore.

I pulled the pram up onto the rocky shore and sat under the canopy of our pickup truck, munching sandwiches with Joan and the kids and watching the other fishermen. Many were packing up to leave ahead of the approaching storm.

The dark cloud now filled the whole western half of the sky, blotting out the sun; it had grown noticeably cooler. Yet, strangely, there was no stirring of the wind. The lake remained calm and the trout still dimpled in the shallows. But surely the storm couldn't hold off much longer.

I walked a little way up the road from the lakeshore to higher ground, where I could look south down the long coulee. It was very dark for as far as I could see. This would be no ordinary storm. It looked like the granddaddy of all storms, and it might be a long time passing. There would be no fishing this afternoon. It was time to leave.

Returning to the truck, I told the family to pack up. I put away the rods and hoisted the pram onto the boat rack atop the canopy, working quickly, expecting the storm to strike violently at any moment. Although it was growing ever darker, there was still no wind, nor yet a hint of rain.

It was completely dark by the time I was finished. Not just storm-dark or twilight-dark; it was as dark as the deepest, blackest night. The cloud had filled the sky, stretching from one rim of the coulee to the other, and it had swallowed up all the daylight in the sky. The familiar landmarks of the Dry Falls had disappeared, and now we were surrounded by vague shapes and masses that we felt rather than saw. The noisy yellow-headed and red-wing blackbirds that live in the tules around the lakeshore had suddenly grown still.

It was one o'clock in the afternoon, but it was night.

I started the truck, switched on the headlights and shifted into low gear for the first hill on the tortuous, rocky road out of the Dry Falls. By this time only one other fisherman remained at the lake access, and he also was working hurriedly to load up his boat and leave. He looked anxiously at the sky as we drove slowly past and said, "I've never seen anything like this."

Neither had we.

By the time we had gone a quarter of a mile the darkness had become so thick and impenetrable that even the high beams of the truck's headlights could scarcely drill a thin tunnel of light ahead of us. Then I noticed a thick, heavy mist floating in the headlight beams and beginning to collect on the windshield. The storm was at last beginning. "Here comes the rain," I said.

"That isn't rain," Joan said quietly.

It wasn't. Whatever it was, it was dry.

The bright morning, full of promise, had dissolved into total, inexplicable darkness. And now something was falling from the sky, and it wasn't rain. We could see nothing, except for the pair of ruts that appeared dimly in the headlights, and hear nothing, except for the truck's engine straining to overcome the grade. It was as if we had made a wrong turn to another planet, or had suddenly crossed the threshold of a forbidden dimension.

There had to be some rational explanation, and I could think of only one: that Mount St. Helens had exploded, and with more cataclysmic force than anyone could ever possibly have imagined.

"Turn on the radio," Joan said. "There must be something about this on the radio." I hadn't turned it on earlier because reception is difficult down in the rocky pocket of the Dry Falls. I did so now.

There was lightning in the air. It crashed and crackled across the radio band as I dialed, searching for a station. There were snatches of faint, far-off music, blurred by static. And then the frightened voice of a disc jockey at a station in nearby Moses Lake: "Mount St. Helens has erupted, and ash is falling everywhere in the Columbia Basin. All roads in the area are closed. If you're in a car, pull over and stop."

The voice was near panic; the disc jockey obviously was having as much trouble coping with the situation as we were. And yet his voice was somehow comforting, a link to the familiar world that had disappeared so suddenly an hour before. And it confirmed the explanation for the explosions we had heard and for our present plight.

But I wasn't about to take the disc jockey's advice. Pulling over and stopping was the last thing I wanted to do. Ash from the exploded volcano was falling thickly; I could smell and taste the stuff, and it made my throat dry. It might be toxic. If we stopped, it seemed possible we might not be able to go on breathing. I decided to try to get away as quickly as I could, back to someplace where the air was clear and it was light.

It was a strange ride out of the Dry Falls, with the windshield wipers working to keep the ash from piling up and the headlights lighting a dim path through the darkness that had come up out of the earth. But finally the rocky ruts gave way to a narrow band of asphalt that led southwest toward the nearest highway, and. eventually we found ourselves in a line of other cars fleeing the cloud. Each car stirred up an enormous rooster tail of blinding dust that forced those behind to slow or stop until it settled.

In such halting fashion we made it to the highway and turned north, crawling through the dusty darkness until the headlights dimly picked out the sign for the junction with U.S. 2, the route westward to the Cascade Mountains and Stevens Pass. If we went that way, I hoped, perhaps we could get away from the cloud: Maybe we could even make it over the mountains to our home in Seattle.

For 10 or 20 minutes we drove slowly westward in darkness. Then, far ahead, a dull gleam of light appeared low on the horizon, as if it were shining under the hem of a curtain. It grew larger and brighter as we continued toward it. The announcer at a station in Wenatchee assured us repeatedly that U.S. 2 was closed, but we kept going. Soon it was bright enough to see beyond the cone of light from the truck headlights. Everything was gray; ash swirled on the highway like new-fallen powder snow and filled the furrows of the plowed fields. I thought about the ash being sucked into the truck's air intake and worried that it would choke the carburetor and kill the engine, but the truck plowed steadily ahead into the storm of ash.

It was sometime after three when we reached Wenatchee. The sun was a sullen glow in a dusty sky, and thick ash and dust were blowing in the streets, but still it was a scene that seemed infinitely hospitable compared to the one we had left at Dry Falls. We had come from darkness into light, traversing a dusty moonscape which only that morning had been lush with green grass, freshly plowed dark rows of earth and trees filled with ripening fruit.

From Wenatchee we drove up into the mountains toward Stevens Pass, soon leaving the last of the ash behind us. The sky again brightened to a faultless blue, and afternoon sunlight glinted from the silvery caps of late spring snow still clinging to the Cascade peaks. We breathed cool, clean air and gave silent thanks.

In another two hours we were home.

We were lucky. Thousands of others weren't so fortunate. They were stranded for days in tiny, ash-choked towns or at roadside rest areas, forced to a halt by blinding, blowing ash or by car engines that had choked to death on the noxious stuff.

And now, I realize, we were lucky in another respect. We had witnessed the awesome power of nature in a way that few people ever have. Those in other parts of the world who read of the explosion of Mount St. Helens in newspapers or watched it on television will never comprehend the full magnitude of the event; even the most powerful descriptive phrase or the most startling photograph cannot convey it properly. In order to understand how big—how incredible—it really was, you had to see it for yourself. You had to be there when the sun died at noon and the dark, dry rain began to fall.