Town hopes eruption brings tourist dollars
COUGAR, Wash. – When Carol Hubbell heard about the mini-eruption of Mount St. Helens on a Forest Service scanner in the Cougar Store, she ran into the parking lot to watch the plume of steam and ash waft over the mountain 12 miles to the north.
Then she hustled back inside; it would be a busy afternoon of selling ice, snacks and beer.
The logging community of Cougar is the closest town to the erupting crater of Mount St. Helens. The residents were celebrating the burst of steam that emanated from the mountain around noon on Friday, anticipating a heavy tourist influx over the weekend.
“Unless it keeps blowing and gets a little more intense, I think it’s really exciting,” Hubbell said.
“My kids are all in school; they’re going to be really disappointed they weren’t here when it blew.”
The eruption sent a cloud of steam and ash up to 10,000 feet, but it was nothing like the devastating blast in May 1980 that killed 57 people. Though the force of that eruption went in another direction, Cougar was evacuated and got nine inches of volcanic ash.
In the quarter century since, the town, like most logging communities in the Northwest, has suffered through a decline in the timber industry. Its roughly 200 residents mostly scrape by on tourism, with hunting and hiking in the summer and snowmobiling in the winter.
Hubbell said the burst could provide a lift for the economy, and compensate for the loss of revenue from hikers, who were barred from the mountain because of the warnings of an imminent eruption.
A steady stream of cars and motorcycles passed through Cougar on Friday, headed to an overlook a few miles from the crater.
Forest Service officers blocked the road to the closest viewpoint, Windy Ridge, but allowed sightseers to watch from several spots lower down the mountain.
“A lot of people had video cameras,” said Dennis DoSantos, who rode his motorcycle from Portland, Ore., to see an eruption.
Other volcano watchers were disappointed with the puff of steam that quickly dissipated.
“It wasn’t big enough,” said Joe Powers, who drove to the mountain from Seattle.