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The Rowdy River

Chapter II in author Keith McCoy's monthly series on the White Salmon River

Chapter II


Mount Adams is crowned with 10 glaciers and a massive ice cap. Two of these glaciers clustered on the southwest peak are the source of the White Salmon River. These are the White Salmon and Alavanche Glaciers. The third, Pinnacle, drains into the Lewis River.

Massive springs below the glaciers are the direct source of the river while snowmelt on much of the south face of the mountain is collected by Cascade Creek and its tributaries and directed into the White Salmon.

As we view Mount Adams from the south, the profile we see is the rim of the extinct volcano. About 6,000 years ago a massive debris avalanche broke loose and created the cleft between the summit and the West Pinnacle. The mass swept down the mountainside, across the eastern part of Trout Lake Valley and moved as far as Husum. Lesser avalanches have occurred over the years. A major one in 1921 left a mile-wide swath of debris and came below timberline. Others have occurred, as recently as 1997.

This massive mountain, standing 12,276 feet high, is the second highest snow-cap peak in the Pacific Northwest. Though of lesser height than nearby Mount Rainier, it is much larger in bulk, matching Mount Shasta in northern California in size and shape.

Mount Adams has long been known as the "forgotten mountain" because of its remote location. Mount Hood and Mount Rainier, closer to population centers, had better roads 100 years ago than some of those approaching Mount Adams today. Girdled on the east and northeast by the Yakama Indian Reservation and by the Mount Adams Wilderness created in 1942, this complete circling of the mountain seemingly closes it to mineral explorations, resorts, ski areas and other development for all time.

During the 1930s, Mount Adams drew some attention as the Glacier Mining Company explored the feasibility of marketing the vast deposits of pure sulfur that lie in the extinct crater. The reports of the resident and consulting geologists were of interest, but limited to their specific project.

But the "forgotten mountain" has, at long last, gotten its share of attention. Geologists from the United States Geological Survey made an intensive study of Mount Adams. Headed by Wes Hildreth and Judy Fierstein of the Menlo Park office, this Volcano Hazards Team was joined by other specialists during their years of investigation. They spent several weeks each summer on and around Mount Adams, sometimes operating from mountain tents in remote locations, sometimes from the more comfortable Flying L Ranch in Glenwood.

The program began in 1981 as a Congressionally mandated study of the mineral and geothermal resource of the mountain. It turned, as Hildreth said, " into a fundamental investigation of how volcanoes work." The expanded program, that would span a decade and a half, was to answer questions about "the eruptive history, the distribution of eruptive vents, or the frequency, composition and explosivity of past volcanic activity." The study involved not only the stratovolcano -- the stratified bulk of Mount Adams -- but the surrounding volcanic field.

Samples taken from dozens of locations on and around the mountain were carefully analyzed, scientifically dated by their potassium and argon content, and mapped. Varying extrusions of basalt, andesite and dacite were shown on the maps. These maps, showing more than half a million years of flows, are colorful and almost surreal.

Mount Adams, after being so long ignored, served as the subject of a classic study of stratovolcanos. And the peripheral volcanoes that affected various drainages, including the White Salmon River, were well documented.

Since this landmark study, the White Salmon drainage has been studied and restudied and restudied. Both the state and the county conducted studies in connection with their Shorelines Management Acts. Then the U.S. Forest Service studied the river before 7.0 miles of its length was declared a Wild and Scenic River. Since then, the entire upper river has been studied and recommended for inclusion in the designation if and when the Congress approves it.

Others are studying the river, too. PacifiCorp, owner of the power facility, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, pending final relicensing action, are making their studies. A team of anthropologists is also at work assessing tribal interests along the river.

An extensive survey of the geology of the White Salmon River drainage is being made by Dr. Paul E. Hammond of Portland, a prominent northwest geologist. On completion, some of his interesting findings will be presented as part of this series. You will be surprised to learn of volcanoes that you didn't recognize before. They may well have shaped the landscape you see from your window.


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