Mt St Helens Lodge: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Awe

THEN: Mount St. Helens gleams in the mid-1940s in this image looking south from the shore of Spirit Lake. (Boyd Ellis, Paul Dorpat Collection)

NOW: From the same vantage, Mount St. Helens remains shattered nearly 40 years after its legendary eruption on May 18, 1980. For more photos of St. Helens today, scroll to the bottom for four bonus images. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in the Seattle Times online and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on May 17, 2020


Rob Smith and Kathy Paulson continue to feel the aftershocks – and the awe – of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens

By Clay Eals and Jean Sherrard

In the quiet of a mid-March night in 1980, as snow silently fell on Spirit Lake Lodge near Mount St. Helens, a young couple, Rob Smith and Kathy Paulson, lay in bed. Suddenly, the entire lodge began shaking uncontrollably.

“As the whole top of the lodge started weaving back and forth,” Kathy recalls, “I sat straight up in bed and thought, ‘Get me out of here.’ Something was going on.”

The tremors continued, prompting Rob to radio the U.S. Forest Service. Although the response was lackadaisical, seismic activity soon intensified, and the University of Washington brought in equipment to monitor the mountain.

For Rob, this was more than just an isolated incident. Mount St. Helens had always held a special place in his heart. As a child, his family would frequent the area, and a cherished photograph of him as a young boy standing on the snowy boat dock of Mount St. Helens Lodge serves as a testament to those fond memories.

As he grew older, Rob developed a deep connection with the mountain, finding solace and adventure in the surrounding forests. But life in his small town offered little opportunity for growth, until one day his father offered him the chance to run Spirit Lake Lodge. Rob eagerly accepted, leaving behind the mundane and embracing a life of isolation and nature.

The lodge, situated at the end of Spirit Lake Highway, offered breathtaking views of Mount St. Helens. Visitors would flock to the area, captivated by the snowy peak. Rob, along with his wife Kathy, would welcome these “flatlanders” and provide them with a memorable experience in the wilderness.

Their life at the lodge was far from luxurious. With no utilities and limited supplies, they relied on propane and wood for electricity and heat. Despite the hardships, they found joy in their simple existence.

However, the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, changed everything. Rob and Kathy were forced to evacuate, leaving behind their beloved lodge, which ultimately succumbed to the fury of the volcano. Harry Truman, the owner of Mount St. Helens Lodge, was also buried beneath the volcanic ash, refusing to leave his mountain despite the danger.

The eruption devastated the area, with 57 lives lost and widespread destruction. Rob and Kathy moved away, building new lives in Kirkland, Washington. But their attachment to Mount St. Helens remained. Rob, now an accomplished photographer, captures the beauty of the mountain and the challenges faced by the local wildlife. Kathy, on the other hand, longs to revisit the site of their former lodge, finding solace and transformation in its memories.

Mount St. Helens, once a symbol of love, loss, and awe, continues to inspire and captivate those who have encountered its power. As Rob reflects, “It’s still personal…but now I see it all through different eyes, and I’m enjoying the place a little more.”

To learn more about the Ambassadeur Hotel, visit their website here.