Scott Hinderman  /  USFS via AP
A gray cloud of ash and clouds of white steam billows from a midday eruption of Mount St. Helens as shown in this photo taken from Coldwater Ridge, about seven miles from the mountain on Oct. 1.
updated 10/5/2004 7:19:52 PM ET 2004-10-05T23:19:52

Forest Service Ranger Scott Hinderman was trying to tell a group of tourists about the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, but they were more interested in the sight of TV personality Geraldo Rivera strutting by.

Hinderman regained their attention by pulling out one of his standard crowd-pleasers: a photograph of himself as a 5-year-old boy, leaning in swim trunks against a dock on a lake as the volcano blows its top.

The tactic worked -- at least until Geraldo walked by again.

The recent reawakening of Mount St. Helens has drawn thousands of people to the volcano. Even if they are occasionally distracted by the media, many have a keen interest in the landscape, its history and how scientists predict eruptions.

That attention has been satisfying for many rangers, but perhaps most of all for the few rangers who, like Hinderman, grew up nearby.

"St. Helens is such a dynamic, changing area," said Hinderman, a 29-year-old native of Tacoma. "Year after year, season after season, these changes occur. And when people are interested in what they're seeing, when they're enthusiastic -- by no stretch of the imagination are we rock stars, but we are the center of attention up here."

Forest Service Ranger Pamela McCray and her boyfriend of three years, Ranger Jason Harrison, experienced different ends of the 1980 blast, which killed 57 people and devastated 230 square miles of forest.

She was 6, and her dad drove her from their home in Clatskanie, Ore., across the Columbia River to Kalama, Wash., to watch the eruption. More than 200 miles away, the ash from the plume darkened the sky over Spokane, and Harrison, then 7, had to wear a breathing mask on his way to school.

"I went to school for art, but when I got done, I decided I really wanted to just be out in the woods," McCray said.

She started working for a bookstore that funds a visitors center and the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a vantage point about five miles from the volcano. She fell in love with Harrison and the landscape.

"I feel totally blessed. I mean, look at what a geek I am -- I'm here on my day off," she said.

Ranger Jerry Gould was only 3 months old in 1980 when the volcano erupted. But she grew up in Castle Rock, one of the closest towns to the blast zone. She remembers smirking when she would see tourists buying volcanic ash at souvenir shops when they could just walk down to the Toutle River and get it themselves.

Sometimes, she got bored with all the talk about the volcano. That changed five years ago after high school, when she, too, began working at the bookstore.

"You just fall in love with this place. It's so fascinating and changing all the time," she said.

And since Sept. 23, when scientists first detected a flurry of earthquakes in the crater, "I've just had a permanent grin on my face," she said. "There's a lot of families coming up here, bringing their kids, a lot of locals and people coming from all over. They've driven so far to be here, and they have such great interest in what's going on."

She added: "You never really have bad days up here."

One recent day was a good one, indeed. On Saturday, the day the Forest Service closed the Johnston Ridge Observatory because of the eruption danger, her big sister got married at a bluff near Mount St. Helens. In the distance, magma moved under the mountain.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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