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40-Years Ago Today: Spirit Lake BSA Camp Destroyed by Mount St. Helens Eruption

by | May 18, 2020 | News | 0 comments

Footage of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens

Camp Spirit Lake was a nationally-recognized Boy Scout camp for its canoe-only access, water activities, and hiking program. Many Scouters still have fond memories of the camp which was destroyed in the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980, along with a Girl Scout camp and two YMCA camps. The lake was a popular tourist destination for many years and there were also a number of lodges catering to visitors, including Spirit Lake Lodge and Mt. St. Helens Lodge.

Below is a bit of our history at Spirit Lake and a personal story from the daughter of on of the camp’s directors.

Spirit Lake’s Big Lodge

Spirit Lake's Big Lodge

Spirit Lake BSA Camp, the Big Lodge (Note the large brass bell at the top of the stairs — that’s probably the only substantial thing left of the camp after St Helens blew her top)

A Personal Story from Pamela Bolton

My Dad, Gordon Bolton, had been the District Scout Executive for the Modoc Area Council in Central Oregon in the late 1950s. He decided to leave professional Scouting to go back to college in 1961.  Since he had the summers off, in the Spring of 1964, Lloyd Knutson, of the Portland Area Council, asked if he would be interested in directing the Spirit Lake Camp at the foot of Mt St Helens.  Dad said he’d like to see the camp first.  So, in early May, he and Lloyd drove up to Spirit Lake. Because the Camp was inaccessible by car, they rented a motorboat from old Harry Truman, and started across the lake.  

Dad said Lloyd was very talkative — until they rounded the point and headed towards the camp docks …. and Lloyd became very quiet.  He finally said, “it’s a bit of a mess.”   That was an understatement.  Dad and Lloyd silently walked around the camp.  It hadn’t been opened since the 1962 Columbus Day storm.  There were trees down and debris littered throughout the Camp to the extent that the trails and walkways were non-existent.  The boat house and trading post needed extensive repairs.  The Big Lodge needed repair.  The cabins needed repair.  But before anything could be done, a massive clean-up effort would be necessary.   Lloyd didn’t think Dad would take on the job — he said he thought it was going to be like trying to convince someone to take on “Mission Impossible.”  But Dad said, “there’s some great possibilities here.”  And he accepted the “mission.”  

Dad pulled together what he later called the “best work team he could’ve asked for” to help get the camp back into shape.  From his earlier work connections, he got contractors and lumbermen and electricians and plumbers, all former Scouts, to donate materials and time to come up to the camp, along side the Staff that Dad had chosen.  They worked from dawn to dusk, and then some.  There were huge logs, 4-6 ft in diameter, that had to be cleared.  The campfire bowl had to be re-done, as well as all of the other areas:  rifle range, archery range, knot yard, swimming area, conservation area, chapel, nature trail, the troop camping areas, etc.  They even had to set in a new flagpole in front of the Big Lodge.  They had to get the boats running again.  There were three of them:  the Patoh, Wy-East, and LooWit, used to bring the troops across the lake to the camp…. and none of them were running.  They also needed to re-wire the crank telephone system in the Big Lodge for communicating around the lake.     By the time the 2nd week was done, the Camp was set to have their first groups come in.  

Dad was the Camp Director there for three summers, 1964-1966.  One of the most memorable incidents was in the summer of 1965.  It was a Saturday night and everyone had hit the hay after the evening campfire.  My mom had gotten up and looked out the cabin window and noticed a flickering light down by the campfire bowl.  She came over to my Dad and asked if they hadn’t put out the campfire.  He said, yes — then Mom said it looks like there’s a fire down there.  Dad was out of his sleeping bag in 1 second, ran to the window and back, and was in his pants and boots and out the door in 5 seconds.  He ran to the neighboring cabin where the Nick, the Waterfront Director,  and LeRoy, the Activity Director were staying and pounded on the door, hollering, “we’ve got a fire!”  Dad heard a BANG in the cabin — LeRoy’s bed broke.  lol   Dad then ran down to the Boat House where the rest of the Staff slept on the 2nd floor, yanked open the door and told them there was a fire and to hustle.  Dad said everyone was so quiet, so as not to wake the Scouts (it was about 2 AM).  Several of the staff got the fire hose, and were running with it toward the bowl.  

All of a sudden, they hit the end of the hose, and all four of them sat down unexpectedly (Dad said that was like watching an old silent movie comedy – but it was the only funny part of the whole incident).   The hose was close enough, though, that the water could reach the fire.  Apparently some sparks had flown up from the wind into the back of a tree during the campfire, and it had been smoldering for several hours before catching the tree on fire.  They got the fire out with no problem, and one of the Staff stayed on site for the rest of the night to watch for any flare-up — but they’d done their work well, and no other fire appeared.  The Forest Service was informed the next day of the occurrence, and huffily informed Dad that they should have been called in.  As the phone did not work at night, Dad asked if they thought he should have taken a 45 minute ride across the lake to let them know, and they sheepishly agreed the right thing had been done.   I’m sure my brother would remember even more incidents up at the Camp.  My Dad, of course, would have been able to regale you with story after story of his Scouting escapades!  But my Dad passed away in 2007.  He loved Scouting.

Thank you so much Pamela for sharing your recollection of your dad’s stories.

1964 Spirit Lake BSA Camp Staff

1964 Spirit Lake BSA Camp Staffthe 1964 Spirit Lake BSA Camp Staff (the first after the 1962 Columbus Day Storm)Front row:  Don Shockey, Program Director, and Gordon Bolton, Camp Director(I remember some of the names of the other staff:  George Hansen, Gary Stewart, Dick Klinger, Bruce Free (now a physician), Neal Valentine, Bruce Wallace) 

8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980

This is one of the WWII lifeboats that was sold to the Boy Scouts as a “transport” boat for the Spirit Lake BSA Camp at the foot of Mt St Helens. The boat was christened “Patoh” – the Yakima name for Mt Adams. (Gordon Bolton was the Camp Director, and his son and daughter spent their summers up at the camp in the 1960’s.)  In the photo, the Patoh is just heading into the dock at the Camp.

In 1966, the boat was deemed “unsafe” (supposedly the metal of the hull was getting thin), and Gordon was required to sink it out in the middle of the lake. When he tried to sink the boat by dashing holes in the hull with a metal spear, the hull was so tough, it took nearly an hour to make a hole… So much for the idea that the boat was “unsafe”!!!!

Pictured below is what is believed to be the last remaining Spirit Lake Scout Camp Staff T-shirt. Gordon’s wife designed the logo!

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