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It looks like Mars, without the red hue

MOUNT ST. HELENS - A soft, snow-white steam plume drifts out of Mount St. Helens most days now, leisurely wafting to the southeast as we fly over.

From a distance, it looks like a thick column of smoke but as we cross the face of the volcano's crater at 7,000 feet, steam is rising off the lava dome, black and distinct inside the crater.

It looks like the steam off hot rocks doused with cold water in a steambath.

"The heat wave was 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit when it came down the face of the mountain," pilot Paul Carman says as he banks the plane to the left and circles out over the remains of Spirit Lake, now muddy brown and debris-filled, before recrossing the face of Mount St. Helens.

"Spirit Lake is 200 feet higher now because of the ash, mud and debris," says Carman. A year ago, it was tree-lined and fresh-water green.

The southern face of Mount St. Helens is blanketed by a glisten snow leading down to thick green forest that was undisturbed by a blast a year ago. But on the north face blown out by the blast, the only activity is inside the crater itself.

Rivers of heated particles have oozed out of the volcano and down its face like streaks of mascara running down a pretty face on a rainy day. Gray spots dusted by ash contrast to the snow.

The volcanic blast of Mount St. Helens last May 18, estimated as equal to 10 to 50 millions tons of TNT, scoured away a thick forest. Trees were simply obliterated.

The brownish, almost colorless surface, looks much like the plant Mars, without the red hue, as seen in satellite photos taken thousands of miles away.

The land appears to have been shaped eons ago, but the nooks, crannies, valleys and potholes took shape only in the past year.

Farther away from the volcano, we pass over trees sliced down in neat rows for miles. Already logging is under way to get these out before bugs destroy the wood.

The force of the blast followed the ground, flattening everything, whether in front of a ridge or behind it, whether in a Valley or on a hilltop. It appears not to have blown things over, but by its impact to have leveled them instantly. Trees, stripped of limbs, branches and bark and made into instant logs, lie in almost neat rows, not in haphazard stacks.

It looks as if a giant comb went through, curving them neatly around a hillside.

Beyond these stacks are trees knocked over by the force but with limbs intact. Still farther out stands mile after mile of a light pink forest where the heat wave killed the trees but lacked the punch to knock them down.

"Those are known as the 'standing dead,' " Carman says as our plane sweeps across the Toutle River Valley. Potholes formed by the bubbling mud a year ago are now filled with water.

Minerals color them like gems and from the air we see sparkling spots of emerald, gold, pea green, custard, pink and brown.

Coldwater Creek, a nice little fishing stream that once fed into the Toutle River seven miles from Mount St. Helens, was dammed by mud and debris when the volcanic blast sent a wall of mud down the valley.

Now Coldwater Lake contains 58,000 acre feet of water and has a capacity of 104,000 acre feet.

"We're going to try to maintain it at 65,000 acre feet," says Kay Piotrzkowski of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To do that, the Corps plans to construct an overflow channel in solid rock that won't erode.

Corps and other federal studies say if the Coldwater Creek Dam broke, it would flood the Cowlitz River Valley and Castle Rock, Longview and Kelso with a wave of mud and water twice the size of the mudflows last May 18 and would cause $3 billion damage.

Two other lakes seven to nine miles from the volcano have been formed by mudflows that dammed Castle Creek and Jackson Creek. They're not near the size of Coldwater, nor do they pose the threat it does.

But the volcano also took away lakes. Carmen says the heat wave instantly evaporated little Fawn Lake.

Our plane next sweeps across Camp Baker, the logging camp where three men died. Two hours before, touring the now abandoned camp with Mrs. Piotrzkowski, Castle Rock Mayor Mike Huson and others, I saw only dead trees, smashed buildings and a milewide reminder, of the swath cut by a monstrous mudflow.

But, life is returning to the valley. The Corps is conducting dredging operations, trees are being planted, there are footprints of a deer in the dirt and ash, and Mrs. Piotrzkowski said she heard her first bird singing there two weeks ago.

The Corps let 37 contracts for dredging material out . of the rivers flooded by the eruption, Mrs. Piotrzkowski said. Some 50 million cubic yards of material entered the Cowlitz River from the eruption, she said, and about 2.7 billion entered the Toutle.

The primary goals were to prevent flooding of populated regions and to keep the navigation channel in the Columbia River open, she said. About 83 million cubic yards of material have been dredged out so far along a 14-mile stretch that includes part of the Toutle, Cowlitz and Columbia rivers.

"The owners have signed and donation agreements for 4,500 acres of the Cowlitz River alone to allow us to deposit dredging material," Mrs. Piotrzkowski said. "We couldn't have done it without them because we didn't have any place to put it."