TOUTLE, WASH. — SUSAN WHEELER looks outside the window at the idle tour helicopters as the heavy rain clouds hide Mt. St. Helens 20 miles to the south. ``We just aren't having any luck today, are we?'' she asks pilot Jim Ashby.
The spring rains have meant slow business for Ms. Wheeler, co-owner of a restaurant that doubles as a tourist shop and helicopter tour center for the only active volcano in the contiguous 48 states. She says more reporters have visited her than tourists.
But starting this weekend, thousands of tourists will swarm into southwest Washington State as the attention surrounding the anniversary of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption reaches a climax.
At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, the mountain, about 50 miles north of Portland, Ore., ended two months of minor earthquakes and eruptions. Geologists had predicted two years earlier that an eruption was imminent.
The blast out of the mountain's north side packed a force 2,500 times greater than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Earth debris shot out of the mountain at speeds of from 100 to 400 miles an hour.
A cloud of ash rose 15 miles into the air, dusting the Pacific Northwest and eventually circling the globe.
Glaciers melted from the intense heat, triggering the largest landslide in recorded history. A wall of water and mud roared down the mountain, covering Spirit Lake, a popular recreation area to the north. Bridges, vehicles, and more than 200 homes were overrun by the floods.
Fir trees in a 15-mile radius of the mountain were flattened by the blast and the flooding.
At Toutle, Wash., 25 miles northwest of the mountain, a school became a base for military helicopters to evacuate residents from the coming ash and floods.
``You were absolutely helpless,'' recalled Jack McCullough, who at the time of the eruption was mayor of Longview, Wash., 30 miles west of Mt. St. Helens. ``All you could do was watch that [ash] cloud. We were just in awe.''
When the ash cleared, the mountain's summit had fallen from 9,600 feet to 8,300 feet, and 57 people had been killed. Four days later President Carter flew over the volcano and declared Washington State a disaster area.
Since that day the mountain has had several small earthquakes and eruptions. But scientists regard them only as ``burps,'' and do not expect another eruption.
The eruption literally added chapters to scientists' knowledge of volcanoes, earthquakes, the greenhouse effect, and the way life forms in desolate regions.
``It's almost like observing the beginning of the world,'' says Charles Crisafulli, an ecologist working at the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a 110,000-acre area reserved for study of the devastated environment. Mr. Crisafulli arrived at the mountain the summer after it erupted, and has stayed, witnessing the return of insects, birds, and now larger animals such as elk and deer.
Some animal life close to the mountain managed to survive the eruption, Crisafulli says. For example, burrowing animals such as gophers that were underneath the ground reappeared from beneath the ash. Many small saplings in the dense old-growth forests were saved as the falling trees protected the younger trees from the ash, pumice and mudflows.
To the first-time visitor, the landscape around Mt. St. Helens can look bleak, but life is firmly entrenched.
``The changes are happening so fast, it's almost as if it's on a daily basis,'' Crisafulli says.
Trees within the untouched monument area are now up to six inches tall. In the immediate area outside the monument where the Weyerhauser Company spent $10 million in a reforestation effort, saplings reach as tall as 25 feet.
Farmers also learned from the eruption. In eastern Washington, where as much as three inches of ash fell, record crops were reported for 1980. Scientists credit the ash, which traps moisture and reflects away the sun's heat.
People living in the shadow of the mountain have also restored stability to their lives. As victims were buried and homes rebuilt, a massive recovery program began.
Damage was estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, and more than $550 million has been spent on various restoration and public-works projects, including a sediment retention dam on the Toutle River which will be dedicated tomorrow.
And a trade geared to the curious visitor is thriving. Many people in southern Washington have found a gold mine in the gray ash from the volcano. It is sold at roadside tourist shops in small containers, or in the superheated form of jewelry, medallions, and even porcelain figures.
State and federal officials charged with regulating the area are now almost turning people away from the monument. An estimated 1 million visitors annually visit Mt. St. Helens.
Close to 50,000 people have climbed its diminished summit since the mountain was reopened in 1987. Reservations are required to ensure a spot in line during the climbing season that begins this week and runs through October. According to Rhonda Beckman, spokeswoman at the monument, the limit of 100 climbers a day during the summer and fall will be reached daily.
And the number of visitors will soon grow. A road running up along the mountain's west side and allowing visitors a look into the crater is expected to open in 1992. When that happens, the number of visitors will double, Ms. Beckman says.
The mountain's popularity has already created some tension between scientists, who are concerned about preserving the unspoiled nature of the 110,000-acre monument, and eager tourists. But Beckman believes a balance can be struck.
``It is such a breathtaking mountain to look at,'' she says. ``People will always come to see it.''