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Lessons of fire and ice

After spending many summers in my younger life at Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake, three friends and I made our final visit to the lake in March of 1980, just two months before the eruption.

We had arranged to stay at Harmony Falls Lodge and visit acquaintances serving as winter caretakers at this rustic resort on the eastern shore. Arriving from Portland along the Spirit Lake Highway, we hoisted our backpacks and skied across the frozen lake.

That evening we gathered around the lodge's fireplace to tell stories and share a meal. Snow was deep, but temperatures warming. The next day we decided to ski farther across the lake to Camp Loowit. Loowit is one of several Native American words for the mountain: "Lady of Fire."

We skirted a large melt pond, shed our skis and climbed up on the deck of the main lodge. I peered through the windows and with delight was able to make out the original swimmers' board that had once hung in the old dining hall, a hand-painted history with the names of campers and staff who had accomplished the various distance swims across the lake over the decades.

I was amazed to see my own name, remembering the long evening hours of lap swimming we'd been required to complete to qualify for the long, cold lake swims, and the shivering exhilaration of finishing the laps under a summer's night sky, a luminous August moon casting Saint Helens in a faint glow.

After exploring more of the northernmost cove of the lake we skied back to Harmony Falls, said our farewells, and prepared to ski back across the lake to Duck Bay.

About halfway across, two of us were perhaps 50 feet ahead of our friends. We had ventured farther from shore than we realized. In a flashing moment of terror, the ice began to give way. The two of us in the lead were breaking through. Our reaction was abject panic as we thrashed and lunged and willed ourselves forward, sideways ... any way we could "¦ and somehow fought our way from terror to firma. Apparently some substrata of slushy ice prevented the full catastrophe — sinking into a frigid catacomb.

Our friends, naturally, panicked as well. Fortunately, without the added weight of backpacks, they were able to move quickly closer to shore. Finally on firm ice we trembled, gasped and tried to gather our wits and the courage to continue on.

Hugging the shoreline like leaky canoes, we managed to make it back to our car and its heavenly heater.

Our drive back to Portland was alternately filled with the conversation of stunned bewilderment, silent contemplation, a reinforced bonding of camaraderie and a levitating bliss of peacefulness.

Over future years I have often reflected on how terribly close I'd come to a frigid grave in the lake I loved so much, at the foot of the mountain which has always been a cornerstone of my youth, a formative place for finding a renewed sense of peace as I follow the pathways of my life.

Listening to Pumice

On the north shore, looking toward Loowit

across the magical stretch of frigid water

I am audience for the ever present pumice

frolicking in lapping lips of the lake

Sirens on a stage of sand

I listen to them, witchy apparitions

laughing, crying, whispering

dancing to and fro on the beach

some floating, some sinking

all stoney witness to an ancient fire

that cast them whitely

near the half submerged Snag

just off-shore, its bleached limbs reaching

wildly up, incriminating the mountain

Lawrence Nagel lives in Ashland

The Ashland Daily Tidings invites residents of the Rogue Valley to submit 600- to 700-word articles on inner peace. Send articles to Sally McKirgan at innerpeaceforyou@live.com.