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Incident on the Toutle: A Paranormal Experience

In the summer of 1986, my dad took me on a trip to Canada to see the Expo ’86 in Vancouver. Along the way, we stopped at various attractions and landmarks for a look around. Among the many places we went was Mount Saint Helens.


One afternoon I spotted a possible ghost at the remains of a bridge.
Creepy Bridge

If you have read some of me previous articles, you know my dad was kind of a jerk. Mom told him to go up the Windy Ridge side of Mount Saint Helens, which was open all the way to the viewpoint. Instead, he went up the Toutle River, which was closed by lahar damage not far outside of the town of Toutle. However, if he hadn’t been such a stubborn ass, this weird paranormal story may not have happened.


In those days, the road ended abruptly at the riverbank. There was a little interpretive site built around the remains of a bridge torn up by the lahars that occurred during the 1980 eruption. There wasn’t much left of the bridge, just a few green pillars sticking out of the ash. A small collection of interpretive signs explained what had happened there.


There were several tourists there. Most of them, despite the overcast conditions, were dressed in shorts and t-shirts against the heat of the summer. However, there was one man who did not prescribe to the dress of the day. He stood sort of off to the side of everyone else, and he wasn’t looking at any of the interpretive signs, nor did he have a camera.


The man stood out to me because he was dressed in a thick parka and stocking cap. Dark-haired, with a thick beard and mustache, he wore rounded, wire-rimmed glasses. I found myself staring at this strange man and he suddenly looked back at me with a brief expression of surprise. This was followed by an intense look of pleading, as if he were asking me something that I couldn’t hear.


We eventually left and continued on our trip up to Canada. The man, however, was not forgotten. His intense stare was something I’d never seen before and I wondered what exactly he wanted me to do for him, if anything. Then that night, something equally as weird happened that I’m pretty sure was unrelated, and I was temporarily distracted. (I will write another article about that someday.)


I didn’t think about the man again until after the trip, when I told Mom that I thought I saw a ghost at the Toutle River. I described the man and said that I thought he was a scientist killed in the eruption, though I’m not sure why I said that. Mom immediately assumed I was talking about David Johnston, a USGS volcanologist who died when the mountain tore itself apart in May, 1980, and his body was never found. Perhaps, Mom suggested, he had washed down the Toutle River during the eruption.


For a couple of years, I assumed that I’d seen the ghost of David Johnston, and no one told me otherwise. Then I got a hold of a picture of the man in question and discovered that he looked nothing like the odd man out that I saw at the Toutle. His hair was the wrong color, and he didn’t wear glasses. I soon dismissed him as the ghost. But if he wasn’t David Johnston, who was he? Was he anyone at all?


It wasn’t until the summer of 1990 that I confirmed the identity of the supposed ghost. I spent much of that summer at the public pool, but when I wasn’t swimming, I was looking through my mom’s collection of volcano books. In one of these I discovered a man who was the spitting image of the ghost on the Toutle River. I will call him Danny Pierce, though this is not his real name.


For the next few years, I researched Danny Pierce off and on and learned quite a bit about him. Like David Johnston, he was killed in the 1980 eruption, though his body was found. He’d apparently tried to flee the blast and was caught in the choking heat and ash. Danny was a photographer for a local newspaper, but he’d been assisting a national magazine that wanted pictures of the volcano. As a result, he was manning an observation post within the path of the blast when the eruption occurred.


There was one big question I had concerning the case. What was Danny Pierce doing at the Toutle River? His body was found in his car on a ridge within the blast zone, far upstream from the washed out bridge. Why would he be standing beside a landmark that was miles away and had nothing to do with him? Was it Danny Pierce? Was he even a ghost to begin with?


I went looking to the next logical source of information, a series of photographs Dad shot of the scene. If the man was there, the person was likely real and not a ghost. But the man wasn’t there, not in one single shot that Dad took. Everyone at the site wore summer clothing and was looking at signs or snapping their own pictures. It was all normal tourist stuff. There were no weirdos in parkas to be seen.


Could the man have just not shown up in Dad’s photographs? It’s doubtful for two reasons. Dad was snapping pictures when I exchanged glances with the man. Also, the place was very open and had few places that a man could’ve hidden from view. Even if he’d gotten behind one of the support pillars from the bridge, there would be a little of him showing somewhere.


This does not completely rule out the possibility that the man was just not caught by the camera. I could’ve seen someone who had just come down from the mountains, where the weather was much colder than it was at the Toutle. He could’ve been some stranger dressed for high altitude elements. But where exactly did he come from? The highway to the mountains was closed on that side, and Mount Saint Helens itself wasn’t open to climbing at that point.


Could he have just been an eccentric? Maybe a man sensitive to the cold? Perhaps. I can’t judge why the man was dressed for winter weather in the middle of July because I can’t ask him. I don’t even know if there was a real man there in the first place.


Was he simply a figment of my imagination? Maybe I had seen his image before somewhere and just imagined I saw him at the dramatic scene along the Toutle River.


I probably had seen Danny Pierce before that day. My mother collected all the newspapers, magazines, and books she could find concerning the Mount Saint Helens event. There’s no doubt that there was at least one picture of Danny Pierce in the collection. In fact, one of the books she purchased had a whole page on the man, including a portrait to go with it.


Did I just imagine that Danny Pierce was there? This is very doubtful. I was not one of those kids who was prone to flights of fancy, even at that young age. I played pretend games and imagined fantastic things, but I always knew they were pretend and not real. In fact, I was always annoyed with other children, who would let their imaginations run wild and insist that what they imagined was real. I actually got into a few fights with other kids over this because they pissed me off so much.


So what did I see along the Toutle River that day? Was is a ghost? Was it an eccentric, out of place man who has no idea who Danny Pierce even is? Possibly. However, it’s been nearly forty years since the incident occurs and the likelihood of finding some random person is low. But until we find someone who fits the bill, we cannot completely write this one off as nothing.

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