Field Notes

Man of priorities: Family, country & restoring Spirit Lake after eruption

Man of priorities: Family, country & restoring Spirit Lake after eruption
Col. Robert Friedenwald.

For Robert Friedenwald, life was about priorities.

"It was always his family first," says his widow, Peggy Bird. "Followed by his love of country and the fact that he was a mensch."

Bird quickly adds that those three priorities were really all wrapped into one for Friedenwald, who spent 28 years in the Army Corps of Engineers followed by 13 years at the Port of Portland. "He was a mensch through and through and he loved doing what was right."

Friedenwald died last week at 77.

He arrived in the area in 1982 to head up the Portland District for the Corps just as the region was trying to recover the from the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruption, combined with a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, wreaked havoc on the area. The avalanche of debris was the largest in recorded history.

The avalanche was so powerful it shifted the location of Spirit Lake, moving it 200 feet higher while shrinking it by ten percent.

"When he got here, he knew that he had missed something," says Bird. "He knew that he would never see the lake as it had been."

Bird says that before accepting the assignment in Portland, Friedenwald had been offered a chance to go to New Orleans, which is considered the premier assignment for the Corps because of all the challenges and experimentation.

"But he's a skier, always loved skiing and there is nowhere to ski in New Orleans. He looked at St. Helens as something beautiful. He knew he wanted to do what he could to make sure that beauty was restored."

It would be no easy task. The forces that moved the lake almost killed it; the volcanic gases depriving it of oxygen. On top of that, there was another problem.

Once the location of the lake shifted, so did its ability to drain. While a debris dam was left in place, if the dam broke, the lake would collapse into rivers causing flooding that easily could have left Kelso and Longview in ruins.

"He knew something had to be done and he was going to have to fight," says Bird. "I don't think it was something he ever questioned. It was always a question of doing the right thing."

Friedenwald was going up against a Reagan Administration that was railing against the Army Corps of Engineers as a bastion of overspending, as a repository for the pet projects of congressmen.

"He knew that if a tunnel wasn't built to help the lake drain, the results would be catastrophic," says Bird.

And in the end, his perseverance won out and the Spirit Lake Drainage Tunnel was built. It was a political fight that many say cost him a chance for advancement.

"He always sort of discounted that but you never know," says Bird.

What was certain is that the battles he fought – not just for the drainage tunnel but for the sediment retention dam on the north Fork of the Toutle River; key measures for anti-erosion and flood control efforts – made his job harder and he moved on to the Port of Portland.

"He loved whatever he was doing," says Bird. "He had a natural curiosity about everything. It was so strong that it made food shopping with him excruciating. He would want to read every can, every label."

And even as the years slipped away, the hold that St. Helens held over him never dissipated.

"We would go up every year, often more than once," says Bird. "And whether it was just us or us and the whole family, he would check everything out, the tunnel, the dam, everything. He wanted to make sure everything was okay.

"That's how he was about so much. He wanted to make sure everything was right."

So, while most people in the area – particularly residents of Longview and Kelso – have probably never heard of Friedenwald, it would be nice if next time you catch a glimpse of Mount St. Helen's, you thought about the man who fought to restore her beauty.

"Going there with him was like going to church," says Bird. "It was a chance to focus on the beauty of things, to be at peace with our world."