The first faint beats of Mount St. Helens' reawakening appeared as a series of small squiggles on seismograph paper in the pre-dawn hours three years ago today.

Todd Cullings, an interpretive ranger at Johnston Ridge Observatory, didn't think much of it.

"We've had swarms of earthquakes like this before," he said at the time. "There's nothing to worry about at this time."

Cullings remembered similar seismic swarms in 1989, 1990, 1995 and 1998.

As the days went on, and the seismic squiggles covered seismograph paper in ink, Cullings began to grow increasingly skeptical of the company line - that the quakes probably were the result of a spate of heavy rain seeping into the volcano's still-hot interior.

"I was saying what I was being told to say, but privately thinking this is something different," Cullings recalled Friday. Strange as it was, he couldn't foresee what would come next. "Did I ever think I'd be standing here three years later next to an erupting volcano? No."

On Oct. 11, lava emerged at the crater surface for the first time since 1986.

In the three years since, the volcano has pumped out enough lava to fill Portland's Rose Garden arena 163 times. The new lava dome - 20 percent bigger than the 876-foot-tall dome that took six years to emerge in the 1980s - severed a 600-foot-thick glacier and is now shoving its two icy arms down the crater slope.

And it continues to grow by a pickup truck load of lava every few seconds.

Although the rate of lava extrusion has slowed substantially from the early days of the eruption, there is no way to know when the eruption might stop, said Jon Major, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver. In contrast to the stop-and-start series of eruptions that built the 1980s dome, this one has built steadily.

"It's hard to tell if this is the unusual pattern in the history of Mount St. Helens," Major said, "or if the 1980s pattern was unusual."