These photographs are from a four night backpacking trip in the North Cascades in August of 1993 and a ten-day trip with my Dad in the Sierra Nevadas the following August. They are scans of prints made after each of the trips.
When it snows in Puget Sound the reaction of the population goes through predictable stages. Delight, acceptance, coping, and admiration are all words that come to mind when describing the emotions of our area’s residents when dealt more than 2″ of snow. In Seattle we seem to have a different reaction and one that has us jumping straight into the panic stage and than on to the very metropolitan/urban annoyance stage. Why does this snow hate me? Why can’t I walk in my normal shoes? When will the old, dirty snow go away? How deep is that puddle? The media told us we were in Snowmageddon/Snowpacolypse /Ice Storm 2012. If you’re like me you balance the sensationalized mass media accounts with a humble, conservative Cliff Mass weather blog that scoffs at the local mass media predictions of 14″ and higher.
Luckily for me during last week’s snow/ice event I was on Vashon Island and it’s land-bridged neighbor Maury Island. I was not in the city. And although I missed the thrill that is sledding down Denny hill, I did not miss the sounds of people trying to go about their very self-important lives when it was very obviously impossible and perhaps dangerous.
On Sunday when the first significant snow came I was on Maury Island, hunkered down in the comfortable house where my girlfriend, Katlin, was house sitting. We had plenty of provisions, playoff football, and a beautiful view of that first day of snow. We ventured out during half-times. I threw snowballs at her and all was idyllic and good.
Monday was MLK day so we were off at school. But on Tuesday we went in for what would be our only day of work this week. West Seattle Academy was thick with the distracting, youthful anticipation of snow days and the reserved hopefulness that teachers have when they know that maybe they won’t have to come in the next day.
On Wednesday the real storm arrived in Puget Sound. What was forecast to be a one-day dumping of two to fourteen inches turned into a three-day snow, then ice, and slush event that crippled Vashon Island where I was now socked in with my girl. Katlin lives in a mother-in-law/basement apartment below a beautiful home in Ellisport. The home overlooks Vashon’s KVI Beach. We had abandoned the house-sitting temporarily as we wanted to be closer to town in case we wanted to venture out and not be potentially stranded in Dockton. Wednesday was wonderful and classic snow day fodder. We put on our warmest clothes and headed down to the beach. It was a beautiful site and an amazing vantage point from which to see the winter wonderland that Vashon had turned into.
I had never been by the ocean during a proper snow storm and the extreme high tide brought the water right up to the snow line on the shore. Big winds were also pushing water into the beach’s marsh which had a slushy, almost frozen solid water line. We walked in the snow along the tide line, scanning for the plethora of interesting items that had washed up with the storm. This happily included lots of large sea glass and shells, and sadly a recently killed baby seal.
We left the beach to check out the surrounding neighborhood and met up with Katlin’s brother-in-law, who was pulling his 4 year-old son/Katlin’s nephew behind him in a sled. We followed him back to his house and relaxed for a while in the warmth after admiring the Jabba The Hutt they had made of snow in their backyard. After warming for a bit we headed back to Katlin’s to grab some things and then returned back their way for a snowed-in evening. I made carnè asada tacos for the family in her sister’s warm kitchen, we drank Manhattans, and watched the Last Waltz and High Fidelity. We headed back to Katlin’s in the evening, chauffeured in a four-wheel drive vehicle by her brother-in-law.
We slept soundly with the power still on and with confidence that the next day would be another snow day. Thursday was exciting to say the least. The power was off when we awoke, coming on conveniently so as to allow us to make breakfast and then going out again around noon. It came on for an hour in the evening and we actually were able to make dinner and charge phones/laptops before it crapped out again around 8pm. It was out when we left on Friday at noon.
At about 10am the freezing rain came and added a layer of danger on top of everything. We bundled up and went out to find a tense environment. Katlin’s neighborhood was eerily silent except for the occasional bang and crack of giant tree limbs snapping and falling under the weight of the snow. As we ascended her stairs around the house and walked the path to the road, we watched a tree snap in half and fall on her neighbor’s front entryway. This set the tone for our walk and put an absolutely acceptable fear into Katlin. I felt we could proceed safely but that we really needed to be aware of what we were walking under at all times. Both road options for getting out of her neighborhood were blocked by ice-felled trees and driving was an impossible option. We avoided being crushed by a giant cedar in her home’s front yard by maybe one minute. The tree snapped completely in half, giving in to the enormous weight put upon it by the combined snow, freezing rain, and ice. I heard it crack as we were approaching the drive way and saw the movement in the trees off to our right, yelled at Katlin behind me before we both ran until we knew we weren’t going to be killed. Hauling ass until the only thing we heard was the settling snow and not the falling tree. We “booked it” as Katlin said. It reminded me of the movement in the jungle you would see before the smoke monster showed up on Lost. You knew that something really big was falling, and you didn’t know where it was going to fall or really how big it was. After we checked our underwear we rounded the corner up the driveway to see the aftermath. You could smell the tree before you could see it. The air was thick with that fresh cedar smell and the severed tree was twisted and broken on the yard. The reddish-orange stump where it had once been connected seemed especially exposed and contrasted against everything else around it that was covered in white snow and ice. It was glaring and looked like a fresh wound.
Violent episodes like this were happening all over Vashon and across Puget Sound and afterwards I was reminded of the other dangerous forest events I’ve seen. I hear so much about man’s impact on the environment and then I see first hand the impact of the environment on its self. The process of renewal is a part of nature and to witness it and accept it is a humbling thing for humans who feel (rightly so) that they have only one shot. Nature doesn’t work on the same timeline or with the same finality as humans. I recalled the lightning strikes that every 100 years raze the forested peninsula where my father’s summer home is in BC. These strikes burn the whole forest to the ground and two August’s ago I watched as forest service helicopters dropped loads of water on a fire that had started on the road leading to his home and the small, surrounding community. It was a tense day and I prepared myself to answer the call for the “able-bodied men” needed to stand watch and extinguish hot spots flaring up in a fire that started with a strike of lightening. Seattle has it’s drivers and the more rural areas have falling trees and snapping limbs. Unpredictable and tense explosions that block roads, fall on homes, and annihilate flimsy power lines. A man in Issaquah was killed by one falling on his truck as he backed the vehicle out of his driveway. A sad story and sadder still that the man likely felt safe in his 4×4 vehicle, only to be crushed pulling it out of the garage. I was also enthralled by the reports of ice falling from downtown buildings. What a way to go. When we headed out before dinner on another walk to get the blood moving, we encountered that added danger of downed power lines on the side of the roads. Lines that were still undiscovered and at times buried. An added danger that contributed to my thoughts of renewal.
Walking around Katlin’s Ellisport neighborhood may not have been the safest idea, but to stay inside for so long when I know that the world outside is undergoing such a transformation was unacceptable to me. I was able to see the beauty of Vashon covered in the snow and witness the fleeting product of an ice storm that only comes around every so often. A storm that destroys in one day, trees that have survived almost 4000 days. It was a beautiful sight and one that I would have missed in the city. I know that we often wished we had the amenities available to us in Seattle and within walking distance of my Capitol Hill apartment, but the comfort they would have brought would have likely been attached to the mere chore of getting to them. Without such options we were left with what we had (which was plenty), each other, and the show that was outside on the island.