Friday, December 10, 2021

Strange, how hard it rains.

By Eino Holm

My first real job was at James Oil in Enumclaw.  Jeff told me I needed to stop standing around with my hands in my pockets cos I didn't look confident enough.  I am still not real certain why it mattered whether or not a timid 16 year old looked confident when all he needed to do was take a handful of cash and a few credit cards and then count out at the end of the day, but there you go.  Jeff isn't actually that much older than me, maybe 15 years, but he and I are decidedly of different generations.  He treated me well, though, for my entire tenure.  One time he got mad that I applied for unemployment from a different job, so he gave me a sizable raise and more hours.  I'd call that a win.  Also, I still like the guy.  He was always patient with me.  I can be a slow learner.

The evening of Wednesday, 25 November 98, was like many any good Puget Sounder will recognise.  Wet, of middling temperature, hard to really tell what is going on above with the low ceiling and the continual moderate rain.  If you haven't experienced a good November rain in Puget Sound, it is not like one that you'd imagine from listening to Guns and Roses.  It's also not particularly cold.  You cannot see it.  Believe me, I have tried to make video of it for folks here in the desert, and have failed repeatedly.  Ken Kesey and GM Ford and Jonathan Raban and Earl Emerson and so many others have tried, but the best description I have found is Tim Egan's drip, drip, drip.  I was working at the station that evening, standing under the tall awning, next to the two pumps.  I could see the dimples in the puddles from the rain, watch the puddles slowly grow until it looked like all of Griffin was one conspicuously straight-sided, shallow lake.  It occurred to me somewhere around closing that it had started raining the day before, and hadn't quit.  I don't know how long it actually lasted, come to think of it.  Thirty-six hours, maybe more.  The next morning the atmospheric river had drifted east, leaving Puget Sound on the northwest, cool side of the flow.  The light was brilliant.  Tahoma was caked in white, the higher elevation non-volcanic summits too.  The ground was utterly saturated.  Thanksgiving morning.

These huge rain events, two, three, ten times a year, are a chaotic mess of panic, immersion, and awe.  Up high, on the volcanoes, they usually bring snow.  Sometimes only above 10 grand, sometimes just above the ski areas.  Those huge glaciers that reduce the mighty shoulders of Tahoma and Wy'east and Takobia and Pahto, they receive a good bit of their masses each year from the thin ribbons of vapor transport that smash into their southwest aspects.  I learned early on to just cut shoulder holes in a garbage bag and to keep skiing.  It'll pass.

This year, '021, three particularly potent rivers rolled through the entire west coast in October.  Deep, broad mid-latitude cyclones powered them.  The sort of systems that inspire wide-eyed nerds and umbrella-losing reporters alike to all sorts of excited consternation.  Fear and magnetism all at once.  The strongest of the three was the deepest ever recorded (so, like, probly just a normal storm in geologic time) off the Washington Coast at 940 or so millibars.  This is Cat 3 hurricane territory.  These storms stretched from the Yukon all the way to Hawai'i, which, not coincidentally, is the impetus for the informal name for these cycles, the Pineapple Express.  Beautiful forms on the western CONUS satellite loop.  They also dropped a good bit of sticky soup-snow in the Sierra, enough from one single cycle for Mammoth and Boreal and Palisades to open weeks early.  

In November, they brought catastrophic flooding and destruction of major highways, and cut whole cities off from the rest of the region.  The ground on the Wet Side can handle some water, such that often the first couple storms pass without much notice.  After a wet October and early November, the wettest meteorological fall on record as of this publishing, the ground is saturated. The worst so far this year started around the 12th, a kind of arc that slowly shuffled east, basically steady rain for 4 days, even at elevation.  Numbers more familiar to those who have lived through or study hurricanes, 15" at Mt Baker Ski Area (which is at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Nooksack), 11.5" in Hope, BC, at the confluence of the Coquihalla and Fraser Rivers.  When the AR finally drifted east, the Sumas Prairie and its extensive agriculture and much of northern Whatcom County on the Washington side where flooded by feet of runoff, mostly from the Nooksack.  Highways 1 (the Trans-Canada), 5 (Coquihalla) and 7 (Lougheed) were all closed by acres of water.  Hope, BC, at the confluence of those three highways, was cut off entirely.  Highway 5 was washed out in multiple places by its namesake river.  Highway 99, up by Lilloet, was also flooded.  Even to this Wet Sider, the sheer volume of water is hard to actually understand fully.  The mountains in the region are tall, 4, 5, 6 grand from the valley to the ridgeline, and steep.  The water flows quickly if not absorbed, and after however many cycles already this wet season, there just wasn't room. 

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In bad years, a good Pineapple can wipe out Cascade snowpack in a couple days.  In good years, they just re-gesso the canvas and provide a new surface for that self-expression pros are always dreaming about.  In my three winters living in Greenwater, one system or another flooded us all in five or six times.  Little creeks most folks never notice covered 410 in axle-deep swiftwater.  Little draws blew out and covered the pavement in five, ten, fifty feet of mud and trees.  The first of that stretch was the first week of November, around the time Barack Obama won the White House.  Ma called me in a small panic, said Pa had felt something wrong in the dark of Fed Forest while driving the town run back to Crystal.  He'd lost the taillights he was following and figured forward wasn't the answer.  Turns out he was right.  Timing was incredible, if spooky.  If he was a tailgaiter, they'd both be gone, buried in the slide.  Instead, it's another story we tell when we're all one-upping around the living room or over a workstand or leaning on the bed of the truck after work.

The second that year was in January, not as eventful but just as effective.  At the end of the cycle, I drove downstream on the old Weyerhaeuser Mainline across the river from town, and caught a moment where the sun hit the headwaters of Slippery Creek, a splash of colour after three straight days of gray.  The tail end of these cycles is often a strong cold front, and this had been textbook.  Three or four inches of snow in a short time, the trees brilliant for a handful of moments, and then it passed.

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George Winston recorded his "December" record in Autumn, 1982, coincidentally the same winter I learned to ski.  It is by genre a Christmas album of piano solos, but, really, kinda just whatever the listener wants it to be.  To me, it's like having chocolate in the fridge and craving chocolate; not much time passes after about my Cousin Maija's birthday in early October before I shrug and turn it on, once, or twice, or maybe thirteen times.  It is an incredibly straightforward set of songs.  Thanksgiving into the New Year.  Having grown up on the Wet Side, where November is the wettest month and December can't be far behind, this record drips with, um, rain.  As a piano record, it obviously doesn't measure up in the one-liner department like Patti Griffin's "Weekend Edition has this town way overrated," or James McMurtry's "I don't want another drink.  I only want that last one again."  The songs simply roll along, in the background, so you don't really notice.  Like the rain that Thanksgiving, '98.  The beginning, Advent.  Anticipation, patience, dripping trees, rain into snow, getting on the bus for the Bon March√© parade sophomore year and wondering what it meant that Mercer sat next me. (Nothing, if you're wondering, just that she wasn't pissed at me anymore for whatever it was that I'd done that I never knew I did.) The end, birth, quiet, some remaining leaves blowing around under the third or fourth marine event, rain on the window.

These events are part of the score on the Wet Side.  Here in the desert, they are a mixed blessing.  They get needed moisture into the ground, and sometimes a little snow up high; sometimes they rain on the meager snowpack and the thin lead we built will disappear.  The frustration can be palpable around town, watching another almost-skiable storm warm a degree or two and thin the snow to dirt.  '017, we had three, and each was more frustrating than the last.  We finally opened on Boxing Day, a kind of John Kircher opening based on a forecast and shear willingness to ignore things as they lay.  

I remember the first year I lived with Mike Walsh in The Village, '09, that January event melted the south face of East Peak to the dirt like a mid-November day in the Boise Range.  I was trying to mount some tele bindings without a jig on a demo ski that previously had alpine demo bindings, every so often between throwing a pozi through the drywall in frustration I'd look out and see more brown, more green even.  January be damned; as Jim Steenburgh says, this is no way to run a winter. 

Some of these cycles can bring the goods; clean, smooth snow, the tough--or maybe prideful--locals skiing in their cutoff rainpants and can-liner vests.  Sometimes, though, it's just a sad look out the window and a wary eye on the river.  The Greenwater locals heading out with sandbags to the houses on the White and Greenwater, repeated up and down the entire Wet Side.  You live in a beautiful place, you probably shouldn't get mad when the thing most responsible for that beauty bites you back.  Fire in the desert, flood on a Wet Side river, cold in Minnesota, one either takes it as it comes or succumbs and moves on until another type of strife hits.

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Winter of '02, Justin Bartollini and I are Tuesday Teleing under Chair 5.  Anything that isn't steep isn't skiable, the heavy rain on the hardened but edgeable snow grabbing at our bases.  We keep at it most of the day.  Last run is Chute 4.  (Well, I don't know for sure, but that really doesn't matter.)  We are under Chair 5, somewhere, so clean and smooth when our turns keep getting erased by the melt, no others laid down because everyone went home or didn't show in the first place.  542 is open, but sometimes it's just too much for too little.  If you know, though, those are some fun turns, and all day, Justin's and mine are ridiculously good.  I don't know that we are.  We are wet, though, through and through.  Somedays you just layer up and hope for the best.  Head for the showers when your energy is spent.  Anyway, each turn is better than the last, creamy, sliding easy through the chute.  It's a draw, really, more than a chute, but it gets skied a lot, holds good snow, and as we keep learning, skis well in a Pineapple.  Out of the chute, we slide a few shrinking moguls and drop out onto the flats under Chairs 4 and 5 where Honkers and Holiday Cat Tracks and the Canyon all kinda meet up.  I am flat out, tryna run the flats to the bottom of that old Riblet, and in the transition between turns I am up tall, a little bit forward, and that legendary surface tension of water reaches up and tackles me face first.  From the chair, Justin and I point and laugh; there's a really clean, textbook left-foot carve, two deep railroad tracks, then a short bit of flat skis, then nothing, then a muddled splat.  A head-sized hole and then a gap and then a body-shaped impact.

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That Thanksgiving, '98, J-O was driving his blue GL wagon, from back when they had a 2WD option.  We were heading up to Shirley and Stan's.  The whole Plateau was absolutely soaked.  North of town, each low spot had a few inches of water, most of the fields unrecognisable lakes. 416th at 244th was axle-deep and a little spooky.  That old Subaru was fine, the water rolling away from the tyres.  Above the Plateau, the shreds of cold convective clouds, Tahoma, streaks of sun and isolated curtains of snow falling toward the rapidly cooling ground.  The Sisters, Bearhead, Carbon Ridge, Enumclaw and Grass Mountains drifting into and out of view, whitening a little with each cloud moving quickly east into the higher Cascades.  This is why you wait out the rain, this morning.  It's a storybook, a postcard from somewhere you'd like to visit one day, when the money isn't quite so lean.  A cup of coffee around the table with your family, some you haven't seen in a year, some in twenty, some almond pastry or hopefully a plate of Hardanger lefse, the younger cousins chasing each other around the house, yelling and generally being a ruckus.  Doug fir waving in the afternoon wind coming in off the Sound; another storm on the way, this one hopefully colder, more zonal flow, more snow than rain.  Maybe even down to the lowlands.


Title from Patti Griffin's "Rain".