It is reported that 2/3 of the world’s population have never seen snow-and there are times when I wish I belonged to that group.
There is great variety to be found in the accursed stuff, however, which is why the Yup’ik, in their wanderings around Southwestern Alaska, express the conditions of the snow that surrounds them in so many different ways.
For a writer who lives in the world of the Yup’ik (or for that matter, anywhere along the North American Pacific coast south to more or less Coos Bay, Oregon), there’s also a great similarity between the storms that mark daily existence and the writing process itself.
If you’ve never seen snow...or the flooding that can follow a storm...if you’re all too familiar...or if you just wondered what the heck a lexeme is...today’s conversation is for you.
For all of this to make sense, we better begin by setting the stage.
Today’s conversation, as we said, takes place along the Pacific Coast of North America. The coastline is paralleled by multiple mountain ranges: the Coast Ranges of Oregon, Washington’s Olympics, the Cascades (which bisect Oregon and Washington), the giant wrinkle in the Earth that is Vancouver Island, the fantastically complicated Pacific and Kitimat Ranges of British Columbia, and the equally fjord- and forest-studded Boundary Ranges that bring the reader into Alaska. It even reaches out to the Canadian Rockies and the headwaters of the Columbia, Yukon, Copper, and Frasier Rivers.
To paint a simple picture, much of the land in this region consists of either forested mountains upon which enormous amounts of water fall, or the lowlands through which the runoff from those mountains must flow. Around here, anything under 3000 feet (1000 meters for my world readers) doesn’t hardly count, and many peaks go well above 10,000 feet.
Trees can grow more than 300 feet (100 meters) tall.
The reason so much water falls here is because we are the first land encountered by nearly every storm moving east across the Pacific, thanks to the jet stream, which can either scoop up the warm and highly saturated Western Pacific air and transport it north from the tropics right at us (the “Pineapple Express”); or run the air north past the Aleutian Islands and from there south at us, creating...well, creating some miserable and awful weather.
The kind only a Norwegian could love.
How much water are we talking about? The National Park Service reports that parts of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula receive 140 to 167 inches of rain annually (that’s 350 to 425cm...). Forks, Washington (it’s located right at the most northwestern spot in the State) has averaged 118 inches (300cm) of rain the past 20 years-and reported over 160 inches twice in those two decades.
It’s not like Florida rain, either. Many days, it rains half an inch or less...but the sky is often gray, and there’s often a mist or drizzle (think Scotland or New Zealand or Peru). How many days? NOAA tells us that residents of Juneau, Alaska can expect an average of 223 rainy days a year (see p. 45), 193 days in Astoria, Oregon (the mouth of the Columbia River), or 208 days in Quillayute, Washington; as compared to a mere 120 days in Mobile, Alabama, the American city widely described as our rainiest.
As for Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast?
Surfers there require a wetsuit-just for the rain.
(Quick joke-if Noah lived here, he’d say to God: “40 days...that’s not really much of a threat, you know...”)
The basic explanation for all of this is that these moisture-laden storms come blowing in off the Pacific, and the clouds are too wet and heavy to climb over the mountains-until they dump enough water to get past...then they hit the next mountains, and the process repeats...until the coast becomes a giant holding facility full of retained water. And then, depending on the temperature, you have either a giant snowpack-or the floods begin.
(Just so you know: the most snow ever around here in 12 months?
1140 inches (that is not a typo; it’s 2895cm) at Mt. Baker, Washington during the 1998-99 season.)
Sometimes we get both rain and snow.
Like the last few days.
As we touched upon a moment ago, there are many kinds of rain: the mist, the on-and-off drizzle, soupy fog, your basic downpour...and all of them can be complicated by the addition of wind, and changes in temperature. (Warm rain is an entirely different animal than cold rain, and it is hard to find weather much more miserable than windblown rain at just above freezing-unless you live on permafrost...and especially after you’ve had it every day for the past, oh, let’s say...55 days.)
And in this part of the world, it’s not uncommon to have all of this weather on the same day...with occasional sunbreaks during the rest of the week. (This week’s Port Alberni, BC, weather forecast illustrates the point nicely.)
Which brings us back to the Yup’ik and lexemes.
Lexemes, you say?
... Roughly, a lexeme can be thought of as an independent vocabulary item or dictionary entry. It's different from a word since a lexeme can give rise to more than one distinctly inflected word. Thus English has a single lexeme speak which gives rise to inflected forms like speaks, spoke, and spoken.
--Anthony Woodbury, Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide
As there are many forms of rain, there are also many forms of snow; and the Yup’ik have 15 lexemes for snow and its various forms. Just as with writing, storms have a “story arc” that creates a progression of rains and snows (and the occasional “ice fog”, an especially nasty weather that turns roads into skating rinks)...and that’s really where this story is going.
The story always begins with the warnings: the actual National Weather Service and Department of Transportation alerts, and the local news, preparing us for (stealing from “The Daily Show”) The Storm Of The Century Of The Week.
And that’s what we got on Thursday: “Look out, this is gonna be a big one!”
I worked all night Thursday and as I checked the weather there was really nothing. I went to bed to gray skies and a “bare and wet” landscape.
As I awoke Friday afternoon I looked out the window and...
...snow was everywhere!
Not so deep yet (maybe 4 inches...10cm), but the big flakes were falling rapidly.
Suddenly it was 6 inches-and it’s time to make some decisions about shoveling.
There are two reasons why shoveling matters:
--If a lot of snow falls, the compression and accumulated moisture can turn the fluffy, powdery snow into “concrete”, making the process at least twice as difficult.
--If the compressed and uncleared snow refreezes, it will form a virtually impossible to remove crust of ice-making walking and driving way too exciting (amazing video-don’t miss this!) for my taste.
By now the snowflakes are alternating between larger and smaller-with the smaller flakes falling faster...but the fallen snow is still light and fluffy (powder!), so at that point, the shoveling began. It’s about 28 degrees F. (-2 C.).
There’s about 300 square feet to be cleared, 6 inches deep (15cm), and lots more falling, even as I shovel. Well, to be accurate, I’m pushing the snow at this point, because it’s still light and easy to move.
My current snow shovel is my favorite ever: about a foot wide (30cm), thick, plastic (aluminum shovels always seem to bend at the corners or the rivets fail-I hate that), and able to easily slide, even full of the heaviest snow. The less you lift the better in this job, so sliding the full shovel as much as possible is a good thing. Of course, at some point you still have to lift the snow to remove it, but as of now that’s not a big problem.
After half an hour or so a good third of the work is done; and it’s time for a break. The snow is still powdery, and it’s changing from big, fluffy flakes to an icier, more granular flake. Not an ice pellet...but instead more like the difference between sorbet and granite. Still 26-28 degrees F.
Only the snow is still falling, and there’s a covering over the “cleared” driveway.
For those who have never been to the snow, there’s a process of jacket removal that must be observed.
Did some work inside-and now there’s 8 inches on the ground...including almost 2 inches over the “cleared area”. But it’s still fluffy, so the reclearing goes very fast...but the rest of the driveway now has 8 inches to remove, and the snow is turning into tiny ice pellets, then back to small flakes, then back to large, for more or less the next 3 to 4 hours. At this point, about ¾ inch per hour (almost 2cm) is falling.
The next portion of the driveway’s snow is not as light as the first area; the compression having its effect and moisture accumulating in the snowmass...but it’s still not too bad, because it’s not yet raining.
After another hour it’s time for another break...and I’m just past 50%.
It’s medium heavy snow, and now it’s hard work.
I’ve been listening to an old-school country playlist as I work; and the falling snow makes a great counterpoint to Kitty Wells and Merle Travis...but the last song is the new school “Texas” from Willie Nelson, so it’s break time.
There’s 9 inches now, according to my handy ruler stuck in the snow on the barbrque. It’s no longer so granular, as the weather has begun to warm-and the snow is now heavy to lift. The last 10 feet or so are the hardest, as mixed rain and snow are falling.
By the time the snow is cleared, a foot has fallen (30cm), but the rain is picking up...and by the time I’m writing this (24 hours after the shoveling ended)-and the temperature has risen 20 degrees to the 40s F., and it was over 50 degrees F. (10 C.) during the afternoon.
The wind has become huge...with gusts above 100 mph (160 km) reported in multiple locations. It never stopped blowing all night, and it’s still blowing as the sun comes up.
And the rain never stopped-in fact, near legendary amounts (almost 14”-that’s 35 cm-in Bremerton, Washington for example) have fallen in the last 48 hours wreaking havoc over the area-all rivers in the Western Washington are threatening to flood or have already, the Governor of Oregon has declared an emergency (and road closures have virtually cut the Oregon Coast off from any access to the interior), and I have just heard Washington’s Governor has done the same.
I-5, the main north-south highway running from Vancouver, BC to Tijuana, Mexico (connecting Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego) is under an estimated 8 to 9 feet (3 meters) of water; and will not be passable for a currently unknown length of time. The water is 5 feet above any previous record.
The only available detours are so circuitous that the trip from Seattle to Portland (normally 160 miles one way) is now 275 miles longer-requiring a trip to Yakima, and making a one way trip over 400 miles (640 km).
Roads are literally falling off hillsides. (Click on the "Slideshow" link.)
Helicopters have been performing rescues since yesterday.
One of our favorite restaurants, the Ranch House BBQ, located outside Olympia, Washington has been destroyed, we have just been told (click on the “Mudslide Destroys Olympia Restaurant” link).
Our godson (the one who did not join the military) and his parents live in an exceptionally hard-hit area, Gray's Harbor County, who are at this mooment some of the 80,000 without power-and the projections are that it will remain that way for them for at least a week. They are right at the Pacific coast, and there are so many downed trees that there’s going to be enough free firewood for at least two cold winters, for those lucky enough to grab it up.
It is an amazing story, but I’m going to stop at this point, do some actual newsgathering, and see what I can report as the day develops.
I’ll leave you with this thought: when we began we discussed the similarity between the arc of the storm and the arc of the story...and there could not be a better example of that than the story that is arcing before us even as we speak.
Stay tuned...and if I have useful updates I’ll post them here.