Snowed In: in loving memory of the winter storm of 2/3-11/17

The indigenous Kutenai and Kalispell people had around 20 words in their language for what we have as the word “snow.”  I now dearly and clearly understand why. I also get why there are so many alcoholics around here.  I did not want to write about this originally, but sometimes I can’t help but feel like my life is straight out of an epic comedy sometimes.  All someone would need to do is record the events and as long as the account withheld from excessive blabber, the story would be a success in its humor. I offer you not a single lie nor a single sentiment towards nonsense.  The best stories in life are the ones so ridiculous you couldn’t have made them up.  The greater context of this particular tale only adds more dimensions to its profound humor, but cannot be conveyed out of the spirit of brevity.  While it may not be very well written, it’s humble honesty and bitter truth make it worth repeating, at least to myself later on. In short, we had a few weeks with no snow at all- and even a few very warm, sunny days in which a fair bit of the many feet of snow outside melted and compacted.  Trails were set, snowshoe paths up and down the mountain were well established, and life was good.  It almost felt like spring was coming.

Day one – From nowhere, a thick blanket of white is continuously falling.  You could throw something farther than you could see it, for sure.  I joke about how we got more snow in a single day than I got cumulative in portland for 4 years.  I made the joke again twice in the same day, for there was enough snow to justify the claim even if all previous snow was not counted since the joke being made previously.  I made the joke again a third time later in the day, this time with an eerie feeling of trepidation.  It was good to bust out the ol shovel and get some exercise.

Day Two – I wake up constantly to the sound of huge piles of snow and ice falling and hitting my tent all night.  There is a critical pile-up of snow by morning, such that if I let it go much longer it will collapse the tent.  I take a few brief walks around the mountain to re-establish trails to the usual places I stroll.  The same relentless white haze showers us with its regard.  I shovel the critical pile of snow off my roof and support tarps 3 times in one day.  Every time I walk, my previous trail I made was indistinguishable.  It takes about 30 minutes before a path becomes unrecognizably snowed out.  The doppler radar from Spokane showed only the darkest of colors within the full 120 mile range of its info sphere- more north, rest assured, it was that and worse.

Day Three – My soul despairs a bit and I seriously start questioning the legitimacy of setting up a homestead in this climate.  The piles of snow I had shoveled out from my various tarps are all converging into each other, forming piles taller than myself I can hardly throw snow up onto.  The snow does not stop falling at an intimidatingly aggressive rate, not even for an hour nor a minute.  My snowshoes set upright on the compacted snow below, with pads 2 feet long, are almost invisible- everything else I own stored outside is distinctly unfindable if not directly beneath the center of a tarp whose shelter is around 10 feet from ground level, in which case it is only mildly buried in snow.  The day goes on, and I tend to business at the camp.  My hands have blisters from handling the shovel.   When you’d like the day to come to a close, you hear the metal pipes of the tent frame creaking little bit on the downhill side of the tent, where there is a terrace wall and a favorable slope for snow diversion.  We would have needed ALOT of snow to need to shovel this out, and I was never expecting to come close to the chore.  But there I was, out at 2:00 am in chest-deep snow directly outside my tent shoveling snow off either side of it.  It was the fourth time I shoveled that day, and this night marked the entry into the fourth day of 100% nonstop snow like this.  The snow stuck to the shovel- nearly all of the scoop.  When I wasn’t getting any new snow off of a shovel swing, the head might’ve weighed 15, 20 pounds. Like Sisyphus I was moving mass up a hill, but rather than a rock it was a metal spoon with a big chunk of ice on it.

This storm has been a vicious and fierce display of nature’s elegant wrath.  It has been a brutal beauty, the kind that is too real for you to want to engage.  It has been the most intense variation on the theme I have heard hundred of times since moving out here- that nature is unforgiving, ruins your stuff, and will ruin you if you do not completely bust your ass when you need to.

A five minute walk outside and, well, where would you even walk to?  There is enough snow that your body heat melts it and you are soaked within five minutes.

I walked to my outhouse, and the snow penetrated deeper than my knees on trails I could have walked on in slippers previously.  This was a trail that I take as often as I use the bathroom.

Commentary:  only a pussy (as in, someone who is pusillanimous) would complain.  Only a bitchboy will whine about this. One must merely deal with the situation.  I simply cannot get pissed about any of this, for it’s too rich and exciting an adventure, however furiously monotonous and penetratingly exhausting.  I am not letting my stuff get ruined- I’ve come too far to let my tent collapse now. I will fight this blizzard 4, 5 times every day if I need to for as long as I draw breath, and I will start carrying the snow larger distances away from my campsite if I must.  I just hope a falling branch from the trees above doesn’t pierce my tent, because, oh, yes, branches are falling off the trees with the snow now.  Life is a tale of mitigating losses and finding ways to make your suffering count or reduced: but some things would be very hard to recover from, such as suffocating due to tent collapse in the middle of the night.  This whole 4 day blizzard was a curveball, and I’m hoping to only have some of my teeth knocked out and walk away with an in-tact skull… and at least some of my gear.  If we didn’t have the mountain protecting us from the raging winds above, I suspect the trees my rigging are on could well collapse- many trees in the forest fell over anyways.

A walk outside and you can find vast plumes of snow falling from trees and crashing on the ground.  it sends out shockwaves of snow radially from where it falls, and if you’re in the woods a bit, you might feel multiple blasts of snow from multiple directions while standing to waste deep in your pajamas (if you crawled out of bed at 3:00 am and wanted to take your piss- or if you stayed up until 3:00 fighting snow and blandly writing about it while waiting to do it again.)  My snow tarp doesn’t look anywhere near as imposing as it did when I first set it up: it is stretched out, most of the PVC pipe supports have all shattered at joints, the grommets are all ripped out of every last tarp, the rope has sunk a considerable bit, oh, and anywhere I stand to look at it as at least 4 feet higher (near my raised beds, which will have more than far too much water in the spring, it might be more like 7-8 feet) than when I was looking  just upon setting it up. Tarps I needed a latter to establish are now adjustable with no other support than nature provides.  What a convenience!

There is nothing you can do about a snow event like this.  It will be a long time until I go into town. This has been such an incredible display of nature’s destructive power and wrath.  So much so, I am afraid to go to sleep.  But I must rest for all the shoveling I will be do tomorrow.  The time in between my last shovel session and the time it took to write this was enough time for enough snow to form on all of my tarps and structures to frighten me.  My outdoor kitchen now has legitimate walls- it is almost like an igloo.  I do not know how much longer it will relentlessly snow like this.  I have learned skills and virtues of ample abundance regarding camping in the wilderness mountains of North Idaho during the entirety of winter: the kind of learning nobody can teach.  If only I would have expected to get this much snow in a single event.  My whole site would have been designed completely differently.  It reminds me of something I’ve been telling myself for years: that one MUST learn to expect the worst. No matter what, this is the ethical maxim that leads to success for a man.  If he goes ahead and gets it, he is prepared.  If he doesn’t get it, he’s happy because things can only get better.  Cases like this may find a man both quite unprepared and quite unhappy.

Day four – I wake to more light than I’ve seen in days.  inside- mouse poop over everything, and the traps have mice in them but no food.  They must be getting desperate too.  I find out that in Bonners Ferry, the seat of the county, things were declared as a state of emergency.   Every store is closed, no roads have any access.  44 inches in one day, they said.  The forecast was another 10 inches that night. 10 inches!  That’s chump change.  I guess being out in the mountains is the same as anywhere now… except maybe Portland, which would entirely collapse as a city if 1/10 this much snow visited them in one event.  Outside- critical condition of snow on everything. But I saw a single ray of sun shining through the snow clouds. For a brief time, I saw the tiniest fraction of sun!  Could this be an end?  Well, no time to think such thoughts.  With a little sun I can get electricity back!  Within 15 minutes of waking and making these observations, the snow is back- relentless as before.  Ah, there it is.  No time to eat, either- I have to get shoveling. with my 15 pounds lollipop in hand, I can get barely more snow than if I were using my hands- but that “barely more” adds up when you’re doing thousands of shovel strokes- and it allows me to keep up with the snowfall too. I go and excavate my solar shack and panels, which are completely under snow.   I excavate many cubic meters of snow up before the panels- if all I did was get it off immediately in front of them, the light still could not hope penetrate all the snow.  My data sheets for monitoring the electric use are completely wet, somehow? Not only do I not get to monitor my usage during the storm, but all my previous data was ruined by the freezing, thawing, and whatever else happened. Upon, returning back to camp, I can see the tops of my tarps, but not even underneath their very middle is safe from at least a foot of snow now.  If this snow were suddenly turned into dirt, I would have an underground system of caverns. Areas I thought I would need to shovel only just before spring began are now places I must regular post up at.  I am running out of options.  Looks like I have to skip my planned activities in town for the week… and if I don’t skip them they’ll be canceled anyway. I don’t have a place in town. I guess I don’t really have a place in the woods either, since nature is abundantly clear in reclaiming her territory.  She is unstripping like bark every last manifested ambition of mine to exist here.  Climate change means everyone wins.  As I write this, I finished round one of shoveling for the day and count the frequency of tree-fall related snow events hitting the roof of my tent at about 1 event/7 seconds.  It can be scary- I have gotten hit by these plumes of snow and it is a real experience.  It is not just snow down your shirt or back- it is almost like being hit by the radiation shockwave of an atomic bomb from very far away- but it is snow and it is completely inside of you in one elegant breath of life before being turned into unpleasant moisture.

My only regret right now… and my only wish… is that I had some terraces, ponds and swales to catch all of this water.  What a shame if it will all just slide right down the hill so soon!

Right, then there was digging out the cars. A lovely 3 mile hike in the snow to find the cars mostly buried on the much colder northern exposure mountain across the valley.  What a joy it was digging them out and getting them to an operational position.  Theoretically, we should be able to get into town now.  I am still sore from the endeavor, and for some reason poetic devices to describe it come at a steep price in this joke-of-an-essay.  Back to my camp- and time for more digging in huge piles of unharvested water.  Right, and my water tank is running low so I need to go and carry 100 pounds of water across the mountain back to my tank despite there being millions of pounds of water all over everywhere.

However, that light in the morning was indeed a beacon.  At night the waxing gibbous sung loud and clear straight through a nighttime sucker hole.  There was an outstanding moment of about 15 minutes of sublime peacefulness… and a lot of snow on the ground.  Then it started snowing again.  I shall sleep easy after this last snow shoveling for now, for my body is too exhausted to not sleep as deeply as it can.  Of course I learn today that snow shoveling is the #1 source of heart attacks.

Tomorrow is a big day, and each day is its own new one.  I’ll leave the end here, now that the fury is almost over… and a new one is about to come. In truth, this story ended the moment any whisper of peacefulness entered the scene.  What a funny story.  Wouldn’t trade any of this for anything in the wide world.  How will the story end?  It does not matter, for I am a weary man bathed in impatience. Of tomorrow- it shall be its own story that goes unrecorded and is understood by no one.  Just like that of the multitude of snow units I contended with.  This is how it goes for everyone, to various extents. The whole thing I suppose, at any rate.

  • Interlude –

… 3 days later … I did not want to continue writing about this winter storm, for I feel it does not deserve the glory.  But it has made me its slave and writing about it is the worship I give it in addition to my life of service.

Day Seven – Today began at 3:30 am, another sleep deprived night. The usual shoveling, for which my arms, like my mind, have grown increasingly numb to the monotinous and inarguably necessary motion.  The shovel still weighs anywhere between 15-20 pounds based off of how much snow likes to stick to it, so if I want to move 5 pounds of this several thousand pound pile, I weild at minimum a 20 pound lollipop per scoop.  I can smack some of it off on a nearby tree or stake if ones around, but the fact of the matter is that one must simply bust their ass to get through these kind of situations and it is not worth it micro-manage every scoop.  Believe me on that one.

I was to go into town to attend the first week of my master gardener classes, and I even told someone else in the class I would provide them a ride. Well, I reckon for a 20 mile commute, 3 hours of travel time should be enough, so out I set at 6:00 am. My snowshoes break on the slope within a few hundred yards of trying to use them, and I find myself in comfy waste deep snow. I’ve punched before, I can go on. I do, and 3 miles/2 hours later I arrive at the car with all 3 layers soaking completely wet, since the snow had turned to rain don’t you know.  Well, despite having dug the car lot out 3 times prior and going to great pains to render the car unstuck so many times,  it seems my car was undeniably stuck once again from nothing but the snow the night before. It could not move an inch. After more futile toil, I learn my journey was wasted effort, and I couldn’t even contact the poor woman I was to give a ride to tell her she was screwed because so was I (both wifi and cell service aren’t of consideration where I’m at).  I messed around with a comealing for an hour, tried starting a nearby snowmobile that simply wouldn’t cooperate for another hour, and eventually gave up and began the trek of shame back through snow almost as high as my sorry tent to return to. At least I could shovel it out when I got back and reduce more collapse risk. Who needs to go to a class anyways and learn things when you could shovel?  Besides, if I went to the class anyways I’d probably find myself homeless, or, tentless upon my return.

This has been the “worst” weather I’ve ever been through in my life. It is destructive, ugly, unpleasant, and can only be accurately described by the most esteemed and astute of  scholars as “fucking shitty.”  I thought I would do all sorts of professional development over the winter: oh, all the projects I had lined up.  The friendships I would cultivate and the certifications I would obtain.  Sure, I could still do a fraction of the video editing projects and other worthless writing ones such as this, but the truth of fact is that I’m a loser as much as it gets, and I can’t even keep half my stuff from being destroyed just by passively existing.  Steepest price I’ve ever paid to exist!  Indeed, my worldly ambition is destroyed.  I can not even go to town and build myself back up. I cannot use the Internet at the library, or get more food.  I can not leave, and I cannot go anywhere. I am, for the first time, veritably snowed in. Snowed in yet also rained on.  I cannot even share this story with anyone as I miserably trek through it.  What a comedy!

Anyhow, the day progresses.  It sounds like the tent will collapse every time the trees above unload more of their snow and ice chunks on it. It is as wrathful as nature can be peaceful.  I’m aware its been said here before, but you wouldn’t believe how much I went through it.  The new partner in crime the storm introduced me to, the rain, is simply a mockery. None of my frozen foods stored will remain legit for much longer, just like how all my regular food froze its way to the compost pile earlier in the season, also frozen. Wherever you walk the snow caves in on you, and all of my paths even in the intimacy of the space directly outside my tent are complete mush. With broken snowshoes, wet and yieldy ground, and snow well past my waste as the default, there is just about nothing I can do. I would take an Alaskan -50 degree day over this any day. This climate truly is badass, and truly challenging. I did not imagine when I saw the land in the summer, where not a drop of water in any form could be seen anywhere in a baked, sun burnt landscape, that even half this much water could exist here like this. I am frightened by its polarity of expression, but also filled with the lust for life to work with its ferocity.

Just as I am writing this, behold with me the next gift nature have: pools of standing water in my tent. I soaked them away with rags time and time again, but they kept coming back. Hmm?

I go out to check what is causing the issue, and as I investigate, 3 chunks of ice fall and hit my head. Luckily it is only the kind of ice that nucleates on the lodgepole pine- and mocking rather than damaging to a person with my frame.  I thanked nature for the bruises over the brain damage, then discovered that the pools of water in my tent are a product of downhill drainage through our sandy loam soil. It may well be a fundamental issue.  On one half the tent, The water is outright seeping up out of the ground and finding a surface through wear-related holes in the tarp floor.  Back in October when everything was moldy, all that did was aid in the eventual destruction of my stuff. But this is bad. This is the kind of thing that can silence my operations out here.

Suddenly, my world is turned upside down. Torrential downpour and warmer-than-frozen temperatures lead to a seasonal stream popping up, which drains right into my space. Rather than being collapsed from the top down, I am being flooded from the bottom up- noticing the water just as I write this. I wished a shovel could solve this problem.

My boots that lead up to just shy of my knees, which I had been using as “slippers” no longer fit the bill.  It is taken for granted that any trail I blaze will be annihilate by the next time I try to walk on it. There are no trails for which boots shorter than your knees will keep your feet dry.  So bid farewell to dryness if you’re outside or not on the loft in your tent for the remainder of the season!

I have not prayed asking God for anything for years now. That style of prayer I always found selfish and uninspired. But I can’t help but ask him, who I wish to serve by living more harmoniously with nature, to stop seriously fucking me like this.  If I move out here for a mission I find canonically verified and prescribed, do I have to suffer as a necessary consequence of desiring holiness?  Meh, I guess so.  Must I rape nature like and with everyone else to have it not rape me? Do I go and flee to a city, and support every industry I moved out here to avoid?

Ah yes, and then the winds. I hear one of my last PVC arches snap into pieces and run outside to see the trees all over the mountain swinging at a violent rate- and even to hear one fall crash in the distance.  I shall investigate it later, if I should get some free time before summer- and by “free,” I mean not need to fight the flooding inside the tent or the snow above it. The clouds above the mountain are soaring at astounding speeds: thank goodness we have the shelter of the mountain protecting us.  Yes, a few hours after the rain has done its worse it dies down a bit into a light drizzle- but the winds blow straight through the canvas of the walls of my tent. My little rocket mass heater has been keeping the boat afloat- even though it is not cold.

My life has been constant struggle since the first day I moved out here.  I say that in no dramatic way- it is my muscles and mind that say it. Every single day I need to respond to a new set of challenges that are as unique and varied as nature’s operating conditions.  I am wresting with the most fundamental questions of human livelihood and shelter. Life is more involved than ever before. This land is definitely badass. I asked God to make me tougher than nails and teach me more than I can learn.  He is quite doing so- both with a straight face and sickening laughter that only God’s paradoxical nature can do. When I was a scout, we once went on a camping trip with some seriously horrible rain. Everything was miserably soaked within the first day. The way the adults decided to deal with it was to cheese it and get out of there.  I sure had some good role models as a boy! While I learned a good deal from scouts, and from my own many adventures in the woods over the years, nothing could prepare me for the camping trip I was to make for the full seasonal exchange of fall winter and spring.

Just as the ice caps retreat and expand in the Antarctic winter cycle, my infrastructure is pulsing, now being pushed to its very most crampness. Just as much as I can see my feeble attempts at a temporary infrastructure getting trashed, I can taste global climate change clearer than a razor-blue sky with any of my senses.  This winter has shocked people who have lived here their whole lives.  How is it that in Michigan there is no snow at all? The earth is screaming out because of the way we have treated her. This is the face of her voice.  She’s beautiful but in pain. Feeling shitty is a privilege no badass has time for and nobody really has the right to do anyways.

Nature forces us to solve our problems if we want to live. Many aspects of modern life discourage us from problem solving activities. There are no rules in nature. If we observe closely, we can learn so much.  If we simply redefine our values and reshape our sense of comfort, we can free ourselves to see peace and tranquility in that which we have always interpreted as tempestuous and full of fury. Humans are the only ones that make a fuss over such matters, and cling so hard to arbitrary standards. In truth, you need very little to survive. This has been the most real winter of my life. It’s sad that I won’t be able to spend too many more out here with the current state of my economic affairs!  I certainly won’t miss spending half of half the days shoveling, though.  I have completely redefined my house plans.

What is the solution? To simplify. You couldn’t pay to have an experience like this. You couldn’t find this as a part of any kind of planned package anywhere on earth. You couldn’t learn this stuff from any classroom nor see it on any YouTube video.  To me, the operation is so far a walking success, and I’m praying I don’t have to leave because my shelter gets too destroyed. But let it be as destroyed as it can before thus, and show me, fate, the secrets contained within that ruin! May it be so, may it be so indeed!  May this suffering be a prelude to a storm within my own self. Behold how Mike Oehler initiated his life with this land by freezing in a shack with the wind ripping through it his first year: he would then reinvent sustainable architecture and redefine the essence of a greenhouse. Let this week of unending storm explode within me a new Geist through my acceptance of its wisdom. Let me see those depths, let me grasp towards them!

Yes, so… 2 record breaking events of historic proportion since I moved here and have set up observational lodging post inside of a tent. I have dealt with a lot of abuse, but this is all something else. I’ve always been an outdoorsy guy and have even been dumped for liking things a bit on the wild side- but you’d have to be some kind of sick bastard to enjoy this weather.  Yet, I’ve never been so glad to be out in the mountains!

I never want to know just how much snow we’ve gotten this week- and I never will because climatology isn’t precise enough to nail it.  And I sure as hell haven’t been wasting my time gathering data on this. Next winter I’ll reasonably expect well above 100 inches, and the structures I build will reflect this.

And on the seventh day, there was rest. In the sense that raging winds don’t have any snow or rain. Oh, and then it snowed, and still is. I need to truly stop writing here.