The night of breaking trees
January 13, 2022
This is the second time I’ve written the headline “The night of breaking trees” for a newspaper. The first was for a story in The Olympian about an ice storm that hit in the final week of 1996. It worked then, and after talking to Lake Kokanee-area residents Charles and Frieda Osborne last week, it works for this story in this edition of this newspaper.
Sometimes 25-year-old headlines don’t age.
The ill-effects of last week’s storm were multiple and freakish: Trees toppled across U.S. Highway 101 north of Eldon “like matchsticks,” according to the woman behind the counter at the Lilliwaup store on Friday; water gushed from several fissures along the hillside next to U.S. 101; roads in the Skokomish Valley were accessible only to fish and boats; snow piled up 2 feet and higher around Lake Cushman; prolonged power outages
hit the Tahuya Peninsula; a Friday morning king tide pushed Hood Canal water over bulkheads; snow shut all of the major state mountain passes; and 20 miles of Interstate 5 were out of order through the Chehalis Valley.
This hasn’t been a brief storm either. It all started Dec. 25 with snow and temperatures that would bottom out in the teens, and it continues into this week, with a couple of inches of rainfall forecast through today. That rain will add to the 7.76 inches of precipitation we’ve had from Jan. 1 through Monday, according to the National Weather Service’s station that covers the Olympia area. Normal monthly precipitation through Jan. 10 is 2.86 inches.
It’s a lot to remember, and memories of storms survive as most memory survives, in bits, mostly unhitched from dates and numbers. We remember sights, sounds and emotions, but many of the details of this 2021-2022 storm will fade — until they’re summoned again.
Last Friday was a lovely afternoon in the county, a respite from what had been. The sky was spotless blue and the Olympics looked fit for a Greek deity. Along Cushman-Potlatch Road, I met the Osbornes as they walked back to their home on Kokanee Ridge Drive, carrying a bag of provisions from Lake Cushman Store. Their car was snowed in. I gave them a ride back to their property, where they told a story.
I saw a hint to that story: A fallen limb had left a deep dent in their neighbor’s metal garage and a tall tree of slight girth was leaning against the house. Tree limbs littered the ground.
Charles Osborne said they slept four nights on the main floor of their home, instead of on the top floor where they usually sleep. That started Sunday night.
“I was so scared,” Charles said about that Sunday night. “More scared than I’ve ever been.”
He said they were in bed, listening to the loud cracks that tolled every minute or so. The rain was drenching the snow that clung to limbs, causing the wood to break under the strain. Tree debris scattered around the northern part of the county was mostly severed limbs and tree fragments that fractured along the trunk — I saw few uprooted trees.
Perhaps you’ve experienced what the Osbornes experienced that night. I have.
My home also is surrounded by tall trees, including a sequoia in the backyard that would require six adult arms to encircle. On the night of that ice storm in 1996, which is a year I had to summon from the way back machine, Mrs. Ericson and I, and probably our 2-year-old boy, laid in bed as the exact sounds the Osbornes stayed awake to sounded through our neighborhood.
I remember hearing the cracks that night and trying to judge our distance from each crack, perhaps like civilians in war try to judge the distance of artillery. With each crack, I’d wait for the couple of seconds it might take for that sequoia, or any other tree, to crash through the roof and send the three of us into eternity, or at least onto the bottom floor. Then I’d wait for the next crack, and the next, and the next.
Here’s to quieter — and drier and warmer — nights ahead.