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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Valley in Snowtime…

December snowWhose fields these are

I surely know.

They’re working at the  dairy, though;

They will not see me

Walking here to watch

Their cornfields fill with snow….

There was a light snow early this morning, and I’ve left Gladys behind in the garage. As usual I have put off mounting the studded tires on her, and I know should the chance arise she’d take advantage of the slushy roadside to dump me in the weeds.

There’s not much happening in the Valley these days. Christmas has come and gone and though the New Year is fast around the corner, the Valley seems to shrug this all off. The only activity I see this morning is a lone kestrel perched sentinel on the power lines, ever vigilant for a field mouse romping in the snow; if you’re a hawk, you must take your meals when you can.

It seems news has fled the Valley this month. But in this day of intermittent snow flurries, you can find entertainment in the simplest of thingSnowberriess, and as I walk along like an old geezer in a snow globe, I stare upward into the dizzying flakes, single out one from an entire sky of swirling snow, a tiny speck, and follow it to earth. Gaze skyward again; select another; watch it spiral down, growing larger as it spins and tumbles to the ground. This is great fun: provided from time to time you keep track of the posts and poles roadside while your attention is on the heavens.

As I watch the eiderdown fragments of fluff sift down, my thoughts turn, if not philosophical, at least to physics, a subject that kept me off my high school honor roll, but then in that class we never dealt with the important stuff of physics such as the ponderous question: which is heavier, a pound of lead or a pound of snowflakes? Or just how much does a snowflake weigh, anyhow? Does it weigh anything at all? The fact that a flake of snow “falls,” and doesn’t levitate, means it has mass. And isn’t “mass” weight? The Earth has mass; a snowflake likewise, thus they attract each other. That a snowflake is subject to Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation the same way that a falling ten ton boulder is, is hard for me to wrap my mind around. I guess you have to think about snowflakes in the conglomerate, right, like: Smack! The heaviness of a snowball right between your eyes! Or a snowman. Try packing Frosty around for a while. An avalanche? You wouldn’t want that many snowflakes rolling down on you, would you? And think of glaciers: the weight of all those snowflakes standing on each other’s heads have carved valleys into mountainsides. That’s heaviness for you: eons of snowflakes all working together for a common cause. 

Snow dusted ValleyAs I walk along through the falling snow, one question follows another. Do all snowflakes reach the same terminal velocity? Or do some snowflakes fall more slowly than others? What affect does a snowflake’s hexagonal structure have on its  descent to earth? Is an ice crystal the same as a snowflake? What effect, if any, does air pollution have on a snowflake’s formation and mass? Mr. Asplundh, why do I now, a middle-aged man, still have all these questions years beyond your high school physics class? Perhaps because all you talked about most of the school year were your mountaineering experiences? Ah, public education! A wonder we scholars learned anything at all!

Just one more snowSome pretty heady thoughts inspired by the Valley, eh? Be thankful Gladys is still in the garage--Mr. Asplundh never taught us a doggone thing about the coefficient of friction.

Friday, December 24, 2010

From the Archives…A Christmas Card from the Valley…

This first day after the Winter solsticeTony in the Fall reminds me that the Valley Ripple has prevailed through two equinoxes and now two solstices. And thanks to you readers for suffering through my long-winded ramblings. (Perhaps the “Ripple” should have been more aptly named the “Ramble” because some of them do go on and on, don’t they?) I’ll try to keep this one brief. But sometimes a post takes on a life of its own. I make no promises. This from the Ripple’s archives:

In all the years I’ve lived in the Valley I’ve received only one Christmas card from Tony Broer. And it came about this way. Some years back Tony emigrated from his quaint 1894 homestead and moved a few hundred yards north up Tualco to a fashionable new homestead complete with an RV friendly garage.Tony's new House One glance at Tony B’s place is sufficient to show he is ultra fastidious in everything he does: his berry rows are laid out, I’m sure, with a surveyor’s stick and transit. His new home…well, there’s not a fleck of paint misplaced. And thus at Tony B.’s, you’d expect no less than golf course perfection from his yard and lawn. It’s been said that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory. For Tony, however, it was his yard that was the measure of a man.

While I can’t be certain, I suspect Tony’s first morning chore before he went out to do battle with the berries was to inspect the surrounding carpet of grass, make sure every blade was of equal height, every sprig of grass pointing in the right direction. I’m sure once a week without fail Tony lovingly edged the borders of his turf with a scalpel. I honestly believe he had erected some sort of psychic force field around his yard. Should some errant dandelion seed drift off course and wing its way toward the lawn, this invisible fence would deflect it or zap the seed altogether; the shoulder across the road could be dandelion gold, but no sunny little faces smiled from Tony’s immaculate green. They wouldn’t dare. I would walk by and whenever he was surveying his realm of grass, I would get Tony’s attention, stoop and snap off a seeded dandelion and threaten to blow its fuzzy head in the direction of his landscape. My efforts were always rewarded by a raised fist and a scowl.

The Tualco Valley is rich farmland and consequently is home to some impressive-sized annelids. In this land of worms a’plenty, I was puzzled by the lack of mole activity on Tony’s greensward. Moles are the bane of a landscaper’s existence here in the Valley. Apparently Mr. Broer’s force field worked subterraneanly as well. “Tony,” I’d asked whenever I’d see him out giving the morning’s directives to the lawn, “Why is it you don’t have any moles in your yard?” A broad smile and a shrug. “Do you want some?” The smile shrank to a scowl. Up came the fist.

Well, the inevitable happened. After all, the Valley ain’t Buchart Gardens, is it? You can’t have a mole-free lawn here. Tony should have known that. Best you can hope for is a country lawn which is pretty much the same as pasture. Tony let down his guard, took the RV on the road for a month or so, and forgot to put his force field on a timer. It was not an immaculate reception he returned to but a blemished yardscape, like pimples on a beautiful girl’s face, except some of these eruptions were more the size of boils—or carbuncles, even. Rampant molestation. I walked by one day to see Tony standing disconsolately on his porch staring out at the moonscape that was his lawn. Ah, and a sad sight it was, too; I nearly broke down myself.

The week of Christmas rolled around and the moles gifted Tony with some impressive new mounds. Christmas is a time for merriment and festivity. I hated to see Tony so dispirited over his heaped up lawn and decided he needed lightening up a bit, could use some comic relief. So in the spirit of the season I located a miniature Christmas tree, fully decorated and fine-tuned to deliver the Christmas Spirit wherever needed. Before light the next morning, tree in hand, I marched up the road to the Broer place. Even in the dark it was easy to locate a cluster of mounds. I chose the largest one and next to it I placed the tree and staked it firmly to the ground with a couple of wire stakes.

Two days later I found a Christmas card in the mailbox (Yes, the card has arrived! Finally! But you know how the mails are these days….) I opened it and read: “Merry Christmas! Looks like even the moles are celebrating the season! The Broers.” And for days afterward the little tree stood festively beside the mound. Later it disappeared, but the ornaments remained—Tony had hung them on the branches of the small oak tree near the mound where they stayed until spring.

If I didn’t thank you for that card, Tony, I thank you now. And a very Merry Christmas to you. And a very Merry Christmas to each and everyone in the Valley.

…except for the moles, that is. You troublesome little miners…I’d like to take each of your pesky moleskins and stuff it with coal. That’s my Merry Christmas to you--each and everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Lit in the Valley…

Just a week before Christmas. I thought I’Christmas goose a'glowd drive out in the Valley to check its Christmas Spirit Quotient (CSQ). CSQ is a mathematical measurement that assesses a family’s holiday involvement by the number of strands of lights they drape over their homes and landscapes. Those who are swept up by the season express their enthusiasm by letting their lights shine; their houses become beacons of Christmas spirit. But it’s the quantity of “exterior illumination” that makes the statement. In my opinion a candle or two in a window or a wreath slapped on the door doesn’t really reflect much in the way of holiday cheer.

Not only does the seasonal lights fantastic signify traditional involvement, but it is a multi-colored indicator of the indomitable will of the exterior illuminator: the challenge of light strands of Christmases past. You know what I mean; we’ve all been there before. You drag the birdnests and snarls of holiday lights out of storage. Cautiously you test them first: plug ‘em in and they glow cheerfully back at you. Then up the ladder you go, lights trailing behind you, string and position each strand, each bulb strategically. Off to the power switch you go: you want to admire your efforts. Except that now the lights don’t work. You jiggle the wires, fiddle with a bulb or two, hoping against hope there’s a loose connection somewhere. Even consider for a brief moment (very brief)  going through the entire strand switching out each bulb with a functioning one. Ah, the triumph of hope over experience. Ben Franklin never had this much trouble getting his kite and key to spark. But there’s nothing left to do but hit the road for Freddies: Fred Meyers and China, my two favorite charities this time of year. After all, it’s the season for giving, isn’t it?

I know there’s that tree blazing away in the parlor, a strand of lights or two over a doorway, around a window, up a doorframe. But that’s for family, folks. What about the neighbors? What about all the tourists out in our Valley at night? Spirit-- let’s show ‘em what Christmas material we’re made of.

Christmas spirit here in the Valley? Let me tell you about Jerald and Tina Streutker. This from the Ripple’s Christmas archives. Jerald and Tina not only had that spectacular tree in their corner window but always addressed the season with fully illuminated eaves. Now if you’ve followed my blog, you know about Streutkers’ cement goose. (Take a gander at the April 1st post; the “Goose for all Seasons,” we called him.) It was this time of year I sent them a Christmas card and jokingly remarked, “Your place looks great but you need to light up that goose.” Two days later—a card from the Streutkers with the brief comment: “The goose is lit.” And indeed it was, sure enough, his neck wreathed in lights. Now that’s holiday spirit, folks. Go thou and do likewise.

As of this post, here’s my assessment of the Valley’s CSQ. New folks on Christianson Rd and Tualco: nice wreath. Brett and Megan, your first Christmas tree as a married couple is a tribute to Jerald and Tina’s living room tree but hang some lights on those eaves; the house deserves it. Tony Broer: so happy to see your illuminated eaves, but you need to replace those dead bulbs. Werkhovens, as usual, have lit up their stretch of Valley.

JW's place 


AW's placeFine display there, Jim and that upgrade to LED icicle strands really stands out this year. But I’m still not seeing a color wheel splashing up any colors on that aluminum tree.

Back on the upper loop stretch there’s a nice display on that house where the guy used to raise chickens. And Beebes’ spread. Wow! Looks like the Oasis of the Seas cruise ship has harbored in the Valley. And the driveway looks like a Christmas promenade. Dazzling Driveway Kudos to your efforts. If I’m any judge of CSQ, the award goes to your display this year.

And Ed? I had high hopes for your place this season. I have to admit, I had my doubts about this year’s display. Two or three times I’ve noticed a strand of lights partially hanging from the eaves and wondered if they would ever make their way up the South Face. But Ed’s come through, finally, for this dark  morning I look out across the Valley and I see an illuminated “V”glowing off to the west. Ed has finally “peaked” out. That strand has climbed its way up and down the eaves of his house. Ah, good! Lit at last!Ed's Lit

But the barn, Ed? No lights on that grand old barn this year? Light up that barn, and you light up the Valley. The CSQ Valley prize could be yours, Ed. You only have to go for it. The Ripple's contribution

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hounded in the Valley…

Cloud banked Ranier

Doggone it anyway. Can’t a fella and his bicycle have a leisurely ride (it’s the only way Gladys and I travel) in the Valley without being set upon by a pack of dogs? You know, I’ve seen it coming. I told myself way back last summer when I saw that heaving pile of pups on Johnny Deck’s lawn, “Doggone it, there’s trouble brewing here.” And as days, weeks, months, passed, that mound of pups grew into dogs, and pretty hefty hounds they are, too. Now over the years I’ve owned four dogs, and you don’t have to be a dog whisperer to know some basics about dog behavior. Here you have it in a nutshell: one dog’s a pet, two+ dogs are a pack and suddenly you’re dealing with pack mentality. I also know that dogs are not unlike humans where habits are concerned—a dog’s habit is doggone hard to break. An egg suckin’ dog lives to suck eggs; a chicken killin’ dog lives for a mouthful of feathers; a tire chasin’ dog lives for spinning rubber. Doggone it, once a dog starts chasing moving vehicles, there’s no 12 day program I’m aware of for doggie rehab.

Yes, I know the Valley is country, folks, and seems like the wide open spaces, but the pioneer days of elbow room are gone. Doggone it, let’s keep our animals in check, people, especially if you have a yard full of dogs. It’s just doggone unneighborly of you to let them roam free range. A couple years back we had a midnight visitation by a pair (two…there’s your pack mentality) of rabbit-crazed golden retrievers that splintered our deck trying to get at a hapless cottontail. The same dynamic duo dismantled the woodpile tunneling after their bunny victim. Canines errant have trampled my seed beds in planting time. And one of my doggone “pet” peeves is running afoul of a pile of dog stuff with the riding mower. Nothing quite cancels out the smell of fresh mown grass as pet pooh. And if the offensive substance lodges in the tread of the tires…well, the stench flies back at you with each revolution of the wheel and it lingers until the job is done and you hose off the tire.

There seems to be an attitude among many pet owners that ownership and love of a pet is justification  enough to suffer it on others as well. And that’s doggone aggravating.

Now let me return to the reason for this post. The last couple of months that pile of dogs on Decks’ lawn has unraveled itself a half dozen of times when Gladys and I ride into view.They’ve left off their scratching, and ambushed us en masse. Suddenly we have become the doggone source of entertainment for a whole yard of motley canine crew, at once surrounded by a flash mob of yipping and yapping mutts. That’s pretty much been the extent of this annoyance--until this past Monday, that is. And then the inevitable happened. Lumbering along on our way back from flood patrol, we are once again set up by that unruly pack of hounds. And this time a black Lab “pup”makes contact and snags my sweats just above my right ankle. Now it’s challenge enough to stay astride Gladys under normal riding conditions, but let me tell you, forward progress with a seventy pound black Lab hanging off your leg is not only difficult but doggone annoying. Not much damage, just ripped fabric. No skin broken. No bloodshed—yet. Not this time….

Another concern I have when Gladys and I become the center of this flurry of canine attention: what happens, say, when you factor in an oncoming vehicle whizzing along at forty miles an hour and suddenly the road is filled with dogs and some old codger on a vintage bike? I’m afraid a chance meeting like that could very well result in a goulash of dog flesh, pieces of bike and vehicle parts—and me as the main ingredient. One dog in the road is distraction enough, let alone a whole pack. It may be just me, but shouldn’t dogs do their frolicking on private property and not harass passersby using a public thoroughfare?

I’m on my way home licking my emotional near wounds when I notice a blue van with an official logo on its side parked in the corner lot by the Breezy Blends Espresso Stand. I wheel in and ride to a stop alongside the van. The logo reads: “Snohomish County Animal Control Services.” A coincidence, perhaps? Or is there justice in this fragile world after all! The officer inside is writing up an official report of some sort. My presence interrupts him. When we make eye contact, I don’t say a word but point to the tear in my pants. “Did that just happen?” he asks? I tell him, yes, and like a good reporter, fill in the details, give him the “where,” the “what,” and for good measure throw in the “whose.” The officer shakes his head. “You know,” he said, “I was just over there. I’ve already ticketed the owner once and he’s since told me he had thinned the numbers down to three and licensed them as per County ordinances.” I told the officer I was sure there were more than three dogs that rushed out to greet me. “Do you want to file a complaint?” he asks. I tell him, no, I’m just a guy out enjoying the Valley and that’s all I ask for. I try to leave a “light footprint” in my travels and the last thing I want to do is rile up the natives. After giving me some helpful advice on protective measures I might employ should the incident repeat itself in the future, the officer gives me his card and off I pedal home.

You know, why a dairyman—or anyone, for that matter--needs a pack of hounds on his place is beyond me. This is not Jolly Olde England; a dairyman, I’m sure, hasn’t the time to run his hounds  through the countryside after a fox. (Do we even have foxes here in the Valley?) It ain’t the Ozarks either, doggone it, where the good ol’ boys sit around a bonfire atop a ridgeback somewheres, drink moonshine, and listen to their hounds chase a ‘coon up the hills and down the hollers. Do dairymen need dogs to help herd their herd from here to there? Don’t dairy cows wander into the milking stalls of their own accord?Is the dairy business in such dire straits that a dairyman needs to run a puppy mill on the side? It’s my guess that this superfluity of hounds was the result of animal husbandry misapplied(an unplanned canine pregnancy, is my guess).

A follow-up with Animal Control officer informs me that a County resident may own no more than three licensed canines per address. (It appears that multiple addresses apply in this case, thus complicating the issue here.) I was also told that my “unofficial” complaint had precedent, all from bicyclists, it seems. I learn, too, that after our conversation, the officer went back to the “scene of the crime” and did a stakeout. He observed four dogs, none of which showed any inclination to chase motor vehicles. Apparently the Deck dogs prefer bicyclists—and Gladys and I, well…we’re about as elusive as a football tackling dummy. Sitting ducks is what we are.

As I’ve said, I like dogs. The four I’ve owned have been a special part of my life. My neighbors now have or have had dogs; my daughter has a dog. But none of us has had a passel of hounds. We didn’t and don’t let our pets roam at will to and fro in the Valley and up and down in it, causing all sorts of mischief. Call me a fussy old man if you wish, but any seventy pound hound dangling from your ankle as you bicycle down a public road is NOT this man’s best friend.

My last word on the subject: “Doggonit!” And don’t I wish…!

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Flood of News from the Valley…

…and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

Job 1:15

Ok, so I’m guilty of a bit of hyperbole here. We allLLoup awash S, didn’t we, escaped the latest threat of inundation here in the Valley. This morning Gladys and I rode out to see what was awash after the Pineapple Express steamrolled through.

We crank our way down to Swiss Hall where I expect to see the customary “Road Closed” sign centered at the entrance to the Lower Loop road, but we pedal on by without the warning. This latest flood event—a tempest in a teapot, I think, and continue on our regular route.

Just past Andy’s driveway there’s a warning sign. Gladys and I pedal on until we reach the curve south of Andy’s house where suddenly we scrunchhhh to a stop (wet brakes, old gal) because here the road has been swallowed up by a water hazard. Forward progress halted. Gladys and I tally up our many years’ experience. Even though we have ridden this stretch countless times, we know better than to test the flood waters—especially with that brazen current rushing south. It’s about face for both of us and we reverse course.

We bank the corner and I notice a small, red SUV slowing ahead. “Ah, ha,” I think. “Didn’t heed that sign, did you!” The car stops and I see a young blonde- headed gal step out, camera in hand. Herald Reporters  Deb and Sara She kneels and starts snapping the shutter. I pedal straight at her a bit but then in deference to a photo in the making, I swerve. Apparently I’m part of landscape because she follows me—or maybe it’s Gladys who’s the attraction here. Ah, Gladys—your first paparrazi. We’re about to pass when the driver gets out, stops us, and wants to know if she can ask me a question or two. She hauls out a pen and notepad. “We’re from the Everett Herald,” she says and hands me a card that reads, “Debra Smith, Reporter.” The Herald, eh! Trying to scoop the Valley Ripple…we’ll see about that! Ha! The nerve. Yes, the Herald is out in our Valley, scoopin’ up the news. It’s the news meeting the news—and I tell them about the Valley Ripple, give them the address. Debra and her photographer Sara (if I owe you an “h,” Sara[h], I’m sorry, but girls and their names these days…). Deb asks me a few questions but seems to be more interested in my ride. “You mean, Gladys?” I say and I launch into my steed’s bio. I answer Deb’s questions and tell her I’m retracing my route to the water hazard on the other end—as any dedicated journalist would. “So are we,” she says. I head out again, thinking, “Jeez, my first interview with the real news. Why didn’t I shave this morning?”

Gladys and I backtrack along the upper Loop. We stop when I get to the bridge over the slough and I take note of the sludge on the bridge decking. The sign has it right, I think.

Waters over troubled bridgeOn down the road we encounter another warning sign indicating the aforementioned water hazard.Flood waters ahead We’ve been to the other side, so there are no surprises here and on we roll toward the south end of the hazard.

Gladys—you have to give the old gal credit-- she’s up to the crossing even though her companion balks. But Glady, bless her--wisdom comes with winters—is no fool. She goes just so far and reason kicks in. It’s a no go, and we turn around once more.Gladys tests the watersHigh and dry back on the upper Loop, we meet Kevin Olson who lives in the rustic little house just north of the upper Loop bridge over Riley Slough. I’ve waved at Kevin a number of times as I’ve passed by. Wished him a “Happy Fourth of July,” just this past summer, in fact.Kevin Olson, survivor I’ve often wondered how his place fared during Valley flood events. Like a good reporter, I have all these questions I want to ask him, but I hold off because of priorities-- Kevin’s impressive moustache. It’s a winner, I tell him and share a comment I read in a William Kennedy novel: “It’s not a moustache unless you can see it from behind.” Kevin’s got himself an impressive set of handlebars there—even going away.

Kevin’s neat little homestead rubs elbows with Riley Slough. He has lived in the Valley for twenty-two years. I’m wondering how flood events have affected him. Kevin has stayed home from work today to monitor the flooding slough. “How’d you fare in ‘90?” I asked. “That was the big one, our worst. The water came up to the floor joists, to our second doorway step. We spent the night in the Victorian next door. The Van Ness’s let us stay with them.” “And in ‘06?” I asked. “Not a problem,” Kevin said. “You know, every event is different; just when you expect the worst, things play out ok,” he said, and knuckled his ballcap a couple of times. And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve done the same thing—and the wood has yet to be waterlogged.

It was a good day in the Valley. Relief, perhaps, that so far this year we all, if not high, are still dry. And dry may we all stay here in the Valley each and every day, each and every year, each and everyone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Under the Weather in the Valley…

Be prepared '06

There’s only one drawback to living in the Valley. No, it’s not the sudden smells that assault the nose from time to time— “the smell of money,” as Denise Beebe puts it—and it’s upon us now: the threat of  “sudden waterfront property.”Waterfront property           


Heavy, heavy hangs over our heads in the Valley today. Those of us who don’t want the hassle of airport security checks or airline gouging over checked baggage, don’t have to go Hawaii; Hawaii has come to us via the Pineapple Express, the euphemism for the more serious “plume of moisture” that is parked over the Valley this morning. And it’s not expected to leave its parking spot any time soon. December 12 and the temp is a balmy 56 degrees; the heavens have opened up; the rain is blowing sideways; the barometer fitful. As The Yearling’s Penny Baxter said of an imminent hurricane: “It’s going to come a reg’lar toad strangler of a rain.”

Every two hours last night I checked the Snohomish County Flood Warning Map ( “real time flood warning information.” Flood gauge stations maintained by the county are squares, color coded, representing the current flood phase. Until five this morning, all squares were green, level I. At this posting some have turned to yellow, phase II flooding. My concern is the yellow square at Index and the Skykomish River. Water seeks its own level, folks, and she’s on her way down in a rush. The Sky is expected to crest at eighteen feet 10:00 p.m. today.

Looks like it’s going to be a sleepless night in the Valley tonight. Or bad dreams with red lines running through ‘em (See Nov. 19th post, “Redlining the Valley”). Boots are by the door; flashlight nearby, both handy for the slog across the road every two Nov. 1990hours to see what Riley Slough is “up” to. Good luck, Valley people. Or bon voyage!

What is a cubit again? And just how many of ‘em do I need?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

To Tree or not to Tree: the Search for Perfection in the Valley…

The fun begins

“Christmas is just a hardship on a body,”my paternal Grandpa Mike used to grouch this time of the year. That sentiment was lost upon his grandchildren because we were children after all and Christmas to us was all glory, excitement, anticipation. It was our kid’s day of entitlement; our birthdays paled in comparison. 

When my wife and I were first married and lived in Seattle, we thought Grandpa Mike needed a little Christmas in his life and brought him and Grandma a small tree, table-top sized. Our intentions and the tree were noble enough, but in the years since we’ve discussed the likelihood that our holiday gesture probably was tossed in the trash by the time we returned to our apartment that evening. Short of a visitation by a ghost and three spirits in the night, you just can’t force Christmas “on a body.”

And I’ll have to admit that as the Christmas pasts pile up, the holiday has lost some of its glitter for me as well. I have often thought about Grandpa Mike’s December antagonism and wondered how it came to pass. My bet is a large part of it was rooted in that Christmas icon, the family Christmas tree.

When you see tree after tree whiz by on the tops of cars (this year I saw the first green victim the day before Thanksgiving), the pressure is on and mounts by the day. There’s no way around it. December is here. Best get it done.

Perhaps it’s the decision making I dread: select a cut tree or fell one yourself? Head for Freddie’s or a tree farm? Tradition in our household has so far precluded the decision on“real or plastic.”(I see Jim Werkhoven has made his decision. As I pedaled past his place the other day, I noticed a nice looking aluminum tree in the window.  Just wonderin,’ Jim, do you have one of those revolving color wheels for nighttime illumination?) And the same holds true for the variety of tree. What fir fer us? Douglas, always. It’s a fair weather day, so I head for Reiners’ tree farm at the south-east end of the Lewis Street Bridge. One decision down.

Dale Reiner has propagated Christmas trees on the site for a number of years. I meet up with him at the sales center which consists of a trailer and a refreshments tent. Mr. ChristmasMy task this year is finding a house-sized tree. Two years ago when I was here, most of the trees in the north lot were too large. When you select a tree, you also need to factor in the “wide open spaces”effect: out in nature a tree looks smaller than it really is. Nothing like a living room space to take the full measure of a tree. I ask Dale about the younger lot south of the road. “Well, we didn’t shear them this year,” he says, “Didn’t think we could market them, so we spared the expense. But you can find a good tree out there. I’m selling ‘em for ten bucks apiece unshorn.” More decision-making: sheared or natural? This one’s a bit trickier. Our last “au natural” tree came from Kurt’s Vegetable Stand and proved to be a disaster in fir clothing. Its trunk, we discovered when we went to set it in the stand, was shaped like a lightning bolt. Our scoliosis tree we called it, and so a merry scoliosis Christmas it was. Do I want to revisit that scenario? But ten bucks a tree…hmmm. Guess where I’m headed!

And it’s a jungle out there, those unshorn fir, and I’mSo many trees! supposed to choose a winner from this forest? This is the most critical time in the process: selecting just the perfect tree from an entire woods. As if there weren’t enough variables to consider, there’s the paramount one: the approval of the Missus of the house. Here’s where the male of the household is most vulnerable: aesthetics and symmetry seem beyond the masculine jurisdiction. A friend of mine, caught up in the spirit of the season and being a husband of magnanimity in a moment of weakness went out unassisted, chose a tree, purchased it, and carried it home in triumph. His efforts were rewarded by his wife’s terse comments (not verbatim, but you get the idea): “Out, out, out with it! I’m not having that ugly brute in this house!!!” And out it went post haste and my friend hit the Christmas tree trail once again—this time his wife was leading the way.Thus was born a long standing family joke. “Could we come over and see the ‘tree of the week?’” Yes, every year it must be the perfect tree. Anything less and Christmas is in jeopardy. In Truman Capote’s heartwarming memoir “The Christmas Story” young Capote (Buddy) and his Aunt Sook go to the woods and select the perfect tree. On their way home a couple of uppity women in a fine car pull along side and offer them twenty-five Depression era cents for their tree. Miss Sook replies, “Why I wouldn’t take a dollar for this tree!” “A dollar!” the woman exclaims, “fifty cents, my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” Miss Sook’s response: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Miss Sook was right. I wander through the tree lot, trying to avoid the craters left from trees removed for landscaping (I don’t always succeed) and each tree is different. Hmmmmmm...The sun is low on the horizon, and if I walk south, the trees are just silhouettes; I have to backtrack through the lot, sun at my back, to see each prospect clearly. It’s a sun dazed one dimensional perspective, at best. Too skinnyThat old phrase, “Can’t see the trees for the forest,” must have been coined in exasperation by a Christmas tree hunter.


I wander back and forth through the lot, scour row after row.   Too bushy






I don't think soThis one, perhaps

In the center of the lot I am swallowed up by  the heady fragrance of the fir; I’m just a stranger lost in the forest. After an hour or so of threading my way through the trees, some begin to look familiar: “You again?” they seem to say.

At last from the forest a tree speaks to me. This may be the one. Dare I hope? Looks good from the other side, too, don’t you think? Ah, HaSuccess of the season turns on my decision, so I circle the tree two or three times—clockwisAin't she a beaute—push aside the branches and this time peer in at the trunk to check for any curvatures of the spine. Counterclockwise two or three times, and finally to seal the deal, shear off the prize with the complimentary Reiner Tree Farms buck saw.


I drag my green trophy to the truck and wrestle it into the bed. Don’t know…looks pretty big.Loaded for ChristmasThat’s a whole lot of tree for ten bucks, I think, and head to the “sales department” to settle up with Dale. “What do I owe you?” I asked. The size of the tree may have ramped up the price. But Dale proves true to his word: “Ten bucks”is the firm quote. But I have another idea. Whenever we meet—one businessman to another-- Dale asks me how the honey business is. “Would you take a quart of honey for the tree?” I offer. “You got yourself a deal,” he smiles. A great barter is one that satisfies both parties. 

 The Barter paid

If you’re in the market for fresh tree, I encourage you to visit the Reiner tree farm. Not only are Dale’s prices reasonable; they’re probably the best deal in the Valley. (Most certainly if you have something to barter.) A jaunt to Reiner’s tree loReiner amenitiest is a great way to enjoy the fresh Valley air, get some exercise, and either continue a family tradition or begin one. After you’ve honed your decision-making skills afield, stop by the refreshments tent for refreshments and help yourselves: hot coffee for you; hot cocoa and cookies for the kiddos. Not bad, not bad at all Now when the house cools at night, the tree’s woodsy fragrance greets us in the morning. So much nicer than the smell of an aluminum pie tin or the non smell of a plastic tree. Fir or plastic: what’s the decision there? The best Christmas tree ever, in my opinion, glows warmly in our living room. And I found it myself—unassisted—the most perfect tree in the whole of Reiners’ lot, in the world perhaps. Perfect, yes indeed… for you know, there’s never two of anything.

Christmas 2010




Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Warm Hearth in the Valley…

Bless the hearth a’blazing there,

With smoke ascending like a prayer;…

Song: “Bless this House

Got gulls

The recent seige of temperatures in the low teens has passed, and the news folk have led their nightly news with the same old stories of woe: split pipes have thawed and many homeowners in the area are “freakin’,” and on the phone with an urgent 911 call to the plumbers, their homes a’ flood with unplanned, unwanted water features. This news, like the first snowfall in the area, is Pete and repeat. But even old news is news and must be given its due, I guess.

Water expands when it freezes. We all know that and accept the physics we are dealt, but regardless, all of us in these northern climes have had experience with frozen and burst pipes. I know I have: a flash fountain in the garage (and two geysers, I’m ashamed to admit), a pump pressure gauge frozen, the shower drain ice-seized. We soon learn our home’s vulnerable spots and this time of year hasten to protect them. One of the many things my dad taught me there on the river where we had some dreadful cold snaps was to disconnect and drain the garden hoses. “Drag ‘em over a tree branch,” Dad advised. And I’ve done that ever since we’ve lived in the Valley. According to the evening news there are many folks who turned a deaf ear to Dad’s advice—and now they’re on the phone with the plumber.

But there’s another weather-related bit of news much more disturbing than a busted pipe and a plumbing bill. This news out of the Bellingham area where authorities found the body of a homeless person in a sleeping bag under a bridge. Apparently neither the bridge nor the bag was protection enough against the single digit night temperatures. The cause of death was never mentioned; as so often happens with the news, there was no follow-up information. Just that someone’s body was found in a sleeping bag under a bridge. That’s all. Considering the victim, I suppose the COD could have been any number of things, but given the three days of “arctic blast,” a death by freezing seemed quite possible. Not a very pleasant way to exit life: to freeze to death in a sleeping bag under a bridge somewhere--alone.

As I walk the Valley this morning all bundled up, looking pretty much like an ambulatory cocoon, Jack Frost not only nipping at my nose but pinching it, too, I think about that homeless person. I’m sorry, but I simply can’t wrap my mind around being homeless. It’s inconceivable to me how a human being could live that way during our northern latitude winters. Think of the countless amenities our homes provide. And many are just that—amenities. But the basics: protection from the weather, a safe, dry place to live and sleep—and most of all the comfort of warmth during these days and nights of frost. One wonders what unfortunate turn of events could make all that  disappear, precipitating a descent into homelessness with little protection other than a bridge over one’s head and a flimsy sleeping bag to call home.

On my outward trek it is comforting to note smoke drifting from so many chimneys: the de Vries’s, Martys’, homes on the High Rock hillside.  



Hillside warmth

And I look east, locate our big walnut tree, then past the honey shed—and finally to our roof and chimney, smoke curling softly northward. I know Thanksgiving is past, but you shouldn’t need a special day to be grateful. And very thankful, too, I am this time of year for our woodstove, a woodshed full of dry firewood and the warmth they provide. Be it ever so humble, home is the place where you hang your hat; home is what you go home to; home is where the home fires burn. But for me, home is where the hearth is.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Sportin’Life in the Valley…

Pilchuck snows

When you pass the Fish and Game Department parking lot on the lower loop road these days, weekends especially, you’re most likely to see a number of large pick-up trucks hunkered down there. In the beds of most are dog carriers. Two in some. The carriers are empty, the trucks driverless. It’s hunting season, of course, and the dogs are in the cornfields under the command of armed men wearing orange vests. An occasional shotgun blast signals sportin’ men afield, pheasant hunters and their canine helpmates. You find ‘em and I’ll shoot ‘em.

For years now any public display of my Second Amendment rights has been strictly limited to self-defense against my arch enemy, a villain that has gone (or more to the point, lives) underground. Moles. Yes, there’s been an ongoing war on our property here in the Valley: those verminous little earthmovers vs. ME. Now my trusty little bolt-action .410 shotgun--the “molester,” I call her-- that used to wreak considerable havoc among upland game birds in Eastern Washington is relegated to blasting away at mounds of dirt. Dance, you little dirt dwellin’ buggers! Dance!

It might surprise you to know that back in those pre-video game, Dungeons and Dragons, I-Phone, Facebook and Twitter--those Chinese-checkers-of-a-winter’s-evening days of yore when kids actually spent time out of doors, I used to be a pretty fair shotgunner myself. In fact  (humor me a little boasting here) when I encountered a flock of quail, I would leave its numbers considerably thinned come parting time. And in those bygone days when I combed those sagebrush flats looking for food to put on the table, I kept good company.

If you’ve ever hunted game birds without a dog, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re not up to the task. You need a dog’s nose with a good dog attached. If you don’t drop the shotgun in fright when a cock pheasant explodes from the bushes next to your feet, your attention very well may be diverted by a suddenly emptied bladder. It is your canine partner that takes the element of surprise—yours—out of the equation. It’s your dog that alerts you that you have company out there in the brush. Then you become focused.

When I was a kid living on the river, I had just such a dog. He was about 57 degrees away from a purebred, Tiny was, an odd medley of spaniel, terrier, some short-legged breed. A mouth full of black tongue indicated a bit of Chow had slipped into Tiny’s lineage from somewhere. But if there was game in the vicinity, whether it was quail, rabbit or deer (in the beginning, we had a difference of opinion about whether mice were “game”), Tiny would roust it out. It took a couple of seasons to impress on my field companion there’s no “I” in TEAM; even with a full choke barrel, it’s impossible to down a bird flushed two hundred yards ahead. But we finally learned to work together, Tiny and I, and after a season or two more, I could pretty much interpret my dog’s behavior as “rabbit,” or “pheasant”and prepare accordingly. 

If you ever wanted to see pure joy canine style, all you had to do was step out on the porch carrying a shotgun. One look at the weapon and Tiny immediately transformed into an acrobat-gymnast, leaping and bounding, running in circles—a one-act self-contained Cirque du Soleil. Off we’d head for the hills, a kid carrying a shotgun, with a back-flipping, somersaulting dervish cavorting at his side. Together we’d spend the day combing the sagebrush flats, and as you can see, we rarely returned empty handed.

Huntin' dog TinySo men, their dogs and shotguns take me back to some pretty good times. And that’s why one Saturday morning I wheel Gladys in among the big trucks in the Fish and Game parking lot to talk to a couple of sportsmen: a team of father and son, the latter nearly swallowed up by his orange vest. I introduce myself to Brock Strickland and son Tye. They were up and out early to do a little pheasant hunting. I also meet hunter Ken who was loading his two huntin’ buddies into their carriers. The pair seemed reluctant to quit the fields, and Ken had to use his “I mean business” tone of voice to persuade them to load. Ken and his dogs had bagged two nice pheasants—or as the English would say, a “brace” of fowl. Ken tells me the Fish and Game folks plant the birds three times a week. “And I bet you have those days marked on the calendar, don’t you? I asked, and received a smile and nod in return.

I look at little Tye and remember the days when Dad used to roust me out of a warm bed and sound sleep, layer me up warmly, and guide me out into the frosty dark where we’d hike (and hike, and hike…) into deer country to spend the day hunting “mulies.” No video games or Wii for Tye this morning but plenty of fresh air, exercise, and the thrill of the hunt. And they bagged a nice young cock pheasant, too. But best of all, spending a few quality hours with your dad: as the commercial states, “Priceless!” Strickland jr. and sr.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Valley is Filling Up…*

First trumpeters

All suddenly mount/And scatter wheeling in great broken rings/Upon their clamorous wings.

W.B. Yeats  “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

With swans. They have been here nearly two weeks now, arrived Wednesday before last after the Valley’s first frost. Skeins of them have been drifting by all morning. The Valley’s first snow, I believe, has them on the move.

It’s only been the past half dozen years that these trumpeters have wintered here, making themselves at home in the fields of corn stubble. Winter before last there must have been five hundred or so foraging in the Valley. Swans winging it

The first trumpeters I ever saw were in Teton National Park back in the ‘60’s. A pair heralded their presence as they glided across the marsh adjacent to our campground. In those days trumpeters (Cygnus buccinator) were an endangered species. Overhunting and a demand for feathers thinned the species to endangered status. Thanks to the restoration and preservation of their nesting sites, as well as other conservation efforts, trumpeters have made a dramatic comeback. Their noisy presence in the Valley these days is testimony to their resurgence.

Noisy? If the Valley had ordinances curbing excessive noise, those garrulous honkers would be ordered to quit the fields. The descriptor “graceful,” by which this large waterfowl is often referenced, definitely does not apply to swan song, which to my ears sounds much the same as the melody a herniated bicycle squeeze horn might produce. A yodeler with strep throat? A traffic jam in Manhattan? A host of vuvuzelas at a World Cup soccer match? Or a concert of the previous combined? A swan’s discordant honking is always a surprise, much as a beautiful woman whose laugh is that of a lumberjack’s. Yeats waxed poetic with “clamorous,” but he has a poet’s license and in the case of swan “music,” a knack for understatement.

Consider Yeats’ poem: his swans were a’swimmin,’ and there’s no more beautiful craft than a swan afloat. In fact one of my favorite place names is “Swansea,” a port city in south-east Wales. A “sea of swans”—an image of pristine beauty riding the waves.

But you take a grounded swan or even a swan aloft, and elegance and grace go out the window. An airborne trumpeter or a landlubber swan is an odd duck indeed. I wonder what school of aerodynamics crafted a trumpeter? Pilot and navigator at such distance from the propulsion system: wings, engines and tail section always struggling to keep up, the “lumbering” ( (with apologies to the Irish poet) pinions and tail so far aft and landing gear trailing behind. It seems a little more planning should have gone into the trumpeter’s design. (Give a duck its due; a duck is body/neck proportionate.) Wonder what the folks at Boeing could have come up with? Ah, but then there’s that Dreamliner business…. North America’s largest waterfowl looks a bit cumbersome on the wing; like a helicopter, a swan just looks like it shouldn’t be airborne. Perhaps the trumpeter was the prototype for the McDonnell-Douglas “80,” the long neck of the swan, the elongated, missile-like fuselage of the aircraft. Both look like their tail sections could snap off at the slightest turbulence. At least swans don’t carry passengers.

When swans are present and I’m out and about in the Valley, my presence does not go unnoticed, nor does theirs. Across the safety of open space, trumpeters monitor my movements, necks  protruding like periscopes, bodies squat and fat like the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. They find my intrusion disconcerting and trumpet their displeasure as I pass. On gnarly webbings--a pedicurist’s nightmare, I’m sure--they waddle about, but regardless are ever vigilant to my location. A swans’ motto: safety first.

I find the trumpeters’ landing behavior also fascinating. Some celestial control tower signals them to circle the patch three times before they throw back their broad wings and drop to earth at last. You would think the grounded flock they join would encourage the newcomers to forego their numerous circuits of the landing site and bid them land among friends. I thought the birds gleaned the corn that escaped the chopper’s blades but have since heard that it’s the roots of the corn stalks they feed upon. I’m not sure which is the case; perhaps the latter because the swans remain in the fields for months and what else would sustain them that long.snowy cornfield

One statistic I read stated that Washington State now has the largest trumpeter swan population in the United States. At a distance trumpeters might be mistaken for tundra swans. The two species are distinguished one from the other in that tundra swans are smaller and have a yellow patch between the black beak and eye. Trumpeters are the larger swan and lack that golden patch; the black beak blending with the eyes. Both juvenile trumpeters and tundras are grayish brown. Because of the birds’ wariness birders have to use spotting scopes to determine if both species are foraging together.

In past years numbers of dead swans were found in Skagit County, victims of lead poisoning biologists determined. The birds had ingested lead shot from spent shotgun cartridges fired from duck and goose hunters’ shotguns. The birds scooped up the pellets like sand and gravel to help grind and digest their food. Three lead pills swallowed were enough to kill a swan. To correct the problem, hunters were required to use steel shot in their loads. Away from the watercourses that attract ducks and geese, the Valley cornfields seem a safe feeding ground for them

If this post has made trumpeters out to be ugly ducklings, I don’t mean it so. It’s just that these birds are such a curiosity. I enjoy their languid flight, purposeful swan chatter, and ungainly movements earthbound. On my Valley walks the trumpeters are welcome company.Their random passage overhead, incessant circling and honking, enliven a desolate landscape. They are winter’s gift to the Valley.

Nineteen years spanned Keats’ first and second experience with these “clamorous” waterfowl. In “Wild Swans at Coole” the poet at his second sighting laments a lost love, a lost youth in the interim. We have all lost loves and youth is fleeting, but the vitality of these noisy, awkward, elegantly brilliant birds resonates with me. I will watch them every chance I get. Watch until spring calls them forth, and the Valley quiets once again. 

*Post script—additional information. Before I published today’s post, I had emailed The Trumpeter Swan Society of Washington for information on the conservation status of the trumpeter species. The post went to “press” before the information was available. This afternoon Martha Jordan of the Trumpeter Swan Society sent me a friendly response. According to Martha the trumpeter swan was never listed as “endangered” or “threatened” because the laws did not exist when the bird was imperiled. By the time the statutes were passed, trumpeters were increasing in number and there was no need to list them as endangered. Swans are protected by ordinances governing migratory waterfowl; there is no hunting season on trumpeters.

Martha also told me the waterfowl were once listed  as “sensitive” in Washington State but the Pacific Coast population is increasing at the rate of five per cent annually. The swans visit the cornfields, she told me, not for the corn stalk roots but for the residual corn which provides them with essential carbohydrates to restore the stores lost during the swans’ southern migration.

Concern over lead poisoning prompted a study of the problem in Whatcom County, and as a part of that study, some swans were banded with neck bands. Some of these banded swans have been seen in the Valley fields. A year or so ago I noted a Valley swan with something strange on its neck but thought the bird had just “stuck its neck out” where it didn’t belong and became entangled in something.

Thank you, Martha, for your considerate response and the interesting information. Those with other questions or concerns about our Valley trumpeters may direct them to the Society’s website which you can access by clicking the genus/species link in this post.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Happily Ever Aftering in the Valley…

Fall clouds

Have you ever shaken hands with a princess (but only if she offers hers first)? I have. It was a firm grip, good and strong. I like that in a princess. But what else would you expect from dairy business royalty, a vocation that requires a strong hand.

Yes, we have a princess in the Valley and a fairy tale of a story, too. Brett de Vries and Megan Warner chose a special date for their wedding: 10/10/10. A centennial will roll around before that trio of tens arrives again: a special date for a special occasion, reason enough to choose a row of tens to observe a couple’s nuptials.

Brett and Megan’s tale hangs upon ice cream, it seems. Four years ago Megan was dishing it up at the Evergreen State Fair at the Purple Cow booth, and Brett had a hankering for a cold, sweet snack. Is that Kismet? Or was it sherbet? Nothing like asking for a little ice cream to break the ice. Like any good farm boy raised in dairy country, with ice cream in hand, Brett wandered into the dairy barn to check out the year’s vintage of contented cows. It wasn’t just the cows he admired there. On the walls of the barn he noticed posters promoting the Washington State Dairy industry, and there smiling at him one dimensionally was that girl in the ice cream booth. Brett instantly had a hankering for more ice cream, returned to the Purple Cow to be served again, but for whatever reason—humbled in the presence of royalty, perhaps—Brett left a second time with little more than calories for his efforts .

Sometimes courtship needs a gentle nudge from a mother, and Randy, Brett’s mom, did a little research on local dairy princesses past and present and discovered one named “Megan.” Brett’s phone number was conveniently placed in the proper channels and one day a text message appeared on his phone: Royalty calling. It’s not everyday you get a call from a bona fide princess. Best to respond.

And respond Brett did. The two agreed to meet in Snohomish just where you might expect: at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor. This time the ice was broken and after three ice cream seasons and, I imagine, a few gallons of chocolate mint (hers), chocolate (his) later, the farm boy proposed to his princess. Where, you ask? A Baskin-Robbins, of course.

So on 10/10/10 young “commoner” de Vries married a princess of the dairy. Where was the wedding? Why on a dairy farm, certainly—Megan’s parents.’ After honeymooning in Belize, Brett and Megan have brought their fairy tale here to the Valley where they will live in the former home of my old friends, Jerald and Tina Streutker. (Brett, if I have this right, is their grand-nephew and is buying the home from them.) Welcome to the Valley, Megan.  A “Royal Welcome,” I should add.Valley newlywedsFor congratulations and a wedding gift, I brought the newlyweds a quart of the Valley’s purest honey. After all, Brett and Megan, love is sweet but it cannot live on ice cream alone.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Redlining the Valley….

A flood of property owners I’ve heard it said our species is on or near the top rung of the animal kingdom ladder. Given the barrage of political bombast and bluster of late, perhaps that position should be revisited. Where our property is concerned, however, we are just as territorial as the lowliest creature living under a rock. To declare boundaries, birds may sing; elk may bugle; canines “sprinkle”; spiders web; and fiddler crabs brandish an armored claw in their rivals’ faces. We humans, though, climb down off that ladder, survey, build fences—and attend public meetings.

I attended such a meeting at Park Place Middle School the Tuesday before last. FEMA in conjunction with Snohomish County hosted the gala and for nearly three hours two hundred or so “guests” learned about the new flood plain designations and their potential impact on property owneTake a shave, buddyrs and their holdings. Representing our Valley were Brett de Vries, Russell and Jason Dean,  and Matt Frohning. The Valley Ripple was in attendance, too, gathering up whatever news was fit to post.

Let me share some observations about the evening. I believe the presenters were not prepared to handle such a large turnout. Given the fact that properties and lands from Snohomish to the west and those as far east as Index were addressed at the meeting, the host officials should have anticipated considerable public interest. Such a large area involving three major river courses impacts a whole lot of folks. Maps with the updated flood hazard zones of towns situated in or near flood plains, starting with Snohomish and ending with Goldbar and Index, were posted on six easels for public view. Redesignation map legend (Note the legend for the new red line designations overlaid on the old “gold” flood plain. Also note there are old flood plain areas in our Valley that have NOT been red lined. All the years I’ve lived here I don’t believe I’ve seen floodwaters cover these old designations.) Redesignation, Our Valley

A concerned citizen could access his parcel map(s) at one of two computer stations. I arrived shortly before 6:00 p.m. By then two lines already stretched from the computer tables across the gym to the entrance. To access personal property information and wait for their map to be printed took a considerable amount of time. Both lines moved very slowly and some folks were growing impatient. (Later in the evening one of the printers failed, further trying citizens’ patience.) Take your turnWhat initially was meant to be a service actually turned into an aggravation for many. Frustration could have been kept at a minimum, it seems to me, had there been a specific station—say, one for each two designation maps; a property owner could line up at the map station that concerned him instead of waiting for the person before him to access his parcel which may have been in an entirely different area altogether.

The officials’ fifteen minute introduction was poorly presented. You couldn’t see the visuals because no one thought to dim the gym lights. Nor could you hear the presenter.Say Whaaat Besides, a third of the crowd was standing in line at the rear of the gym unwilling to lose their places to watch what they couldn’t see; to listen to what they couldn’t hear. I left in exasperation and went to look at the displays.

Far be it from me to be too critical, but refreshments would have soothed the ruffled tempers somewhat. A cookie or two? A slice of zucchini bread maybe? Coffee, at least, would have been a nice touch, don’t you think?

When these updated flood maps or DFIRMs (Digital Flood Insurance Maps) as the authorities acronymed them are designated official (FIRMed up) next summer, they will impact many of us in the pocketbook. I quote from my invitation: Changes in flood risk classification may affect your mortgage loan requirements. If your property was outside a flood hazard area on the old maps and is now inside a flood hazard area on the new DFIRMs, your mortgage holder may now require you to carry flood insurance.

And just what technology was used to arrive at these new designations? Take a look:


 New baselinesHuhhhhhh






pseudo hydrology

We Valley folks held our own little sidebar on this state of the art geo-hydraulic technology and scratched our heads. One of the sticking points was the term “updated.” According to the hydrologist-engineers this new information brings us from the 1920s into the Age of Enlightenment and is based on new measuring tools that include aerial photography and “earth density” measurements. Just how one could look down from an aircraft and tell that a flood plain was now three feet higher than before escaped us. And “earth density” quickly put us in mind of “intellectual density” (or water on the brain.) And here’s the interesting part: these “recent measurements” were taken in 1988, two years before our great 1990 Valley flood and eighteen years prior to its little sister in 2006. Seemed to us that ignoring those recent baselines was a big oversight.

I’m not sure about my Valley friends in attendance, but I came away with the distinct impression--not unique, I’m sure--for many who attend public meetings: it’s us against them. And  as the evening wore on, we all knew who the “them” was. I further noted that much of the crowd, many who, I’m sure, had flood stories of their own, seemed more afraid of “them” than potential floodwaters. There was the woman from Startup whose family of four generations had lived on property in the vicinity of the Wallace River watershed. Her fourth generation patriarch relative had never seen floodwaters on their properties in his ninety-four years, yet some of their land had been redesignated a flood hazard. The reclassification incensed her. She feared for her property value, was concerned about insurance issues. Then there was Jason Dean, embattled by FEMA and his bank—cause and effect—who want him to increase his insurance coverage and decrease his wallet contents. But the entire scenario was pretty much summed up by a woman whose children lived in the Fryelands development. She attended the meeting to find out if the new designations would impact them. (Kids were grandfathered into the old flood plain designation.) She turned to me and said, “They’re [Them] just trying to get more money out of us.” That statement resonated with me and confirmed I was among my brethren.

Us vs. Them: FEMA, the County, Insurance companies, banks…. (Yes, banks. When we were shopping for a home mortgage, one bank wanted to tack an extra quarter per cent onto our loan because our property was on a flood “fringe.”
Another bank got our business.) The Startup lady intended to appeal her redesignation. I’m sure she’s not the only one. FEMA and the County have allowed a ninety day window of time so those inclined can appeal the new designations.

Timeline for new designations

The County had set up another visual to explain how development (which City and County councils can control, but don’t) has affected the old flood plain. Look at the effect “fill” has on a flood plain, in our case raising its level three feet. But river beds fill, too, don’t they? Each flood season changes the hydraulics of a drainage system. Just glance over the rail of the Lewis Street Bridge the next time you cross it.

displacement by development 

I look down at those bulging gravel bars and think about a simple science experiment we did in elementary school where you took two quart jars, filled one with water, and the other one-third full of pebbles. When you poured water into the pebble jar, the jar flooded over; “displacement,” I think Miss Newton called it. New baselines? Why don’t those government engineers set up their transits and plumb bobs, and take their GPS readings from the summit (seriously, you would have to rope up to climb the bank) of that big gravel bar just off the Woods Creek confluence. There’s a NEW millennium base line for you. Paint some red stripes on that.