December was dry, but the snowpack in the Cascades has caught up in the past week. Yesterday I skied on cold fine beautiful snow to the work site, then switched to snowshoes to wallow around with the polesaw. We cut limbs above the trail. It was snowing hard when we returned to the truck. This morning we went back to the same work site. The temperature was close to freezing, and the snow had warmed beyond powder. It wanted to clump up and stick. Would have been a perfect day to build a snow sasquatch.
Some form of precipitation fell most of the day. Sometimes it was a fine misty snow, almost rain. Then it would turn to feathery flakes. Most of what fell on us was snow from the trees. Conifers bear their seeds in cones, but they are also cone-shaped. The flexible branches collect snow and bend downward without breaking. As the air temperature warms, the crystal structure of the snow changes. The branches release their loads in showers of powder or in clumps that hit the snow below with a thundering sound. The tree bombs actually leave craters. We wear hard hats for the limbing work. The hats also deflect snow and ice that comes out of the trees. We scoot backwards on snowshoes to get out of the way when we hear it coming down. Still, we get caught and all we can do is bow our heads as the ice goes down the necks of our parkas.
Lunch is short. Traveling and working has left us damp with sweat, and the snow slowly soaks through our outerwear. Ice falls from the trees into my thermos of chili. Eat it quick, then get up and move to stay warm.
Warming snow also means increased avalanche danger. A specialized crew uses explosives to trigger avalanches while traffic is stopped on Interstate 90. Then the snowplows go in to clear up, and traffic moves again. We heard three big booms today while working on the trail. Later we headed west, and saw where the slides had crossed the road. Near the summit of Snoqualmie Pass, we entered a dim cloud of moisture as weather moved eastward over the mountains. This view from the windshield is a familiar sight to patrolling snow rangers. We travel this stretch of freeway often.
One of the strangest juxtapositions of my work life is the high speed modern world of the freeway contrasted with the intricacies of the forest. We use the travelway to get to the woods. In this part of the world, a network of roads and powerlines is laid over miles of trees and rivers. It’s nowhere near pristine, having been clearcut and dammed and subdivided for development. This ecosystem has been engineered and managed, but by no means subdued. The climate makes trees grow like crazy, and frequent floods, windstorms, and avalanches have a way of throwing their monkey wrenches into the works of humans. Common and rare animals still live here.
In this man-handled world, I still find wonderment galore. It means I block out the sound of trucks on the freeway and the mooing of snowmobiles hillclimbing under powerlines. It means I pretend the sound of snow hissing on high voltage wires is really a waterfall. I embrace the feel of skis extending my feet, floating me over the snow as if I have been unhitched from gravity. I pause, watching the snow fall in between dark hemlocks knowing I have nothing better to do at this very moment than to pay attention. I kneel to examine lichens on a branch I have just cut out of a Doug-fir.
Color and shape and texture. These particular organisms live in the tree canopy, and we do not see them unless the wind blows them to the ground or we bring down the structure they live on. I’m looking in a field guide this evening, and I see I have more learning to do about lichens. They are fungi specialized to get food from the algae that live on them. The book wonders if this is true symbiosis or some other relationship. A fascinating adaptation of lichens is that they can dry up and go dormant for long periods, then revive in the presence of moisture. They thrive here in the winter, becoming plump and pliable. Snow doesn’t stop them.
If I were my own mistress, I would plop right down in the snow and pull out my Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and stubby pencil. My nose would go as close to the lichens as it could, and I’d look over the tops of my glasses to bring the contours in focus. Letting my eye and pencil follow the shapes and interweavings would help me to see the lichens in greater detail. My fingers would feel the cool rubbery surfaces, and I would begin to understand how they live. It would only be a beginning.
Being a public servant means I stand up and return to my duties. I can gaze at lichens another time. During my work days I hop back and forth between these two facets of Planet Winter–the large and the small, the more “natural”, the less “natural”.
Tonight on the drying rack by the stove are two hats, four pairs of gloves, gaiters, a parka, a fleece jacket, and a pack cover.