Danger Rangers

Interstate 90 arises near Shipping Terminal 46 in the Port of Seattle and heads east, eventually ending in Boston after 3100 miles. It’s the longest interstate in the country, and the main east-west route across Washington state. It comes right through here after crossing Snoqualmie Pass.

As mountain passes go, Snoqualmie should not be that impressive. At 3200 feet above sea level, the road hugs no precipitous cliffs, makes no scary hairpin turns. A broad band of pavement has been engineered through timbered mountains, and on clear days a few rocky peaks are visible. You can find more beautiful views elsewhere in the Cascades. The things that make Snoqualmie so interesting are the weather and the amount of traffic.

The mountains here are influenced by the presence of the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean less than a hundred miles away. The climate west of the Cascades is temperate, so warm moist air from the west and southwest hits a wall of mountain and is pushed upwards. Precipitation turns to snow as it cools and can dump several feet at a time. Temperatures fluctuate up and down, so there is a lot of variation in the snowpack, making it prone to avalanches.

Interstate 90 can be closed over the Pass for hours at a time while crews control avalanches and clear accidents. It happens several times a winter. The presence of a major metropolitan area ensures a high volume of commercial traffic to and from the port, as well as many citizens traveling back and forth. And the mountainous National Forest is the playground for urban and suburban dwellers in search of adventure.

This is where the Danger Rangers come in. We claimed the name to gently mock ourselves and our importance. Winter rangers in this part of the world spend a lot of time on the road between eleven Sno-Parks, putting up signs (and putting them up again), shoveling snow away from Porta-potty doors, enforcing parking regulations and trying to be informative and helpful to the recreating public. We are trained in all forms of over-the-snow travel, avalanche awareness and rescue techniques, first aid, communication, etc. We are familiar with the ground.

Jon and I patrolled the I-90 corridor (also known as the horridor) yesterday. It was snowing hard, and people were out on skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles. As we resumed patrol after lunch, we saw two non-injury accidents on the same road. We stopped for both, but our help wasn’t needed. Heads up, the roads are getting icier.¬†We noticed traffic on 90 was slowing and beginning to pool up in spots. Visibility decreased as snowfall increased. By midafternoon, people were clearing out to head westward. Each time the Danger Rangers got back in the truck after being out talking to people, hoods dripped with melting snow. Gloves were soaked. Parking violation notices written outside were a sodden mass. I had to respect Northwesterners for getting outdoors no matter what–many of them were laughing and smiling. But at the same time, my animal body was insisting that it was time to go. Time to go before hypothermia, before avalanche control, before darkness fell and we were trapped in traffic on a Sunday evening. Jon was hearing the same message, so we concluded our business and headed east toward home. Conditions were only going to get worse.

The return drive took twice as long as usual. The air was clotted with ice crystals which fell and were packed onto the road surface by rolling tires. I tossed my gloves and hat on the dash, along with a stack of wet tickets. The defroster roared. Jon gripped the steering wheel, fixated on the road ahead and the vehicles around him. I trust him and kept watching also. In these situations we agree that two sets of eyes are better than one. Tension eased as we descended to a slightly warmer temperature and wet roadway.

Back in the heated office, suddenly the snow was benign and pretty as it continued to fall outside the windows.

For a current look at Snoqualmie Pass, click here. And be careful out there.

Sad Snowpack


After a couple weeks of unseasonably cold dry weather, temperatures have warmed. When I stepped out to walk to work this morning, it was 47 degrees. The permafrost has turned to squishy mud, and a slick film of water rests on top of ice patches. Very slippery. There is not enough snow for winter recreation. Many forest roads are still drivable. I remember previous winters when I was gleefully skiing in powder snow by mid-December. Nonetheless, people are trying. The snow ranger crew has observed snowmobilers, sledders, snowshoers and cross country skiers stomping and sliding on the little bit of crusty snow that remains. Many folks have hunted for and found their Christmas tree. And I have never seen so many snowmen out in the woods, all smiling cheerfully even though their eyes and buttons fall off.

I find myself checking the weather forecast both morning and evening, and have delved deeper into the internet to read about climate science. This is a neutral year for El Nino/La Nina, so it’s very difficult to predict what sort of winter is in store for the Pacific Northwest. There is also something about the Arctic Oscillation that I don’t fully grasp. All I know is that there is no snow in the forecast, very little snow up in the hills, and those facts are a bit unsettling. Who knows? Maybe the jetstream will shift and winter will descend with a wallop.

To quote my gramma (who was full of such wisdom): “The weather we get is the weather we got, we’re gonna have weather whether or not.”