The first snow in Central Oregon was December 5th. I live in Sisters, near Bend, and we are in the high desert. The dry, cold air makes for nice powdery snow. The snow was beautiful! I was prepared: I bought a new set of snow tires for my four-wheel-drive F150. The truck even with regular tires is good in snow, but the snow tires make it stick to the ground almost like driving on bare pavement. And I put the snow blower on the tractor.
The snow first started west of town – about five or six miles toward the McKenzie Pass. It was threatening in Sisters all day, and you could see that the mountains were being hammered, but in the town itself, it was cloudy, but no snow.
Finally, toward the evening, it came, and when it came, it came down in big, fluffy, flakes. It was beautiful, and just the thing for the Christmas season.
It kept coming! We had a lull the next week, and then, we got hit on the 15th. A good foot of snow, or more, and it was cold, and the snow stayed. And it was beautiful!
I love it when it snows. The snow is quiet, and yet there is so much going on. The snow absorbs whatever ambient sound there is so it makes the world quieter than usual. It covers up all sins. All the things that are undone around the ranch, and anything that is out of place, is covered with a nice blanket, making it look like everything is perfect and orderly.
The usual cycle is to have a nice snowfall in December, and another in January or February, with the snow melting in between. This year, we had several snowfalls from December 5th through the second week of January – and it stayed cold. Each snowfall layered itself on the last one. By mid January, we had five feet of snow fall on Sisters – and virtually none of it melted. This five feet compressed down to about three feet on the ground, and on the roofs.
We had a storm early in January that dumped another 18 inches on top of what we already had. This was the final straw. Up until this point, the snow was still a wonder, at least to me. I love snow, so having it around was fun. It was still manageable. We could still navigate around the paths, and I could still park easily in front and back. But the last storm dumped so much snow on what was already there, that we were smothered.
I took the snow blower out seven times over the course of several weeks, each time clearing from six to eighteen inches of snow. The last few times I could only clear enough to provide access to the horses and the barns. Everywhere else we had at least two and a half to three feet of snow. As I write this, the snow is still there.
We started to get worried about the snow load around the new year. We already a few feet on the roofs, and the last storm took the snow load over the top of some of the buildings’ design limits. Two of our neighbors lost their RV sheds – they just collapsed under the weight. Some of our neighbors had snow and melting ice damage their interior drywall. We had one of the rafters split in a lean-to shed. In Bend, there were a number of collapsed roofs: a school gymnasium, a grocery store, a manufacturing plant. There were damaged roofs galore: the main FedEx facility, grocery stores, and lots of residences.
And, all through this, the snow was beautiful! The snow collected the trees like a National Geographic nature movie. The mountains wore a mantle of white, and when it was clear, the alpenglow in the mornings when the sun hit the mountains was breathtaking. Clear, and beautiful, and cold, and clean, and bracing. It is wonderful. But it just became too much. The amount of snow was no joke, and as beautiful as it was, it was dangerous and destructive.
My house is pretty rugged, but I was not willing to put it to the test. My friend, my son, and I climbed up and started to shovel the snow off the roof. Oh my! I am out of shape! We had an impressive amount up there. You take the shovel and carve off a piece, and fling it off the edge of the roof. Over and over. For hours. We moved an easy ten tons of snow off the roof of the house.
Finally, last week, it warmed up enough for the snow to start to loosen up. The trees are made for this. The big ponderosas and junipers shed their snow like starlets shedding their mink coats. You could hear “whooshes” every minute or two from various parts of the property as a branch freed itself of its load. By the end of the day, all the trees were bare.
We could see signs of relief. The tons of snow on one of the buildings started to slide – just a wee bit, with the snow and ice hanging over the bottom of the roof like a frozen ocean wave, and a foot or two of the roof clear at the peak.
The next morning, the snow came off our barn. I heard the “whump!” from the house but didn’t know what it was until I went back there. The three feet of snow on the roof became a fifty foot long ridge of snow over seven feet high. This was quickly joined by another pile from the stalls across the way.
In three days, the snow was was finally loosing its grip on the structures. The snow came down in sections – never all at once. I would be outside and hear another “crash!” as a section of snow fell. Since I cleared the roof, I could hear the “thuds” of snow hitting the roof from the trees above. It’s like the the whole world said “Okay! We’re done with this.”
But, no, not quite yet. We are not done. The snow that is here has not yet melted. One morning I went into the kitchen and noticed that the range top was wet. I didn’t know what happened – I thought someone spilled something. But, no, it was snow melt coming into the kitchen from the exhaust vent. Once more onto the roof! We cleared the ice dams.
Six feet of snow is a heck of a lot of water. And sure enough, as it melts, it floods. More so in Bend, where is warmer generally than in Sisters, but here too. The roads have been pretty mucky. And then it freezes at night. We’ve had people skating on the streets. And some cars were skating without wanting to. A friend of mine had a perfectly good minivan skate into his truck. Thankfully, no injuries.
We were in the midst of all this over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. I thought of how we are dealing with this slow-motion freak of nature. There is a lot of damage, but it’s not as fast and furious as hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes. We did not make the news. We had a few days where it was minus ten and twenty, but national news picked up the midwest disasters and cold snaps over us. I had disaster envy!
Some of my friends said “I did not sign up for this!” Some seemed to be seriously considering moving back to the warmer climes from which they came. I thought of the refugee Californians and Arizonans who recently moved up here. They were having a hell of a time! I wondered how many would remain.
This snowfall is a record event. Central Oregon had seen nothing like this since 1972. Everyone is afraid this may be the “new normal” but it unlikely to happen again for a while.
Martin Luther King’s day reminded me of the Northridge Quake, which hit the Los Angeles area on MLK day in 1994. That was a disaster. Over sixty people lost their lives. Major freeway overpasses were felled. Who knows how many structures damaged or destroyed. I was there, and I will never forget driving to work the next morning. I lived near Pasadena and worked in Simi Valley, which meant I had to cross the Valley to get to work. I left the house at around five to avoid traffic. As I drove down the 210 freeway entering the San Fernando Valley, I saw something that stunned me: the entire valley was without power and was pitch black, with the darkness dotted here and there with the light from fires. As I descended into the Valley, I thought that the last time anyone would have seen the Valley so dark was maybe one hundred or more years before. I knew I would never see this again.
As I drove across the Valley floor, there was flooding from broken water mains, and there was one spot where the street was on fire from a broken gas main. I felt I was driving through armageddon. Some of my friends and co-workers had PTSD from the shake. One friend would jump sky-high if someone stepped too hard on the floor or moved a piece of furniture too roughly. He lived in the Valley and his whole apartment shook apart around him.
I thought of this on MLK weekend. I thought, there is not a place on this planet that is immune from being humbled by Nature. And I thought: I’ll take the snow.