Debris along the North Fork

An Ecology of Disturbance

Prose + Photographs by Claire Thompson

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All passage exists at the mercy of the rivers and mountains, the mud and the snow.

Around here the land swallows things. In 1910, 96 people died when an avalanche swept two trains down the side of Windy Mountain just west of Stevens Pass and into the Tye River below. The trains, on the final stretch of a new transcontinental route from St. Paul to Seattle, had been stranded for a week already, the tracks west buried in 35 feet of snow and telegraph lines down, no communication with the outside world. In the days following the disaster, rail workers dug out the trains and loaded bodies onto toboggans. The dead moved down the Skykomish Valley by sled to the sea.

In 1929 the Great Northern Railroad completed a new tunnel under Stevens Pass that kept trains off the steeper, avalanche-prone slopes of the upper Windy Mountain route. An almost eight-mile stretch, it’s the longest train tunnel in the country. It’s still used today, by Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and still dangerous: a complicated cooling system maintains ventilation through the tunnel, but train hoppers avoid it. Better to hitchhike over the pass than risk asphyxiation in that long, dark void.

Doorway. Photo by Claire Thompson.

Coyote Girl adorned her noose with wings, they tell me. Wings on the ladder, too. The ladder, her friends tell me, was secured to the wall in her house within a foot’s reach—“Asphyxiation takes awhile,” says Chelsea, the one who talks the most. Coyote Girl could have changed her mind, stepped back onto the ladder. “Like how there’s claw marks on the Golden Gate Bridge,” Chelsea says, and somehow I can picture it, the hands grasping. “People change their minds when it’s too late.”

It’s 110 Januarys after those two trains tumbled into the Tye, but when you live out here on the river, like Coyote Girl’s friends, you still live with one eye on the mountains. Their rocky slopes form shapes like fingers, like fists that hold fast to the ash-gray clouds, and the trapped storms fling snow and rain into the valleys as if frustrated to be caught there, stuck like everyone below.

I didn’t know Coyote Girl, not quite, but I know her friends. They own land on the South Fork of the Skykomish. When they first heard, they lit a candle that burned for four days, and when it went out they built a fire on the beach to say good-bye. Those four days a snowstorm had shut down the whole valley, closing the highway for some 40 miles on the west side of Stevens Pass. Trees down everywhere and the power out. No communication unless you could find a cell signal, which is challenging in better conditions. People already live on the margins out here—they might have power, or water, or cell coverage, or internet access, or insulation, but rarely all at the same time—so the storm only solidified an isolation more sought after than not.

In the weeks after the candle burned out it rained, and by the time I arrive and learn about the noose and the ladder and the wings, it’s still raining and the river is rising. All the snow that fell that first week washes toward the sea, the spirits of the dead riding the living mountain away from the airless tunnel to mingle with the salt and mud of the lowlands.

We all get lost and terrified and made invisible by beauty.

In the wilds of Finland, an encounter with a woodland spirit might leave you afflicted by metsänpeitto, a hallucinatory experience roughly translated to mean being “covered by the forest.” People experiencing metsänpeitto become disoriented and suddenly unable to recognize their surroundings, lost in the familiar. Or, alternately, they might wander endlessly through unknown terrain. Some say metsänpeitto will make you invisible, indistinguishable from the landscape around you. You may even transform into a tree stump or a rock. You may call for help, but no one will see or hear you. When metsänpeitto strikes, the Finns say, the sounds of the forest cease and are replaced by an unnatural stillness.

In Finnish folklore, metsänpeitto is generally considered a kind of curse—a spell the forest casts in retaliation for mischief or disrespect. But it is not always experienced this way. Some report a sense of peace or comfort that comes from being covered by the forest. It is about getting lost in beauty, some say. Or it can be a blessing, if what you want is to hide, to disappear.

Finland was the last northern European country to Christianize and has been slow to urbanize, too. Animistic beliefs still exert strong influence over the Finns’ cultural identity, the centerpiece of which is a stoic endurance they call sisu. This preference for the pagan, this inner strength fueled by a grim attachment to the harsh wild, makes me proud to claim my own Finnish roots, even though I grew up attending a Presbyterian church in the city, which is where, sitting beside my mother week after week in the stained-glass light, I learned about forgiveness, and about how Jesus is a flame that burns in all of us. Which is the same thing we mean when we say Namaste at the end of yoga class, all us white women in leggings who have locked religion in a box: The light in me sees the light in you. It’s all the same, when you get down to the burning candle core of it. We all get lost and terrified and made invisible by beauty.

Trees and fog. Photo by Claire Thompson.

Over five days in November of 2006, Washington got more rain than it usually does in the entire month of November, which is already the wettest month of the year. They called it the Election Day Flood. Mt. Rainier National Park—halfway to Oregon from the Skykomish—recorded 18 inches of rain in 36 hours. South of the park, the Cowlitz River navigates in the shadow of a triangle of volcanoes: Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens, whose volcanic silt still clogs tributaries of the Cowlitz. Before the eruption in 1980, the rivers running down St. Helens’s sides hosted some of the best salmon and steelhead populations in southwest Washington, but when fish tried to make their way back that first fall after the blast, they found their route home obliterated by ash, mud, and debris, a path familiar for generations suddenly obscured, wiped clean of clues. Incredibly, even that first year a few stoic steelhead made it all the way through the dark and silent sludge to spawn in their home streams.

Soon after Mount St. Helens erupted the Army Corps of Engineers began constructing dams on the North Fork Toutle River to hold back the millions of tons of sediment released by the volcano that threaten to overwhelm the river’s capacity. Two dams were breached in the first two years before the Corps put in a bigger, better, farther downstream dam that still stands today. Even as water quality and habitat have improved—rivers gradually becoming clearer and cooler, plants taking root and holding the banks fast—returning salmon are stymied by the sediment-stopping dam. They float in a collection pond, waiting to be netted and trucked around the piles of earth for the final leg of the trip home.

Andy MacDonald, my cousins’ cousin, was fishing with his father on the Cowlitz one of those deluged days in November 2006. The story I heard is that as the river started rising faster—terrifyingly, I imagine, swelling and swallowing things before their eyes, an unstoppable parasite—they realized they had to get out of there, and fast. Andy ran to get their truck where they’d parked it on the bank in what must have seemed a safe spot only hours before. But it was already too late, and I imagine his father screaming after him through the rain: “Forget about the truck!” But Andy was 19, a volunteer firefighter, an older brother. Of course he’d go back for the truck.

The way I heard it—or maybe just the way I imagine it—is that the earth on which the truck was parked fell into the river and took Andy with it. I think of him reaching for the door handle, body thumping with adrenaline, clouds of heat dissolving into sweat under his jacket, even as the rain hammered down cold and hard on his forehead, that Pacific Northwest kind of wet that chills you to the bone no matter the air temperature. Or was he already in the cab, cranking the heat with one hand and the steering wheel with the other, ready to peel out and rescue his dad, when the whole riverbank dropped away beneath him?

John MacDonald had always been a drinker, but he drank a lot more after his son Andy’s death, and four years later he was gone, too. My mom said he died of a broken heart. I guess that’s just a more poetic, palatable way of describing the slow fatal slide of despair. But I’d accept it as a legitimate cause of death. I’d put it on the coroner’s report.

Trees and road. Photo by Claire Thompson.

When I show up on the banks of the Skykomish two weeks after the snowstorm that shut down the valley, the river rushes by at 75,000 cubic feet per second—doubled in flow since the previous afternoon, and ten times what it was before the rain started. Rapids crash like ocean breakers over submerged boulders. All the familiar landmarks, the named features of the river’s terrain, gone; falls swallowed up by this terrifying slide to the sea.

At night we walk home from town in the rain. A mile back to the highway on the Index-Galena Road, squelching and slipping along the muddy shoulder, enough time at the bar beforehand for the downpour to feel like a tropical shower, only seeing how soaked we are once the wood stove releases the steam.

At the pulloff for Eagle Falls the next day, on the side of Highway 2, we meet Sabrina: In a rubber raincoat like all the locals, she carries a vial of ashes—her son’s—and pinches them into the wind to join this flood, already bigger than the last water he rode.

Walking through the woods back on the property, to the edge of what in summer is a beach, good for sunbathing and skinny dipping, we tie the canoe to a tree farther from the rising water, and the wind picks up. We scan the canopy for widowmakers. You step forward, and an alder branch, thick as a baseball bat, and longer, but crooked, crashes into the space between us.

This weather is perfect for keeping beer outside.

I guess that’s just a more poetic, palatable way of describing the slow fatal slide of despair.

On the same day John MacDonald saw his son swept down the Cowlitz, every river west of the Cascade divide churned with the same fevered flood froth, the sound of the rain on millions of maple leaves drumming a disparate, whispered call: It’s time, it’s time. The rivers owe us nothing.

One-hundred miles north of the Cowlitz, the Skykomish wrought its own havoc that Election Day, laying waste most notably to the Index-Galena Road, built for logging back when the mountains above were still swallowing trains. Timber no longer sustains the Sky Valley, but on summer Saturdays 500 vehicles would drive that road to access campgrounds and trails. When the North Fork of the Skykomish heard it’s time, it’s time, it did not hesitate. It tore through the concrete, ripping it up in chunks like stale bread fed to pigeons, and reclaimed the road.

Bit by bit, the county has made repairs, but to this day, a half-mile section of the 14-mile road remains part of the river, rendering the entire route useless as a throughway.

North Fork. Photo by Claire Thompson.

Sometimes the river will suck a road away. Other times obliteration is a push, not a pull, when mountains turn to mud and take over from above. Landslides are a common occurrence in western Washington; in considering where and how to build anything, you think about slope stability, about erosion, about gravity and risk. Mud and flood and avalanche exist in precarious cahoots.

In the soaked spring of 2014, an entire hillside above the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River surrendered its upright position and barreled down its slope, damming the river and consuming a rural neighborhood outside the town of Oso. Forty-three people entombed in 270 million cubic feet of mud: the deadliest landslide in U.S. history. A federal disaster was declared; President Obama paid a visit. It took until July to recover the last victim’s remains from the muck.

Survivors and families of the victims eventually won a $60 million settlement from the State of Washington and Grandy Lake Forest Associates, a timber company that, with the state’s approval, had logged the slope before the slide. Forty-three cedar trees were planted at the site of the disaster, memorials to the dead growing from the earth that killed them.

A few families, displaced from Oso, moved 50 miles south and settled on the Skykomish.    

Marked trees. Photo by Claire Thompson.

Interrupted roads crisscross these dark, wet valleys, making it easy to hide but hard to flee. Roads recently gated by timber companies, roads decommissioned for restoration by the Forest Service, roads guarded by self-proclaimed sovereign citizens, roads simply slowly slipping away. All passage exists at the mercy of the rivers and mountains, the mud and the snow. The land merely pushes people from one perilous corner to another.

Mud and flood and avalanche exist in precarious cahoots.

Members of the Nez Perce tribe have a tradition: For a year after someone dies, those who remain don’t speak their name. The dead are on a journey to the afterworld, and hearing their name called on Earth can draw them back, delaying their passage. From both sides, we want to hold on. But in the murky in-between, none of us can rest.

Instead, they choose a different name, allowing the living to speak with and of the dead without holding them back. Pick a name, they say, after the first animal tracks you find.

When the river is low you can see all sorts of tracks on the beach, in the sand and the snow and the mud where the high-water mark meets the forest. Raccoon, raven, mouse and rat, squirrel, deer, and sometimes coyote.

Fire ring. Photo by Claire Thompson.

On the first morning it stops raining, Chelsea shows us a tree she found across the river from the flood-swallowed summer beach. With a broken top, the ancient cedar is hardly visible from the opposite bank, but standing before it we know it’s the oldest living thing around. Mottled with moss, already well into middle age when the train-wreck toboggans slid by a century ago. Sun sparkles through needles and softens wet snow fallen in the night.

People have been living in and around the tree. A brass door knocker in the image of a lion-like sun god is screwed into the bark at eye level. A choker cable hugs the trunk’s girth, still comfortably loose. Inside its hollow cavity, a first few bolted wooden steps climb the cedar’s inner wall, the beginnings of a stairway disappearing into the darkness above. Next to the tree, outside, someone has dug a pit deep enough to make a crude and cozy bedroom. A similar hand-dug cave on the other side of the tree even has a rusted truck topper for a roof. Cans, tin and aluminum, and piles of waterlogged clothes and bedding are strewn in the vicinity—signs of hasty human abandonment followed by high water.

What they left behind makes it tricky to discern the intentions of the tree’s tenants. We wade through a silty confluence of necessity and playfulness, lightness and dark, moving water and mud. The road we took to find this tree is itself washed out a mile or so ahead, and the cut-off neighborhood on the other side attracts squatters on the run from the law. Chelsea says just the other day they saw two women over there burning plastic to stay warm. Ramshackle dwellings lurk deep all over these woods, looking for all intents and purposes abandoned save for small signs of life and care: potted plants wilted less than a season, wind chimes not yet rusted. A brass door knocker; an unfinished staircase—a ladder within reach.

House. Photo by Claire Thompson.

Things to measure in cubic feet:

          Water flowing in a stream
          Mud and dirt; earth when it piles up, sloughing off a hillside
          The size of the piles you make when thinning trees and brush
          Snow on a roof, to calculate its weight
          The amount of air space in a room

One cubic foot is the size of one basketball. Picture an NBA player with a clod of dirt in one hand and a river rushing through the outstretched fingers of the other. Picture a handful of oxygen opening your lungs.

The loss of the sword ferns creates a kind of silence. A visionary green noise you don’t notice until it’s gone.

I wonder if metsänpeitto ever afflicts the forest itself. In some pockets of the Northwest’s low-elevation temperate woods, the sword ferns are dying en masse of causes no one can name, as if suddenly confused about the way they’ve been doing things for millions of years. Some of the late ferns, scientists say, were over a hundred years old, with fronds that have been dying and growing back from the same clumpy rhizome for as long as the surrounding second-growth firs have shaded them—until the year when they suddenly stayed dead. No new green fronds restarting the cycle: just shriveled brown curls crackling into crust. Scientists can’t find the usual suspects—invasive species or fungi or pathogens, some tilt in the ecological equilibrium caused by too much or not enough of something—in the forests where the ferns are dying off. Nothing is amiss.

The loss of the sword ferns creates a kind of silence. A visionary green noise you don’t notice until it’s gone, like if the local telephone pole were suddenly void of crows. Despite their belligerent common name, when Polystichum munitum huddle together in groups on the spongy floors of peaceful mossy cedar groves, they suggest comfort and conviviality, not weaponry. If you seek relief from a nettle’s sting, you’ll find it in the fern’s spores, little yellow dots lining the underside of each pinna that you can scrape into a dust and apply to your patch of irritated skin.

Maybe the ferns don’t want to be saved. Maybe they want to disappear into the forest’s memory. Maybe they’ve decided, group by group, that they are ready.

Washout. Photo by Claire Thompson. 

Andy MacDonald and I shared a cousin named David. The night I hear that David is gone, towards the end of a season that started with Coyote Girl, I don’t know what to do, so I follow you to the beach to light a candle. The moon is one day short of full and it hasn’t rained in a week; we’re digging up rocks and blackberries to plant a garden and I keep finding trilliums under the still-leafless alders. The river looks like itself again, benign enough for cold spring swims, but it’s too early to count on anything. It will flood again before June. You cut down a slender living cedar to make room for something, and I watch you drag it through the dirt. We burn piles of blackberry roots all day, shrouding this pocket of the valley in smoke, but the sun stays above the ridge all evening now, and I don’t know what to do with so much light.

How do you unclench the mountain of your fist and let the clouds stream through your fingers?

I didn’t know Coyote Girl, but you did. Part of you belonged with her, and I felt the tug of the invisible thread that wove our lives together, felt her presence as a shadow always at the edge of my sight.

I didn’t know her, but I knew the tiny origami cranes strung together and hanging from your rear-view mirror had been folded by her fingers. I didn’t have to ask. I knew she’d biked alongside you on another beach, walked across the desert with you, too, slept beside you through storms and sun, paddled your canoe. What did it mean that I was here and she was not? That she is not only not here, but not anywhere anymore?

I didn’t know her, but I think about her all the time now. I used to try to imagine the shadow away, to cut the thread, to forget. Now that feels impossible.

How do you let something go? How do you unclench the mountain of your fist and let the clouds stream through your fingers?

North Fork. Photo by Claire Thompson.

The wick on this candle isn’t long enough. It hardly lasts four minutes, let alone four days.

The moon gleams on the calm river but I look away, to the opposite bank, where the tall alders and maples whisper beneath the buzzing power lines. In the moonlight I can make out pale trunks, but among them is a darkness that hums with its own energy. Something convinces me that David is in those woods, and maybe Coyote Girl too, and maybe others—all of them just walking through the trees, wandering the in-between.

Every flood changes the river: carving new channels, redistributing woody debris, replenishing riparian soils with the nutrients and moisture that sustain what lives there. Our attempts to suppress flooding may have short-term benefits for human development, but in the long run, corralling a river just makes future destruction worse, increasing erosion and concentrating flow: levees breached, roads buckled, bridges swept away, houses filled with water, again and again and again.

Reconnecting the Index-Galena Road would require either rerouting it higher, across a steep slope above the Skykomish, or putting the road back where the river is, filling in part of the North Fork’s natural migration zone: the area where the river can spread out and wander, where life depends on being submerged, over and over, on some things getting stuck and others washing away.

With David there was no noose, no ladder, just a flood of chemicals. No chance to change his mind, and who’s to say whether it was made up at all. No one else here, none of Coyote Girl’s friends on the river, knew him, and I forget about changing his name until I’m walking barefoot in the sand two days later, messing up all the tracks. I see what might be coyote, maybe otter too, but there’s also the prints of the half-feral cats that live under Chelsea’s house, and maybe I want to risk holding on.

By day there is nothing but bright space between the trees on the other side, and in two weeks the rock where I lit David’s candle will be underwater again. When I see the current lapping over it I’ll know the river is on its way. 

The MacDonalds had a small family cabin on a small island near the south end of Puget Sound, where we’d feel the pinpricks of tiny jellyfish sometimes when we swam in the salt water. David’s dad tore down the old cabin and is building a new house there. He gives me a tour the second week David is gone. We can see the top of Mt. Rainier through the half-finished walls. I walk down to the water, squatting to search through the rocks and shells at my feet. I find an intact clam shell with symmetrical swirls of purple inside the white of each half. I rinse it in the sound until it shines. It looks like wings.



Claire ThompsonClaire Thompson is a seasonal trail worker, writer, and current MS candidate in the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program. A Seattle native, she divides her time between Missoula and the Washington Cascades.

All photos by Claire Thompson except author photo of Claire Thompson, by Xander Demetrios. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.