Memories of Winter in North Central Washington
January, 2009 Nature of Place, NCW Green Ways
By Nancy Warner
Spend at least one year in a place, people will tell you, to get to know the land and the rhythm of the seasons, before you build a house or plant your garden. Go through a winter here and then you’ll know more about what to expect and what’s possible. You’ll be seasoned to the place.
While there are some patterns that mark the winter season in North Central Washington each year — predictably short days, long nights, and a brief thaw sometime in February — the temperatures, timing and amount of precipitation each season brings have always been tough to call. Oldtimers sometimes used the height of pocket gopher mounds to gauge the severity of the winter ? low mounds signaling shallow burrows and mild temperatures to come.
Cashmere pioneer and longtime weather watcher Kate Bailey was often successful using temperature and moisture conditions of the 12 days following Christmas to predict weather patterns for the rest of the year. But speaking from her experience, Fern Kelly, longtime orchard owner and resident of Monitor says, “As far as the weather goes it seems to me that from one year to another you couldn’t predict it. So we just took it one day at a time.”
Some of those days proved to be more memorable than others. Fern recalls stories from her grandfather about the winter of 1889 when the snow was so deep that the cattle which people depended upon starved to death. “It was after that winter that some of the fellas decided that it might be better to go into fruit trees.” 1916 was another deep-snow winter that stands out in the collective memory of the region. But it was 1968, Fern points out, when it got down to twenty below for two weeks, that all of the old common delicious apple trees in their orchard died. “The next spring you could hear saws going all over the area,” she remembered, as orchardists cut down hundreds of trees killed by the big freeze.
Malcolm Keithley grew up in Stehekin where he often followed postmaster Harry Buckner on his rounds to check the weather station. “I remember Harry talking about the winter of 1948, which most people remember as the floods of ’48. I was always really intrigued with the beautiful gray squirrels that were around Stehekin and he said there used to be a huge population of gray squirrels in the Stehekin Valley but most of them died out during that severe winter of 1948.”
Malcolm and his friend Billy Sullivan learned a lot about wildlife from the trappers who ran lines for beaver and martens in the backcountry around the Stehekin Valley each winter. They also made plenty of their own discoveries as they poked around the mud flats exposed at the mouth of the Stehekin River. Great blue herons, bald eagles, merganser ducks or “hell divers,” frequented the lake and the finger-like channels that changed with the ebb and flow of the snowmelt. And while they were able to see a variety of fish in the shallows, it was the big fish of the deep, the landlocked burbot (lingcod) of Lake Chelan – that captured their imagination. “I think the most memorable thing was when Billy and I would put setlines out for lingcod,” he said. “It would go down about 200 feet, baited with squawfish or whatever we could find. And you’d set it out during the day and come back the next day and reel up the setline and you?d have several lingcod hanging off of it.”
Daisy Weaver was another person who wintered at Stehekin. Malcolm remembers her talking about how she would go out on the beach near her cabin at Weaver Point and pick up lingcod following severe winter storms. “She said the biggest one she ever saw wash up on shore was over five feet long. They look like eels because they’re so long and skinny.”
Nancy Warner is program director for Nature of Place, a program of the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS).