On Christmas Day, I am flooded out
My first Christmas on the Peninsula was passed quietly in a trailer park a few miles north of Forks. Mitch and Liz had
taken pity on me and invited me to share Christmas dinner with them, though there was barely room for the three of us
at the tiny table in their cramped trailer kitchen. Still, it was more civilization than I had seen in a couple of
months, and with liberal helpings of wine and weed to accompany the turkey and dressing, a very pleasant time was had
by all. I stayed on through most of the afternoon, had a light supper of leftovers, after which Mitch gave me a ride
back to my shelter.
Where the logging road crossed over the Calawah on a one-lane bridge, we looked down at the rushing
torrent (it had rained heavily all that day), and were startled to see a number of blocks of firewood and a can of
kerosene being swept away by the current. "That's not good," I said. Five minutes later we were at the camp and found
a month's supply of firewood gone without a trace, and the rising river already lapping at the shelter. Mitch offered
to stay and lend a hand, but he had no way to contact Liz, so I insisted he return home before she had reason to worry.
"I can deal with this," I told him.
So off he drove, just as night was settling in. The rain was steady, mixed with snow and sleet, and it
was getting colder. I cursed myself for having built so close to the river, at the bottom of a steep, sixty-foot slope.
to the rising water, the heavy rain had loosened a number of large rocks the size of pumpkins and these had tumbled
down the slope while I had been away and crashed into the back of the shelter. It was clear that I would have to
dismantle the shelter at once and somehow move everything to higher ground.
The first order of business was to climb the slope and discover whether or not there was enough level
ground at the top of it to build a new shelter. This proved no easy task as the slope was slick with mud and ice and
so steep that I could only scale it by grabbing hold of the smaller alders that grew out of the slope at an angle and
pull myself up a foot or two at a time, also using the alders as footholds where they angled into the steep ground.
It was slow, laborious work as everything was icy in the freezing rain, I was soaked through, and it was quickly
Fortunately there was level ground at the top of the slope with enough advantageously spaced alders
about as thick as my leg to provide a strong frame for a new shelter. I climbed back down the slope as carefully as
I could, knowing that if I slipped and fell and broke a bone that it might be days before I would be found, since Mitch no
longer worked at the mill and had no reason to keep track of my whereabouts and no one at the mill even knew where I lived.
Getting all my possessions up the slope required a number of ascents, as I was restricted to what I
could carry with one arm, as I needed the other arm to pull myself up. I have no idea now how many trips up that
hateful slope were required in the end, but I do know that it was daylight before I finished.
The real monster was the 55-gallon drum of my wood stove. I had to push it up ahead
of myself like Sisyphus and his boulder, finding footholds where I could, often struggling to wrench it to one side or
the other, and even to shove it up lengthwise, trying to muscle it through the narrow gaps between trees. The higher I went,
the steeper the slope, until it was almost vertical at the end, just as my strength was at its lowest ebb.
Several times I nearly lost the drum altogether. Finally I was operating on sheer reckless desperation, clinging to a
frozen slope in a downpour in the deep gray dawn twilight, miles from anywhere.
But at last I got the drum up to the top and shoved it over the edge, after which I lay beside it in
the rain for I know not how long, trying to gather my strength for all that still lay ahead. At that point I had managed
to move everything up to high ground except the most important thing of all: the heavy visqueen sheeting that was still
nailed to the alder frame below. Without it, I would have no shelter at all. Somehow I had to unfastern it from the
frame without ripping it to shreds, and then manhandle it up the slope. The sheeting was nailed to the alder
poles through strips of cedar, which served to hold the sheeting in place and keep it from ripping loose in a high wind.
In theory, it shouldn’t have been too difficult to pull the strips loose with the claw of a hammer, and to do so with
enough finesse that the plastic wasn’t slashed in the process. In theory!
In fact, the results were a lot messier than they should have been, but under the circumstances it was
a wonder I could even lift my arm at that point. The whole process was considerably impeded by the river itself,
which by this time was flowing right through the shelter. so that I was standing in rushing icy water above my ankles.
Nevertheless, somehow or other, I worked the sheeting loose, managed to fold it up into a great awkward bale wound
about with rope and twine--- then slowly, and with the greatest difficulty, drag it up the slope, constantly snagging it on the
rocks, trees and shrubbery. At least it was easier than
wrestling that 55-gallon drum.
Once I had the bundle of sheeting on level land above the slope with everything else, the hardest work
was done, but I still had no shelter, no fire, no way of drying out or warming up, and the temperature was somewhere
just above freezing. At least it had finally stopped raining, and the dawn had arrived, though it was the grayest and
most dispirited dawn I could remember.
I selected four standing alders that formed a rough square and chopped them off at a height of about
seven feet with my axe, then chopped down four smaller alders for the "stringer" poles and secured them in place with
four-inch spikes, using the backside of my axe as a mallet. I then built a frame on one of the walls to hold the sheet
of corrugated tin with the stovepipe hole and, once that was secured, I wrapped the entire frame in the sheeting, with
a cutaway for the corrugated tin. I left one unsecured corner for the entrance flap. Then, using boards from the old
shelter, I built an elevated bed platform. Finally, at the end, I set up my stove and stovepipe. Everything was
I then spent a fruitless hour or two trying to start a fire with green, wet branches, which is all I
had for fuel-- all my seasoned wood having been lost to the river. I had dry matches but no dry kindling at all, and I
could find nothing dry in the woods around my shelter. By this time I was lurching around like one of the walking dead.
I rolled out my new mummy bag which, somehow, miraculously, I had managed to keep dry. I peeled off my sodden, muddy
clothes and crawled inside. My body temperature was so low that I could not generate any heat at all, and I felt very
clammy, weak and nauseous. I knew I was in trouble. At some point my body began to shake quite violently, and I shook
non-stop for what seemed like several hours, but even with all that shaking and shuddering I was still unable to
produce any heat. The shaking was completely involuntary; I had no control over it. Every part of my body was in pain.
But in the end it saved me. I very gradually began to warm up and, as I did, my body slowly stopped shaking. I fell
into a deep, comatose sleep for what was left of the day and all the following night.
On the second day I crawled out of my bag and pulled on my sodden muddy clothes and my sodden muddy
socks and boots, and went out into the sodden woods in search of anything I could burn. This time, after my long sleep
and with a clearer head, I finally had some luck. Inside a enormous hollow spruce I found several double handsfull of
bone-dry "punkwood," and it was just what I needed. I collected a great pile of dead twigs and pine needles and,
though they were fairly wet, I figured I could feed them into my punkwood fire slowly enough that I could burn off the
moisture little by little and gradually build up the fire. My chances were not improved by having to build my fire at
the bottom of a wet steel drum which I could scarcely reach and which had only a meager draft, but finally, by blowing
through the drainhole till I could hardly draw breath, I got a small fire started which I was able to keep
alive. Once it was well underway, and after burning a modest log or two, I celebrated with a warmed-up can of pork and beans.