Lowell Carlson


I’ll level with you. One of the key reasons Brenda and I decided to spend part of the year in the Northwest was to see if we could start over again, make new relationships with friends, become part of a community. 

So far, so good.

Brenda is part of a Tuesday morning coffee group as I am as well on Thursdays. I volunteer at a local food bank and worked in a homeless shelter. Our friends here, as well as back in Jackson County, don’t understand the logic of driving over 2,000 miles to count the days of sunshine and blue skies on your one hand for the entire winter season.

It’s true. Sixty miles inland from the Pacific here in southwest Washington the winter climate is all too predictable. You could have the weatherman record a simple winter forecast and turn out the lights on the way out the door: “Cloudy with scattered showers, some heavy, with periods of partial sunshine, highs in the lower 50s, nighttime lows of 34 degrees. Use caution commuting tomorrow morning due to thick fog in the early morning hours.” That would cover a good 90 percent of weather for our area over the winter months.

Strangely I seldom see people wear actual rain gear when out in public. Granted laborers, people who work for logging companies, utilities, construction, government, have good grade rain gear but the most common is a hooded sweatshirt. I have seen people mow their lawn in the rain and even picnic in a park.

The challenge of perpetual wet weather was solved historically by treating canvas with waterproofing solvent. The famous, and very expensive, Filson work clothes made in Seattle filled the bill for loggers and became the gold standard. Loggers have threatened divorce to discover their wives washed their “tin pants.”

The Cascade foothills begin just to the east of us. When weather systems develop in the Gulf of Alaska they move southeast and over us, dropping 5-7 inches at times in the upper elevations of the wall of mountains that include Mt. Rainier. What we have in excess precipitation the hop growers, vineyards and alfalfa producers east of the Cascades can only pray for. 

It is day and night within a few miles. The snowmelt in the high country is the lifeblood of fruit and specialty crop producers over around Yakima. A dry, pleasant winter is everyone’s nightmare. It means drought and wildfires. Fires have not come close to our home, but the smell of smoke hangs in the air.

Lewis County is still 80 percent tree covered, mostly Douglas fir, but the logging and forestry industry is shedding jobs, not adding them. Mechanized harvesting has come to stay in the Pacific Northwest now that second-growth trees are the norm. Many a small holding got its start here as a “stump farm” when logging companies believed there would never be a profitable harvest in their lifetime. 

The land was often sold for a song and the new owner became adept at setting dynamite charges to remove stumps the size of small houses. In fact, the climate and soil, if not the topography, were made for rapid tree growth.

Once you get accustomed to rain it is an endlessly interesting place. Back home in Jackson County everyone looks and acts a lot alike — a smaller population with numerous shared experiences and similar cultural backgrounds.

Out here? Not so much. 

I find items in ethnic groceries I have no idea what they are. You hear different dialects, people look and act differently all the while pursuing their version of the American Dream. 

It’s not idyllic by any means. Washington has its own special brand of misery. In 1962 the coastal lumber milling town of Aberdeen, straight west of here, had the highest suicide rate in Washington. Our mountains tend to blow up occasionally like Mount Saint Helens did in May 1980. If Rainier, listed as North America’s most dangerous dormant volcano, ever blows it will bury a wide area with immense depths of ash.

In one state you can drive to barely explored North Cascades. The Olympic Peninsula was among the very last wilderness regions explored and then only tiny portions. There are long stretches of ocean beach owned by the public, not the wealthy. I am fascinated by the fishing fleet that makes Ilwaco homeport where people buy fresh fish right off the boat.

This is our sixth winter here and we’ve barely scratched the surface even in southwest Washington.