Short Arm and the Wood Duck Box

Call it ironic, a twist of fate, or a case of life imitates art. For the past year, I’ve been writing the latest installment in my Nick Drake mystery series. The Demon Skin features a raging river as the principal setting while a deadly whitewater raft trip serves up the action. Shortly after I sent the manuscript to my advance readers and editor in preparation for release, the river I live on began to rage itself.

It all started when back-to-back storms fueled by tropical moisture carried by atmospheric rivers battered California with gale-force winds toppling trees and dumping an estimated 25 trillion gallons of rain, enough to cover the entire state nine inches deep. The relentless deluge turned hillsides into mudslides, destroyed houses, roads, and piers, and so far has tragically killed at least 19 people. Overnight, seasonal creeks and slow, meandering rivers were transformed into torrents. There they remained, including the one I’d always greeted each morning with an appreciative nod while sipping a mug of coffee before sitting down to write.

John Steinbeck once described the Carmel River as “everything a river should be.” It’s not very long and rises in the Santa Lucia Mountains and wraps around boulders and flows through groves of sycamores, white alders, and black cottonwoods on its way to join the Pacific. In summer, sun-dappled pools hold crayfish and trout dart among the riffles. Cool water and leafy trees offer respite from the heat for foxes, deer, mountain lions, and people alike. In winter, the river flashes with short outbursts of fierceness following rainfall. But not this year. The weeks-long tempest fueled by climate change-charged intense weather pushed the Carmel River to the breaking point.

Those who live alongside it were left both wary and in awe of the river’s size, speed, and ferocity. We also rallied to keep each other safe. Sand was hauled in by the truckload and piled in strategic locations on the two-lane that parallels the river. Residents, volunteers, and members of the California Conservation Corps joined forces to shovel, fill, and stack thousands upon thousands of sandbags atop the river’s banks and around houses and businesses. Village restaurants and stores offered free meals. An emergency center was set up at the library.

A nonstop flow of news and calls and texts of what do you know and how can I help traveled up and down the river, trying to keep pace with the hard-charging current that kept rising and was sure to surpass flood stage and trigger an official evacuation order. While we monitored the online network of gauges that measure rainfall, river height, volume, and the speed of the current right down to cubic feet per second that could predict the crest, we also relied on homegrown landmarks to tell us how fast the water was rising in front of our yards and how close it was getting to breaching our sandbag defenses and flooding our homes.

For my wife Annie and me, it was two markers: the stunted bottom limb of a black cottonwood we could see from our kitchen window that we called “Short Arm.” The other was a wood duck box my brother who lives on an Oregon river had given us. I’d fastened it to the trunk of a white alder in hopes of luring a pair of the colorful but elusive waterfowl to take up residence in it and hatch their young.

Short Arm, Annie and I knew, was exactly six feet above the normally lazy gravel river bed. I had to duck my head when walking beneath it. The wood duck box was twice that high. I’d needed a ladder when securing it. As the river rose and started swirling around the trunks of both trees, we kept our eyes on the markers as we stacked sandbags. With rain pounding down, we gritted our teeth and worked faster as Short Arm’s fingers waved a final goodbye before going under. The river kept rising.

With the last sandbag stacked and our go bags packed, we counted down the gap that was quickly shrinking between the top of the river and the bottom of the wood duck box. Five feet. Four feet. Three feet. Two. Our phones were chirping with calls and text messages from Monterey County Emergency Services that the Evacuation Warning had become an Order telling us what we already knew: It was time to get out.

Two single-lane bridges lay between us and the road out. Both were thrumming from the cauldron of whitewater churning inches beneath their steel mesh decks as we crossed over. Heading west on the two-lane, we passed convoys of National Guard trucks and vehicles speeding east carrying emergency responders, heroes all.

We are lucky. We didn’t have far to go to reach a safe and dry place to wait out the storm. Later, when the river had crested just below a historic high set decades ago, we returned home to find the wood duck box had been swept away by the flood, but the top of our sandbag walls that measured a foot higher had held. Our home stayed dry inside. Sadly, we learned, neighbors both upriver and downriver didn’t fare as well. Many homes were flooded, but, fortunately, no lives were lost. The river continued to fall only to rise again as the rains kept coming. Five days later, it reached flood stage for a second time and the order to evacuate sounded once more.

Rain is still falling as I write this, but the forecast calls for a reprieve starting tomorrow. Maybe the storms are over for now. Maybe the sun will break through and shine. If there is solace to be found, it lies in the fact that good comes when a river floods. It washes away deadfall and woody debris. It disperses plants and provides a lift for salmon and steelhead that need to reach the ocean. It primes wetlands and recharges groundwater. And it carries salt from rocks to the sea.

All are good lessons to remember. So is the one Annie and I learned. With a changing climate, intense weather and flooding rivers will certainly continue. As soon as the river is low enough, we’ll shake hands with Short Arm and hang a new wood duck box on the white alder even higher.

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Finding Light Among the Flames

The official “Evacuation Warning” came yesterday, the first in a set of commands that are simple in wordage yet portentous in meaning. The warning was no surprise. Annie and I have been closely monitoring the news ever since two of the 12,000 lightning strikes that hit Northern California in the span of 72 hours found tinder perilously close to our home on the banks of a river in a narrow valley that cuts through the coastal range. A third fire is burning only a half-hour to the south as the condor flies, but it was lit by a pyromaniac.

Since ignition, we’ve been watching online briefings held regularly by CalFire and the county sheriff’s department, reading social media posts, and exchanging what-do-you-knows and what-have-you-heards with friends and neighbors. No matter the source, the story remains the same: firefighters are working tirelessly and heroically but all three fires are spreading in what appears to be a relentless march to join forces. Containment and control are hampered by record-setting heat, rugged terrain, thick smoke that limits air tanker assaults, and firefighting resources spread thin due to the dozens of major wildfires burning concurrently in the state. To compound matters, meteorologists are now making ominous pronouncements. Starting Sunday afternoon, a new storm will hit with unpredictable winds and even more dry lightning.

When the “Evacuation Warning” came, Annie and I knew the official “Evacuation Order” (the final step in “Ready, Set, Go”) would soon follow. We gathered up memories—the irreplaceable touchstones to our ancestors and children along with inimitable paintings and photographs created by artist friends—and boxed up important papers, laptops, and prescriptions. Deeming housewares and clothes expendable, we left them in the cupboards and closets in hopes that one day a favorite fry pan would again host a Sunday omelet, a pair of broken-in boots welcome feet eager for a hike on a nearby trail.

With our memories and essentials packed and our Go Bags at the door, all that remained was waiting for the inevitable. In a rite that was equal parts honoring, bonding, and mourning, we watered the veggie and flower garden planted in horse troughs perched on bricks to keep the roots away from gophers. We admired the white cosmos and orange nasturtiums that brightened the greenery of lettuces, peppers, and squash, and wished them well, for they would be on their own now without regular irrigation or, worse, face withering flames without mercy. We took our two dogs who’d rather swim than walk down to the river and sat beneath the willows and sycamores that shade the bank to watch them play while we marveled at how incredibly lucky we are to have each other and the lives we have.

As I thought about what was, what is, and what might be through the lens of an inferno bearing down on us, my thoughts soon drifted from recollections of what makes a house a home—from voluble family gatherings, sweaty but rewarding work restoring the land, and writing stories in a study with an inspiring view—to remembrances of the creatures who share this special place with us. There’s a hummingbird who hovers above the river every day in the late afternoon to catch insects—yes, a hummingbird who’s a fearsome predator, not a nectar sipping showboat. A bright yellow and black kingsnake lives beneath the stack of firewood out back and keeps the blue-belly lizard population in check; she’s surprised the heck out of me with her silent speed more than once. And then there’s the one-footed crow who doesn’t view his physical impairment as any impediment to his ownership of the suet cake that hangs from a tree branch next to the back porch.

Of all the animals we live with, it is a mallard drake and hen who nest on the other side of the river that epitomize nature’s will to survive. The first time we spotted them paddling proudly from their shoreline nest, they had ten downy ducklings in tow. In the days and weeks that followed, the brood winnowed to nine then eight then seven then six as the youngsters served to sustain herons, foxes, and red-tailed hawks raising their own nestlings. Such is the circle of life, but despite the heartbreaking losses, the mallard pair never gave up, never gave in. When the drake and hen finally took wing, more than double their number flew right behind them, ensuring their labors had not been in vain.

This morning, the “Evacuation Warning” became an “Evacuation Order.” The wait was over. Time was up. We had to leave immediately. We loaded our bags and taped a note on the front door for firefighters, telling them thanks, that we’d cleared out, and they needn’t worry about us. We were among the fortunate, for not only were we able to escape safely, we had a place to land.

As I pulled out of the drive that leads to our home beside the river, I didn’t know whether we’d ever see it again. But I didn’t latch the gate behind me. I left it swinging freely, wide open to possibility.