Last week I wrote about perspective, and how it was too easy to focus on the mini-dramas of daily life while other people experienced true suffering. The mini-drama I was experiencing was a flood, the second of the season and one that peaked at about 16.5 feet on our nearest flood gauge. “Minor” flooding starts at 15 feet, according to the National Weather Service. The farm starts flooding at around 14 feet. At 16.5 feet, we were almost at “major” flood stage, and we thought it showed. As I mentioned in my last post, we had to do a lot of late-night scrambling to get animals to higher ground, but everyone made it safely and the waters quickly receded. It was easy to sit in my warm house and contemplate how lucky I am.
Mother Nature sure has a way of laughing at over confidence, doesn’t she? The next flood (our third in as many weeks) was predicted to crest at 18.5 feet, two feet higher than the last, and there was still standing water on the farm. The soil was completely water-logged, so there was no room for absorption. The next flood came fast, and it came big. Now this isn’t what you might imagine from a newsreel, where water is rushing by and people are being saved by daring rescuers. Here the flood doesn’t really rush in; instead it seeps in from all directions until gradually the new lakes meet in the middle.
We knew this next flood was coming for a few days, so we were a little better prepared for it. We were able to get most of our animals up to high ground early in the day. We built some temporary pens in a hay barn next to our house, and herded all of the goats, sheep, and our landlord’s two fat, little American Guinea hogs up the hill into safety. Our sows (breeding pigs) were dozing in a stock trailer parked on a concrete pad that, in our previous experiences, stays dry. The hens were locked into their house for the night next to the sows. Our market hogs had previously been moved to a new paddock in a relatively high spot, and were blissfully piled onto one another amid a deep bed of hay in a covered pen.
For the previous flood the turkeys had been moved into a dry hoop house to wait it out. The water started seeping into their house early in the morning, so I ushered them out and let them wander around the dry spaces on the farm. After the water receded we spread a large round bale of oat straw into the hoop house, set up nice roosting spaces for them, and turned them back in to happily (and dryly!) spend the last week of their lives. We knew this next flood would also get into the hoop house, but we had a hard time coming up with a good solution. Andrew thought maybe just having roosting bars would be enough to keep them out of the water. I agreed in theory, but in the last flood I learned that turkeys are drawn to the water at night. Birds have terrible night vision, and they are prey animals. They do whatever they can to be safe, and at night the water reflects light. The turkeys go towards the light, thinking, I imagine, it will be safer there. It is not. We decided to go in for dinner and revisit the issue afterwards. The floodwaters were not threatening just yet.
Our friend Ross was at the farm helping us prepare for the flood when he got stranded here. Our roads in and out of the farm are the first to go under water, so we put him up on the couch. We were grateful for this turn of events, as he was a big help getting animals safe. I should mention that in addition to the flood warnings, Western Washington was hammered with a massive windstorm that night. Our little house is up high on wheels, on top of a hill, and it was rocking in the wind. Trees behind us were smashing to the ground, which is actually pretty common; they’re old rotted plantation poplars. The wind was coming from the north, opposite from the normal pattern, and that small change gave the storm a more sinister feel. Spurts of intense rain pounded our metal roof and added to the feeling of being under fire. Ross and Andrew went out to move cows up to higher ground while I sat on the floor in the only spot I thought would be safe from shattering windows. I’m not sure that was a real possibility, but it sure felt like one! Something like 300,000 people in our area lost power that night. Remarkably ours never flickered.
Once the guys came back in we had a nice hot dinner, and thankfully the intense wind pushed the rain clouds away. We decided we had better take advantage of the clear skies and move the turkeys up to even higher ground. We moved a small tunnel that was previously the sheep house up onto the hill that was quickly resembling an ark. We herded the turkeys into it, which was a slow tedious business since it was dark. We tied the door shut and blocked off any possible escape routes, since heritage turkeys are not fond of being penned up. After that we went in for the night to try and get some sleep.
Sleep didn’t come to me, so I spent time on facebook, chatting with family across the country, which helped keep me calm. I also obsessively checked the flood prediction gauge. At 1:30 am I decided to go on a round to check on the water’s progress. It became obvious that the water was coming much more quickly now, and that the high ground where our sows and hens were parked was not going to stay “high” for long. Our ten snuggling pigs were also going to need to be moved higher. Andrew had set his alarm for 2:30 am to check on things, but I could see that we didn’t have that much time. I ran in and roused him, and we moved all of the rest of the animals up to the highest possible ground. Andrew easily passed back out (a trait of his that makes me insanely jealous), and I continued to quietly fret. A couple hours later the flood prediction jumped from 18.5 feet to over 20 feet. I panicked about this news, but there was nothing more we could do but wait.
Once morning hit we were amazed by what surrounded us. Water was everywhere. This was the first time since we’d been here that all of the farmable space was under water. We did our morning animal chores, which was relatively easy with all the animals in close confinement. We boarded our canoe to shuttle Ross across the street so he could go back home, and then we went up to our neighbors for a cup a coffee and a chat. Darryl, the patriarch of the family across the street has a million stories about this valley. His family has been living and farming here for generations, and as far as he was concerned this flood was minor. He regaled us of stories about previous floods, including one in 1990 where the peak hit 25 feet. At that level everything on the farm except possibly our house would be under water. After departing we took the canoe around the fields to investigate and take photos.
While the flood was dramatic, we were mostly prepared and everyone stayed dry and safe. We spent most of the day inside recovering, and while the animals were restless they put up with their confinement well. Thankfully the flood never reached the predicted 20 feet, and even the van our vegetable farming partners accidentally left on the farm seemed to have avoided getting water in its engine.
As I type all of this it’s hard to remember that this all happened yesterday. It seems like so long ago. I suppose lack of sleep and boosted adrenaline will do that to you. Needless to say were more than ready for bed last night. Andrew has been battling bronchitis for a week now, and I had been having sneezing fits and a plugged nose since the morning. Sleep was in order. And then, just as we started dozing off, we heard a strange sound. Actually it wasn’t that strange, it sounded exactly like gusts of wind rattling the plastic that covers the hay barn. Only there was no wind, it was an eerily still night. After this happened three or four times we ran outside to see what was up. The door on the turkey house had broken free and swung open, and the noise was the whoosh of turkey wings as they flapped out of confinement straight into the lake that now flanked our house.
Wearing only underwear, I grabbed my long down parka, which wasn’t the greatest choice considering it was now raining heavily, but I didn’t have time to think. I jammed my bare feet into my boots and ran out the door, yelling at Andrew to grab the canoe. I began wading into the frigid water to retrieve those turkeys that were within reach. The cold water rushed over my boots and filled them. I sloshed around, urging turkeys to walk up the hill. Those that were too cold to move merely stood there shuddering, so I picked them up and carried them one by one back to their pen. Some of the turkeys were in too deep, so we had to canoe over to them. We took multiple canoe trips, flinging scared, wet birds into the center of the boat while trying to maintain our balance. One bird was roosting on top of the hoop house, impossible to reach. Once we retrieved all the birds we could find we quickly realized that only about half were there. It was dark, raining, our teeth were chattering and my feet and legs were numb. We could not see or hear any other turkeys.
Defeated, we went back inside to deal with our oncoming hypothermia. The fire was out, so we put on dry clothes and crawled under the covers. I was inconsolable. The thought of helpless turkeys, birds I had raised since they were two days old, shivering and drowning in the cold was too much to bear. There really was nothing else we could do at that point but wait and hope for the best. I certainly expected the worst.
After a fitful night filled with horrible dreams of drowned turkeys and restlessness, I awoke this morning to an amazing sight. The water had receded substantially in the night, and I saw turkeys walking inland from various parts of the farm. Although they sounded hoarse from spending the night in cold water, there were no other obvious signs of distress. I don’t know how they made it through the night, but apparently they are stronger than I thought. Last night in the midst of my meltdown I proclaimed that I would never raise turkeys again. Now I’m not so sure. These guys are badass. They are survivors. It’s a strange irony knowing that I will willfully end their lives this weekend, but I am proud that they will be consumed at feasts designed for reflection and thankfulness. Everyone who has ordered a turkey will be sent the link for this post. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, I hope you will feel deep gratitude for these creatures that have given so much of themselves for us.
Now that the waters are once again receding, I have released the rest of the turkeys and the hens. They are wandering happily around acting as a kind of clean up crew, enjoying the worms and other delicious tidbits the flood dredged up. Their sounds of joy and discovery delight me, and while the logistics of this weekend are looming and our roads are still under water, somehow I know it will all be ok. And it’s all thanks to those pesky turkeys.