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Surviving the flood: Violinist recounts harrowing scene as Nooksack rose to record levels

A man and woman stand outside an RV. They are holding a small dog.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Swil Kanim, right, and his wife, Laurie, stand with their dog outside their RV. The RV park where they live was flooded by the swollen Nooksack River this week. They had to be rescued by boat. They got out with Swil Kanim's violins, some artwork and their beloved dog, Lucky.

The floodwaters on the Nooksack River reached record heights this week. Hundreds of homes in communities north of Bellingham were swamped. Violinist Swil Kanim’s RV was one of them. He’s a member of the Lummi Tribe and he spoke with KNKX as the floodwaters receded around his neighborhood in Ferndale.

Blue skies and the gleaming snow-white peak of Mount Baker formed the backdrop Wednesday as Swil Kanim returned to his home at Nor'west RV park, just off of Interstate 5. You can’t see the river from here. It’s about 400 yards away from the property.

“But this is a creek right here. And it goes underneath this road. And right where we're standing, there was two and a half feet of water, so there was no easy way to drive out of this,” he said.

The water’s mostly gone now. But there’s a mudline on the trees and shrubs that line the driveway.

Swil Kanim says the water rose as quickly as it receded. It happened so suddenly, that when his wife, Laurie, went to the door of the RV to check the water levels in the transit center and the food bank next door, which are at lower ground, she got an unpleasant surprise.

"She goes, ‘Wait a minute, there's water right here.' And we looked down and was like, ’Oh no, what are we going to do?’ And then I went on online to look at the water levels, and I realized it could go higher,” he said.

The water kept rising, up the steps of their RV and onto the floor. It surrounded their home as well as about 25 others in the park — and 27 mobile homes in the park east of them. The only road out was flooded.

Two small SUVs sit in a flooded parking lot. The water is halfway up the tires.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Two small SUVs sit in the flooded parking lot at the transit center next to Nor'west RV Park.

"So we were trapped,” he said. “It was like, 'Oh my God, now what?' And we just kept hoping the water would go down overnight. We realized the water ain't going down.”

They packed their bags and gathered their most important belongings. Authorities urged them to evacuate. The only way out was by boat.

By the time that happened, it was just downright scary. And looking back at that moment, I'm just so thankful that people are so committed to serving our community. And, you know, brought the boat — got us out of there and made sure that everybody that wanted to leave, could leave.”   

One man in his 80s chose to stay and made it through without major harm. But Swil Kanim's Winnebago is among about a dozen homes with irreparable damage. The floorboards are saturated with sewer water. His car was also among the vehicles in the area that were totaled because of electrical damage.

Now they’re trying to air out and salvage what they can from the RV. He says he’s just thankful to be alive and to have gotten out with his most precious possessions.

“There's things I want. But what I need is my wife, my violin and my dog and the community and friends and family around me,” he said.

“Those are my real needs. ... And that's what keeps me going. Yeah, we lost our home, but that's just a thing.”

He says they have good insurance that he thinks will cover their losses. And his daughter set up a GoFundMe that exceeded its $7,000 goal in just a few hours. He knows how fortunate he is and intends to pay it forward.

More broadly, he says this sudden and surprising flood — with water levels rising higher than he ever could have imagined — holds a lesson about how he thinks we should live now, because more floods are coming.

"Climate change is happening. There's no doubt about that, from my perspective," he said. "The largest glacier on Mount Baker is half its size from when I was a kid. What people don't realize, though, is that old growth trees are a buffer for water."

He says we need more trees. That’s a pretty simple, old idea. We need to embrace the passions and intellect of scientists who are working to protect the environment, he said, adding there’s also a lot to be learned from more ancient forms of wisdom.

You know, being Lummi means that we're survivors of the flood. We take care of the children. We put them in the canoes. We take care of their spirit. We do those things. That's the way of life,” he said.

"So yeah, climate. But it's also about what's happening right now. We've got to trust the way of life.”

Swil Kanim, his wife and their dog, Lucky, are staying with friends for now. He says they’ll get a new RV as soon as they can — and move it to higher ground more quickly when the next flood warning comes.

You can see a recent performance of his music at Benaroya Hall in this video.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to