Avoiding disaster while enjoying Easter fun, frolics

April 15, 2009 

HAINES -- This year spring has been sneaking up on us like an afternoon nap. Every day, it seems, about mid-afternoon, winter lets go for an hour or two. The ice melts, the sun shines, the snowlines on roadsides, yards and beaches recede. My hens come out of their coop, fluff their feathers, scratch and cackle.

The high school track team is running outdoors instead of in the gym; although the track has been cleared with a snow-blowing truck, it remains an icy oval more suited to speed-skating than the 4-x-100 relay.

Easter Sunday was true to the pattern of cold mornings and warm afternoons. We made sure there was wood in the stove before leaving for church, but by the time everyone came over for dinner the doors were wide open. We stood outside in the sun, or sat on the back porch steps drinking beer or ginger ale and watching the children find the colored eggs Liam hid in the snowy yard and up and down the tide-rinsed sandy beach.

Liam was the first to arrive. It took him the better part of the day to snowshoe from his cabin on the other side of the peninsula, up and over Mount Riley and down to our house on the Chilkat Inlet shore. He said there was no real trail, but it didn't matter until he noticed that the gunshots were closer than they should be and realized he was walking into, rather than behind, the business end of the Haines Sportsmen's Club rifle range. Fortunately he escaped harm, which would become the theme of the day.

We ate ham, asparagus, shrimp salad and fresh pickled Dolly Varden. There were sweet hot-cross buns and spicy Italian bread sticks too, and lemon pie, carrot cake and sugar cookies. The dogs stuck close enough that you had to be careful where you put a plate down.

We talked about everything from pirates in Somalia to the crazy letter to the editor in the Chilkat Valley News and, of course, the weather. If there's snow on the ground on April 24 it will mean we have had six months of winter.

My son-in-law from Wisconsin had the Cubs game on the TV. There was swing music on the stereo. In other words, it was mostly noisy and happy inside and out.

There were some quiet conversations at the end of the big table and over in the window seat. One friend had lost her husband of nearly 60 years this winter, another's wife had been here at Christmas but died much too young before Valentine's Day. Still, a baby had been born to one family and there was one more on the way for another couple. "That's life," as my dad, a widower, would say when he called to wish us happy Easter.

Everything changed when my oldest daughter's pager went off. It was on top of the piano so we all heard the police dispatcher say that a helicopter had crashed at Mile 33 Haines Highway. My daughter is a volunteer EMT. She ran out the door with her gear in her arms, pulling on a pair of boots. I imagined the scene at similar gatherings all over town as fire department members grabbed their insulated coveralls and tugged them on over skirts or Hawaiian shirts. (There was an island themed party up at the just-opened-for-summer Fireweed Restaurant.)

That's when we realized another guest had gone kind of white. Sierra's boyfriend wasn't with her because he had to work. He is a heli- ski guide. The helicopters he flies take off and land at the 33 Mile Roadhouse. She tried to call, but the lines were busy. She said the helicopters held six skiers and a pilot.

The possibility of that kind of disaster is enough to make you stop breathing. Also, it could be even worse. There are a cluster of homes around the popular roadhouse, as well as some gas pumps. The highway runs right by too.

We did our best to assume that is was false alarm or just a small kind of accident. One friend pointed out that helicopter crashes are not always fatal, saying, "Lots of them went down in Vietnam and those guys walked away."

Which is what happened this time too. Sierra's boyfriend called with nothing but good news. There had only been one guy in the helicopter when it crashed into the soft snow on a gentle slope, and he was OK but on his way to the Juneau hospital to get checked out.

This morning I can hear another helicopter dropping off more skiers somewhere in the mountains. I prefer birds that fly closer to the ground, like the robins hopping in the beach grass and the nuthatches in the spruce trees.

But I am mostly thinking of the colorful flock of children playing in the back of the church on Sunday, chirping and twirling full of so much joy and jelly beans that the priest cut the sermon short. There was nothing better to say.


Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.

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