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We Alaskans

Against an Alaska wind that seldom backs off

  • Author: Clark Fair
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 20, 2016

DILLINGHAM -- Nineteen days out of 20 here I could honestly say, "The wind is blowing as I write this." The wind is my near-constant companion whose company I rarely welcome.

On a cool September morning two-and-a-half years ago I first arrived here and felt the chill of a Bristol Bay wind. After spending more than half a century living inland on the Kenai Peninsula, I'd been spoiled by still air. I zipped my jacket a little higher and told myself that, after a while, I'd either acclimatize to coastal gusts or learn to shield myself from their effects.

In truth, neither happened. Even a February sun, bathing me in a 20-degree day, feels more like zero when a north wind gallops across tundra barely speckled with stunted spruce. My eyes tear. One side of my face freezes. And the shape of the wind is serpentine, discovering each slight perforation in my winter armor -- beneath the rim of my fleece hat, around the hood of my jacket, down the back of my neck, and through the seams in my trousers. It penetrates even my goggles somehow as I traipse over mountains, hunching unnaturally against blasts that occasionally reach 70 mph and scour ridgelines.

I do appreciate a nice summer breeze when my personal radiator is on the fritz, but in general, the wind too often transforms my comfort into discomfort. It scrapes a knife's keen edge over the skin of a pleasant day.

I suppose I should stop whining and be grateful I don't live someplace like Unalakleet, where strong winds are a near-constant, but at times I feel compelled to rail against the almost continuous movement of air here along Nushagak Bay. And yet I enjoy nature too much to hide indoors.

I'm not anti-wind, but it complicates my relationship with my environment.

The wind rarely fails to blow down the valleys I tread, along the ridgelines I navigate, and over the summits or through the saddles I ascend. Low-velocity zephyrs may help regulate my inner thermostat or keep swarming, hungry mosquitoes at bay, but I rarely welcome high-velocity winds — some strong enough to nearly sweep me off my feet.

Although it's fascinating to briefly lean into such turbulence, to imagine myself as a kite about to be shot skyward, fascination wanes as chills increase.

On especially windy days here, if my girlfriend and I go walking or running side by side, we nearly have to shout at each other to communicate.

Of course, given this information, one might wonder just why I would choose to move from the comparatively gentle climes of Soldotna to the Land of Constant Wind. I could be coy and say that the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind, but the truth is that I followed my heart here. And despite the chill flow of air in western Bristol Bay, I have no regrets.

Here, the warmer, moister winds blow across the Pacific and along the Aleutians to smack the bay, while the colder, drier winds blast down from the north and over the mountains to slap us with icy palms. In the midst of such climatological commotion, it seems the marsh grass perpetually sways and bends. Willows shake and the alders quiver. Treetops whip. Fishing boats roll and churn as the water undulates and froths. In winter, the snow drifts. And power lines bounce and roll like jump ropes in a playground.

In fact, the wind here is such a constant that when it does stop and one of those remarkably tranquil days arrives, the relative silence is almost eerie.

On such a day a few weeks ago, I stood atop China Cap, a small hill a few miles northwest of town, and was awed by the absence of sound. I heard snow crunch beneath my boots as I shifted my weight. My coat sleeves whispered against my torso as I adjusted my camera. I noticed my breath.

When I stood motionless, I imagined that I heard my own heartbeat.

I peered for miles in every direction but heard nothing — no passing car on the lake road, no air taxi cruising high above, not even a whispering breeze — until a raven shadowed past and I heard its dark wings pulse against the still air.

Some days at the Dillingham city dock, belugas swim past, hunting salmon or smelt in and out of Nushagak Bay. When the wind blows — in other words, more than 90 percent of the time — witnessing belugas in action is a purely visual experience: watch for the white jet of spray, followed by the brief arc of a sleek white back.

On a calm day, however, when the water lies mirror flat, the sensory nature of this experience expands. The spouting exhalation of beluga breath punctuates the air, foreshadowing the curving white form. When a beluga swims close enough to the dock, its spray can be startling, its momentary slicing through water actually auditory.

How much more do I miss, I wondered, because the wind whisks away sounds?

Despite my general disdain for wind, I must admit I'm fascinated by particularly strong winds. Lightning storms or a good blizzard can be exciting, even though they exacerbate the difficulties of travel. I have no wish to ride a tornado, but I want to delight periodically in the staccato blasts from Mother Nature's exuberant trumpet.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to sheath myself in protective layers to urge me outdoors and prevent me from becoming housebound and lumpy. Wind may irritate me, but I refuse to waste my life by using "bad weather" as an excuse, waiting for "perfect days" before venturing outside.

William Arthur Ward, a prodigious creator of inspirational maxims, once wrote: "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails."

Some might call that aphorism overblown. But on the Kenai Peninsula, in Dillingham or elsewhere, it seems like good advice.

Clark Fair, a Kenai Peninsula resident for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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