Of all the elements, I have to say that the wind is my least favorite, especially to be exposed to. Indoors, watching the wind blow through the trees, listening to the creaks and bends of trees in a storm, that’s one thing. It feels chaotic but inside I’m relatively protected. But being outside in the middle of a windstorm? No, thank you.
Wind has always made me feel hectic and off kilter, as if my body and mind can’t quite seem to make the handshake on how to interact. I feel discombobulated, irritated and overall just “a little off”.
The winds started a week from last Saturday. It was “Prom” in town, a yearly event with a theme and a King and a Queen and a whole mess of mainly locals boisterously celebrating the nearing close of the Summer. As we walked into the mayhem the wind picked up. It was a warm wind, a “Witches Wind” and it laid way for a strange feel to the night.
In the morning the winds hadn’t ceased but their warmth had retreated and their ferocity increased. The day was blustery and ominous.
The next day they were at their peak. From inside our cabin I could hear trees being pushed past their creaking point. They were being overpowered by the wind. Almost every time I walked outside I would hear a tree fall, crashing through its comrades and eventually down to the ground.
That day I was working a 3pm-close shift at the restaurant. I walked there in record slowness as I stayed bent forward at a 45 degree angle in order to not be blown backwards. As I rounded the first corner out of our driveway a cracking sound began and within seconds a huge aspen tree fell right in front of me. They were dropping like flies. Everywhere I looked bundles of trees had fallen together, tripping over one another like a bumbling group of drunks. The forest was tumbling over. I continued on into the normally protected woods but the wind still found her way in, whipping through the usually quiet spaces. I had to climb over fallen trees and jagged stumps that had fallen in the path just to make my way.
I stumbled upon a pile of very fresh bear excrement and looked around me. The wind was so strong and the noises it produced from blowing brush and breaking trees were so loud that even if the bear had been feet away, neither one of us would have been able to hear the other and there’s nothing quite like spooking a bear. It felt truly eerie and truly out of my hands. Cinda and I hurried along to the opening at the river trail, glad to be out of the thick woods but unfortunately back into the brunt of the wind. We steadied ourselves and trudged forward.
Over an hour later I finally made it to work (a little late). The last few minutes of the walk were the dustiest and a miniature tornado spiraled into me, leaving my freshly showered self filthy and my mouth full of dirt. At work I walked into an obvious mood. The wind wasn’t pleasing anyone. After weeks and weeks of rain people had been overjoyed by the few days of sunshine we had been experiencing. But now, the blue skies weren’t so welcoming when your face got a wind rash after being out in the elements for an hour or so. And, as the days of wind continued more and more damage was done.
Two friends sidled up to the bar and told me of their wind carnage. One friend’s entire living situation had been ruined. He had spent the Summer already chasing off bears each morning, clearing trails and setting up his wall tent to live in until he could put up a more permanent structure. It hadn’t been easy living but he was making it work the best he could. When the winds came on they picked up his entire structure and threw everything about. It looked like a tornado had come through. It was time to build (and time to move out until he could build). Another friend had a huge tree fall and crush his Summer storage tent. A few feet one way or the other and it would have taken out his shower or his permanent shed. Two other friends completely lost their sheds. Another friend’s trailer had a tree woven in between it and three other trees but hadn’t been damaged. Another friend’s driveway looked like a game of pick-up-stix. Trees were strewn about and entangled so completely that it took hours and hours to clear. If there had been an emergency, he would have been completely stranded.
Flights were grounded, planes were stuck, people were stranded, missing their trips home, mail couldn’t come in or go out. It was chaos.
Yet instead of panic, the community came together and got to work. Vans were put together to get people to where the planes would have taken them (unless they were going to the backcountry or trying to come in from the backcountry. If that was the case they unfortunately remained grounded or stranded). The Chief had thought to put a chainsaw in our truck and was prepared to clear his way to work. Groups of residents went out to the main road and cut trees for the entire day to clear the road so people would have a way in or out.
In California there are road crews. Trees fall down, power lines go down. Tree companies come to clear the trees, PG&E comes to restore power. It’s not always fast and it’s not always easy, we too have been stranded at our house due to downed trees, but it was always a waiting game. We didn’t have a chainsaw and even if we did I wouldn’t have been confident enough to take down a redwood (and rightly so). The problem is yours but it’s the responsibility of someone else. Here, the responsibility is all of ours. See a tree? Have a chainsaw? Take it down and out of the road. Not “your” road? It’s all of our road. If you’re on it, it’s your responsibility, just as much as anyone else.
People spent all day clearing roads that they themselves rarely use because that’s how it goes out here and I love it for that.
After work The Chief came into town to visit me at The Restaurant. He left around 9:30pm, mentioning that he and our neighbor would be clearing their way home. I had walked the road only a few hours prior and they had driven it an hour before. It wasn’t too bad both of us thought and so we planned to see one another in an hour after I finished up work and headed home to meet him.
It was the shift that wouldn’t end and so despite “closing” at 10pm we finally got ourselves closed up by midnight. I bundled up and went out to the car with a flashlight to light my way, trying to see in the dark despite the wind whipping dirt into my eyes. I jumped into our truck, closed the door and took a deep breath, happy to be out of the mayhem. And then I went to start the truck.
And then I went to start the truck again.
The truck wouldn’t start.
Everyone was gone. Town was deserted and here I was. Stuck in a windstorm in the dark.
I called The Chief.
I called our neighbor he had said he was going to clear with.
“Hey lady, we are still out here clearing, what’s up?”
It was almost three hours after they had left and they were still clearing the road just to be able to get home.
He handed me over to The Chief who hadn’t heard his phone in all the noise of the saws. I had originally called to see if he could come get me but now that he was still working I had already decided on a second potential. One of the chefs at the restaurant was my neighbor, maybe he could jump me if I got a hold of him quickly. I explained my idea to The Chief and got off the phone in time to call the chef’s girlfriend for his number (thankfully she responded) and get him before he crossed the bridge. Catching someone before they pull up, park, get out, unlock the bridge, drive through, park, get out, lock the bridge, drive away, turn around and do it all over again just so they can come get you at midnight thirty is ideal. I caught him right as he was unlocking it. He came back to get me but we both ended up being jumper cable-less and so I caught a ride home.
As we approached the bridge I looked to the right towards the ice fall and told him to stop.
The Northern Lights were out.
They were bundled up behind a cloud, creating a glow that lit up its dark edges. Then they would dance from behind it in streaks of green light that disappeared just as quickly as they came.
We sat parked on that bridge for a good while, admiring nature and science and the majesty of the place we call home. In the middle of all the mayhem and destruction the last few days had brought, this moment of respite and silence was beyond welcome. The winds had even stopped for those moments we watched from the bridge which is almost always windy. But not that moment in that night. For a few minutes it was peaceful again.
We rode the rest of the way home, noticing all of the fallen trees and uprooted soil. The soil in Alaska is shallow and so root systems are already challenged by the terrain. Add to that a month of rain followed by a few days of sunshine and then whipping winds and you have yourself the perfect combination for a forest dropping like dominoes. As we drove closer to our common driveway I saw all the work they had done. Trees upon trees upon trees cut down and cleared from the road. It would be an enormous clean up.
We parked at the turnaround in my driveway when we looked ahead to my neighbor’s road and saw that it was completely blocked by a huge Spruce tree. It was a task for tomorrow, he said. We said goodnight just as The Chief rolled in. He too was done for the day, I was done for the day, we all were. It was time to hunker down and listen to the wind and the falling trees and pray that none fell upon our little cabin in the woods.
We went inside and built a fire to take off the chill of the no longer warm winds and put on music to unwind and distract from the tumultuous outside. We traded stories we had heard throughout the day and sat in a sort of stunned stupor of what had transpired from the powerful element. And then, we cozied up and dozed off.
Never before have I felt so at the mercy of the Earth and never before have I felt so close to it. In California, if a storm was raging I could simply drive home on paved roads and head inside. If there were trees in the roadway and a road crew was taking care of them I would grumble as I rerouted myself home. I would walk in the door and flip on the heat and the lights and none of it would really be my issue to handle.
Here it is all of our issue to handle. The next morning, wind still whipping, we drove into town with our neighbor to jump our truck. On the way in we answered calls from fellow neighbors with him, looking at what it would take to repair ripped off shingles and tin roofs and checking in on an out-of-towner’s home. I love that sense of community and the common sense of responsibility. Our neighbor’s wellbeing is our own. We all need one another out here and we all have different strengths to share.
The beauty within the destruction we all saw was the continual coming together that this community shares. We are here for one another. Passing someone on the road? You always stop to see if they need a ride. Have a lot of greens in your garden? You see if anyone wants some. In cities we can find community but the sense of need for one another is different. If I need something I can go to the store. Out here, if you need something you call your neighbors. You put the word out and people come around full-bore. It’s a beautiful and continual circle of giving and receiving and despite the unfortunate conditions which can create need, like a massive windstorm, what one receives is often an improvement. A tent destroyed turns into a structure made from a friend’s old shed. A road blocked with trees turns into a night of bonding for two friends. A dead battery leads to a shared ride and a friend to watch the Northern Lights with. Out here we are not alone, we are a community and I’m so proud to be finding my place within it.
Thank you, Alaska.