View from the West — Against the wind

Photos courtesy of Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler faces a headwind while hiking near Dillingham.

Photos courtesy of Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler faces a headwind while hiking near Dillingham.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

Although I was practically forced to take sides back when rival cities Soldotna (my hometown) and Kenai were arguing over the location of the hospital, the college, the Borough Building and a number of other services, organizations and institutions, that fact fails to explain my climate-related favoritism — in other words, why I prefer Soldotna’s weather to Kenai’s.

The answer to that, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

I appreciate a nice breeze when I’m baked by the sun, upwind of an investigating bear or under attack from ferocious insects. Wind in general, however, rarely receives a “LIKE” from me in the Facebook of life. Too often it transforms my comfort into discomfort. It scrapes a knife’s keen edge over the skin of a pleasant day.

Kenai perches upon the Cook Inlet coastline and is regularly visited — some would say, “buffeted” — by winds of varying intensities. Soldotna, on the other hand, lies inland a few miles and is protected from the gusty brunt of most of those gales.

When I was a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion in the 1980s, I often was too lazy to pack a brown bag and therefore used my lunch break to stroll from the Clarion office to various eateries around Kenai. On a warm summer walk to Little Ski-Mo’s, the breeze I encountered might almost have been pleasant, but in winter the dreaded wind chill would prompt me to extra bundling or the decision to drive and forgo the exercise and fresh air.

Wind whips snow around a building in Dillingham.

Wind whips snow around a building in Dillingham.

Kenai’s winter wind was cutting and unpleasant, a force that had me perpetually looking leeward.

Soldotna, while prone to colder winter temperatures, felt warmer because of the comparative absence of wind. When I visited the peninsula this Christmas, I went running on a windless evening in which the thermometer displayed minus 10 degrees, but I stayed comfortably frosty without overdressing.

While it’s certainly not always calm in Soldotna, hardy fans of local high school football would likely concur that a windy day in the stands watching the Kardinals requires greater fortitude than a similar day watching the Stars or Panthers — even though the bugs tend to be worse at Justin Maile Field.

For me, however, the winds of life concern more than just Soldotna versus Kenai.

Being no great fan of the wind transforms my love of mountains into a tricky relationship. 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 cool my overheated body or keep at bay swarming, hungry mosquitoes, but I rarely welcome high-velocity winds — some energetic enough to nearly sweep me from my feet.

It’s fascinating to briefly lean against such turbulence, to imagine myself as a kite about to be shot skyward, but my fascination rapidly wanes as chills reach beneath all my layers and send me searching for shelter.

Of course, given this information, one might logically wonder just why I would choose to move from the gentle climes of Soldotna to the Land of Constant Wind, also known as western Bristol Bay. Here, the warmer winds blow across the Pacific and along the Aleutians to smack the bay, while the colder winds blast down from the north and over the mountains to slap us with an icy hand. Here, it seems, the grass perpetually sways and bends. The brush quivers. The treetops whip. The water undulates. And the power lines bounce and roll like jump ropes on a playground.

Nineteen days out of 20 here I could honestly say, “The wind is blowing as I write this column.” In fact, the wind here is such a constant that when it does stop — when one of those remarkably tranquil days does arrive — the relative silence is almost eerie.

Bundling up is a necessity when running or hiking, or for any excursion outside when the wind blows as relentlessly as it does off Bristol Bay in the winter.

Bundling up is a necessity when running or hiking, or for any excursion outside when the wind blows as relentlessly as it does off Bristol Bay in the winter.

On such a day a few weeks ago I stood atop China Cap, a small bald hill a few miles northwest of Dillingham, and was awed by the absence of sound. I heard snow crunch beneath my boots as I shifted my weight. I perceived the whisper of my coat sleeve against my torso as I adjusted my camera. I noticed my own quiet breathing.

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

I could see for miles in every direction but hear nothing — until a raven flew past and I heard its dark wings pushing against the still air.

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

Some days at the Dillingham city dock, belugas swim past, hunting in and out of Nushagak Bay after salmon or smelt. When the wind blows (in other words, more than 90 percent of the time) sighting belugas is a purely visual experience — watch for the white spray (not a white-capped wave), followed by a briefly arcing sleek white back.

On a calm day, however, the sensory nature of the 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 actually be startling, its momentary slicing through water actually auditory.

On especially windy days here, when Yvonne and I go walking or running side by side, we nearly have to shout at each other in order to communicate.

Despite my general disdain for wind, however, I must admit that I am fascinated by particularly strong winds. I find a lightning storm or a good blizzard exciting, even though it exacerbates the difficulties of travel and outdoor adventuring. But I’m no Pecos Bill. I have no wish to ride a tornado. I just want to delight periodically in the staccato blasts from Mother Nature’s exuberant trumpet.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to sheath myself in or pack along protective layers to urge me outdoors and prevent me from becoming housebound and lumpy. The wind may irritate me, but I refuse to waste my life by using “bad weather” as an excuse, waiting only for “perfect days” to venture outside.

William Arthur Ward, the 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 in Soldotna or Kenai, in Dillingham or elsewhere, it seems like good advice to me.

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



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Filed under outdoors, View from Out West, weather, winter

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