Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cold and Miserable July

When I returned home to Bethel on July 7th from my all-too-short visit with Dutch for the holiday weekend, people were raving about what great hot weather there had been for the 4th and 5th. Bright sun and temperatures in the mid-80s; and no wind, which means lots of bugs, but no one was complaining about that. It had just been fabulous, I heard over and over.

I was hearing these tales as rain lashed the buildings, blown sideways from the winds which whipped unrelentingly and pounded everything flat to the earth. The landscape had no color but gray, and the clouds were so thick there was no hint to the sun’s position in the sky. It went on for four days. The rain came and went but the wind never stopped blowing, night or day. Flags stood board-straight from bent flag poles, fringe whipping, looking like they had been painted on a dark gray canvas.

It is an amazing creature, this wind, like a live thing. It can suck the breath right out of your lungs. The sound of it gets on your nerves after a while. People get irritable when it doesn’t stop for days. It becomes an enemy you can’t see directly, but evidence of its presence is everywhere.

A few weeks ago some new friends came over for the first time; they are recent transplants to Bethel from the Midwest. They had been reading and occasionally commenting on the blog prior to coming up, and I was happy to meet them in person. I think of them as Breezy and Summer. They noted my large plastic garbage cans on the deck, leashed to the railing with bungee cords which also hold the lids on.

“Is that to keep out critters, like raccoons or fox?” Breezy wanted to know.

“Oh, no.” I responded. “That’s for the wind.” I’ve chased more garbage can lids across the tundra than I care to recall.

The windstorm finally passed, and was replaced with heavy rain. The clouds were just as thick, the sky just as gray, and rain poured down every day for a week. A different sort of misery from the constant wind. And with temperatures hovering on both sides of 50 degrees, there is just a damp coldness to everything. The roads become a pothole-filled washboard that rattles your teeth to drive over, even at 10 mph.

And people’s sore spirits sure weren’t getting any better. The memory of those two hot summer days during the holiday weekend were rapidly becoming dim. Lots of weather-grousing was going on. It was beginning to feel like we had had a two-day summer which was now over and gone.

But just when you are sure you can’t stand it any longer, a break comes. Friday afternoon, after two solid miserable weeks of cold, gray, cloudy, windy, rainy weather, the clouds parted and the sun shone in a deep blue sky. A light breeze helped the sun dry up the roads and remove the waterlogged feeling from everything and everyone. We were all praying that it would just last for a little while.

Saturday morning gave hope to our prayers. More blue sky and bright sun, and the thermometer nudging towards 70. The wind was gusty and the horizons held some thick clouds, but it looked like a great day was in store for southwest Alaska.

My priority for the day was to get my boat out on the river. It has been docked at the small boat harbor for several weeks, but my one attempt to take it out had been unsuccessful: I couldn’t get the motor started. I called one of the boat shops and talked to the guy there about the sound it made when I tried to start it; he thought I probably just didn’t have the electrical cables screwed down tight enough on the battery poles. My friend Henry and Joan’s son Michael (the new grad who just turned 18; congratulations!) went down to the harbor on Friday afternoon while I was at work and dinked around with it some. They cleaned the leads and screwed them down with a wrench and voila! The motor cranked like a champ. I was greatly relieved not to need a new starter or something.

So a shakedown cruise was in order. I had promised Breezy and Summer a trip on the river; Summer had to work, but Breezy was excited to come. Joan agreed to come too, which gave me additional peace of mind. Any trip on the Kuskokwim River, at any season, is not without risk; this IS the wilderness. It helps to have experienced people along.

The three of us had a delightful few hours on the river. The trip went without a hitch. The motor started right up at every turn of the key. The new gas tank and line worked perfectly. The tide was going out as we left the harbor, so water level was on the low side, but no sandbar problems ensued. The wind remained gusty all afternoon and was a definite influence on boating, but wasn’t too bad. My boat has fairly high sides and is easily affected by wind.

We ran upriver to the bluffs to show Breezy the sparrow colony that has drilled thousands of holes in the mud face of the cliff. Our arrival brought lots of birds winging into the sky. It is fun to pull up at the base of the bluffs to watch them, but with an ebbing tide it is easy to get seriously stuck in the mud there. In just a few minutes we were already getting into trouble; had we waited much longer—and if Joan weren’t as strong as she is, pushing us off—we’d have been waiting several hours for an incoming tide to float us off.

So we decided to get farther out in deeper water and just drift with the current. We had sandwiches and coffee, fresh fruit and trail mix to munch on, and the sun felt great beaming down on us. The wind was strong enough that it blew us across the river faster than the river carried us downstream, so before we knew it we were in danger of grounding on the other side. But the motor cranked instantly and with a quick reverse we were back in deep water.

Our trip home was uneventful until we got back to Bethel. The water level was higher than when we left, so the tide was coming back in. We were right in the middle of the narrow waterway that leads from the river to the boat harbor when with a loud THUNK we hit something very solid. It sounded and felt more like metal than a tree stump. Whatever it was didn’t kill the motor, or even break the prop, thank goodness. I’ll call the Port Director’s office tomorrow and let them know. Whatever it is needs to be hauled out of there.

With the shakedown cruise a success, I am ready to put a For Sale sign on the boat and begin actively looking for a buyer. My hope is that someone in a nearby village with lots of people and/or supplies to haul will recognize what a perfect boat this is for that application. It is a workhorse, not a beauty queen, built by my dad out of flat sheets of aluminum, completely welded. He wanted me to name it “Skookum”, meaning “a good and lucky thing” in the Salish language of the Northwest Native people; but I call it “The Chuckwagon.” At 22 feet long and 7 feet wide, it holds literally a ton of gear; and the Honda 110 four-stroke has plenty of power to push it fast without gulping the gas. I just have to find the right person to appreciate its handcrafted uniqueness.

My hope was to take the boat out again today with Breezy and Summer and perhaps a few others, but in a few short hours we are back to last week’s weather. Heavy clouds, harsh wind, blowing rain and cold. I am once again wearing fleece-lined jeans, wool socks and a heavy sweatshirt to stay warm inside the house (kills me to burn expensive heating oil during the summer). So call me a fair-weather sailor if you like, I won’t deny it. For me, boating is about having fun. Today is not the day for it. I’m just hoping it won’t be quite so long before we get another infusion of summer weather.

Photo of The Chuckwagon taken two summers ago, on our fishing trip up the Kisaralik River.



Anonymous Sara A. said...

It's funny, I live in Connecticut and have the opposite weather woes. After 2 weeks of temperatures in the 90s with very high humidity, it actually rained today, a good solid rain and is supposed to only make it t 79 degrees today.

I like reading your blog, it sometimes reminds me of when I was a kid in Maine (where the summers all had weather like today, here, and a bi-weekly trip to town for groceries was a good time, and our wooden fishing boat and our camp were both built by my Dad.

My sisters and I used to fish rocks out of the lake, glue them together in little sculptures of people and animals, pant them, and sell them to other lake-dwellers to raise money for a trip to the state fair in August.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 8:13:00 AM  
Blogger RunninL8 said...

Yup.. No summer here in Eagle River either. We were sandblasted while on the Kenai last weekend. Ugh.
Looking foward to visiting the grandparents back east in a couple weeks. Heat and humidity, for once I look foward to ye! here we come!
Glad all is well with your boat and hope you get the chance to enjoy it a bit more!!!!

Saturday, July 26, 2008 8:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember when I moved to Dillingham,AK. It was August and it rained every day (sometimes sideways) until mid-October, at which time it turned to snow. I appreciated every bit of sunshine now. Your blog has taken me down memory lane many times. Good luck with your move.

Saturday, July 26, 2008 9:06:00 AM  

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