March, April, and May can be the most vexing months especially during the last few years when nothing that was before seems to be happening now. Last year we had our last snow on May 31st. Now as I glance over at the window, instead of just rain plastering the window, I see it has changed to lumpy rain. I guess you would call it sleet. The rain has been doing the job of melting mounds and mounds of snow, and opening up the wild landscaping to the previous fall’s compressed, tan detritus. It’s around 8:00 PM, so the temperature is most likely dropping. It is blowing about 35 from the ESE with gusts to right around 50 right now. There is very little visibility out in the bay or surrounding mountains. Can’t even see the mountains. Yesterday it was almost that “S” word that we don’t say out loud or in print, just in case we jinx the season. This morning everything was frozen. Now it is blowing like hell.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. If there is one thing you can say about weather in the Aleutians it is that it is never boring. It keeps you on your toes. I should probably invest in a waterproof casing for my camera. As it is, I have to decide when is too wet and wild to take the camera out. How much time do I want to spend wiping it down when I come inside? When you grow up in a place known as the birthplace of the winds, you learn to judge how much the wind is blowing by observing the environment. The first thing you observe is that there is always wind. White caps generally start when it is blowing 25. You can see gusts coming by the way they darken the water….black water. We all look intently for black water at either end of the runway when we are making an approach to land. Black water at the end of the runway is very, very scary. You know that when the gusts are picking up water off the sea, it is blowing at least 50. When that happens we call them williwaws.
So while we wait to find what these next few months will bring us, I will just continue to be exhilarated by the weather. Ah, yes. I live in the birthplace of the winds; the islands of the smokey seas.
When you live in Alaska there are just certain things that you expect. You expect the long days of summer when the sun barely sets before coming above the horizon again. You expect to spend a majority of your time hunting and gathering from May through October. You don’t know when, but you expect that first dusting of snow on the mountains, more commonly known as termination dust. And you expect it to be cold. In the Aleutians, we also expect wind.
February was called Qisagunax^ by the indigenous people of the Aleutians prior to 1834. This means famine. February was the month when you were gaining about 4 minutes of daylight per day. It was the month when you had already braved the storms of November, December, and January. It was the month when you were coming to the end of some of your subsistence foods. So food was scarce. The communities were hungry. It was a time when you needed to get out there and find something to eat again.
It is amazing that February is also the month during our long winters that can have some of the most beautiful weather. Perhaps my ancestors knew this about February, so they were not particularly careful about their food stocks. They did like to party and were generous to a fault. Perhaps they knew they could count on the most gorgeous, brilliant sunny days in February, when the tide was out really low. And the winds abated. They could get out in their iqyan and fish, or hunt for that stray sea mammal. Or access the tidepools for delicacies like sea urchins, mussels, clams, octopus, limpets, chitons, and seaweed. Then they would hunker down when those north winds picked up again, coating everything in ice from the sea spray.
On days like these ones, I like to pull a fish out of the freezer and enjoy the fruits of our labors from the summer months. I like to be warm and toasty in my little home, not caring what is going on outside my doors. Like the windows, everything has a hazy, muted feeling of being cut off from the world. Especially if the wind is blowing and your ability to hear anything besides the wind is gone. Yes….just hunkering down and enjoying my solitude.
When I am away from home there are quite a few things I miss. The fresh, salty air of living in a seaside community. The oft-times starkness of the mountains rising out of the sea. Being able to keep track of the traffic at the airport because more often than not, I hear the planes landing and departing; turbo props, not jets. The background noise of gulls, ravens, eagles, geese, oyster catchers, and a dozen species of ducks. The thrum of boat engines leaving the harbor. The wild sound of the Aleutian winds.
At the top of my list is the constant sound of the ocean. My house sits on a natural spit of land fronted by Iliuliuk Bay which is fed by the Bering Sea. Even on a calm day there is the little slap of waves on the beach. As the seas get bigger, the sound of rolling pebbles and rocks being pulled by departing waves is quite satisfying. But the best is when it is really blowing from the north and the waves are pounding the shore like a big bass drum. That is the time when the waves are so constant and so powerful that they shake the shore and the land, the very air that we breath, and my soul.