Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What I Learned Under the Dome

July 9, 2019 Bear Lake — AKA Smoky Bear Lake

The heat dome has been covering Alaska for a month now, making the sturdiest of sourdoughs beg for mercy. Whether you call it global warming, climate change, or just really hot dry weather, the state is getting drier and drier and more wildfires torch daily. Temperatures at Bear Lake were in the eighties for the first several days of July and during those days the smoke from wildfires was so thick that our mountains were mere silhouettes, two-dimensional cutouts of themselves. Fifty miles to the northeast a large wildfire is reshaping the biology of the National Wildlife Refuge.
Because of the heat and in spite of the smoke life is in an altered state. We get to wear clothes that we usually only take on vacation, and much of our time is spent outside or on the porch overlooking the lake (we are long past the age of lying in the sun like white brauts on the grill). The lake is warmed to comfortable swimming hole temperatures, and morning coffee on the patio feels like a trip to the lower latitudes. The grandkids have become marine mammals, in and out of the water constantly like river otters. We close up the house during the day to keep out the heat and open it at night to cool, just like they do in hot places all summer long. But here in Seward, Alaska where a sixty-five-degree day is just fine and often as good as it gets, keeping the house cool is usually not an issue. Finally, we start missing the rain.

I learned something during the strange, hot, smoky interlude of summer, many things in fact. Here is a list: 

— It’s possible to have a tropical heatwave in the near Subarctic. As close as I can understand, a heat dome occurs when warm tropical air moves from the ocean to the land and gets trapped under a high-pressure zone. AKA heat wave, a tropical heatwave!  Wait! I know that song.

— Things can always get worse. We drove across the Kenai Peninsula the first week of June and complained about the long delays for road construction. On the way home, we drove through the thunderstorm that started the Swan Lake Fire and saw some of its first smoke, a white plume no bigger than a bonfire might produce. A month later we are chocking on the smoke from that fire and driving across the Peninsula has been even more challenging. Looking back what’s a short delay for construction?
— I can now recite the fire evacuation levels, Ready, Set, Go. Level One (Ready): A fire is in the area; make a plan to evacuate and organize what you take and leave behind. Level Two (Set): Get your shit together so when it’s time to go, you can grab the car keys and hit the road. Food and water packed in the escape vehicle, Documents and papers collected and loaded in the vehicle; pets, kids, wife, and mother-in-law all rounded up and kept close. Level Three (GO)  Evacuate with all things and people you planned to take, Check in with Red Cross so you are accounted for. Don’t return until things are clear.

—Dogs are smart, smarter than humans often, this human anyway. My old Alaska sleddogs have no interest in working when the temperature is about seventy. While I was splitting firewood at eighty degrees they were lying in the shade napping. They knew we didn’t need firewood right now and there would be plenty of fifty degree days between now and winter to do this splitting. No need to work when the thermometer says eighty. 

— Never say never. Here in the northern rainforest, we don’t fret much about fire. That changes now. After a month without rain and high heat and wind working across the land, we are drier than the proverbial popcorn fart. We are only one careless camper away from our own wildfire.

— More women in Alaska own bikinis than you’d think. Everyday folks show up at the lake in their swim trunks bikinis and less. It is rare to see the lake dotted with people in swimsuits in country where  Extratufs, jeans, and hoodies are standard issue. I’ve seen more skin this month that all the rest of my ten years on the lake. Not complaining, just sharing data.

—The beauty of nature comes in many forms. Some summer evenings I paddle late across the lake and look at the setting sun, soaring mountains, and maybe a bear or moose. Under the heat dome with temperatures in the seventies well after dinner, I paddled across the lake and around the north end of the island to find something new, three nubile young women, sitting on a rock sunning their legs and sipping beers. They were as surprised as I was, but I think I was more pleased. 

The heat dome appears to be weakening and rain showers are in the forecast. It may well be years before we experience something like this again. But then again, it could be the new norm. One thing is for sure, life in Alaska is only boring if you’re not paying attention. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Fine Trip? It's All in How You Look at It

So, the other day my gal and I took our thirty-five-year-old Albin out to Humpy Cove for an overnight. It was supposed to be a two or three-night trip, but things changed like the weather forecast being sloppy, and our energy being low and the boat not really clean from a winter sitting in the boat harbor. 
We were a month late on the usually things one does to get a boat ready for summer cruising like sorting out what got crammed in lockers when we put it away in a hurry last fall and drying out area of the boat that got wet and wiping down the algae that built up on the outside and the mildew that formed on interior surface. Okay, we were really six weeks late. We spent a few hours down that the boat harbor getting the first layers of grim off the old girl, but it wasn’t a pleasant spring experience it usually is. A crew of pile drivers were working in the background, and our old backs were soon aching from bending and stooping to scrub all those little corners and edges that need cleaning every spring.
We had wisely blocked out a week for potential boat trips each month and this was the first week and by God, we were going, hell or high water —an idiom that doesn’t work very well with boating since boats like high water. Anyway, we set out for Day Harbor, a four hour trip in our slow trawler. No, the boat wasn’t totally clean, and no the gear wasn’t all stowed, but we had food, water and all systems that needed to work were up and running. The seas were sloppy once we passed through the narrows exposed the boat to the Gulf of Alaska and the winds were forecast to blow up in the evening. We decided we didn’t feel like being knocked around, and staying inside Resurrection Bay didn’t look like a bad option. The sun was shining, the humpbacks were showing their fins so all was right with the world. 
We ditched the Day Harbor plan, did a tour of Fox Island and Sunny Cove, then headed for Humpy Cove where we hoped to anchor in the protected creek mouth in the Cove’s south end. This tiny anchorage was empty so we dropped anchor, had lunch and then tackled some of the sorting and cleaning jobs we meant to do before we left the harbor. Suddenly the arduous task of boat cleaning and maintenance became a pleasant afternoon’s distraction between reading, talking to seals and sea lions, and napping. By dinner time we had sorted through all the lockers and storage tubs, cleaned windows, and decks, and started a list of things we needed. 
The next day we rowed around the cove in our dinghy, logged more naps, and filled a garbage bag and a tote bag with things to go home or to the trash. Our mantras were: “Do we really need this? And Do we really need more than one of these? For example, we found one locker near the steering station had four knives and two knife sharpeners. These don’t include the knife I always have in my pocket, the one hanging in easy reach in the wheelhouse and the several knives in the galley. We found flares expired in 2007 and phone charging cords that didn’t fit any of our phones. We were fighting weight creep and proud of it. (weight creep is the addition to the boat’s weight a few pounds or ounces at a time by bringing things on and not taking things off.) Working in a quiet, scenic cove made the work a pleasure not drudgery like it was in the boat harbor and the afternoon beers were well earned. When I took a break from cleaning, sorting and napping I had New York Times crosswords and Mark Twain feed my brain. Madelyn disappeared into historic China for several unaccounted hours.
We weren’t without company in our private natural retreat. The guillemots and sea lions stopped by to visit and a harbor seal kept us under close observation all during our stay. A few kayakers paddled by and waved and an inflatable hauling three Anchorage teachers stopped by to admire our the Albin. Another local retired couple motored in to anchor after a day of fishing and we had the three-part catching up talk of family, health, and winter travels. Finally, come evening, it was time to leave and we pulled anchor and starting bouncing our way home with a south wind and the usual chop of Resurrection Bay in total agreement that it had been a fine escape. 
It wasn’t until we were abeam of Lowell Point that Madelyn complained of smell the exhaust that came from having the wind on our stern. Then she checked the aft cabin to close the ports before docking and found it more like a sauna than anything else. “It’s really hot back here,” she complained. 
“It always heats up that cabin when we’re running,” I answered. 
“but we’ve got steam coming out the engine vents,” she replied. At that, I looked back and saw steam or smoke pouring out of the aft cabin. 
“Take the wheel!” I yelled and jumped to the engine hatch. I opened the hatch to a spray of saltwater and steam. “Cut back the throttle and put it in neutral! And watch the temperature gauge!” I yelled. I had to figure out where the spraying water was coming from. I thought we’d blow a coolant hose, but the temperature was holding at 190, and oil pressure where it should be at fifty. It only took a second or two to see that the cast iron elbow that connected engine manifold to the four-inch exhaust hose was broken, and we were pumping saltwater into the boat instead of out the stern where it should go. We weren’t on fire, we still had power, and we weren’t sinking, yet.  
“Keep it slow and start motoring toward town,” I said, “And turn on the bilge. I think I can rig a fix.” I pushed the broken pieces together and by holding them in place, got most of the exhaust going where it should. I jumped to my now well-organized rope locker and found a neatly coiled length of 3/8 inch line. That morning I had sorted through a heap of mooring lines and various lengths of rope and coiled and stowed them in a tidy tub. I knew just the one I needed.
The rope was just the right size to lash the broken parts together and get things back to near normal in the engine room. Now, most of the exhaust was going into the hose where it belonged. 
With a collective sigh of relief, we continued toward the boat harbor at low rpm and even had a laugh at how good it was that we knew where everything was during the emergency because in the last twenty-four hours we had literally touched everything on the boat. We made a plan for any problem we might have during the last two miles to our slip at the boat harbor, and Madelyn cleaned up as much of the mess as she could. 
We made our landing without incident and opened beers to congratulate ourselves on being a good team when the emergency hit, and we toasted our luck that this happened only a couple miles from home instead of out in Day Harbor or around Aialik Cape where we often cruise. 
That night when I crawled into bed, Madelyn reached over patted my shoulder. “Thanks for a great trip,” she murmured, ”I had a wonderful time.”