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.