LAKE MINCHUMINA — I go boating several times a week, but a strong wind can make lake travel dangerous. A sudden stiff wind swiftly churns the lake water into wild whitecaps that could swamp or even flip our little Jon boat. Several times over the years my sister Miki and I have made the mile-long trek to the boat landing in calm weather, only to see a sudden gale engulf us right after launching our little craft, forcing us back to shore.
Eventually, years of getting scared taught us many subtle warning signs of evolving hazards. We began paying closer attention to the weather, starting with eyeing any low scud and scrappy clouds. “The clouds are flying today!” we’ll say. The surface air might feel calm, but a strong low-level wind aloft can drop suddenly to the surface.
I’ll also sit on the front steps focusing on local sounds. If the leaves hang motionless, well and good, but more importantly I listen for the distant rush of wind in the trees high up the hill. Even if the surface wind is light, that rushing, or worse yet a roaring, means brisk or even violent winds aloft.
If a breezy wind rattles the local birch trees, I listen a few more minutes to convince myself that bigger gusts aren’t shaking things up; these gusts could mean changeable winds aloft, or more likely a strong shifty wind from the southwest that the hill blocks most of the time but which might be churning the length of the main lake beyond the hill.
Smooth wavelike or lens-shaped lenticular clouds concern me less; they usually indicate mountain waves from a strong high-altitude northerly flow directly over Denali. The mountain provides a weather shadow in this area so those winds rarely smack us.
A wind-generated cloud cap over the summit of the 20,320-foot mountain has little significance in summer, but during a winter cold snap it may foretell a warming trend. However, any wind anywhere, including distant villages, makes me more vigilant.
Once we venture onto the lake, we remain alert to travel conditions. Numerous cat’s paws of ripples skittering across a placid surface indicate small wind gusts that suggest stronger winds aloft. Steep, choppy waves form with a rising wind, often followed by whitecaps, while a dying wind leaves softly rounded waves with fewer surface ripples. An uncomfortable cross-chop indicates a changing wind direction.
Long streaks of foam drifting downwind means the windspeed is reaching higher velocities. The sight won’t turn me back, but I’m more vigilant because water that’s already choppy will boil up fast on a rising wind.
Thunderstorms deserve suspicious monitoring, too. In addition to obtaining a forecast, we track the weather over several days because these storms often hit on consecutive days. This June thunderstorms began building almost daily and we mostly boated early to the fish net or the Post Office to avoid afternoon blow-ups. One afternoon I waited four hours at the Post Office for a storm to pass.
In our younger days when we traveled by paddle-driven canoe, we headed out anyway and if a thunderstorm blew in, we simply hauled out and huddled under the over-turned hull until the rain stopped and the wind died down again. (We weren’t nicely padded back then, but were more bendable for curling up in the confined space.)
We also track water levels closely. The lake’s water level rises with rain and glacier melt, so during hot or wet weather we winch the boat fully from the water so stormy waves won’t swamp the boat or wash it from the pallet landing to batter it against the rocky beach. The poor old craft leaks enough already.
Conversely, during a period of cool dry weather, as often occurs during the spring and autumn, we might leave the boat projecting off the pallet over the water a little bit, unless thunderstorms or a north wind is forecast. That way, if the lake level drops several inches before we return, the boat still might slide easily into the water. Otherwise we must resort to prying the transom over exposed rocks to launch the beast.
Although we call the NOAH forecast line (1-800-472-0391) or flip our marine radio to the broadcast weather before embarking on a boat trip, we always combine the forecast with our own observations because we’re on the extreme southwestern edge of the forecast area, and the nearby Alaska Range also interferes with local weather.
A couple of years ago when our neighbor mentioned that a strong approaching front was forecast, we jumped into action. Our canoe lay on the back side of the hill and we planned to bring it home, enjoying an evening picnic en route, but we hurried off in the morning instead of the afternoon to try beating the storm. The approaching system could easily whip up waves nasty enough to force us to beach on the west side of the hill.
We paddled two miles to Holek Spit in fine weather and stopped there, planning an early picnic before curling around into the hill’s lee for the final distance. Our hot dogs were half cooked when we spotted an ominous dark water streak far across the lake.
“Here it comes!” Mere minutes later the wind slammed into us, rising from nearly calm to a gravel-spitting rage. Crashing waves sent spume flying over the low spit and buckets and coats were blowing away as we reined in our gear. But we felt safe on land, and the east side of the Spit protected the final leg of our journey. Paying attention to the weather once again saved us from ourselves.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.