LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - “Slick spot,” Julie warned, pointing ahead of the boat as we motored across a shallow bay in the lake. Waking out of my daydream, I instantly spotted a 50-foot patch just ahead where the ripples from a steady breeze smoothed into near-glassy water, giving it the appearance of an oil slick calming choppy seas.
Instantly, I swerved the boat to curve around the outside edge of the smooth surface before resuming course. My sister and I both knew that slick spot meant a patch of pond weed growing thick enough to foul the prop. Being able to spot the hidden weeds saved us having to stop to clean off the dense, stringy weeds.
Reading waves comes with the territory when one lives on a large lake or river. Any time I am on the water, I’m on the lookout for what the water surface can tell me.
The most important decisions get made before I even get in the boat. With a run of 8 to 10 miles, waves can build up enough power to quickly reach life-threatening limits, so I study not just what the lake is doing but what it will be doing by the time I am heading home again.
Even a sharp breeze makes me pause long enough to look for signs of increasing wind: Lenticular clouds indicate high winds aloft, and fast-moving low clouds are pushed by brisk wind that can quickly drop down in elevation to hit the lake. More ominously, I might detect the distant roar of a powerful wind howling through trees at hilltop level, a wind that will hit the lake if it dips only a few hundred feet.
Whitecaps form at higher wind speeds, perhaps 15 mph or more, when the wind clips the tops of the waves, knocking them into boiling, shifting foam. They often indicate not just a strong wind, but an increasing one with wave size growing rapidly. Whitecaps serve as a big orange caution flag.
Our high-sided little 16-foot Vee-bow aluminum outboard bobs like a cork and can handle surprisingly high waves, but once those whitecaps form, even if the wind isn’t bad, we know we don’t have much leeway for safety. A round trip across to the Post Office takes about an hour of boating and usually a minimum of half an hour on the far side. That’s plenty of time for the wind and waves to pick up to unsafe levels.
During one lake crossing many years ago, the lake sported waves a few inches high when we started, but were so big 15 minutes later that my father’s 22-foot riverboat was literally climbing up one wave, diving into the trough, and lugging up the next one. Only his driving skill kept the big but low-sided boat from driving into a steep-sided wave and swamping.
Large rolling waves that lack whitecaps result when a strong wind dies down.
They offer a rollercoaster ride, but with energy draining away instead of building, don’t create the hazard of smaller but more powerful waves. (“Gently rolicky,” I explained to someone who asked me about a lake crossing during the tail end of a wind storm.) Sharp little waves spanking over big white-capped ones indicate a strong or increasing wind, while those big “gently rolicky” waves that indicate dropping wind have smother or almost glassy surfaces. I think twice before venturing out under the former conditions, while feeling quite comfortable bobbing over even big waves when the latter prevails.
When a wave hits shallow water, the bottom slows while the tops maintains its speed, causing the wave to “trip” on the bottom, curling over in a giant whitecap. This helps us spot shallow water that might ding the motor or ground the boat.
Since crossing the lake from our house means evading the long, shallow shoal jutting a hundred yards or more from the end of Holek Spit, a brisk wind that sends the waves somersaulting over the gravel helps us avoid shallower water.
Hills surrounding the lake offer protection on their lee side, but can make evaluating the main lake more difficult, with bigger waves too far off to spot.
With a southwest wind, we might walk a mile to the boat and then motor half a mile to the Spit before finding conditions dangerous enough to turn us back. Again, knowing how to judge winds aloft helps avoid that scenario.
When judging the lake from the lee side of a hill, I’ll look in the distance for the undulating surface created by those big rollers. Cat’s paws ruffling the water as gusts whip across the surface can often be seen closer to shore, while more distance ones appear as color variations, typically dark areas shifting across the surface of the water.
I wasn’t wearing a flotation device in the late 1970s when the boat I was in capsized in a vicious windstorm, nor was I the one who made the decision to be out there in the first place.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about judging — and respecting — the moods of the lake, and a float coat for each person are permanent fixtures in our boat.
And, if I don’t fall into a daydream, I’ll be able to dodge the pondweed ... as long as the waves are speaking to me.
Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks.