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Original Essays

Spring Brings No Fresh Start in Alaska

by Miranda Weiss
  1. Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska "[E]xceptional....Alaska is a captivating land, and this book does justice to it. Highly recommended." Library Journal (starred review)

    "In this deeply honest memoir, Weiss reflects on her first seasons living in coastal Alaska, serenely recording the stunning unpredictability of the place and people." Publishers Weekly

This year, spring in Southcentral Alaska opened with disaster. The day after the equinox, the volcano we'd been watching anxiously for weeks finally blew, shooting pumice and ash 12 miles into the sky. The next day, when the power went out across Homer, the small coastal town where I live, I was uneasy. It was eight in the morning, and although the sun was already up, the sky outside our windows was gray and dark above snow-strewn ground. With electricity out all over town, the local radio station couldn't broadcast, so even our emergency, hand-crank radio was of little use except to pick up right-wing banter from a couple of time zones away.

Out of candles, I called the warehouse grocery store using the few remaining bars of battery on my cell phone. The man who answered the phone said there was no power down there either so they were closed. He'd heard it was a widespread outage — across the entire Kenai Peninsula almost up to Anchorage: an area the size of West Virginia. Someone said it could last for a while. Maybe days. No point in going to work. My husband and I got back in bed fully clothed, as our house — heated by an electricity-dependent oil furnace — cooled around us. Temperatures were still lurking in the mid-20s and 30s and, as usual, we'd had the heat turned off all night. Under the covers, we considered possible scenarios: we could walk down to the house of some friends who had a woodstove if it got too cold at our place. We could fire up the propane burner outside and cook using whatever gas remained in the two small tanks leaning up against the house. We could eat out of the freezer as it started to thaw — still plenty of salmon we'd caught last summer in there. We could use a handsaw to cut down small dead trees in the undeveloped acres next to our house and cook over an open fire in the backyard if we had to.

We laughed nervously at ourselves for not having a woodstove — not having backup heat that didn't require electricity or oil. We figured woodstoves might be on sale because it was the end of the season, and decided to check them out over the weekend. Here, electric lines traverse tough terrain — mountain passes prone to avalanches, forests of beetle-killed trees easily toppled by high winds — and the power shuts off a few times each winter. But this time felt different.

Two hours later, the electricity was back. We were still in bed with the blankets pulled up to our chins when all of the lights flicked on around us. We got up and went to work. But my day had been knocked off track. I couldn't concentrate.

It turned out the power outage had nothing to do with the volcano. Trouble that even the local electric utility couldn't decipher had occurred along a transmission line. Still, the volcano had invaded our lives in other ways. Mount Redoubt — a 10,000-foot peak about 100 miles to our northwest — is one of three active volcanoes in our local stretch of the Pacific Ring of Fire. That week, successive eruptions melted glacial ice and snow surrounding the peak, sending a flood of ash-colored water into the Drift River, which curves around the mountain's base. The river shot up two stories. An oil storage facility with six million gallons on hand sits in the floodplain of the river, near the coast. Lahars — volcanic mudflows — charged across the facility, leveling trees, drowning roads, and pressing up against the 25-foot retaining wall built to protect the oil tanks. The flooded river turned the snow-whitened landscape gray and licked black up the sides of the facility's snow-covered dike. The newspaper printed sound bites from company and Coast Guard officials that were hardly reassuring.

Two days after the first blast, March 24, as the river worked its way around the oil tanks, we marked the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill — the largest in U.S. history — which, in 1989, poured at least 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound, about 150 miles to our east. Weather and tides swept the oil west, blackening 1,300 miles of coastline. I was a teenager on the East Coast when the spill occurred, and watched the television images of men in rubber suits hosing down oily beaches. All of coastal Alaska, it seems, mobilized to fight the spill. On Kachemak Bay, where I would move a decade later, volunteers constructed log booms out of donated materials, hoping to keep the crude from washing into the bay. Others headed to the Sound, rinsed beaches for weeks, collected bird carcasses, tried to nurse oiled sea otters back to health. Today, you can still dig into cobble beaches and find oil pooling.

It's hard not to feel that, here, we are sandwiched between that disaster 20 years ago and disasters waiting to happen: a tank farm sitting at the foot of an erupting volcano, tankers moving oil through dangerously ice-strewn waters, thousands of miles of aging oil pipelines crisscrossing the state. As the rest of the country was enjoying daffodils followed by tulips, our proximity to nature brought only vulnerability. And while spring renewed the year elsewhere, I could only feel how, here, the past was tagging along ominously behind us, a past from which we hadn't learned nearly enough.

For over a week, ash clouds grounded flights, leaving passengers stuck all over the state and others stuck Outside, unable to come home. Four days after the first eruption, the volcano blew again; this time, northwesterly winds drove the cloud our way. With an ashfall advisory for the afternoon across the region, after-school activities were cancelled, Boys and Girls Clubs were closed, evening programs called off. I kept watch at the window as a gray haze eclipsed the blue sky and ash began to fall like snow. I put on a dust mask and went outside with the dog. Outdoors, the air smelled of sulfur. The hood of the car was the easiest place to see the gray flecks starting to build up. I could write words in it. The dog lay on the ash-dusted snow and chewed on a bone, unbothered. Every exposed surface turned gray.

The next evening, people gathered at a bar to tell stories of the Exxon spill. A soft-spoken woman recalled working with a group of volunteers — some who had traveled from across the world after hearing news of the spill — to clean an oiled beach one cobble at a time. A whale biologist recalled the feds threatening to fire another researcher for sending dispatches to the state's largest newspaper chronicling what she was seeing as the spill spread and the clean-up efforts became an additional disaster. Then there was the middle-aged man in work boots, slurring from drink, who gave his name as Carcass. He said that the spill was tied to everything that came before it, to a state created by oil, to politicians easily bought by it.

It would take a dozen eruptions over nearly two weeks before the decision was made to withdraw half of the oil stored downstream of the volcano. The risk was reduced, not removed.

Between stories of the spill, I looked out the bar's only windows at a fuchsia sunset made more brilliant by the haze of volcanic ash in the air. The ash will linger for months — perhaps years — sitting atop the ground, making everything look worn, even as new green growth rises out of the cold earth.

÷ ÷ ÷

Raised in Maryland, Miranda Weiss now lives in Homer, Alaska. She received her MFA from Columbia University. spacer

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