Figuring out the forecast

The routine was basic but exact.

He’d walk through the front door, slip off his jacket, crack the lid on a can of domestic and take his seat in front of the Technicolor. It seemed that he followed the most standard of American rituals, but he was no television junkie. The dial rarely changed.

Every evening, my dad tuned into the forecast in a continuing quest to solve the mystery of the weather. The addiction worsened with the advent of cable TV and an upstart station known as the Weather Channel. It wasn’t long before he was fully hooked on the jet-stream, began to understand the details of barometric pressure and was introduced to isobars.

My brother and I watched this rhythm and intensity from a distance. “It must be the chicks,” I suggested, eyeing a slender brunette in tweed as she showed off her alleged degree in meteorology. My brother only nodded as he stared open-mouthed at the screen.

In truth, it was a little more obvious. My dad lived and worked in the ski industry. He didn’t go as far as some of his friends and co-workers, who mailed off for their own digital barometers and mini-weather kits, but he had an undying affection and passion for weather forecasts. It was only natural. During the winter, weather – particularly foul weather – was the high mark of his livelihood.

A few years after that brunette in tweed showed up, I sold my skis and shipped off for an East Coast college. After a few short months, I got my first taste of an East Coast storm. Snow flashed in the forecast, and people started talking apocalypse. Canned goods sold out instantly, batteries went into high demand and advertisements for generators came over the air. When that big, bad front eventually hit, it dumped slightly more than an inch of wet slop on the roads, enough to derail Virginia life for well over 24 hours. Streets, schools and stores shut down, and life as we knew it halted.

Still, I was a little surprised to see that a bunch of my college buddies had fallen head-over-heels for a meteorologist who was now wearing a snappy, blue suit.

After a few East Coast winters, one of which hosted “the Storm of the Century,” a six-inch whopper that piled up cars all along the eastern seaboard, a summer job took me to Alaska. Living in a plywood cabin on the incredibly remote Kalgin Island, a 50-square-mile chunk of rock without a single road, electrical pole or television, I learned a different approach to meteorology.
Running a 20-foot skiff and working the coastline for salmon, the weather – particularly good weather – was the high mark of our livelihood. Foul weather meant crawling into a rubber suit at 5 a.m. and battling big seas and arctic chill in an effort to bring in the catch. We understandably became a little weather-obsessed after the skiff, loaded with thousands of Coho salmon, nearly swamped in a gale. However, we were also cut off not just from Technicolor, but from electricity and newsprint.

Consequently, we tried to tune in to what the atmosphere was telling us, tried to sniff isobars with our noses and feel low pressure in our bones. And like most big-money meteorologists, we were natural-born failures.

Over a cup of coffee, one of us would predict a clear and sunny day of pulling nets and inadvertently invite 45 mph winds and 12-foot waves. Another would conjure up the mother of all storms over a smoke, and we’d wake to a placid day of sunshine and nets teeming with fish. Our whole system eventually became a big joke, and rain or shine we went about our days with smiles on our faces. Our secret was adaptation, “keeping our knees bent,” as a friend of mine remarked recently.

Since that summer on Kalgin Island, I’ve tried hard to keep them bent, particularly where the great unknowns, like weather, are concerned. The approach has since comfortably squeezed me through a tropical storm, a couple seasons when the rivers weren’t exactly running, one of the harshest winters I’ve ever seen (a two-month ice storm in Washington D.C., believe it or not), some pretty slim ski seasons and a summer of wildfire.

And as Durango’s weather has shifted in the last week from Indian summer into early winter, I’m trying hard to avoid that brunette in tweed. I’ve heard every possible prediction for the upcoming winter from “biggest in 20 years” to “another dud.”

The real trouble is that I’m itching for some turn time, and the forecast has been a little hard to resist. But I’m trying to keep those knees bent, or at least my inside knee. And I’m working on adapting, adapting to some knee-deep. At least that’s what my nose is telling me.

-Will Sands




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