You wouldn’t think of having hurricanes in Alaska, but I’m here to tell you - they exist and happen frequently up here. I don’t think they get the media attention like the other “named” hurricanes on the Gulf and East Coasts because, well, not that many people actually live here and they happen in Alaska and the country really doesn’t think Alaska is part of the REAL United States., now does it? We’re, like, part of Russia (or at least we can see it from here according to our crazy ex-Governor) and have a significant inferiority complex in regards to the lower 48. It must be all that cold and darkness up here... Or the fact that we have more alcoholism and suicides than any other state - but that might just be a coincidence. Yes, obviously...
Back to the story - We just returned today from Valdez (of oil terminal and halibut fishing fame) and drove through the worst wind storm I think we’ve ever experienced in all our world travels. The NOAA and Alaska Department of Transportation listed the drive across Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway above Valdez this morning as “Very Difficult Driving” and “Not Recommended,” with wind speeds in excess of 75 - 95 MPH due to a high pressure system insinuating itself north of us in the Alaskan Interior. Pressure differentials being what they are and us being the intrepid travelers we obviously are, (and having quite a few less brain cells than your average American, which is saying A LOT), we decided to have a go. After spending a lovely evening at the Best Western Valdez and enjoying their en suite amenities including no-extra-cost-in-room micro soap and shampoo samples (I suppose that’s what they were as they certainly couldn’t be used for actually WASHING YOURSELF unless you were of diminutive stature and didn’t smell of B.O.), a refrigerator set to “warm” and a microwave with the power of a night light, we ventured north along the Richardson Highway this morning with brightly scrubbed (with little bits of soap) faces and apprehensive hearts after reading the “Vehicle Damage Probable” Thompson Pass warning on the DOT website. “Foolhardy” comes to mind as an reference adjective; or possibly “Nuts,” but that’s such a vague term that I hesitate to use it in my narratives. To continue:
The pass area from our motel room window looked like a fairytale painting, all mist and swirling clouds amidst towering crags and peaks, their snow cornices being blown asunder by hurricane force winds in excess of 100 mph. A more foreboding sight you will never see, particularly outside a Best Western Motel (with attached bar - did I mention that?).
Our friends in Valdez told us that this type of weather was normal and actually somewhat less severe than what had occurred previously. “You should have been here last week. It really blew than!” they exclaimed, with a twinkle in their eyes and mischievous grins - and we believed them in our gullible way. I’ve heard from more than one person that Valdez blows, but I’m not sure the reference was germane... I’m sure it was similar to what they told the thousands of tourists who descend on Valdez during the summer for halibut and salmon charter fishing. “You should have seen the fishing last week!” It was identical to what charter fishing captains tell all their paying clients worldwide. We fell for it “hook, line and sinker” (pardon, that was too easy), and thought, “Well, how bad can it be?”
So - we began our long trek up the pass on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning (for February in Alaska). Now, let me say that we’re ALASKANS GODDAMMIT, and a little snow and ice on the road doesn’t even make us blink. We regularly flail ourselves against titanic, brutal winter driving conditions, braving sub-zero temperatures and road conditions that would stop Lower 48 drivers dead in their tracks... That said, I took one look up to the pass we were driving towards and almost had a “Depends” moment. Savage winds whipped the snow into a blinding maelstrom of white death, threatening to brutalize our little Jeep like a jilted girlfriend viciously slapping her beau - blistering our steed’s flanks with the sizzling sounds of millions of grains of snowflakes hurled at us at unimaginable speeds... And that was before we got out of the motel parking lot! Actually, the high winds the night before built up a large snow drift behind the Jeep that required “4-low” to get out of our parking space, but the ensuing drive up towards the pass was actually quite beautiful, with bright sunshine and hardly anyone on the road. We sang a few tunes along with the radio and mentally prepared ourselves for the onslaught. Why is it that what you prepare for in your mind is never remotely close to what you actually experience?
It really was quite windy up on the pass and we did lose sight of the road at one point, with a stereotypical “white out” condition that you hear about in the Arctic. The wind was as strong as I’ve ever felt when driving and at one point it did feel like our Jeep was being lifted off the road. The sound was loud inside the vehicle - like a loud roar of thunder or a large waterfall up close, with a sound like a sandstorm of snow pelting the side of the truck. But as soon as they began, the gusts subsided. We both estimated the gusts at 85 to 90 mph given the sustained winds of 65 to 70 mph per the DOT website pass conditions.
Terrible experiences have a way of softening their edges after being shared and discussed, which Shawna and I did during and thereafter crossing the pass. It was an experience not altogether terrible, with a rush that you get after surviving a real or imagined physical risk.
The remaining 200 mile trek back to our home in Delta was comparatively uneventful, with wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph at times. The majesty and awesome natural beauty of the Alaskan scenery took away apprehensiveness from both of us for the rest of the trip. We drove up to our driveway tired, but satisfied with our weekend thrills.
Isn’t that how all adventures should end?
Until Next Time...