Tuesday, August 29, 2017

WHEN IT BLOWS IT SUCKS – The Winds of a Lifetime

Funny I should be working on a post about wind just as Harvey, one the US’s most destructive hurricanes on record slams into the Texas Gulf Coast. I’m in awe of storms like this; some slightly warped part of me wishes I could experience such awesome power first-hand—without, of course, suffering the consequences.

Come to think of it, I have indeed experienced some pretty amazing winds in my lifetime—some even topping Harvey’s 130-mile-per-hour best.

                                          ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~

To encourage my readers and the kids in their lives to appreciate the wonder of wind, I often suggest this little exercise: find a draft-free room, light a candle and place it in a corner. Then sit down on the floor five or six yards away and blow toward the candle.

You’ll wait a second or two as your breath, like a wave, rolls toward the flame and, if your aim’s any good, makes it flicker. It just shows how much like a liquid this magical, invisible, life-fueling substance we call air acts, ebbing, flowing, swirling, pouring into voids.

But that’s just a parlor trick. What about the real-life impact winds have on us?

I once led a group of ten- and eleven-year-old boys on a climbing adventure in New Hampshire’s beautiful White Mountains. The goal: to summit a few of the “Presidentials,” a range of 5,000-plus-foot peaks named for U.S. presidents.

The culmination was scaling the legendary Mt. Washington. Now, at 6,288 feet, this upstart’s no Rainier or McKinley. But it does have its own claims to fame, including its prodigious winds.

Signs at the trailheads warn those unaware that climbers die on these slopes all the time, even in summer. That, in the course of the four or five hours it takes to get to the top, conditions can easily change from light, 85-degree summer breezes to a 40-degree November gale.

PHOTO: Erin Paul Donovan

In fact, when we reached the summit we could see that the only thing keeping some of the buildings from being blown away during the worst storms were the steel cables holding them down like a load on a flat-bed truck. This unassuming peak held the record, until 2010, for the highest straight-line wind velocity ever observed on earth: 231miles per hour.

The day my campers and I climbed Mt. Washington the winds only kicked up to about 50 miles per hour. But it was enough to require considerable effort—and a bit of inclination—to make any headway. It was enough to show those kids how powerful a force wind can be, as both ally and adversary.

PHOTO: Jose Azel / Getty Images

    The roof of the next-door apartment building, 
    complete with compressors and vent stacks, 
    lay across my lawn.

The sultry afternoon of June 14, 1981, a tornado churned from southwest to northeast across the Twin Cities Metro, generating winds approaching 200 miles per hour. I’d been repairing a window frame on the second floor of my South Minneapolis home when I first noticed the warning signs: an eerie calm and dark, greenish skies. And then the rain and hail.

It was when I saw debris starting to swirl and heard that storied freight-train rumble that I knew. I grabbed my dog, a candle and matches, and the portable radio and headed for the basement. On the way down, I remember distinctly the feeling in my ears, like being inside a vacuum.

PHOTO: Ernie Melby

It was all over in about two minutes. Thank God, my house appeared to be intact, but when I stepped outside it was a different story. My garage listed to one side, most of its shingles sucked off. The flat, tar-and-gravel roof of the next-door apartment building, complete with compressors and vent stacks, lay across my lawn. Trees and power lines were down. And one corner of the old, solid stone church on the corner lay in ruins.

Ever since I was a boy, I’ve had a fascination with tornadoes. And now I could say I’d been in one. Ironically, I have yet to actually see one.

    Even my trusty “water-resistant” Timex watch 
    proved no match for the pervasiveness of the 
    incredible blast.

My buddies and I had just begun what was supposed to be a simple, relaxing overnight paddle trip down the beautiful upper St. Croix River. Unfortunately, we got a late start, so by the time we’d loaded the canoes and pushed off the last glow of daylight was all but gone.

Feeling our way down the river in the dark, we bumped and scraped our way through a series of class-one rapids and began searching the shore with flashlights for a decent campsite. Fortunately, we spotted what looked like the ideal place on
a small, sandy island.

As we pitched camp and started working on dinner, the southwest sky flickered with lightning. Big deal, I thought; what are the chances it will come our way?

Well, come our way it did. We’d finished our late meal and were enjoying an after-dinner drink around the fire when it hit. The only shelter we had was our tents, which worked fine on the torrential rain, but were no match for the wind.

ILLUSTRATION: Encyclopaedia Britannica

In what meteorologists call a downburst,* our little islet was suddenly stomped
on by 50- to 60-mile-per-hour winds, which ripped out our tent stakes, bent the aluminum poles and drove water through both fly and tent. We had to yell to be heard over the wail of those winds and explosions of thunder.

Even worse, the monster stalled right over us, battering us for a good ten minutes—plenty of time to contemplate the very real danger of the trees all around us, anchored only in the loose sand, falling and crushing us, or suddenly conducting 100 million volts of electricity into us through their roots.

When it was over, the only things left supporting the saturated nylon were our cowering, shivering bodies. We might as well have just sat out in the open; everything we had was soaked. Even my trusty “water-resistant” Timex watch proved no match for the pervasiveness of that incredible blast.

        The wind had not only stirred up those 
        challenging waves; it also fanned the 
        cooling process.

Wind can do its dirty work in more ways than just with brute force. I was canoeing with seven friends across Tuscarora Lake in northern Minnesota’s incredible Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was a cool fall morning and the wind had started to whip up some pretty big waves for a lake of this size.

But we were mostly seasoned canoeing veterans; if we followed best practices for these conditions, it was nothing we couldn’t handle. I guess the key word there is “followed,” because within ten minutes, instead of sticking together, we found our three canoes well beyond shouting distance of each other.

Long story short, a couple of paddlers lost their focus. In a few seconds their canoe got caught broadside to a wave and turned turtle. Fortunately, our second canoe noticed their predicament and went to the rescue.

We managed to haul the shivering canoeists and their partially baled out craft to a nearby campsite, but by this time Win, a wiry guy with no insulating fat on his frame, was showing signs of hypothermia.

In this case, the wind had not only stirred up those challenging waves; it also fanned the cooling process, sucking the warmth out of Win’s body faster than it could produce it. Fortunately, by keeping him awake, sandwiching him between two warm bodies inside a sleeping bag, and feeding him hot liquids, we were able to avert tragedy.

(Ironically, later that afternoon, we were harnessing that same treacherous wind in makeshift sails to propel us effortlessly across another lake.)

So, what are the most memorable scrapes you’ve had with wind? Tornadoes? Hurricanes? Sailing fiascos? Anyone ever flown through the eye of a hurricane?

“The wind is us-- it gathers and remembers all our voices, then 
sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields.”  

* In 1999, a sharp line of storms swept across the BWCAW, unleashing a broad, nearly continuous band of downbursts—called a derecho—flattening millions of trees like the sweep of an immense, malevolent hand. It wiped out some 40 percent all the mature trees in the million-acre protected area.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

BORN TO KILL – The Precious Instincts of a New Puppy

We human beings have been trying to breed and train out our domestic dogs’ wild instincts for 15,000 years.* Or, more accurately, to channel those instincts to best serve our own needs.

With those early wolf-dogs, of course it was handy if they scared away predators and rivals…but not so good if they ate the baby.

Centuries passed, and the roles for which we trained our canine helpers broadened to include hunting and retrieving, herding, search and rescue, rooting out vermin, pulling sleds, racing, and even rooting for truffles.

As the array of distinct breeds has broadened—the AKC now recognizes 190—the diversity of services these splendid creatures provide for us has kept pace. Some of the latest: drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, personal assistance dogs, therapy dogs and, the latest and somewhat controversial designation, “emotional support” dogs.

   There they were: skills no one’s taught a
   schnauzer for well over a hundred generations.

And that brings me to Sylvia. She’s the eight-week-old miniature schnauzer puppy Sally and I just added to our family last Saturday.

We don’t expect Sylvia to do anything for us but be there when we come home, listen to us when no one else will and let us love her to death. Oh, and not tear apart every rug and piece of furniture we have.

But she’s a smart little thing; after only a week, she’s learning her name, that she gets praise and a treat when she does her business outside, and, quite amazingly, already recognizes tone of voice and facial expression as indicators of our approval.

But those are all things we’re teaching her. What amazes me more is the sheer staying power of those ancient instincts, tracing back to her lupine ancestors and channeled in the late 1880s when miniature schnauzers were originally bred as ratters and guard dogs on German farms.

Last night I watched in awe as Sylvia showed off that genetic imprinted repertoire—skills no one’s taught a schnauzer for well over a hundred generations. Yet there they were on full display as we played a simple pursuit game with her favorite plush toy.

We tied one end of a sturdy six-foot-long ribbon to that limp, pink form—I think it’s supposed to be a pig. I hold the other end and swing the thing around Sylvia in broad arcs. I thought sure she’d clumsily lunge at it as it went whizzing past her, or at best run in circles to follow it.

Nope. She’s too smart for that; from the very first try she showed she knows in
her bones a little something about hunting…not to mention geometry and physics. Instead of attacking in the direction of her “prey” as she saw it, she knew to anti-
cipate its trajectory, and raced directly to the place she knew it would be a scant second later. And she does not miss.

Is my dog a friggin’ genius? He-yeah!

What does your pet do that conjures up its breed’s early domestication? Do you observe vestiges of behavior one might expect had long since been bred out of that species? Whether you have a dog, a gerbil or a giant Burmese python, we’d love to hear from you; please share your thoughts here with a comment, or share and comment on Facebook.

* Estimates of when wolves were first domesticated range from 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. Some claim it happened in Europe; others, in the Middle East or East Asia. Some think early human hunter-gatherers actively tamed and bred wolves. Others say wolves domesticated themselves, by scavenging the carcasses left by human hunters, or loitering around campfires, growing tamer with each generation until they became permanent companions.