In The Path Of A Williwaw

What had been a sunny pleasant day turned breezy as clouds began building over the southeast horizon of the Bering Sea. I decided to make my way back along the westerly shore of uninhabited Anangula Island to my tent after a productive day photographing birds and wildlife. American black oystercatchers were sitting on their eggs on open rocks, sea otters floated on their backs in the Bering Sea, and bald eagles flew overhead, but the surprise came when I reached the cove entrance. The steep walls of the cove funneled a forty mile per hour wind straight at me. I leaned into the wind and pushed my way toward the head of the cove. The weather is changing, and it’s apparent it’s going to be for the worse.

The narrow cove is several hundred yards long, and my Northface VE 24 dome tent was situated on a narrow flat area between a small beach and a thirty foot vertical grassy wall. A fresh water spring and brook entered the ocean here and had carved a small trough through the island. 

To help with the wind I moved some stones from the beach into the tent, and quickly ate dinner while a heavy mist began to fall. As the evening progressed the wind became scary so I put on all my warm clothes and rain gear in case the tent shredded. At 8:30 PM a sound like an incoming missile traveled over the island through the trough and slammed into the top of the tent crushing it down two feet. In the next instant the shock-cords snapped the tent back into position with a loud shudder similar to the sound of a large flag flapping in a gale. As the wind got stronger and stronger I became fearful it would carry the tent, me and my belongings into the sea so I ran outside and brought larger rocks into the tent. I placed the rocks, gear, and me on the windward side and held onto the poles hoping to prevent them from snapping. The williwaw whistle and blast smashed the tent every thirteen seconds lifting the windward side two feet off the ground while at the same time crushing the top of the tent downward. I kept thinking how much stronger is this wind going to get and will it sweep me into the sea. The williwaws and hurricane force winds went into the next morning. The last williwaw struck at 830 AM. I had been hanging on to the tent all night and somehow the tent had made it through dry and undamaged. 

The next day rain and strong winds continued over the Bering Sea, but the storm center had moved to my campsite side of the island so williwaws were no longer a threat. I was now on the windward side of the storm so if there were williwaws they would be landing on the opposite side of the island. I spent the day trying to catch up on my sleep. Many of the Bering Sea islands are hills or mountains jutting abruptly from the sea. This wind barrier causes pressure to build on the windward side and periodically leap over the island to the lower pressure side. In my situation the pressure release was following the small valley created by the brook which ended at the beach where my tent was set up. It was a beautiful location for a tent site in average weather, but during a hurricane it was in the path of a williwaw. 

The following day the rain let up, but there was heavy overcast and not much light for photography. My local guide had loaned me a communication radio that required line of sight so I hiked to the easterly shore facing the town of Nikolski on nearby Umnak Island. I was not able to reach anyone. The ocean was too rough for the guide’s boat, but I wanted  to let him know I was okay. I decided to explore that coastline. It had high cliffs dropping into the ocean with very little access to the water. All the while I moved along that coast a falcon protecting its nest battled a bald eagle. The falcon was faster and nimbler than the eagle and able to dart in and make contact. The eagle on occasion would go into a tumble with talons outstretched in an attempt to grab the falcon. They were still battling when I turned to make my way back to the tent.

The grassy wall lining one side of the cove was home to hundreds of tufted puffin burrows. Their chicks have hatched, and the parents must fly to sea to catch fish. Hundreds of them return at the same time filling the sky over my tent with tufted puffins. Like planes stacked up over an airport they circle to gain their bearings before crash landing into the grass hopefully at the correct burrow. Their flight path is right over my tent, and it is something to see, but even more memorable is the unforgettable sound of hundreds of wings flapping over the tent as they circle the cove numerous times before deciding where to land. 

I gathered my water jugs and filter and was kneeling in the tent door looking out the cove to the ocean beyond contemplating:  “The sun has returned, but it’s still too rough for a small boat three days after the storm. The Bering Sea is notorious for bad weather how long would it before the ocean flattens enough for the guide to could get out here?” At that moment I heard a loud smack and about ten feet in front of me a saw a blur. As things settled and my vision focused. The blur was a rabbit. I looked up expecting to see a bald eagle, but I saw a sea gull about forty feet over head! The rabbit dragged itself into the reeds. I decided to give it some space for a chance to recover from the fall, and I headed for the spring to fill my containers. When I returned I looked in the reeds and the rabbit had died.

Dressing, skinning, and outdoor cooking are something I grew up with on a small scale. We had a few farm animals, and I hunted whitetail deer and small game from childhood. I built a fire pit from the shore rocks, and gathered driftwood to burn. Once the wood had burned down to hot coals I cooked the rabbit. 

In the 1930’s the U.S. government released rabbits on the island to feed foxes liberated in the 1910’s in an attempt to establish a fur trade for local Aleuts. The foxes were removed in the 1940’s because they were threatening native bird populations. The rabbits remain on the island. Anangula is also an important archeological site. The earliest evidence of human activity in the Aleutians was discovered there with artifacts dating 8400 years old.     

The next day on the edge of the grassy wall overlooking my tent a European rabbit was posing for my lens when I heard the sound of an outboard motor in the distance. Soon my guide was landing on the beach at my tent. I think he was as relieved to see me as I was to see him. It had been an unforgettable island adventure. More than I had bargained for, and memories that will last forever.