Dancing with the Winds

On Haida Gwaii the weather rarely sits still, restless and ever-changing its only pattern is movement. A commanding element, residents are subject to its many moods, ebbs and flows. Sometimes we sail through weeks of calm without notice, when suddenly the winds are howling around us. Sometimes rain persists for months, drier days a thing of distant memory. 

Recently, what seemed an innocent system brewing near the Bering Sea, swept down the open Pacific, built up strength near the Bowie Seamount and then slammed into our archipelago. Ancient trees were pushed over, houses lost their roof and waterfowl disappeared to hunker down against the roaring gusts. 

These varied winds come from all quarters. Sometimes they circle around the compass in a single day. It can be a little disconcerting, especially when planning a picnic on the beach. Here, the recommendation to pack layers applies year round.

Easterly winds are known as ‘lazy winds’, rather than blow around you, they go right through. Often they’re felt as an invasive chill, sneaky hands that easily find cracks in your layers. 

Most common for us are the southeasterlies. With these come milder temperatures insulated by overcast skies, rain and anything from light breezes to furious gales. 

The winds from the south quadrant often swing like a pendulum from southeast to southwest for weeks at a time. When this happens, it’s like a mini tornado creating a dangerous cyclone. Everything that braced for the southeasterly gets caught off-guard and twisted around - deck chairs take flight, sheds lean far enough to crumble. 

When the west winds arrive, they often bring heavy, grey-black clouds. Local fisher-people call this a ‘black westerly’; a cool, dark, high-hanging fog. The sun is elusive and the days grow cold. 

If we’re lucky a tendency towards the north will bring our closest star out of hiding, and we’ll get a few delightful summer days filled with warm sunshine and pleasant breezes. We might even be tempted into the cold pacific waters kissing the shores. 

When the more rare southwesterly blows it’s wise to keep a weather eye on the sky. This unpredictable system keeps us on our toes - one moment a warm sun coaxes us outdoors, the next everything is drenched by a sudden squall. 

We’re pulled along in this never-ending dance, living amidst the weather that circles, surrounds and flows through us each day. It can dictate our mood, our mental health, even our physical health as we are drawn into our gardens and onto the trails by the hope of discovery. 

For birders, the days following a major winter storm are the best time to head out binoculars in hand. Rare and unusual birds that get caught up in the wild winds fling themselves down and can be found sitting from exhaustion. One year, white-fronted geese covered the beaches and meadows of Haida Gwaii while they waited out a storm. Some educated guesses had their numbers around 40,000. The next day they’d disappeared. Refreshed and rested, they carried on their way. 

The late Dr. Ian MacTaggart-Cowan, a dedicated and experienced biologist, once described Haida Gwaii as a mecca for “wind-blown waifs”; birds that get tossed onto our shores seeking sanctuary from the storms. This analogy fits well for many residents too. 

Living on Haida Gwaii means being humbled by the forces greater than us, and doing our best to live in harmony with unpredictability. Where in some places the morning news is an update on current events, here we check the tides, the winds, and the marine forecast. We wouldn’t be surprised if the morning CBC broadcast started including these predictions in their coastal programming. An understanding of these many interrelated elements allows us to live the way we do - to time harvesting activities and adequately stock up for the long winter months. In the winter, we watch storm systems approach on windy.com and feel for the physical hints of their arrival; buzzing ears and maybe a little dizziness. The pressure drops, like being in an airplane when the cabin pressure changes. Long term residents of these islands say they can feel a storm coming in their bones - they’ve inevitably developed a deep connection to the wilderness of our weather. 

Consistently inconsistent, the patterns of the wind keep us present. We have to pay attention so we know the next step in the dance.