Here’s what I watched approach during a band-reading stint from my flimsy blind as the wind picked up with a vengeance…
The weather on this island, 23 miles off the coast of Maine, is pretty fantastic. My grandmother was the one who got us looking skyward and exclaiming in wonder and awe at the endless artistic variations on the canvass that is our sky. Not enough people look up. As a birdwatcher, that’s where my eyes are most commonly directed. The sky is a wondrous, mysterious, fantastical thing and it constantly has more to offer. We have big sky out here and it’s bringing to the table a good deal of wonder.
We’ve had some pretty awesome storms already this season, one bringing winds of 45mph and last night bore great cracks of thunder and blasts of lightning that lit up my wind-shook tent.
When I was on Seal Island in 2005 we endured the greatest storm I’ve yet to encounter again. A famous Nor’easter. Supervisor Carlos, intern Lance and I had just finished setting up about 12 blind around the colony in the preseason opening of the island. We’d have never done all that hard work had we known what was to come.
We got word from the Project Puffin’s Hall on the mainland via radio that there were some high winds headed our way. We weren’t too worried since we’d watched the weather wizard wind monitor hit some good highs already, something like 20 miles per hour. But we had no idea what we were in for. The winds picked up, and up and up. The cabin shook with the force, but it was more interesting than disconcerting. That night we went to our tents and took on the weather with only the protection of a few layers of plastic fabric and tarp. Well I soon got up up close and personal with my tent walls as they pushed up against me in violent shoves. Laying in a sleeping bag with the mighty elements bearing down upon you is something. Wondering all the while if I’d be soon exposed and what my plan was if such an event were to occur, I heard a crack. Running through the pouring rain to the cabin, I joined my soaking island mates. No one’s tent survived the night.
For the next four days, we were cabin bound. Carlos slept up in the loft, which we had to empty of bird traps and other equipment. The kitchen table lowers to bench level, creating a makeshift bed for the two of us. And the cabin walls rattled. We watched the wind meter climb and climb. The terns, still early enough in the nesting season to not have eggs, hovered in the gale force winds above the rolling swells in the otherwise calm cove below us. The moon was in it’s fullest stages and that just helped the already-high tide become even higher.So while we tied the 19ft dory up high, we had no idea that the rising water would whisk it away into the wild, roiling sea. Carlos and I will forever be known for Seal Island season the Puffineers who lost the dory.
The winds blew on. These kind of storms are endless, the gale just kept sweeping our island. We watched the closest blind just over the rise shift closer and closer to the edge of its platform and, despite being roped down, we looked away for a only a moment we looked back to see it completely gone. Sigh, there’ll be some serious blind repairing when the weather lifts.
One important thing I learned during those five days of intense, never-ending wind was that whomever put the doors on the cabin and the composting toilet had perhaps never been through a nor’easter. Every time I needed to use the bathroom, the most exciting and terrifying part was opening either door just a crack, only to be ripped out by the northeast wind as that sail of a door caught the intrusive winds and violently swinging me out into oblivion. Then, to make the fifty-yard trudge to the toilet, I had to keep low, pushing against the forceful blows. The rain continued on, with as much as 1.77″ in one night and everything we owned was permanently damp. Our piddly little propane tank heater, with socks and gloves draped all around it, petered out long before its time.
We played a lot of scrabble during those cabin-bound days. One wall of the cabin is shelves bursting with food and, with nothing else to stare at, we managed to stuff a steady stream of cereal, nuts and junk food into our faces just to pass the time. Carlos’ account in the island journal: “Being in the cabin all day long is exhausting. Believe it! We eat every couple of hours and sleep over 11 hours. I hope these guys can sleep with my snorings.” Finally we raised such a height of cabin fever that we decided to endure the gale and take a look at the wreckage. Two blinds were down, as Carlos noted, “Kress and Guilly blinds and towers just disappeared and one blind in Area 2 is broken.” We found pieces of blind around the rocks and one piece was actually wedged under a huge boulder, likely in the extreme high tides. The sea spray whipped us as we
dove headfirst into puffin burrows to get an idea of how they fared in the storm. It
was soon evident, though, that half of the burrows were submerged under the hungry waves and many of the eggs were tossed out of their nooks. It was early enough in the season though, that
they had a chance to re-nest.
Nature is a powerful force. I feel fortunate to have been given a chance to experience it in its glory, and also thankful that I had four sturdy walls around me when the gale reached its worst. I was so impressed by what the birds have to go through, something they have no power over. Winds and waves did their utmost, but we were lucky to have another successful hatching season. And memories and tales and to last a lifetime.