Avalanche Gun


At the south edge of the Treadwell ruins an avalanche control team fires shells from a cannon-like recoilless rifle across Gastineau Channel and into the south flank of Mt. Roberts. Worried by the buildup of snow at higher elevation of the Slide Creek avalanche chute, the team hopes that each shell will trigger a small snow slide. Otherwise, a major avalanche will crash down the mountain and bury the only road to the settlement of Thane. Even through we walk along the mountain’s north flank, the cannon booms fill the valley where we walk. At each report I hold still to listen for the heavy-surf sound of an avalanche. Aki stiffens into a cringe. When I smile and resume walking up the snowy trail, Aki dashes off to investigate interesting smells.


We are going through one of the dozen false springs the rain forest will suffer from until the bursting of cottonwood buds announces the death of winter. Most thaws increase avalanche danger, soften the snow cover, and flood mountain trails. The soft snow doesn’t slow down Aki as she dashes ahead to greet a couple of human friends. One asks me what thing impressed me the most during my recent visit to Cuba. “It was a handshake,” I answer. Not the handshake of a person or power for fame but that of a long line fisherman.


A local had introduced the man as the best fisherman in their village where every fishing day involves the setting and pulling by hand of a long line baited with hundreds of hooks. The highliner extended his hand and took mine. He didn’t crush it but I would have been unable to break the handshake against his will. His hand felt like leather from being repeatedly wounded by fishhooks and grooved by the daily pulling up of long lines. After I shared this with my friend on a snowy Juneau trail, she wondered, out loud, how my hand felt to him. “Soft and helpless,” I thought to myself.


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