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Alaska's Chinooks Return With Warmth and a Whoosh!

High winds and a memory of John Muir have lured me out into the mountains. After a months-long absence, the chinooks have returned. Coming out of the southeast from the coast, they blow through the Chugach Mountains then tumble down into Anchorage as warm, dry, turbulent air. Gusts have been reported to 75 miles per hour on the upper Hillside and 30 to 35 lower in in the bowl.

Unlike many windstorms, this one has seemed more friendly than threatening. Only a few days ago, temperatures hovered in the minus teens; but the chinooks have pushed us above freezing, ending weeks of unusually bitter cold for this part of Alaska.

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I love the whooshing, swishing music that chinooks make as they rush through the needles and branches of our backyard spruce, though at times it seems amazing that no trees have blown over. Bending and swaying, with limbs bouncing and swirling, they are so wonderfully adept at going with the flow, such models of flexibility.

I marvel, too, at how easily the birds seem to ride out the winds. During a chinook blow last spring, I noticed several redpolls in a spruce near my house. These small songbirds sat calmly and quietly in 50-m.p.h. gusts. They didn't need to shift position or spread wings for balance as the branches bounced and swayed. It was as if they'd become part of the tree.

This year's first chinooks arrived late in the night. Lying in bed, serenaded by wind and tree song, I was reminded of a favorite John Muir story. During a December windstorm in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1874, Muir decided "it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to ... get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles." Choosing a hundred-foot-tall Douglas spruce, he climbed to the top, "and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.

"The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward. Round and round ... while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed." Muir perched there for hours, luxuriating in the movement, the sounds, the "delicious fragrance" of forest smells that streamed past. Only when the storm began to ease did he descend. "Never before," he wrote, "did these noble woods appear so fresh, so joyous, so immortal."

On a weekend afternoon, I leave the comfort of my home and head for the hills. Not yet ready for a blustery treetop, I've instead chosen the tundra top of Blueberry Hill to be with the wind.

A rounded knob below Flattop Mountain, Blueberry Hill is one of my favorite places to visit the edge of wilderness east of town. It's an easy uphill walk, one I can do in most any weather or when busyness prevents longer hikes.

We're deep into winter, but much of Blueberry Hill's ridgeline is bare of snow. It's been air-blasted away and redeposited in protected swales and deep drifts among the mountain hemlock trees below. The winds have died down from yesterday's gales, but they're still blowing 35 or 40 m.p.h., with gusts to 50 or more.

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APPROACHING the hilltop, I slowly cross ridges of sastrugi - wind-sculpted snow - then step onto brown rock and tundra. The wind rushes around my head, its roaring and moaning blotting out all other sound. Exposed to its full force, I instinctively duck, feel it push and pound my body. No wonder the tundra plants here hug the ground so tightly. They must endure such winds dozens of times each year.

Even with temperatures in the mid-30s, I must bundle up to keep out the chill. I scan the landscape then look into the skies, wondering if the ravens are enjoying this chinook. Twilight is approaching, and they should be on their way to roosting spots. But I often see them playing in the wind - swooping, diving, spiraling, chasing one another in avian tag. Even on sub-zero days they do this.

As though my thoughts have beckoned them, two ravens appear nearby. Cawing, one swoops in close and circles less than 10 feet overhead, looking at me as if I might be an apparition. Curiosity satisfied, they head up valley, into the wind.

Several hundred yards below, I notice dozens of ravens. Making concessions to the weather, they're hugging the valley floor today. Fifty or more have landed on a large patch of open tundra. Why do they sit in the snow, exposed to the wind? They could ask similar questions about me.

I wait for the ravens to leave, to resume their nightly journey. Instead, it's I who leaves first. In dimming light I bound down Blueberry Hill, refreshed by mountain breezes and the inspiration of John Muir, raucous ravens, and whispering trees.

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