Snapped out of an exhausted sleep, I rolled over in my frost-coated sleeping bag. What the hell was that? A deep-bellied rumble echoed down the canyon. My friends Lynn and Carol stirred awake as our canvas wall tent began to flex and flap on its spruce pole frame. Not an avalanche or an earthquake, but a williwaw—a terrain-driven, violent windstorm, common along the Kobuk-Noatak divide. No matter that we were nestled against a 30-foot rock outcropping that had seemed a bulletproof spot. It was one of those wrong place, wrong time deals. The towering drift that we saw as part of our shelter was actually a billboard advertising that downdrafts blasted through there on a semi-regular basis. Maybe we would’ve noticed the danger if we’d been less trail-weary; now we were about to get thrashed for our stupidity.
In a matter of minutes, we were hanging onto fistfuls of canvas, trying to keep our shelter from shearing tiedowns and leaping skyward, or shredding as it whipped. Our little woodstove (luckily cold) levitated and smashed down in rhythm with the tent; chunks of icy snow spattered against the canvas like buckshot. No way of knowing the exact wind speed, but the worst gusts had to be 50-plus. Hands numb, shouting through gritted teeth, we clung with all we had.
I forget how long before the wind eased. Brushing snow from our gear, we tried to salvage a couple hours of rest, and as light began to build, broke camp and drove for home. Seventy miles still lay between us and warm, wind-tight cabins, and for some reason, we were all done with camping for a while.
I remember a procession of tents past and present, and the stories that go with them. I hadn’t realized how many tent tales I’d amassed until I started ticking them off on my fingers. In fact, I’ve piled up enough to sort them into categories: tents in nasty winds; tents in abyssal cold; tents in pouring rain or dumping snow; tents swarming with bugs; tents with wildlife too close for comfort; tents in sweat-popping heat. And of course, sometimes combinations of the above—for example, grizzlies huffing around on a rainy night, or heat and a mosquito storm rolled into a single charming package. But just the category of tents flapping in the arctic breeze brings back a slew of memories, framed by a pile of wind-wracked gear.
That wasn’t the first williwaw Lynn, Carol, and I had ridden out together. A couple of years earlier, camped just a couple dozen miles from that spot, we’d gotten equally walloped in the same tent—and that old-school canvas design, unchanged for over a century, survived—barely. There’s something to be said for simple and tough. That said, modern designs and materials have led to far more resilient and capable shelters. I hate to sound like an infomercial, but for woodstove-warmed, heavy winter camping (close to necessary at 20 to 40-plus below), Alaska Tent and Tarp’s four-man Arctic Oven, though pricy, stands in a class of its own. After my wall tent burned down—a story for another time—I made the switch, and that Oven has ridden out some fearsome blows without a rip or spindled pole.
Here’s a tent-in-the-wind tale that sticks in visual memory. On a spring day about 40 years ago I’d run solo up the Redstone in my skiff and set camp on the edge of wide-open tundra. I decided to scale a close-by mountain—nothing too dramatic, just an easy-climbing 3,000-footer with a fine view. The morning was calm when I set out; and now and then I’d look back at my neon green tent fly, bright against the tundra. Scrambling upward, I finally reached the summit. I gazed down toward the dot that was my tent, tucked near an obvious bend in the river, and…it was gone! How could…what the…and then I spotted it a third of a mile from where it should have been, rolling along like a technicolor tumbleweed. I’d staked but not tied it down and obviously left not enough inside to weigh it down—the kiss of death for a light, three-season tent. Though the wind on the ridge wasn’t awful, it was howling down the valley floor. I caught up to my poor tent an hour later, lodged in a tangle of willows and never quite the same. But I’ve seen worse. A couple of tents got flattened with me and friends inside. They weren’t junk; they just got overpowered.
Country-wise Inupiat, like my old friend the late Clarence Wood, were masters at making camp in arctic blasts. Pitching a wall tent close to the ground, with walls folded under and ends tied to sled and snowmobile, was a standard big wind procedure. When I asked him once how a trip had gone, he replied with a wolfish grin, I pitch my tent real low, and I knew the rest. In an emergency, you can turn a sled crosswise to the wind and make a lean-to with a canvas tarp; or wrap yourself in the lee of anything and let wind-borne, insulating snow cover you like a ptarmigan—an effective if claustrophobic arrangement known as an anatuk (poor man’s) camp, a trick I once used to hunker out a blow. Just make sure you’re able to wriggle out and keep a clear airway. In the end, there’s no fighting Mister Wind. Just be ready to follow his lead—and dance.