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By Sharon Allen


August 14, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - Texas has cows, Idaho has potatoes, Wisconsin has cheese, Ketchikan has rain . . . so what's with the fog?

It must be admitted that it's been rather noisy along the Narrows in the mornings lately. No alarm clock should be as loud as a cruise ship on its way to the docks here in Ketchikan. Pennock and Annette and Gravina disappear and the loss disorients all of us who are used to the friendly sight of these mountainous islands we call neighbors. Eagles cry and ravens squawk unseen from foliage like ghostly tree-bound banshees. Only the fish are unperturbed by the gray matter of fog.

Please understand I'm not really complaining. In truth, fog is not so bad. It's definitely better than day-after-day-after-week of sideways rain. When the mighty sun finally does begin to slice through the miasma, it can be quite beautiful - a sort of pink-and-bluish white heavenly cotton candy swirled on a swizzlestick's worth of sunbeam.

The meteorological explanation for the prevailing gray matter is simply that it's a cloud at ground level. However, HOW the condensed water droplets form determines whether it will be a real cloud or a bank of fog. I've been told that clouds are formed when water droplets expand, cooling as air rises and fog occurs when air near the ground is cooled to "dewpoint" where it can no longer hold all of its water vapor.

Although rain can cool and moisten the air to cause fog, and a warm moist air mass blowing over snow or ice can form "advection fog," the fog Ketchikan has been experiencing lately is "radiation fog."

Don't let the name scare you, though. It's not nuclear-based. It's caused by something called infrared radiation which happens every day when the sun shines on us. As the sunlight hits the earth, everything absorbs some of the heat, and at night, everything cools again by radiating the heat back into space. So, because Ketchikan has been baking during the day and then when the sun goes down, it gets so cool, so quickly - the combination of the land and air surfaces getting so hot in the day and then cooling quickly because of our longer, cloud-free, dry nights, a lot of evaporation is going on in the atmosphere near the ground - too much for the air to hold and thus, fog forms at ground level. And that is why Ketchikan has been waking up the last couple of days inside an aspirin bottle, with a cold cotton ball for a sky.

Like all things, there are those who hate fog and those who love it. Mark Twain wrote a memorable account of a carriage ride, where the fog was so thick they were obliged to steer by the horse's ears, "which stood up dimly out of the dense white mist that enveloped him."

Dalton Trumbo once wrote a screenplay where a Guy Named Joe complained about the weather in Scotland by saying, "What a fog! Plane been buzzin' around overhead for the last half hour. Must be like trying to find your way through the inside of a cow. I never did see such a country. Even the birds are walkin'."

It's also said that when Paul Bunyan's loggers roofed an Oregon bunkhouse with shakes, fog was so thick that they "shingled forty feet into space before discovering they had passed the last rafter."

And of course, there are the last words of Emily Dickenson, eerily remembered, " . . . the fog is rising."

But there are also others who have made the most of these mists which so tightly embrace the world with gray. Upon the death of Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead was quoted in the newspaper obituaries describing Garbo's mystery as being ". . . as thick as a London fog."

Carl Sandburg wrote a famous poem entitled "Fog" in Chicago Poems (1916) that compared fog to the mysterious watchfulness of a cat. Tony Bennett sang about morning fogs all during his career, and "The Fog" got the title role in John Carpenter's 1979 horror flick.

As for me, I think I'll sit on Sunset beach tonight and direct my gaze upward, remembering the lines spoken in Barbary Coast as the Flying Cloud sails into port in San Francisco (1935):

Man with lantern: Who are you?
Captain: The Flying Cloud. 220 days out of New York and 50 days trying to find your blasted harbor.
Man with lantern: Nobody asked you to come.
Captain: Got anything in this hog-end of the world except fog?
Man with lantern: Sure, we've got gold, fountains of gold.

Ah, yes. Now I remember why the cruise ships are blowing those foghorns at six o'clock in the morning and waking us all up. The jewelry stores on the docks.

I almost forgot about them. It's been a couple days since I could see one . . .


Sharon Allen is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Sharon at sharon(AT)

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