Hold on to your hats

Dust devil knocks down 'Big T' sign

Posted: Sunday, May 01, 2005


  Suzie Cook, co-owner of Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, inspects the "T" sign Friday after it was knocked down. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Suzie Cook, co-owner of Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, inspects the "T" sign Friday after it was knocked down.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

In the 16 years John and Suzie Cook have owned the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, they've accumulated some wild stories.

The bar and lodge along the Sterling Highway is known outside Kasilof for its Guinness World Record-amount of hats displayed inside and as the home of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.

To Kasilof residents, the "Big T" has a more colorful reputation — as the place for prime rib, Thanksgiving dinners and the twice-yearly "quadrathalon" that former Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill once dubbed "Kasilof City Hall."

To celebrate the millennium, the Cooks created their own version of "dropping the ball" at midnight by tossing a homemade lighted sphere into the beer garden.

Then there's the infamous bunny napping, where the staff stole a 5-foot-tall stuffed rabbit from the Albatross Lounge after the Kalifornsky Beach Road bar's team won it in the Easter scavenger hunt the Big T has put on for the past 15 years. After the theft, the Big T crew sent the Albatross e-mails detailing the rabbit's whereabouts, including photos of it jet skiing on Cook Inlet and skiing at Alyeska Resort.

On Friday, the Big T garnered another tall tale when a witness saw what she described as a tornado blow through the parking lot and knock down the 20-foot-tall slanted red wooden sign of the letter "T" in front of the bar.

Susie Harvey, the Cooks' daughter, was working at Tustumena Tires on Friday, which adjoins the lodge and shares the gravel parking lot. About 4:15 p.m. she said she noticed a fierce wind kick up "out of nowhere."

The sunny, calm day with temperatures in the mid to upper 60s was suddenly marred by the formation of what Harvey describes as a funnel cloud.

"The wind just started blowing back and forth and it just formed right in front of me," Harvey said. "It was pulling at me and I had to put my sunglasses on. It was pulling you everywhere."

Harvey said the funnel cloud headed toward the parking area in front of the Big T.

"It hit the end of the driveway and turned and beelined right for the 'T' and knocked it over. It was unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it in my life."

The funnel continued across the parking lot to the highway, tossing plastic garbage cans 20 feet in the air as it went, she said. As it jumped the highway, Harvey said it was twice as tall as a full-grown spruce tree. It hit the undeveloped lot across the highway and knocked down several spruce trees before dissipating at a creek that runs through the lot, she said.

Harvey estimated the storm lasted two minutes. After the cloud dissipated, the wind was as calm as it had been before the storm, she said.

David Vonderheide, spokes-person for the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Anchorage, said tornadoes do occur in Alaska — he's heard of four in the state — though that likely isn't what Harvey saw. Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of air that stretch from thunderstorms in the sky to the ground. Skies were clear in Kasilof on Friday.

"It sounds like an unusually strong dust devil," Vonderheide said.

Dust devils are funnel-like whirlwinds that form at ground level on deserts and other sparse stretches of land, like parking lots. The week's record-breaking warm weather in Southcentral likely contributed to the occurrence.

"Dust devils tend to occur on sunny days when it can be clear or mostly clear," Vonderheide said.

As the ground warms, it heats the air just above it. If wind hits that warmed air just right, it makes the air want to curl, he said, similar to the curling tendrils of dust and air seen in the wake of a truck driving along a road.

"That little swirl will give it some lift," he said. "It will spin up the dust devil or the vortex and they can go for a few minutes."

Dust devils can get quite powerful. Vonderheide said he's heard of one near Anchorage that made a helicopter crash and another in Wasilla that stretched up to cloud level.

"If the vortex of a dust devil can grab on to some air moving upward, it can be pulled and intensify," he said.

Suzie Cook said the 20-foot wooden sign was put in 16 years ago. It was set in 4 feet of concrete with a 4-foot-tall wooden planter built around it. In the storm, the sign splintered off above the concrete and toppled to the ground, breaking the wooden planter, as well.

"People park out here all the time," Cook said. "If it was the middle of the summer we have a fish cleaning table here. If someone was walking here it would have fallen on someone's head."

As it was, no one was injured and the sign was the extent of the property damage. Cook and her husband are discussing what to do with the sign.

Cook said the T has been through fierce wind before.

"In the middle of winter we'd watch the thing wave back and forth and said, 'It's going,' but it never has," she said.

"It's so sad, because it's been there so long," Cook said. "I can't believe on a beautiful day like this that it's gone."

Cook was on a "bun run" to buy supplies for prime rib night at the Big T when the storm struck. Harvey and others from the bar who had seen the blowing dust from the window called Cook and told her what happened.

"They called from the bar and said, 'The T is down.' I said, 'No.' I thought they were playing a joke on me."

Bar patrons have been telling her the sign's demise is an omen, since the Cooks are selling the Tustumena Lodge. The Big T is expected to change hands to Duane LaFleur on May 15.

Cook said LaFleur plans to continue all the traditions the Big T is known for, but patrons are bemoaning the change of ownership, nonetheless.

Of course, when the Cooks bought the place and moved up from San Diego, the bar regulars griped then about the "rich Californians," she said.

The Cooks had been visiting the area for years and decided on a whim to buy the Big T, without doing any research on it.

"It was the stupidest business decision ever made in your life, but it turned out to be the best," Cook said.

John Cook owned carpet stores in California and Suzie had tended bar and waitressesed before, but they had no experience running a bar.

"We just figured we spent so much time drinking in bars that we could run it," Suzie Cook joked. "But it worked."

Now that retirement is near, the two plan to enjoy fishing and all the other summer pursuits they love but have missed out on while running their business.

"We've always said if we could take the bar from September to April, we'd do it," Cook said.

Retirement will be bittersweet for the Cooks.

"We have the best group of people here," Suzie Cook said. "It's going to be sad because we've got a good thing here."

They won't miss much, though, since they plan to still be regulars visitors at the establishment.

"I like to say I'm moving from this side of the bar to the other side of the bar," Cook said.

With Friday's dust devil, she'll have one more story to reminisce about.

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