Today's Newsletter is a Retelling of a Harrowing Experience During a Hokkaido Wildlife Photography Workshop
The sun had just set, and I had Martin, a German colleague, riding shotgun who was checking online weather charts. Whenever the motorcade paused, I read the weather charts to anticipate what conditions were coming, and to my relief, the snow was dissipating. Only the stubborn wind remained to create the hellish whiteout conditions. We were also constantly checking topographical maps for forested areas that blocked the wind gusts and provided us a sanctuary giving our eyes and mind a much-needed rest from the perfect wind storm. During this somewhat hair-raising ordeal, we were in contact with everyone in the motorcade, so everyone knew the precise distance to the next forested natural windbreak. When travel resumed, Martin served as a second set of eyes to keep the vehicles on the road. Between infernal gusts, we used the arrows posted above the prefectural highway to inch the lead vehicle forward, a distance of about 18 meters between markers. For 30 seconds to a minute, we were in motion, then whiteouts, and we had no choice when in the open farmland fields but to come to a dead stop for upwards of 5 - 10 minutes.
Mother Nature had a secure grip on us, and she did not want to let us go. On some occasions, even though the arrows are posted a few meters above the road, they weren’t visible nor the flashing lights above them. All of a sudden, I saw headlights and hazard lights from multiple vehicles heading in our direction. I was becoming cautiously optimistic because we were more than halfway back to our lodgings, and there were enough forested areas to give us protection. Boom! Car height snowdrifts. Boom! Nobody could see the road. All the traffic was at a dead stop, and I knew exactly where the road had taken us. Images of the family who perished in the exact spot in 2013 ran through my mind and chilled my blood, but I cowboyed up and focused on what needed to be done to assure everyone’s safety. As all this was happening, I made a command decision. It was time to bring all the participants into my SUV that was not stuck and could plow through the snowdrifts and leave all the camera equipment in the less agile luxury SUVs. Once the storm broke, I knew we would be able to return to the SUVs and claim all the camera gear and the vehicles, but safety dictated a slow and methodical return to a hotel or shelter. I was confronted with a choice, either push forward into the unknown toward our mountain lodgings or make a u-turn to the closest village 10 kilometers behind us.
Seconds before I was about to start the process of safely transferring everyone to my SUV - BOOM! - I heard something like a shovel scraping the road, and I then I saw a huge tractor shoveling and clearing the road; the shovel car cleared the snow so expertly it was just inches away from the front of my SUV. I thought they were going to smash my windshield. “Wow! What precision,” I thought. As the roads were being cleared, other emergency workers were pulling vehicles out of the snowdrifts and other vehicles that were stuck, which meant all our vehicles would be able to reach a shelter for the evening. My co-leader and I asked the emergency road rescue workers if we could proceed to our mountain lodgings about 8 kilometers away. The response was an emphatic, “No. The roads were unknown and 99.9% impassable.” Their counsel jogged my memory of spending 3 - 4 days in my country home in this area sequestered to my home hot springs due to the heavy snowfall and blizzards. The weather could be so severe that for days at a time, there was no power. Because of how often the region has extreme weather, most locals have a back-up generator and thermal hot springs as part of their home. Overnight the snow could pile up to waist height, so my SUV was out of the question as was any vehicle with rubber tires. Even a tractor would have to shovel itself out. Our guardian angels told everyone to follow them and started guiding all vehicles to the nearest village. As soon as we reached the village, everyone went their separate ways, and I remarked to myself about the lack of markings on what I thought were government snow-clearing rescue vehicles. I even recalled seeing ‘rental’ written in Japanese on one of the tractors. Despite being told the roads were impassable, I felt that a return to our original lodgings was still possible using a different route, so I topped up the gasoline for each vehicle in our motorcade at the nearest gasoline stand which was on the verge of closing. The elderly gentleman in charge of the station opened the doors so my co-leader, Martin, and I could come in, rest, and enjoy a warm cup of Japanese green tea. While fueling up, my co-leader and I called highway services, but there was no answer, and the police also said not to return, so we checked online and all the roads we highlighted in red, which meant impassable. In spite of me being a local, everyone’s advice, including the elderly gentleman at the gasoline stand, was to not return to the lodgings because this was a once in a decade windstorm. Of all the counsel I received, I took the elderly gentleman’s the most serious because he was born and raised in the area and his insights were born from experiencing prior windstorms. I knew my SUV would make it, but the others would not.
My co-leader could see my mind was racing, and she needed to ground me in this world. Her next statement did just that, a godsend. While on the way to the village, she had called our lodgings and miraculously arranged rooms for everyone in the village we had just arrived in. A sister business hotel to our 4-star accommodations had made room for everyone, so rather than an emergency shelter or sleeping in the vehicles, everyone had a single private room with shower and bath, and hot springs on the 1st floor. After settling in and a small hot meal, I called a friend in Japan’s main emergency disaster relief agency, as I knew they should have a log of our rescue and all rescues across Japan. To our surprise, there was no log entry of our rescue or road clearing, just a warning that the highways in that area were completely shutdown. After a few seconds of silence, we came to the same conclusion and shouted, “local volunteer rescuers!” My colleague and I then discussed the number of fatalities in Hokkaido associated with severe winter conditions similar to the flash blizzard that caught us. The conversation turned to the local farmers and residents in communities across Hokkaido, who of their initiative, had started something akin to a community watch program where cameras are placed in high-risk areas where people have perished, and there is always someone monitoring during winter or when there is a weather warning. The community always rent rescue snow-clearing equipment in case the need arises to make sure there is no repeat of prior tragedies. To reward their heroism and express my thanks, I made a donation, a year’s worth of gasoline. After hanging up, I made my one final check to make sure everyone was settled in their rooms with provisions, and then I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow. In the am, I woke before sunrise to enjoy the hot springs, then, later on, we all enjoyed a hot breakfast. We called local road services, and they informed us that the roads to our mountain lodgings would not be cleared until about 8 am. When the time was right, our group returned to our original lodgings. After freshening up, we started the day early with a fresh blanket of beautiful winter wonderland snow, and everyone was well-rested in mind, body, and spirit. We concentrated on artful zen-inspired minimalist photography with an emphasis on groves or singular winter trees. The hostility of the storm faded and provided us a winter frame to capture photos constructed with zen-inspired simplicity and calm.