It was 1971 when Mary Jo Lord-Wild stopped off in the tiny Southeast Alaska community of Elfin Cove to visit a friend. She’d been living off the land in the isolated Brooks Range, and had no plans of staying, let alone starting a career in volunteer weather observation. But 50 years later, as one of the few year-round residents in Elfin Cove, and the recent recipient of one of the National Weather Service’s most prestigious awards, Lord-Wild acknowledged her life has been a bit like the weather itself: unpredictable.
“It was a bit of a winding road to get there,” she said. “I was Northern California suburban girl… You know somebody who loves sunshine. But, I always had… this vision of mountains and evergreens against the starry sky.”
Lord-Wild found not only her mountains and starry sky in Alaska’s far reaches, but also her calling when she took a job as a caretaker at the Swanson General Store. New in town, and needing a place to stay, Lord-Wild accepted the job which included weather observation.
Today, and nearly every day at 2:45 p.m., Lord-Wild records Elfin Cove’s temperature and precipitation, and sends them off to the National Weather Service. It’s been almost half a century now but, according to Lord-Wild, it has never felt like a burden.
“I’m grateful that 47 years of doing it has not been a chore. It’s work I like. So there’s no reluctance. There’s no resentment. I like the work,” she said. “I still love getting up and going outdoors and taking a look and feeling the breeze. And seeing if the otters are swimming in front of the house and if that Loon is still out there. It’s great. I still love it.”
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Lord-Wild said her work, which is volunteer, isn’t about awards or even recognition. In fact, most of it is done in complete isolation. But, as she puts it, the most satisfying part of receiving the weather service’s Thomas Jefferson Award this month was the feeling that she’s part of a much larger community.
“I live in a little village, remote village. I live across the bay from everybody else. I do this in isolation,” she said. “But during the awards ceremony, the top people of a National Weather Service and regional directors spoke about how important this data is. It was really fun to feel tied to a bigger picture.”
The Thomas Jefferson Award was created by the weather service in 1959 as a way to honor the most outstanding and dedicated cooperative weather observers in the country. According to Kimberly Vaughan, leader of the Observing Program and the woman who nominated Lord-Wild, it’s about more than just her long years of service.
“It’s given to observers who not only just longevity, but are taking observations with almost no interrupted days of data. Their data is reliable and accurate,” said Vaughn. “I’m so excited too because only five people a year are awarded the Thomas Jefferson Award. So it was I think, you know, in many ways, it was a big honor to me to be able to submit her.”
Now that Lord-Wild has been recognized for her work, she said she’s not planning to rest on her laurels. If it’s anywhere near 2:45 p.m. in Alaska, she’ll be recording weather data for Elfin Cove. Even though, initially, she only meant to stay for a visit, after nearly five decades Elfin Grove has grown on her.
“It’s very beautiful and satisfying, in many ways, not perfect, but it’s my heart home now,” she said.