Weather watcher: The reign of the Storm King
August 5, 2004
Mark McLaughlin loves storms. So much, in fact, that his own personal motto, printed on the back of his Subaru, reads “Low pressure gets me high.”McLaughlin is a freelance writer and lecturer in the Truckee-Tahoe area focusing on history and weather.”I research historic weather events and see how those events affect the popular culture, with a focus on Nevada and the Sierra,” he said.At a weekly talk on the deck of a Tahoe Vista restaurant this week, McLaughlin shared stories about Tahoe’s history. He talked about the winter of 1844, when John Fremont and his cartographer Kit Carson crossed over the Sierra Nevada range and first laid eyes on Lake Tahoe.McLaughlin used to work as a lecturer for Elderhostels, an international program for people 55 and older who come to various locations, including Tahoe, to take college level history classes. McLaughlin taught courses on immigrants to Tahoe, the Donner party and the old railroads, but a year ago, the program canceled almost all of his courses.”In that situation, I knew I had to do something, so I started lecturing for the private sector,” he said. Now, he gives three talks a week at local resorts.McLaughlin has told the story of Myrtle Huddleston more than 20 times this summer, he says. She was the first person to swim across the width of Lake Tahoe in August of 1931, completing the swim against prevailing southwesterly winds in just under 23 hours. She received $700 in prize money, a coveted amount during the Great Depression. “I’ve been here for 22 years and I thought I knew everything, but compared to [Mark], I know nothing,” said Lisa Feinberg, manager of owner services for the Red Wolf Lodge. “The way he presents the info – in story format – makes you remember the facts. He keeps it interesting.”His resort talks are mainly directed toward visitors, but McLaughlin is interested in sharing information with local residents, as well. This summer, he started the Mark McLaughlin Lecture Series at the Gatekeeper’s Museum, which ran from June 17 to July 29 and covered topics ranging from the cultural geography of Lake Tahoe to women pathfinders to western train adventures. “Locals, especially if they’ve lived here for a while, think they know everything. But there’s always more to know,” he said.According to Sara Larson, the director of the Gatekeeper’s Museum, around 40 people attended each of the seven lectures of McLaughlin’s series. “We had a core group of people who returned each time,” she said. “Mark is a fabulous speaker – he makes history very interesting, which can be challenging.”McLaughlin has written three books and is working on a fourth scheduled for a December release called “Snowbound: Legendary Sierra Winters,” which documents the 20 biggest winters in Tahoe’s recorded history. “I like to think of history as a story. I see the Donner party as characters in a movie, characters not so different from you and me,” he said. The main protagonist of his stories is the Sierra Storm King, who he says is our regional version of Mother Nature and Old Man Winter. McLaughlin, an avid telemark skier, moved to Tahoe 25 years ago, primarily because of the area’s tradition of big storms and cumulative snowfall. But he’s just now beginning to enjoy the other seasons of the year. “I love storms, but I’m learning to take advantage of the diversity of this area. I’m learning to embrace summer,” he said.His business card describes him as a weather historian, but McLaughlin hesitates to put a title on his job. He’s uncomfortable with the label “story-teller,” because he says it sounds too geared toward children. And he thinks “lecturer” seems to dry. “I don’t know what to call myself,” he said. “I don’t know anyone else who does what I do.”Check out Mark McLaughlin’s column “Weather Window,” which appears monthly in the Sierra Sun.