Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Good Storm

this is snow, of sorts


I would like a good storm.  Not the namby-pamby, do-nothing, snow-piffle we've been getting.  I want a real storm, with whiteouts, feet of snow, howling wind, and bitter cold- something that makes you feel like you're surviving.  This year, winter has been strangely absent, and until today, what snow we had has nearly melted off.  Yesterday it was fifty degrees.  I've lived through Januarys when the temperature never got above 10 degrees, with regular lows of -20 to -30 F.  Months like that can drag long and arduous, but I never got tired of a good winter storm.  I have not witnessed a true blizzard here in Northern Michigan since moving back here in 2000, and I feel much the poorer for it.

Everyone remembers the blizzard of '78.  I was a kid then, and despite how much more rudimentary forecasting was back then we still got some advance notice.  We stacked the firewood high on the deck and in the house.  Our wood stove worked better than our neighbors, and so we invited them to stay with us.  This was fine with me, as their daughter Allison was my first girlfriend, a childhood sweetheart of the innocent type with whom you hold hands and know that you will marry her.  I didn't.  I still wonder.  The storm started as promised, and I'll never forget the howl of the wind, and of the long periods of time in which it was impossible to see more than a foot or two out of the windows.  It howled and pounded down for three days.  We played cards and board games, and ate bean soup, in an almost carnival atmosphere, a tension in the air as the lights flickered and the jet engine roar of the wind permeated everything.  It was fun at first, perhaps similar to the hurricane parties my Florida friends have told me about- they buy supplies, food and water, board up their windows and doors, and then make a party out of it.  Board games, cards, cocktails.  When the lights flicker out they light the storm lamps and candles.  When the roof falls in they take it seriously.  Our roof didn't fall collapse in '78.  We got up on the second day of the storm and the snow was level with the bottom of our windows.  That day, as we ate our Cheerios and bacon and eggs, played cards, then Scrabble, then god knows what, we watched the snow climb ever higher until the daylight coming in over the snow was a mere slit.  That was a great storm.  Somewhere out there are pictures of my brother and I sitting on the roof of our house, having walked up the drift to the roof.  When it was over, and we opened our front door there were only two inches of daylight.

That was one of the more memorable storms, and yet we used to get blizzards here every winter.  Not mere winter storms, but howling, multi-day storms, in which we had real whiteouts.  Let me explain whiteouts.  That footage of heavy snow you see on the Weather Channel or CNN are not whiteouts.  They don't show whiteouts, because in a real whiteout, there's nothing to show.  I've been in whiteouts while both walking and driving.  In a real whiteout you see nothing except blinding, driving whiteness.  They are terrifying.  The footage you see on TV of admittedly heavy snow, in which you can see street lights, buildings, and lamp posts are not whiteouts.  A whiteout is when you only see white, when you can only make out a vague outline of yourself, when it is literally possible to walk into a tree or other object because the only thing you can see is your own chest- yes you're looking down, you don't dare look up into that howling blaze of stinging snow.  I have been tied to a rope as a child, to fetch wood in a whiteout.  I was thankful for the rope.

Circa 1980 we got so many blizzards that Michigan had to change its laws.  We had missed so many weeks of school to blizzards- both the storms themselves and their aftermath of digging out- that a limit was established to the number of snow days that could be taken before they had to be made up.  As I recall, we spent at least an extra week in school in our precious summer, which we greatly resented.  Our neighbors had a very big hill that they would let us sled down.  That year the gully down the center of it rounded over with snow, which the wind burnished into a hard icy surface.  The speed was exhilarating, and for the first time ever we had to bail from our sleds before we hit the fence.  It was a point of honor as to who could wipe out in the greatest style, the greatest burst of flying snow and tumbling sled.  We would wipe out, and then lay in the snow, tasting it on our lips, pretending to lay dead.  Only the sound of the next sled coming down would get us up, afraid of being hit.  After all the crazy things we did as kids on sleds, I can't believe that we had all of our teeth and intact spinal columns.  We used to intentionally do these hay-maker tackles mid-slope, and I remember our sisters going home crying on several occasions.  My brother and I could be pretty rough.  To be fair, we sent each other home crying several times.  Our parents finally put a firm ban on these types of tackles- someone was going to get hurt.  At one point this winter it was ten days before we were plowed out by the County Road Commission.  You'd think that the National Guard would be sent in to provide relief supplies, and yet this kind of winter was considered so routine that everyone was prepared.  We all had our wood supply laid in well before the snow came, most families had freezers which they kept stocked with venison, and often with poached elk, and surviving the brutality was a point of pride, it was considered normal.

In the mid 80's the winters gradually got easier.  We got lots of snow, and regular blizzards, but not like the '74-'81 period.  In '85-'86 we got record low amounts of snow and cold- in late February the ground was mostly bare.  The following winters were weak, though I drove home 100 miles through a blizzard the winter of '90.  I remember driving my friends truck home after a day of skiing, trying to keep enough forward momentum to burst through the hood-high drifts, spinning crazily sideways when the gusts of wind would strike us on the icy road.  That spring I moved to New York city.

I experienced some great storms out East, at least one hurricane and several Nor'easters.  They were some great storms, but not blizzards.  In '93 we got two feet of snow, and then freezing rain, followed by frigid temps.  If you've never been, New York has a parking system which alternates sides of the street you can park on on different days to facilitate street cleaning- Alternate Side Parking.  Our cars got plowed in by the garbage trucks (yes, they use garbage trucks to plow), then they were cemented in place by the rain.  The traffic cops ticketed everyone.  We went to court to protest, and the incredulous judges dismissed all of the tickets.  There was no place to move your car to- the other side of the street was a six foot deep pile of snow and ice, and our cars were locked in, as if in concrete.  I don't think I moved my car for six weeks.

My ex and I broke up in '98, and when my legal shenanigans were wrapped up in 2000 I moved back north.  I will never forget the moment, standing on a bridge, once again in Trout Country, breathing in that scent found only on a free-stone trout stream.  I was home.  And yet since then, the winters have been curiously tame.  Sure, we've gotten some snow.  Circa '02-03 I went to bed with flurries in the forecast.  In the morning I got up to find 34 inches of new snow.  And it didn't stop there, we got seven feet of snow that week.  That was an epic winter, but we still didn't get any blizzards.  I've been told that the '08-09 winter was bad, but my father had died tragically that fall, I was out of work, and some friends gave me a job in remote southwest Colorado, and so I missed the whole thing.  Of course, while I was gone my artesian well had to clog, flood my driveway and alarm my neighbors.  I've been told that the snow was measured in feet, but it also melted off at least twice before spring.  When I got back it was over.

This winter will go down as one of the mildest on record.  We had a winter storm warning ten days ago, but it was so lame as to be sad.  This week was warm, with several days above freezing, even at night.  Now we're under another storm warning, and yet the snow falls, big as cats, a sign that it is still too warm.  Western perceptions are that all eastern snow is wet snow, and yet here where I live, historically, our snow was always light, dry and fluffy- powder if you will.  Not anymore.  Most of what you will ski on here will be made by machine.

I don't know about global warming, I only know this- that our winters are much milder than before, and that it adversely affects our trout streams.  We need heavy snow pack and a late spring to ensure enough cold water that can sustain trout all year.  Heavy snows are what charge the moraine aquifers we have here for the year.  When winters such as we're having occur, rivers drop low and super clear, and the steelhead keep their distance.  It's a shame- the smelt have come back, and the salmon and steelhead in Lake Michigan are bigger than ever, but the stream flows are so low that a lot of fish are staying in the lake.  We could use a good storm.  We could use some cold weather, whiteout conditions, howling wind, blinding, driving snow, drifts that you can't see over, week after hard winter week.  It would make us better people.  It makes for better fish.  It makes for better fishing.

We could use a good storm.

Boyne- it may not be white-out, but close enough.

19 comments:

  1. Man that brought back a lot of memories. Our winters in Colorado aren't what I remember as a kid either. But I would be happy to send some snow your way.

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    1. Howard- I've been hearing that you're getting pounded this winter- I hope it's true, though only for the fishing. My house is rattling in the wind as I write this, so maybe our winter will catch up with yours. Cheers, my friend.

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  2. This winter is a joke. You really wrapped up what love for what most hate looks like. And the sentimentality over simple precipitation is odd but shared. Nice stuff!

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    1. I don't know why we miss things that make life harder. I think it's the perverse satisfaction found in endurance. I'm hearing that so winter is mild all over the place, so we're not alone here.

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  3. Long Island is not exactly known for it's snow fall totals in most winters but I agree with you. We could use some snow here also, if only to appease my 2 and 5 year old and allow them to go sleigh riding. At this point last year we had several feet on the ground and it was bitterly cold. This winter I have already been fishing several times in Dec and may go this weekend. (I usually don't fish between the end of Nov and the begining of Apr).

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    1. New York is no place for snow, but a foot or two for the kids wouldn't hurt, would it. I hope you get some fishing in.

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  4. I remember storms like that when I was very young. Snow up to the roof of our house in Kenosha. We get a lot of snow (not this year, yet) out here in California, but nothing like that.

    Mark

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    1. Yeah- the Mountain West still seems to get it. I've been wondering if those winters then were abnormally harsh, or have the winters gotten milder.

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  5. There's something very exciting about an oncoming winter storm and having an excuse to hunker down at home for a few days. I think part of it is holdover excitement from my teaching days when there'd be a palpable buzz among the staff and students several days before a predicted storm was to hit. Strangely, I'm not teaching anymore but I still get up early on snowy mornings to check for school delays and cancellations....and I'm still disappointed when I don't see my old school on the list!

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    1. To us as kids, of course, a coming storm was one of the most exciting things possible- no school!! It's less exciting now- I have four wheel drive and far less excuse to miss work. The roads have to be completely impassable or officially closed.

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    2. Awesome read! I've never actually seen 'real' snow before, so you painted the picture quite well for me. I can't imagine snow deeper than about an inch.

      And you're right. Hurricane parties can be fun...As long as the building stands :)

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    3. We got six inches of snow last night- pretty tame for here. We should have more than two feet of ground cover, equivalent to 5-8 feet fresh snowfall (it compacts over time). I had a roommate in NYC from West Palm- he told me the hurricane party tales.

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  6. Whoops. That was supposed to be a comment, not a reply

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  7. Yeah, the snow this year has been disappointing. I'm no fan of the stuff but it does keep the streams flowing late into the summer. Unfortunately, the Internet and cell phones means there's no break from work. Yet another reason to have become a teacher. Oh well.....

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  8. We finally got six inches Friday. The roads have to be closed for me to miss work these days, so I hear ya.

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  9. I hear you there bro. What ever happened to the good ole days when you couldn't even open up your front door because the drifts were so high you had to use a shovel to get out. How about so much snow that sledding was an everyday occurrence. We got about 5 inches but it just wasn't enough :) Tight LInes.

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    1. Yeah, we got 6 inches here from that storm. Not enough indeed. That much snow could be a pain, but it was always exciting. Plus it was cool to miss school...

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  10. Great piece!

    You made me take a look back to some of the storms we got back home in ND...snow days from school, stocking up on groceries, hot chocolate, and snow forts...good stuff. I need a storm!

    cheers

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    1. Thanks, Sanders man! I was just happy to get some snow finally last week. It was kind of cool to look back. I'm sure ND got lots of fierce ones.

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