AN OPEN WINTER CLOSES

AN OPEN WINTER CLOSES

It is a snowy night. I’m home from a “Yankee Swap,” which was fun, as was driving home through swirling flakes along unsanded, pure-white country roads. Since stomping the snow off my feet by the front door, I have slouched by the computer and spent some time perusing my favorite weather-sites, checking the radar as a storm bloomed as it cruised up the coast. We only have had around three inches with this one, but night has gone very white, and I have the strong sense that our “open winter” is over.

Last winter was one of the most open winters I can remember, and I enjoyed it greatly. There was an unreal early snowstorm, two feet of white in late October, when I hadn’t even finished raking the leaves, but that snow fell so early it swiftly melted away, and then we really never developed much of a snow pack after that. January’s scarce snowfalls were so light that I could snow-blow in sixth gear, practically running behind my snow-blower.

Down in Boston they had only 9.3 inches last winter. That made it the second least snowy winter since snowfall records began to be kept in 1890. In the winter of 1936-37 Boston only had 9.0 inches.

All in all, open winters are quite rare this far north. So of course some blamed Global Warming for last winter, which caused me to make scoffing noises. I have become politically incorrect about that topic, because I simply know too much weather history to swallow the statement that something which occurred once in the winter of 1936-37 and a second time during the winter of 2011-12 was due to Global Warming the second time it happened, but not the first. Also the winter of 2010-11 had 81 inches of snow in Boston, which made it one of the snowiest winters in the past 120 years. Lastly, records show the planet hasn’t warmed at all, over the past 16 years.

All in all, I am becoming an old grouch, I fear. I do not take kindly to young whippersnappers coming home from a couple of classes at college and telling me I don’t know much about the weather, when I’ve never liked being indoors, and have worked outside much of my sixty years. Even without my old brain, my old bones know more about the weather, and are better at predicting some storms with their aches, than billion dollar super-computers are.

When I get grouchy it helps to go for a walk, and last winter was nice, for you never needed to wade through snow. Even up here in the hills of Southern New Hampshire east of Mount Monadnock, the snow only got to be around six inches deep, for a few days in January.

Of course it made it a bit harder to keep the kids happy at our childcare at the farm. Most winters I build them an igloo, and take them sledding, but last October’s igloo melted away in a matter of days. We did get a lot of sledding in with a small amount of snow, however often the packed snow on the hillside was a bit brown, and the bottom of the plastic sleds were scoured by scratches from running over leaves, twigs, acorns and patches of sand. This year our new sleds are around twice as fast, when slid down hills beside last year’s sleds. (I guess “waxing scratched sled bottoms” ought be added to my endless list of chores.)

I can remember plenty of winters that started out snowless, or had a thin, early snow-cover washed away by a warm winter sou’easter’s rain, however that often leads to the best skating when the midwinter cold arrives.

I remember one winter that actually set a record, here in New Hampshire, for “latest first snow.” There was a drought, and it neither rained or snowed from mid December until around January 12, even as the weather grew colder and colder. (Without checking I’d guess it occurred in the 1990’s, as my boys were still small.) Skuffing through the carpets of brown leaves in the woods in January, I saw things ordinarily hidden under snow, which I’d never seen before.

For example, up here you notice December’s roads become bumpier and bumpier, until some years they are like roller coasters, due to the formation of “frost heaves.” Sometimes these lumps subside in the spring, with little distortion of the tar, but other times there is a complete collapse of the lump into the dreaded “pot hole.” However you can never see what is going on, for it is happening below the tar. However you can see what happens when the same thing happens where there are no roads, especially when there is no blanket of snow to keep the forest floor warm. The ground silently heaves up in the bitter cold, and then spears of ice called “candle ice” thrust upwards through the leaf litter. Such a surface is very odd to walk over, for there’s a lot of air between the spears of ice in a frost heave, and you can leave crunching footprints six inches deep.

An even better part of open winters is the black ice that forms on the ponds and lakes. That makes for the smoothest, best skating, and also allows you to peer downwards to the chilled world under the ice. Unfortunately such peering and observing causes my wife great worry, for she finds it hard to believe ice is safe when you can see water moving beneath your feet. Even when I point out bubbles frozen in the black ice, a foot beneath the surface, she feels nervous.

I don’t blame her. Children, and even some adults, can be very foolish when it comes to walking on unsafe ice. Every year the newspapers report some fool has driven a car out and plunged through. Small children are especially unaware of the danger involved, and you have to be extremely careful when others entrust their children to you. You have to also be extremely careful with your own children, and even your own self.

I am careful because when I was young and foolish I fell through the ice on several occasions. I was wise enough to be foolish in shallow water, but on one occation the water was chest deep and the air temperature was around zero, and by the time I’d run home all my clothing was crackling and creaking and clunking like armor, and I was shuddering with shivers. That taught me a lot, the hard way.

(In actual fact, I think the most dangerous time is spring, when you are used to ambling over the ice you have long trusted, but that ice is gradually thinning under your feet.)

In the late fall and early winter, when the ice is just forming, there seems to be a natural caution and distrust, regarding the safety of ice. Of course, children three and younger simply cannot be trusted near thin ice, (but you also can’t trust them near open water, or at the edge of cliffs, or by surf on beaches, either.) However by age four and five little children have usually fallen and skinned their knees enough to wise up, and become ever so slightly careful when approaching new situations. However this is not to say they won’t venture out to test ice that is most definitely not safe.

I witnessed this a week ago, when I saw one little boy, aged five, leading two sidekicks aged four towards the farm pond at our childcare. I immediately suspected trouble, for this particular five-year-old does not take kindly to bossy grown-ups, and rules have never stopped him from learning for himself, the hard way. (All children know it is against our rules to be by that pond without adult supervision even in the summer, when the frogs are all but irresistible, and approaching that pond without adult supervision is especially against-the-rules in winter, even when the ice on the pond is so thick an elephant could cross it.) However this little five-year-old finds rules offensive. If he could write poetry he’d likely say,

“I’m tired of you and your stupid, old laws
For if there weren’t rules there wouldn’t be flaws.”

Therefore as soon as I saw him leading his two sidekicks astray I went lickety-split across the pasture, but as I neared I wondered to myself if I should intervene. For an old grouch, I’m surprisingly liberal, in my own way. We don’t want to be repressive, do we? Is it not politically correct to be permissive?

I decided to button my lip and see what happened, and what happened was the five year old got to the edge of the ice and slid one foot out. Then he gradually put his weight on that foot, until his full weight of perhaps forty pounds was on that foot, and then he slid his second foot away from land. Amazingly the ice, which was only a half-inch thick, didn’t break. He looked back at his pals with an expression of sheer delight, and exclaimed, “It is safe!” Then he turned towards deeper waters, and slid his foot further out, from ice over only an inch of water, towards ice over deeper waters.

If it had been my own son I would have let him edge out until the water was a little deeper, perhaps even thigh deep, hoping the ice would break and he’d learn as I learned, The Hard Way. However, as it was another man’s son, and as that man is not a fellow I’d trifle with unless I wanted a two-by-four landed across my ear, I decided, “The heck with permissiveness.”

I put on my fiercest face, and bellowed in my most deep voice, “What are you doing?”

I’m not sure if asking a question constitutes child abuse. It probably does, these days.

In the old days you’d put a naughty boy over your knee and spank him, but such ape-like behavior has long been discarded. We child-care-professionals are not even allowed to send a child to a “Time Out,” any more. We are instead told to “redirect the child’s attention.”

Well, bellowing certainly got the child’s attention. It also got the attention of every other little child. Every little head swiveled, as I continued, in my deep bellow, “That ice is too thin! That water is deep and cold! It would be HORRIBLE if you fell through! It is AGAINST THE RULES. You are REDIRECTED! Go over to that stump and investigate the lichen!”

Guilty but glowering, and shooting me a sideways glare, the tyke slunk over to the stump. (Never a word of thanks for saving his life, nor for introducing him to the wonders of lichen.)

I would, if I could, introduce him to other wonders: The wonders of walking on black ice when it gets a little thicker, and perhaps even (with the required parental permission slip, of course,) to a so-called “sport” called “stunning.”

Actually it is a “survival skill,” from back in the days when boys could be helpful if they brought home a bit of extra meat for the table.

You can actually go out on black ice when it is only an inch thick, if you are a boy and weigh less than eighty pounds. It does tend to flex and crackle, however, providing no other boy comes out with you, you can get away with it. You carry a stout, short branch with you, and a light hatchet, and look for life under the ice. Fish are sluggish in the cold water, and, staying where it is shallow, you can sometimes see a slow fish below you. Or you can have friends stamp loudly along the shore, and suddenly see a muskrat or even bachelor-beaver come swimming out under the ice, which always gives your heart a lurch, no matter how many times you have seen the dark shape come gliding towards you, under the ice.

What you then do is clout the surface of the ice with your stick, just above the fish or swimming mammal. The clout must be quite hard, but not too hard. You should make a spiderweb of cracks, but not smash so hard that the ice disintegrates and you fall through and are drenched to the waist. This clout will stun your prey, and you then busily hack a hole in the ice with your hatchet and grab your prey before it revives. Then you kill it, clean it, and are a hero at home for bringing home meat, and perhaps a pelt you can sell.

Of course, if you are not into supplying your own table with meat, and prefer supermarkets, you can just creep out over the thin ice and see the creatures beneath, without stunning them. (I only mention the survival skill of “stunning” in case you are ever in a survival situation.) Besides the fish and mammals you can see through the ice, there are all sorts of smaller critters. The turtles and frogs have gone to sleep in the mud, but in the brown tea of water crawfish crawl and dragonfly larvae creep, leeches inchworm along and specks too small to identify jiggle like bright motes in the water. It’s likely safer to wait until the ice is two and half inches thick, or three, or four, (my wife would say eighteen,) but it is fairly safe at all times, as long as you stick to the shallows, and such innocent adventuring can entertain a whole crowd of children, who press red noses against the ice and gaze down as eagerly as they do at a toy store’s front windows.

Then it snows, and abruptly the window is slammed closed. The skating, which is never as sleek and smooth and free as it is on the black ice of a vast lake, suddenly involves shoveling off snow to make a small rink. Walking through rustling woodland leaves turns into wading through snow, and eventually trudging through crunching crust.

And this has now happened. We shall have no black ice this year, which you can walk across. Already the world has whitened, (which is not a bad thing during these darkest of days.) However the whole world of an open winter has shut down. And I feel in my bones it will be a long time before the ponds are open again. Into my mind’s eye comes the vision of whitetail deer with haunted eyes, wading through chest deep powder, and myself, with similar eyes, opening the heating bill. But that…..is a different tale for a different day.

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