Storm Approaches
Eagle Harbor Web
An unofficial source of Eagle Harbor, Michigan news, views and information.

The (Almost ) Daily Harbor Journal.

Winter Storm Approaches

"...when we don't live with birds or weather or waves we lose the opportunity to think hard about ourselves, to discover from nature important facts about human nature."
(excerpted from Nancy Lord's, Fishcamp)

December, 2000

Christmas Eve, 2000. My bulging email box suggests that at least some of those who stop by our web site for their Eagle Harbor "fix" are seeking some explanation for the absence of editor tinkering for the last several days. Even in this hectic holiday time of gathering, giving and gobbling, Harbor aficionados apparently still find time to wonder how many feet of snow we have, and what, if anything, is happening down the hill from Popeye's Rock. For some, no news is apparently akin to finding a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. C'mon George they plea, shed the skis and hit the keys.

Well, we now have over ten feet of snow, the town's filled with happy winter revelers, and your editor is enjoying the caring comfort of family in deep freeze Minneapolis - and recovering from yet another visit with my friends up at Keweenaw Memorial. While my good Harbor neighbors were busy counting and scooping the many white flakes of the pre-Christmas week, I was trying to focus on overhead snow-white fluorescents as capable hands probed for places to inject the miracles of modern medicine. ERs and ITCUs are not customer modem ready yet; so snow totals and Wonderdog escapades went unreported. Sorry about that.

The episode was another reminder of the blessedness of a life lived in the Harbor community - a matter of special import to me as I contemplate my lot in the early morning darkness of this eve before the last Christmas of the Second Millennium. I often write of the wonder and lessons of the natural world that envelops the place we call Eagle Harbor. It is indeed a place of great beauty and magic, a place where ones role in the natural order of things is constantly counseled and challenged. But it is also a place of people - wonderful, caring people who are in truth what makes Eagle Harbor so special for me.

Perhaps our continual exposure to the "rough edge" of the interface between man and his environment tempers us to the fragility of life and the need, indeed the joy, of close community. We nurture and celebrate our independence, and hone our self-sufficiency abilities, but what we do best is look out for each other. When I disappear up the hill, as I did this past week, and always watchful neighbors notice something awry - an untrammeled woodpile path, lights on or off when they shouldn't be, Abby not making her morning or evening treks for treats, no activity on the Harbor Web page - there is first a phone call, and if that isn't answered, the camp is quickly visited. A vehicle left too long at a trailhead gets the same scrutiny. Some may think us nosey, but careful observation of living patterns and the recognition of departures, can be a lifesaver, especially for those of us who live alone - and most especially in winter when there are so few of us around.

It didn't take long to discover my whereabouts this past week (Keweenaw Memorial is unfortunately part of my "life pattern"), and even less time for Bruce to check the camp, Jean and Tom to care for Abby, and others to offer their assistance. Anne was there when I needed transportation home, and Ginny made the trip to town to recover my van. Harbor neighbors all doing what they do best - helping a neighbor.

So as I gather with my loving family about the tree of gifts on this cold Christmas Eve, I will be mindful of my many good fortunes, most especially the caring community of neighbors that makes Eagle Harbor such a special place.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 16, 2000. We are off to good start this morning. Some tasty home made saffron bread toast with thimbleberry jam is on my breakfast plate, and a good snow is in the day's forecast. Abby's curled on the warm hearth following her early morning darkness stroll through the night's offering of soft snow. My legs ache a bit, the aftermath of yesterday's initial trek along the Harbor ski trail, but each little twinge of stiff muscle reminds me of the wonder of being in the bush after heavy snow.

We don't have as much snow pack at the Harbor as there is "up the hill", but the ski trail is soft and, thanks to Bruce Olson and Jon Davis, is well groomed and tracked. The evergreens are heavily laden with snow, their limbs drooping low over the trail, producing refreshing snow showers for the skiers unable to duck low enough to avoid brushing them. Soft trailside snow is deeply indented with the tracks of foraging deer and snowshoe rabbits, and laced with the surface scratches of the abundance of squirrel, fox, mouse, and birds that winter in this northern clime. An encounter with the unmistakable large four toe pad print of a bobcat, and later the five toed print of a fisher, accounted for the nervous track patterns of the deer and snowshoe, the nocturnal prey of these seldom sighted furry carnivores.

The Harbor ski trail has now been extended westerly to Great Sand Bay. The about three km round trip extension through property owned by the Clark family begins at the end of the "Olson Spur", behind Cat Harbor, and winds through a beautiful stand of old pine down to the dunes at Sand Bay. All the now nearly 15 km of the Harbor trail is truly a visual and recreational treat, but the new "Clark" segment, along with the "Olson Spur" stretch along the back of Cat Harbor, are exceptionally beautiful, especially when the trees are blanketed in deep snow, as they were yesterday.

As dawn breaks this morning I note that the surface of the harbor's west bay is once again covered with snow incrusted pack ice, pushed over by last night's southeasterly. A northwesterly gale is in the forecast, but at the moment the air is lackadaisical, and the ice, a crazy quilt pattern of white flows and narrow streaks of dark gray, almost black, open water, lies motionless. Snow is falling in the hills behind the harbor, obscuring from view all but the harborside cottages and the trees at the base of the ridge. As the wind builds, first from the southwest, and then from the northwest, and waves begin to surge into the harbor, the ice will likely disappear.

This morning's lake weather bulletin from the Coast Guard's "Group 2" station at the Soo, advised mariners that due the rapid buildup of ice in harbors, especially in Duluth and in the approaches to the locks, navigational buoys were being pulled two weeks earlier than scheduled, and that "Operation Taconite", had been implemented. The Operation manages vessel movement through ice areas, and schedules ice-breaking assistance. It's been five years since we have experienced significant ice shelf buildout from the Keweenaw shore, but with lake surface temperatures already in the low thirties, this could be one of those years when the ice will extend out to and beyond the horizon.

When the ice last crept beyond the horizon, I ventured out on the pack about a quarter mile, experiencing a "Shackleton in Antarctica" moment. The ice looked solid beyond, but nervousness about the effect of the nearby Keweenaw Current, diminished my zeal. On the following day, the current had opened a wide patch of open water just beyond the outer limit of my ice venture tracks. While I felt vindicated, I knew Shackleton would have somehow figured out how to press on. My admiration for my since childhood hero grew.

While I prefer our usually moderate winter temperatures, cold snaps, such as we have recently experienced, do produce good lake ice, and with it the awesome nighttime sounds of exploding ice ridges and splitting ice flows - like the sound lighting produces as it splits the atmosphere. A wintertime treat, at least for winter romantics like me, is to stand at the base of the lighthouse on a cold winter night when the air is still and the ice shelf is at work. Wonderful sounds, some so close they startle the nerves, others far out on the pack, echoing from the hills at my back. Combine that with a good northern light display, and you have a truly special experience, one few souls below the 49th parallel will ever witness. (Or, perhaps, want to witness.)

Good thoughts and good memories are seemingly my lot as this "storm approaching" day begins. Another trek on the trail beckons. It's time to rouse the Wonderdog from her warm hearth slumber and venture out. She will be eager, as will I.

Tuesday, December 12, 2000. If this keeps up, the Keweenaw might reclaim its title as "snow capitol of the Midwest". True, we are seemingly once more not in the big storm track, as is evident with today's big snows further south, but with the lake effect machine going full blast we have been averaging about four inches a day since the beginning of December. Pretty respectable. Probably not a record setting year given no snow in October and a partly 24 inches in November, but good enough to provide an early start to the cross-country ski season and the onslaught of snowmobiles.

Yesterday I witnessed the initial convoy of the big sleds heading up to the lighthouse. The eight machines were all the same and the colorful garb of their drivers and riders seemingly coordinated, suggesting a sled manufacturer sponsored riding group - probably from someplace in the still relatively snow free sled hotbeds in Wisconsin or Minnesota. We usually don't see many snowmobilers at the Harbor until the week following Christmas, but given our early December lock on good snow depth, the sleeping bush is already a steady hum of sleds powering along the trails. So much for the solitude of the color to snow interval.

My good neighbor Jim is once again making his early morning snowplowing rounds, pushing overnight snow and roadside windrows away from the vehicles that most of us still park on our lawns. Garages and pole barns are a recent phoneme at Eagle Harbor, and most of the few of us winter living in what were initially seasonal cottages, have neither the space, nor the inclination, to engage in such urban shenanigans. Even Jim, who has a nice pole barn to shelter his vehicle, generally leaves it outside, parked in a yard he plows clear with the same tenacity he applies to its summer mowing. Perhaps he shares my view that it's not good to coddle a vehicle that has to be reliable in the worst a Keweenaw winter can offer.

The last few days have tested the coddling theory. It's been beastly cold, at least by Keweenaw standards. Temperatures in the single digits (above - this is not Minnesota), combined with gale force winds have made walking about or trail skiing sufficiently threatening that quick jaunts to the woodpile easily satisfy my wanderlust tendencies. I'm glad I installed a new, more powerful battery in my van this fall. Years of summertime sailing in the remote regions of the big lake have apparently honed my preparedness skills. The big lake is rapidly cooling, with building ice in the laker ports and down the St Mary River threatening an early close to the shipping season. Slush ice is filling the harbor and ice caps are building on the big lake's rocky shore. It's cold!

The sense of cold is heightened by the absence of sun. We are now just a few days short of winter solstice. The weather wizards say the sun is now above the eastern horizon at about 8:30 am and setting someplace out west about 5:00 p.m. But the constant presence of lake effect snow clouds off the lake means we have to accept such information on faith. Occasionally, generally near mid-day, a pink tinged seam will suddenly open in the rapid flow of gray snow clusters. A dazzling ribbon of dark blue sky momentarily appears, and almost before the eye can adjust to this strange phenomenon, the patch of color produced by sunlight filtering through the seam, races across the harbor, up the backing hill and disappears over the ridge. These moments of exhilaration are rare in December, but they do portend the two or three months of blinding white landscape and intense blue sky that is usually our lot once the lake cools sufficiently to turn off the lake effect snow machine.

And through all this cold and darkness, the snow continues to fall. My cup is full.

Wednesday, December 6, 2000. This is more like it. A soft snowfall is in progress, not heavy, but sufficient to obscure the ridge across the harbor. It's drifting straight down, a rare event along the gale prone big lake. Fence posts boast fluffy snowcaps and the pine and spruce alongside the camp are draped in beautiful white cloaks. The harbor waters have taken on their winter molten pewter hue, with little patches of skim ice beginning to build out from the shore. Winter is here!

It's cold, about 15 degrees at the Harbor as this is written, but, thanks to the nearby big lake, our temperatures are almost always at least ten to fifteen degrees warmer than the weather guys record at the airport atop the Quincy Hill. Yesterday, with the northwest gale winds clocking nearly forty knots, the wind chills were cruel. Abby and I stayed in camp, venturing out only to gather firewood and retrieve the mail.

Our five November snowfall forecast champs are champing at their virtual pasties as they await the Wonderdog's dog biscuit tie breaker routine. But who could expect anyone, much less a senior pooch, to undertake such a task in such conditions. Indeed, the soulful look she displayed in the picture of her modeling her new lighthouse cap, was most likely provoked by the thought that with cap on, she was about to be enticed into the raw cold to retrieve a handful of dog biscuits buried deep in the icy snow. She knows the pickings are as good, perhaps better, if she just cuddles up to warm my cold feet as I sit by the computer.

The scanner is alive with the talk of laker captains sharing reports of wave and icing conditions as they travel along the Keweenaw coast. Seas reached nearly twenty feet yesterday, enough I'm sure to send some of the upbound boats into Bete Grise to ride it out at anchor. They do so, not for safety, but to avoid the slow and high fuel consuming push through heavy head seas. The alternative for boats upbound to the western lake ports, is to run north and cruise along the lee of Isle Royale and the lake's north shore. We rarely see upbound boats close along the Keweenaw shore in such conditions. Last week, when southwest gales prevailed, the boats hugged the copper coast.

Low water levels are causing real problems for these Great Lake seafarers. All the lakes are low, with Superior now fourteen inches below its December average and approaching the record seasonal low set in 1926. Loads need to be lightened to reduce draft, which adversely affects shipping profitability. A few weeks ago, with strong northwesterly winds pushing water southerly and out of the St Mary's River below the Sault locks, the already low channel depth was so reduced that boats had to tie up or anchor for several days before they could safely proceed. In the commercial shipping world, such delays are very costly. These are not good conditions for my summer companions, and they will soon be making their last runs and heading for winter lay-up.

With the fresh and continuing snow, and the approach of the holidays, the pace of Harbor life is picking up a bit. Lissa and Tracy's Shoreline will reportedly soon reopen to serve the snowmobilers and the Harbor families gatheringfor their Christmas in the snow. The Harbor Inn moves back to its open each day schedule the day after Christmas, historically the first big day of the snowmobile onslaught. A few camps will reopen for the holidays, their owners hoping the current bone chilling temperatures have not caused great damage to water systems. There will be the usual rush of holiday gatherings, sort of our last fling before the several months of solitude waiting for the ice to clear and the our growing number of snowbirds to return. A few of us have put out some modest holiday lights, which seem to shine brighter than they normally would because of their sparsity and the awesome blackness of the big lake and silent hills background.

All in all, except for the trials of our Superior seafarers, life in the Keweenaw in this first week of December is pretty good. November's snowfall was a bit shy of normal, but a big improvement over the past few years of Nino and Nina. The roadside snow windrows are yet just a hint of the massive mounds they will hopefully become, and snow scoops are yet to be replaced with snow blowers. The ski trail needs another foot of snow before Abby and I can safely begin our daily treks. Nobody has yet started his or her roof shoveling routine. Nonetheless, additional snowfall has become our daily lot and the snow gurus are issuing promising long-term forecasts.

I'm easily encouraged.

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November, 2000
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