Storm Approaches
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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)

January #1, 2000

Saturday, January 13, 2001. Is winter over? My fellow snow fanatic, John Dee, counsels against getting into a funk, promising an early return to the happy winter wonderland we experienced in December. Indeed, even in the lean snowfall years of Nino and Nina, January snowfalls have been six to nine feet. But this January feels different. It's now mid-month and we have just a bit over a foot of new snow. Even worse, the thaw of this week has bared streets and roofs, opened up patches of exposed ground, and shrunk our beautiful snow pack and pristine road windrows into tattered, misshapen remnants of their former glory. Water is everywhere.

Surprisingly, not much chatter about this terrible turn of events at our Friday evening gathering at the Inn. It's a bit like politics, not a subject to broach at a congenial gathering. Folks up here are in two camps. The more snow the better crowd - actually not a crowd, only a few of us hold this view. And the rest - folks who regard our increasingly less deserved reputation as big snow country as simply an abuse we must tolerate to keep the bugs down and gather dollars from unsuspecting "down below" snow groupies. This larger group somehow finds little joy in shoveling roofs, in the daily scooping of yards to make room for yet another snowfall, or in digging their vehicles out of snowbanks. For them, a thaw is a blessing. As I quickly learned at Dukes, my Laurium barbershop, it's not smart to put in a good word for snow or lament a thaw. The last, and only, time I did so, I almost lost an ear. So at the Inn I, and others who hold such scurrilous views, keep our distress with the thaw in check. Our friendly neighbors know our hearts are burdened with this blasphemy, and in kindness, leave us alone.

There is not much incentive to leave camp. The bush snowpack is wet and soft, the roadside and ski trails are icy, the return of constant overcast discourages photo walkabouts, and sheltered roadways lurk with menacing black ice from cold nights. So while Abby snoozes, I lose myself in a good book, poke the fire, and explore the world via the computer. Thanks to the marvel of the Internet, I'm in daily contact with a 24 year-old English sailor competing in a single handed, four-month, race from France, through the Southern Ocean, around Antarctica and return. Fifteen courageous, I believe a bit crazy, men and women surfing 80-foot sailboats at over 20 knots in 100-foot seas laden with ice. My young sailor is now rounding Cape Horn. She's in second place.

Two incidents in this past week are reminders of the risks of winter life in this remote and now thinly populated area. Our good friend Ivan Fisher, slipped on his icy steps Thursday, broke his ankle, crawled to his car, somehow drove it to a neighbor's cottage down the road, and leaned on the horn until help arrived to take him to the hospital. Last Monday, John Kaleita, our South Shore Town Crier, blacked out in his locked car at Lac La Belle, was fortunately discovered alongside the usually quiet road, pulled from his vehicle, revived with CPR, and taken by ambulance to the hospital. Neither did anything dumb, as I am sometimes prone to do, but both were significantly at risk. Bad things can happen here, as they can anywhere, but here, in the mid to late winter months, the chances of not being discovered or not being able to get help are high. I've commented before about our propensity to keep track of each other's comings and goings - that's why. It's a matter of survival.

These incidents, and the thought of the young sailor rounding the infamous Horn, temper my lament of our January thaw. There is a lot of winter left.

Tuesday, January 9, 2001. My recent preoccupation with firewood supply has made me more sensitive to taking good care of Dennis, my propane deliveryman. I sure as heck don't want to run out of this now precious liquid simply because my tank is inaccessible. It sits in the lee of a windbreak near the back of my place. Lots of snow and lots of wind, our lot for the past month, buries the tank in several feet of snowdrift. I know, not good planning, but I hate the look of these tanks and try to hide it from summer view. Sure enough, when I checked this morning, the tank was deep in a drift. Dennis is good-natured, and would (and has) dig it out if he thought I couldn't, but it's really my responsibility.

So out I go, car shovel in hand and wearing the tallest snow boots I possess. Luckily, the temperature is moderate, in the mid-twenties, but today's gale is gusting near 40 knots and snow is flying everywhere. Abby, who pounced happily out the door to join in the fun, quickly retreats to the shelter of the porch. She gets spooked by wind and swirling snow. I proceed slowly, stopping to rest after each couple of scoops in deference to my recent infirmaries. The tank is about 75 feet from the road, so the first task is to dig out an access trail. That's not too bad. The snow is fortunately dry and light, which is why it swirls so in the strong wind. By the time I reach the tank, Abby has decided to follow along, protected from the wind by the deep cut of the new trail.

Now the tank. I dig through the drift, the shovel finally clanging against the metal cylinder. There is almost four feet of snow over the cap housing the gauge and intake fitting. I try to shovel the snow downwind, but that proves difficult as the drift rises another three or four feet in that direction. I know the snow I'm moving to windward will soon refill about the tank, but at least for a day or two the tank should be accessible. The gauge reads about 30% full, so Dennis should be here soon. I hope so.

It's true; digging out the propane tank is about as exciting as life gets at Eagle Harbor in the middle of winter. That and watching the storm systems move across the lake and onto our rocky outpost. Today I get both, a dig and a storm. My lucky day.

A forecasted mid-thirties thaw has me a bit on edge. Hopefully it will be short-lived and if the wind veers more northerly we might get some "air-conditioning" off the lake. Unfortunately it seems to be backing to the west. January thaws are not uncommon, but for those of us who relish snow packed roads and roofs, fluffy snow drifts, and take pride in the quest for snowfall and snow pack records, a January thaw is as unwelcome as a cold summer rain.

Today's strong winds have cleared the harbor's west bay of ice, shoving yesterday's seagull perches down to dance about in the churning east bay. Despite the climbing temperature, now about 30 degrees, the wind chills are subzero. White, pink edged clouds race in from the lake, with big pockets of blue affording the sun opportunities to dazzle us with its brightness. During such moments the harbor waters take on a shimmering silver cast and snow crystals sparkle atop the drifts. All in all, quite a visual treat.

I also shoveled out the mailbox. I noticed that yesterday Brad had to leave the comfort of his mail truck and hand carry my mail across a drift to the box. Not good. There is some talk of consolidating harbor mailboxes, much as has been done at Eagle River. While I would miss having my box so close to my cottage, the prospect of returning to a central mail pickup point, such as we had when all mail was delivered to the store, is somewhat appealing. Many long time Harborites remember fondly the fun of gathering to pick up mail. I suppose a logical place would be the town hall. Hey, how about a contract post office such as Copper Harbor has?

So goes another mid-winter day at Eagle Harbor. Digging out, watching storms, and casting about for a cause.

Sunday, January 7, 2001. I joined Abby for her pre-dawn stroll this morning. A few inches of soft lake effect snow overnight, and a mild 25-degree lured me from the crackle and glow of a freshly laid fire. The wind off the lake had a chilling, yet refreshing, bite to it, as did the hard snow crystals gently pecking on my face. The lake, still restless from yesterday's gale, growled as we crunched along the unplowed and untrammeled roadway. Abby scouted ahead, leaving a squiggly, snowshoe rabbit like, pattern of tracks as she darted in and out of paths to the darkened doors of her still sleeping treat suppliers. My following track was like that of the fox - straight, as if embarked on some great journey. The yellowish glow of our thankfully few and pesky street lights cast shadows among the long vacated summer camps and the steadily building drifts of fresh snow, shadows unseen in the sun impoverished days of Keweenaw mid-winter. Our trip was short; up to the Inn, around to the Fire Hall, and back along the beach, but long enough to cause lungs still encumbered with lingering pneumonia to begin to ache and the "bigfoot" paws of the Wonderdog to cake up with frozen snow. I grabbed a couple of logs from my recently excavated woodpile and we returned to the cozy warmth of a still blazing fireplace.

Yes, I'm back to building blazing fires, much to Abby's delight. My firewood supplier is digging out another cord or two from his "private reserve" and has promised to deliver it today - thus assuring a full winter of warm hearths for the pooch and a cozy camp for me. I'm not sure where we will put the new wood, probably just dump it in the snow bank near my front door. It takes a bit more digging to get at it when it's dumped rather than stacked, but at least we will have plenty of wood and I can stack what's left of it after the spring melt and before there is much damage to an already impoverished yard.

One of our Harbor Web readers loaned me her copy of Rick Bass's Winter Notes From Montana, an intriguing and instructive journal of a solitary winter spent in a remote, thinly populated, Montana valley up along the Canadian border. A place without electricity. I often wonder what it must have been like to live through a Keweenaw winter without power, as many did in the heyday of mining in the hills behind the Harbor. Bass's journal suggests that the key to survival was firewood harvesting. Cords and cords of the stuff. Not the two or three that I find sufficient for warm hearths and cozy camp, but, in Bass's case, forty cords for heat and cooking. Let's see, 40 stacked cords would fill up my entire camp yard to a depth of four feet. Mind boggling. And Bass cut, hauled, split and stacked it all himself. I wouldn't make much of a pioneer.

It's now late morning and the sun has suddenly and surprisingly broken through the lake effect cloud clusters. Gosh it's white. I feel like I'm back in the surgical suite. A flock of seagulls are resting on the pack ice out front - rocking up and down as the waves moving into the harbor move beneath the ice. Snow clouds still crowd the lake horizon so our moment in the sun will likely be brief.

There has, however, been a noticeable tapering off of the lake effect snowfall. December brought over four inches of lake effect snow every day, but we now are receiving only an inch or two every other day or so. This is the usual pattern for January as the now cooled lake yields less of its water to the cold air masses moving across the lake from Canada.

From this time on our winter snow success will depend on what, if any, of the snow moving in from the high western states finds it's way to the UP. The pattern in recent years has been for these storms to track to the south. Lets hope that will not be the case this winter.

December's record snowfall more than made up for the dismal season beginning, but if we are to have our normal twenty feet or so, or thirty feet for a really good year, the western storms must stay north where they belong and are welcomed (at least by me), and not bother those of you to the south, living in places that powder nature's most beautiful offering with dirty sand and generally regard its presence as a nuisance.

Thursday, January 4, 2000. My woodpile, toppled by a mid-December gale, now lies scattered beneath a deep snowdrift. I was out digging through the drift last evening, feeling somewhat like an archeologist as each "end up" split log was uncovered, yanked from the embrace of its brethren, whacked clear of snow, and hauled indoors. Not much wood remains, less than a cord - surely not enough to warm Abby's hearth snoozing place for the remainder of the winter. Getting wood now is almost impossible as the three or four feet of snow pack in the bush deters local choppers. Lulled into carelessness by the specter of yet another relatively snowless winter, I now find myself unprepared. Oh well, it's not a life or death matter, as it might have been a few decades ago - merely a cosmetic inconvenience and disappointment in this time of power and propane. Abby doesn't know, but she's going on warm hearth rations soon.

So goes the first few hours of my return to the Harbor after nearly three weeks of hospitalization, recovery and family gathering. My, there is a lot of snow! Beautifully sculpted drifts soften the rugged Keweenaw landscape, and structures and trees are laden with big white clumps that seemingly defy gravity. I noticed a lot of folks up on their roofs with shovels, scoops and even snowblowers, as I drove through the copper towns on Tuesday. Keweenaw County roadside windrows are becoming impressive, both in their height and in their pristine beauty. Unlike in the "uptown" communities, where sand, salt, and stamp sand are liberally scattered on roadways for traction, our county road caretakers use such stuff sparingly, knowing that a thin layer of loose snow pack, slightly serrated with a plow blade, works just as well in a place where nearly everyone has good snow tires - and it leaves the roadway and windrow blemish free. Of course, there is little traffic on Keweenaw winter roads, which also deters snow from being packed into ice. In a nutshell, we have the prettiest winter roads around!

The sailors out on the lake are not doing as well. Ice buildup in harbors, locks and rivers has become a real problem. As I drove along the Duluth waterfront Tuesday, the harbor appeared completely ice filled. Yet, the big lakers continue to cruise by the Keweenaw coast, depending on the crews of the Coast Guard's icebreakers to clear paths to and from the terminal docks. The morning report from "Group 2" at the Soo, noted that the Cort, one of the massive 1,000 footers, was locked in ice somewhere in the St. Mary's River. It's hard to imagine that ship of that size can be waylaid by ice. I suspect the reliable old cutter Mackinaw, which hasn't had much ice to cut its teeth on for the past few years, will soon have the Cort on her way. The last of this season's lakers should be passing by our harbor light within the next couple of weeks.

With the departure of the lakers, also goes the last of our growing number of Harbor snowbirds. All heading for winter "lay-up". The few souls left in town report the Harbor holiday time was the usual whirl of parties and snow scene frolicking - sort of a "Fourth" week without the beach games. Rich's co-op ice rink was apparently a big hit, and the ski trail groomers say a lot of folks were out in the bush trying to figure out the maze of trail longcuts, shortcuts and spurs. The trail seems pretty straightforward to me, but of course I have the Wonderdog to guide me about.

There appear to be few snowmobilers around - not surprising given all the good snow cover along my return route through Minnesota and Wisconsin. Having the "only show (snow) in town" is critical for the few Keweenaw family businesses catering to the fickle and short-term sledder trade. Although not on the main snowmobile trail, it runs near US41 from Mohawk to Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor's Shoreline Resort and Harbor Inn represent half of the restaurants now open beyond Slims. (Well, I suppose everything is "beyond" Slims - our throwback to the wonderful era of roadside short order cafes staffed with cheerful waitresses serving up scrumptious local news and gossip.) We all wish Lissa and Tracy, and Dick and Mary good fortune as they wait for the sleds to arrive, but unless trails further south deteriorate quickly, it could be a challenging winter season for our entrepreneurial and hard working neighbors.

Now we settle down for the three or four months of "quiet watch" until wandering neighbors tire of warm beaches, blooming deserts and air conditioning. Our Friday evening gatherings for communal supper take on added social significance as our days are mostly devoted to solitary pursuits. Table turn, never good with the Harbor crowd, grounds to a halt on winter Fridays. Mary just smiles, as will Lissa.

For me the deep winter quiet watch offers the opportunity to read the works of several new authors I've discovered, do some writing, and perhaps assemble and edit a collection of my harbor journals and walkabout photos for private publication. I'll attempt to organize the debris of busier times, stroll with Abby about the winter wonderland outside my door, and drool over boating catalogues. Most of all I'll try to take better care of myself in preparation for the much-anticipated summer of sailing about the big lake.

I think of these coming few months as a time of active hibernation, a time of life clarification and renewal. It's a good time, and like most of my deep winter Harbor neighbors, I enter into it comfortably - but always with an eye "up the road" in search of the first returning "snowbird".

While we will enjoy our time of quiet solitude, the sure knowledge that good neighbors will eventually return keeps the soul secure.

Abby's nibbling on my leg, letting me know that in the course of this discourse I've let the fireplace grow cool. So has my resolve for log rationing. It's time to resume my archeological dig.

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Go To Daily Journal Archives:
December, 2000
November, 2000
October, 2000
September, 2000
May, 2000
April, 2000
March, 2000
February2, 2000
February1, 2000