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

The 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)

March/April, 2001

Wednesday, April 5, 2001 We seem to be stuck near the 25-foot mark on the Keweenaw Snow Thermometer. There has been no new snow for almost three weeks, nor is any suggested in either the short or long-range forecasts emanating from the weather wizards down at Marquette. April usually offers about a foot, even the record low total of last winter included eleven inches in this first month of Spring, but barring a marked change in the prevailing weather patterns, this April might be snowless.

Nothing wrong with 25 feet. Indeed, 25 feet meets the test of a "pretty good" snow year. Twenty feet, our average, would be "no big deal", and most folks up here would consider thirty feet as either a "great" snow year, or a disaster, depending upon one's general outlook on life. We would have to get up to 33 feet or more before satisfying the local standard for "legendary." So this winter, the first of the new millennium, will soon be relegated to just another number on the snowfall charts published by the Gazette for sale at tourist traps and to be posted alongside the bagged buck photos in deer camps.

It was, nonetheless, one of our most beautiful winters. The snow came early, and while there were only a couple of snowstorms worthy of note, there was a fresh mantle of snow almost every day from early December until early March. We probably set a record for consecutive snow days, something approaching forty; assuring terrific ski touring on well groomed trails through evergreen forests beautifully laden with fresh snow. Steady winds, often of gale force, built enormous and exquisitely crafted drifts alongside roads and around our camps and cottages. Temperatures, seldom too cold to discourage our play in the fresh snow, were snow friendly, rarely getting above freezing. So the snow just kept building up, with many weeks of four feet of packed snow on the ground, all the while maintaining its virginal freshness. "Pretty good" may be an apt description for the amount of snow, but for those of us lucky enough to be here these past several months, "pretty good" falls far short of describing this winter's snowfall. It was a surely a snow season to relish.

But now our little spot on the planet has once again tilted towards the ruling sun, and while snow pack still clogs camp entry trails, and ice continues to blanket the harbor, there can be little doubt that the awkwardness of early spring is upon us. The road crews are posting load limits on softening roadways, digging melt drainage ditches through roadside snow windrows, and removing the ice induced sand dams blocking flow from the several creeks about to receive the snow pack melt. Exposed camp yards are nearly devoid of snow and littered with the debris of winter gales and forgotten fall cleanup chores. Squirrels and raccoons are on the prowl, seeking entry to vacant camps and cottages for a bit of rampaging. Birds are everywhere, mostly our winter friends just out enjoying the warm sun, but including a few early, hopefully not too early, migrants. The bears will soon leave their dens, scurrying down to our little hamlet to raid the bird feeders left out by the uninitiated. Most distressing, however, is the dirt latching onto the snow banks languishing alongside the roads. It just doesn't seem right that these last remnants of the pristine snow that so blessed us for so many months, should in its last moments be subjected to such humiliation. I find myself rooting for the warm sun to quickly put the wilting snow banks out of their, and my, misery.

So, it's not yet truly spring, the calendar notwithstanding, and, by the looks of things, winter continues to have her grip on us. Silence and the prevailing sense of remoteness, both so much a part of our winter experience, still prevail. A stroll up to the lighthouse a few nights ago to search for the promised Northern Lights (there were none) reinforced the sense that we are still in our winter mode.

I stood at the base of the light watching the brilliant white beam sweep along the harbor shore and out across the offshore ice. Abby nuzzled in tight against my leg, once again spooked by the eerie silence. The only sound on this windless and ice stilled night was the soft rumble of the beacon rotating overhead. The harbor shore was completely dark, no camps with the glimmers of window light we see "in season", and even the pesky street and yard lights were shielded from view by shore crowding evergreens. Out on the lake, just one set of sparkling lights from an upbound laker, seeming at first to be just one more of the many constellations hanging low over far away Isle Royale. Except for the sweeping beam and the flashes of light reflected off the white ice, my view and the experience it generated was likely no different than that of the first man to stand upon this rock thousands of years ago.

I felt adrift in a timeless void, the beam of white light stretching out to the black abyss beyond its reach accentuating the sense of detachment, of emptiness. The every twenty-second sweep of beam was almost hypnotic as it steady rhythm and visual dominance gripped my senses. Breathing slowed, the perceptible heartbeat as well, although neither, thank goodness, to that slow pace. I know I tend to overly romanticize such moments, but for me at least, such experiences capture the full sense of solitude that I find so captivating about spending a winter along the shore of the great lake.

With this journal entry and its review of the winter now ending and its account of just one of the many special personal moments the winter engendered, I end another chapter in what has become the ongoing saga of my life in Eagle Harbor. I leave tomorrow for about three weeks in lands where winter either never arrived or weeks ago departed. By the time I return my thoughts will turn to the impending season of sail, and my energies to the preparation of Peregrine for our summer on the lake.

I bid you adieu; extending my thanks for your interest in these ramblings, and my best wishes for a joyous summer - hopefully in the place we love so much, Eagle Harbor.

Monday, March 25, 2001. Laker captains are busy chatting with each other this morning as their boats make their season opening runs along the Keweenaw shore. The subject: ice. It seems strange that the skippers of these massive steel vessels should be so skittish about ice that can't be more than a few inches thick, but they are. The captain of a thousand footer about four miles off the harbor and heading west, just advised the skipper of a boat overtaking him that the ice sheet in his path stretched as far to the west as the eye could see. He radioed another 1,000 footer, Burns Harbor, about ten miles out and downbound, and learned conditions were the same out there. All are wondering if a track even further out, say half way to Isle Royale, might be ice free. Given three days of northerly wind, that's likely, but these more northerly routes are longer and the captains and their ship owners are not prone to burn extra fuel or risk the loss of their loading dock slot times without good cause.

The situation ashore is not much different. After a week of sunny skies and above freezing temperatures, our thermometers are back in the teens and lake effect snow clusters roll off the lake and up the Keweenaw outcrop in a steady stream. The snow is light, just a dusting, but persistent. Despite my earlier lamenting, the ice in the harbor has not moved and once again is covered with a thin mantle of snow. The surface pools of melt and dark blotches of distressed ice, so evident just a few days ago, are mercifully gone, or at least hidden. The rapidly moving snow clouds coming ashore occasionally separate into pink tinged billowing white clusters set in deep blue sky, allowing patches of sunlight to sweep across the ice, dazzling the eye and transforming the murky frosting edging my harbor view window into a sparkling light show.

I'm unsure if it's the presence of more daylight, primeval approaching spring instincts, or simply the fact that I'm at long last free of my ankle cast, but the pace of Harbor life seems to be picking up. We are pretty much the same deep winter small cadre, but seemingly not as camp bound as we were before last week's thaw. Warm, sunny days apparently loosened us up a bit; fostering small mid road gatherings to share local gossip and news from soon to return neighbors, or simply to stand around and enjoy the warm sun. Morning gatherings at the Shoreline to enjoy Lissa's sunny disposition and good cooking are spilling over to a second table, and even the Friday evening Inn assembly is beginning to recover from the post snowmobiler downturn.

Several of us (well, nine -that's several in mid March) trekked in out of a cold LES event Saturday evening to enjoy each other and the warm hospitality of my neighbors Jean and Tom. They baked a delicious Virginia ham with all the traditional sweet potato, etc trimmings - sort of an end-of-season and/or welcome to spring celebration. We shared all the wonderful, many time told, stories of legendary Harbor events and characters, adding a few from our own times and experiences that might someday give a gathering of mid twenty-first century Harborites an equally good laugh and warm fuzzy. The Harbor stories we hand down from generation to generation are in large measure the covenant of our shared appreciation and love for this remote community on the shore of the great lake.

So, like the captains out on the lake and their early season wariness with the ice, our little band of deep winter Harbor residents is also carefully weaving its way around the last vestiges of winter ashore as we embark on a new season. Week long thaws, ice filled harbors, dazzling sunlight, snow squalls, and mid-teen temperatures all send mixed signals, but with the boats once again moving along our shore, there can be little doubt that spring is at hand.

Wednesday, March 21, 2001. The harbor ice looks treacherous, and a bit stressed. Nearly a week of warm high sun has melted its pristine white and wind brushed smooth snow cover. The long buried ice now lies exposed, its ragged surface muddled with pools of silver hued water and dark gray blotches. Patches of wispy early morning fog mask the full extent of its distress, but a golden shroud of sunlight is filling the east bay, signaling another tough day for my long time neighbor. Open water by the week's end is a likely prospect, especially if there is a good wind. Harbor ice has been a source of daily wonder for several months. I'm saddened by its impending departure.

The beach is reappearing as well. I feel a bit better about that. The ridge of sand pushed up along the shoreline by late fall storms and expanding ice has lost its snow blanket. Patches of brown are also breaking out further ashore as the sand absorbs the warming sun. Eliza Creek still lies motionless, but seems poised to break across the beach barrier at its mouth. I suspect that if you placed your ear against its icy surface (not recommended), you would hear some stirring underneath. As the mid day sun moves higher overhead and the deep snow pack back in the bush loses the protection of shade, little Eliza and all her sister Keweenaw creeks will swell, sending torrents of water into the desperately thirsty big lake. Since most of the snow pack is lake effect snow, and some will yield to evaporation and ground absorption rather than runoff, the benevolent lake will not receive as much as she has bequeathed. Its steady and near record setting level decline should, nonetheless, be reversed. Let's hope so, Peregrine already has more than enough gashes in her keel.

Further ashore, the effects of this past week of warming are readily apparent. Some welcomed, some lamented. Our street surfaces are bare and awash in melt. The roadside snow banks, while still awesome, are nearly two feet shorter than a week ago and starting to look a bit shabby. We are spared the ugliness of the stamp sands so liberally applied to roads up in the Copper towns, but dirt happens, and our road windrows have their share. The yard areas we plow out for winter vehicle parking are becoming patches of squishy mud and trampled brown grass. We park in the street, not wishing to add to the stress of the awakening ground. Hollowed out areas, some as deep as the snow pack, surround tree bases as limbs soak in the sunlight and transmit its warmth down their trunks. Bushes, long laboring under the weight of the deep snow, are relived of their burden and instinctively lift their bare branches into the nourishing sunlight. My outdoor grill, buried in the early drifting in the lee of the guest cottage, pokes its top above the drift; it's blackness a magnet for whatever warmth there is in the late winter sun. All these changes in just the little more than a week since our early March blizzard.

The thaw, however, has not uncovered any more Harborites. I'd hoped that it might. None of the seasonal camps have been dug out, and the road down the hill into our little enclave is yet to witness the joyful "see the lighthouse" exclamations of returning snowbirds. A few have thought about early April returns, but when I email them a photo of their deeply buried camps and camp access drives, they pause. While our mid March thaw no doubt offers them hope, for those with camps and drives in the shade of tall pines, the prospect of early return is dim. The snow pack is deep, generally three to four feet, and as it shrinks, it gets solid, almost like ice. A front-end loader or bulldozer might dig it out, but not the little plows that hang on the bow of almost every Keweenaw vehicle. One option - the County rents out it's massive "Sno-Go", but that monster might blend camps with snow as it does it thing.

I'm obviously betwixt and between, warming to the prospect of spring and the promise of summer, yet troubled by the all too evident arrival of the final episodes of our winter splendor and solitude. Exhilaration is mixed with a sense of loss. We will likely have more snow, perhaps even a wonderful deluge of heavy snow as warm spring air flowing up from the Gulf is lifted over last gasp cold Canadian clippers, but the break from winter's several month dominance in the high latitudes is clearly at hand. The lakers are back prowling the lake, eagles soar in the rising thermals, bears stir in their dens, woodpeckers fill the bush with their noisy meal making, coyotes roam the near shore ice in seach of mates, frozen wood piles tumble to the ground - all signs that the sun, our dependable sustainer of life, is back from the six month sojourn in the southern hemisphere and ready to once again apply her magic on all we shadow casters.

The harbor ice, no friend of this celestial traveler, will yield the field of battle - but only for the brief interlude we call "season". It will be back, and, as in most years, be my Harbor neighbor for longer than the summer sun and it's fickle followers.

Friday, March 16, 2001. My Harbor Journal writing has slowed a bit - reflecting perhaps the slow pace of activity in our little community. The deep blanket of snow accentuates the sense of slumber that prevails. A few birds have arrived (feathered birds, not clothed birds) to liven things up a bit, but one can stroll about between the five to ten foot roadside drifts for an hour without stumbling upon another soul. Snowdrifts are piled high about the cottages of our summertime neighbors. Road signs, their messages mounted eight to ten feet above the summer sand, barely speak to the handful of vehicles that pass their way each day. For me, this is the "high season", but for most it's the "low season", a time when the splendor and solitude of a Keweenaw winter begins to seem as once warmly welcomed visitors who have overstayed their welcome.

I've been doing more reading than writing of late. The bright and warm late winter sunlight flooding into my broken ankle enforced indoor encampment seems more conducive to crawling into the sunlit rocker with a good book than pecking away at the computer keyboard in the cold drafts that surround its west wall location.

I've also concluded that my writing reservoir is like a battery. If I don't keep recharging it with new experiences (treks on the trails, sails about the lake, harbor gatherings, etc.), the "voltage", or power to write, drops to the point that there just isn't any output. I haven't been doing much recharging of late. The blank screen stares at me, waiting for the spark of thought or inspiration that causes poised figures to begin their travel across the keys. So I escape to a search for virtual expeditions and real discoveries in the writings of others.

At the moment I'm aboard a sailboat with skipper and professional writer Jonathan Raban, relishing a solitary sail and anthropological tour up the inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, following the route and explorations of English Captain Vancouver and the crew of Discovery as they sailed these previously uncharted waters in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Raban's seaborne epic, Passage to Juneau, is just the right medicine for this camp bound would be adventurer.

I did have a small sample of my pre ankle cast misadventures last evening, perhaps the source of the shot of recharge into my writing battery that has me back at the keyboard this early morn. Across the bay neighbor Neil Harri phoned just before dusk to report of a couple of coyotes on the ice near the Lake Breeze dock. The Harbor Web has included a couple of accounts of coyotes and at least one wolf prowling on the nearby ice flows, so being the diligent webmaster I thought I should get out to try and capture the two inside the harbor coyotes on camera. I've tested the ankle with a couple of short strolls this week so felt a trip to the next door Lake Breeze would be doable. I should have known better.

My first challenge was to get over the mountain of snow piled over the Lake Breeze gate by the big county plow. Two steps up the pile and I was up to my waist in snow. The ankle, deep in the drift and twisting, didn't feel too good at that point. Slow to learn, I extracted my legs from the tight grip of the snow and resorted to crawling over the bank and buried gate. Ahead, the resort's parking lot appeared as an arctic ice plain, a flat expanse of thaw crusted snow, but just three or four feet in depth.

This is snowshoe terrain but it was too late to retreat so I crawled ahead. Abby, left back in camp so she wouldn't spook the coyotes, was barking mightily - probably something about stupidity. The crust was not as hard as I had hoped, and I soon found myself doing an on-the-belly crawl. The prospect of a journalism scoop, and just the sheer thrill of being outdoors doing something I shouldn't be doing, kept me on my steady but agonizingly slow snow swim across the summertime parking lot to the yard area overlooking the dock and entry rocks - the reported coyote hangout.

Alas, no coyotes. I had apparently spooked them despite my best stalking skills. (Neil later reported that they had walked over to the Raley dock from the vicinity of the across the harbor Cedar Creek beach, so I assume that's where they retreated at the sight or whiff of their snow swimming stalker.) I waited for awhile, suspecting they were hiding in the nearby rocks.

It had been reasonably comfortable when I embarked on this adventure, temperature about 30 and just a slight breeze, but now, some 30 minutes later, the sun had dropped behind Duluth and the cooler evening air began to chill. I'd worked up a little sweat in the exertion of my snow crawl, but its warming turned to cooling as it evaporated. Now too dark for the hoped for coyote photo shoot, the original purpose for this foolishness, I decided to retreat.

The trip home was difficult, especially with the barking Wonderdog constantly reminding me of my foolhardiness. I quickly discovered that being laid up in camp for several weeks zaps one's stamina. (A revelation, I'm sure, only to me.) I thought of my childhood hero, Ernest Shackleton, and what a chuckle he would have over his disciple's attempt to traverse a couple hundred feet of shallow snow. I chuckled as well at the ludicrous of Shackleton entering my mind in my mini-adventure, and with occasional pauses to get my wind back, finally tumbled down the plowed side of the big gate drift and staggered into camp.

Abby greeted me at the door, armed with that know it all look of a pooch aggrieved. I headed for a hot shower and a stiff scotch. Another "high season" Eagle Harbor adventure to share with folks in places where blooming daffodils and tulips, not ice walking coyotes, are a source of wonder.

Monday, March 5, 2001. Abby's once again mumbling as she stands by the window and watches the lake effect snow showers swirl through the copper tinged beams of the street light down the road. It looks quite beautiful to me, but she's either spooked or, like a growing number of Keweenaw folks, is moving to the "OK, that's enough" camp.

March arrived as the lamb, with gentle winds, mostly sunny days and mid day temperatures in the low thirties. Perhaps only the promise of spring, but surely suggestive of change. While I fretted a bit as the snow pack and snowdrifts began to wilt, I yielded to the temptation of warm sun on soft pure white snow and, with a delighted pooch on the point, hobbled about the village a bit. Our first outings since the ankle breaking adventure on the ski trail some six weeks ago. It felt good. Tiring, but encouraging.

Our nip of approaching spring was short lived; now eclipsed by the return of prevailing northerlies and the resiliency of the big lake. While its surface is prone to flights of fancy as winds provoke and sooth, its bosom is not as easily swayed by such temporal influences. Now in its winter mode, the cold but above freezing water locked for a hundred years in the dark canyons of its cavity dominates all but the water hugging the icy shoreline. Cold air masses pressing down from the arctic try their best to impose their will, but they are no match for Gitche Gumee. She sends them on, tempered by her warming influence and laden with her gift of life sustaining moisture for those who flourish in her lee. The lake effect squalls now moving ashore and across the harbor are such a gift. Like spring rains, the swirls of lake effect snow moving under the beam of our neighboring light are almost as mist - dense, yet fine in texture and so light that they are totally at the whim of the swirling wind. Snow showers are what the weather pros call them, and so they are.

All is soft and quiet as our little village lies snugly in the swirling snow. A plow with its flashing beacon moves along M-26 near the Cedar Creek beach. No doubt pushing aside the considerable drifts that build up along that lake exposed stretch of road. There are many such drift prone spots along the north shoreline drive, and only plow drivers and the foolhardy venture along that roadway in conditions such as we have this early morning. Blindly driving headlong into the grasping road windrow is only the introduction to the risk. Far more daunting is the likelihood that it may be hours before another foolish soul will pass your way. Never completely off the road because of the high snow banks, one sits wondering if another vehicle, possibly the big plow, will come looming out of the swirling snow and smash into you. I've been tempted to get out of my vehicle when such a prospect crosses my mind, but, of course, that simply exchanges one possible risk with another of greater and even more horrifying certainty. I approach winter driving in swirling and drifting snow as I approach sailing the big lake in the midst of a gale. Stay in port.

When dawn breaks and this journal entry is set on the back burner for the often needed mellowing prior to posting, I'll embark on the opening rituals of daily life in deep winter camp. Firewood will be hauled in (a far more difficult task with a leg in a cast); pots of oatmeal and coffee will be prepared, the pooch will do her morning trick routine for treats (just two tricks, "lie down" and "shake", both of which she is quite good at); the Wall Street Journal will send chills down my security spine while raising my blood pressure with its editorial callousness; the Historical Society bookkeeping will be tinkered with, and, I'll select one of the several books or boat catalogues I'm simultaneously reading for an hour or two of escapism. The Wonderdog, once she has recovered from the exhausting trick routine, will stretch out on the warm hearth to dream of bush treks, while the music box sooths us both with the offerings of long ago composers who, unfortunately, never experienced the beauty, yes sometimes the terror, of lake effect snow. Oh, if only they had. Just imagine what additional marvelous musical gems these creative geniuses may have left us.

Abby's nuzzling my leg. At times I think she can read this stuff. "Mozart mutterings be damned" she mumbles, "It's time for my tricks." She probably thinks I've completely lost it. Perhaps - it's been a long winter.

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Go To Daily Journal Archives:
February, 2001
January #2, 2001
January #1, 2001
December, 2000
November, 2000
October, 2000
September, 2000
May, 2000
April, 2000
March, 2000
February2, 2000
February1, 2000