December 27, 2019

FTV: Winter Wanderings

 A Born Loser cartoon from some time ago showed Brutus Thornapple (aka: The Born Loser) walking waist deep along a snowlined sidewalk.  He was recounting how the snow had been deeper and the snow banks higher when he was a kid. Trailing behind is his son Wilberforce, but of course, all you can see of him is the top of his stocking cap.  Okay, I get it: when we were younger and shorter, everything seemed bigger, but this cartoon reminded me of the couple of brutal winters that we experienced in the Marquette area in the first half of the 1960s.  The snow was deeper and the banks higher than any other time I can remember, but of course, that was long before I moved west to the Big Snow Country and the brutal winter of 2018-19.

     When we first lived on the corner of Norway and Center, Northern Michigan University was making plans for a major westward expansion.  In the early 1960s, plans for the area now occupied by the West Science building, the library, and the dorm complexes on that side of campus were still on the drawing board.  The landscape across the street from our house was a rolling grass field punctuated by a few big Maple and Oak trees plus a Norway and Jack Pine forest that covered the block between our house and Whitman Elementary school.  The valley near the center of the field was occupied by a small creek (which swelled to a good size creek in the spring) that was also lined by patches of pine trees. When we purchased our first Ski-Doo, we had at least 100 acres of unoccupied space to our north, east, and west that gave us plenty of room to roam as soon as snow covered the stalks of field grass.  This wide open space also meant that the northerly winds had nothing to slow them down. When blizzard force winds encountered the snow banks lining Center and Norway, the drifts formed in the lee of these banks were both deep and hard packed.

     Norway Avenue was a primary school bus route and as such, we could count on having our street plowed early in the morning.  I first noticed how severe the drifting could be when a big double-wing plow came down Norway after one storm, turned the corner to Center and promptly got stuck in front of our driveway.  No matter how much he rocked and jockeyed the big rig, it was stuck in the solid snow that had drifted six feet deep from one side of Center to the other. The city sent out a second double-wing plow along the short block of Center from Lincoln.  In short order, we had two huge snow plows facing each other, stuck tight in the hard packed snow. Eventually, it took an equally large endloader to dig out the stuck plows, hook a chain to them, and pull them out one at a time.

     When the snowplow spectacle was over, we still had to shovel out the snow that had not only drifted completely over Center Street, but had continued up our driveway to a depth of three to four feet.  We got a car wide section of the driveway done only to find the banks on either side were so high, we couldn’t toss the snow over them. My dad started using his old coal shovel to cut blocks of snow that we piled into our wood hauling trailer so we could unload the snow over the bank on the other side of the street.  I was used to using a good old snow scoop, but it was useless with this hard packed stuff. I can not remember ever working this hard and long on one snow drop. As the blocks of snow came off the trailer, it looked like we were about to build an igloo. When I see photos of men clearing streets and roads by hand after the great UP Blizzard of 1938, I can relate to how much work was involved.  The ‘stuck plow’ storm spurred both the city and my father to come up with a better snow removal plan.

     By the next winter, my dad had purchased a very large Ariens snowblower and it didn’t take much convincing for me to become the plow king of the family.  In the morning, dad would usually just punch enough of a hole in the snowbank so he could get his car out for work. The three of us would bundle up and head to school leaving mom more or less snowbound until after we got home.  I would hustle home, don my snowmobile suit, scarf and ski goggles and rush out to crank up the snowblower before my brother got home. As fired up as I was to get to the snowblower first, it never dawned on me that this was a race that Ron wasn’t trying to win.  It took awhile to chew through the bank the snowplow dropped in our driveway on Center and at the entrance to our front door on Norway. Once the heavy stuff was out of the way, the drifts caused by the wind crossing the open fields were no match for Mr. Snowblower.  Even after the dormitory buildings were completed, the wind continued to play havoc with streets and our driveway so I was presented with plenty of opportunities to throw snow around. By the end of each winter, there was a solid bank of snow next to our driveway that reached the bottom of the ‘No Parking Here to Corner’ sign.   These layers of snow were so packed in, that pile was always the last snow to disappear in the spring melt.

     The City of Marquette did us one better by bringing in their own snowblowers.  At least once or twice a year, they would cut back the banks on both sides of Norway and Center to give the wing plows more area to deposit snow.  Unlike more typical residential areas (that had houses on both sides of the streets), they were able to just blast the snow in a high arc across the street where there were no homes.  We had thought it might be fun to hide out in the woods and let this massive shower of snow rain down on us, at least until we noticed that there were chunks of ice the size of footballs also flying across the street.  We had second thoughts after watching how the trees shook when these ice bombs hit. The craters they created in the areas of open snow were all the warning flags we needed to steer clear. Then, of course, we also had dad’s ironclad rule:  “When they are snowblowing the streets, you stay in the house!”

     When the city crew was done, the neighborhood kids were left with a snow fort builder’s paradise.  The streets were now lined with six to eight foot high walls that just begged us to carve out a set of passages.  Michigan Tech’s snow statue builders had nothing on us as we hacked, panked and piled snow. We were also given further fatherly advice reminding us to not build anything that we couldn’t get out of if it happened to cave in.  Almost all of our creations had one tunnel leading to the street, but most of our construction was done from the top down with block walls piled along the top of the banks. We held many a raid on the string of snow forts up and down the street, but never would we think about destroying someone else’s creation.  Snowballs and compacted snow ‘bombs’ created by the plows were fine to lob at each other (no ice chunks, please). Had we taken any pictures of our creations, they too would have resembled photos of the Blizzard of 1938: businesses downtown had to cut tunnels through the drifts to open their stores. 

     In his book So Cold A Sky (2006 – Cold Sky Publishing), WLUC-TV meteorologist Karl Bohnak points out that the average snowfall for Marquette from 1885 to 1979 is 110 inches.  He reports that the record snowfall for that area was recorded in 1890-91 (189.1 inches) even though Dr. G.H.Blaker, an early weather observer in Marquette, reported an astonishing 332 inches (or 27’8”) of snow during the winter of 1856-57.  Bohnak noted that weather records (for 1856-57) from Green Bay north indicate that it was a very long winter with an early onset, frequent snowfall, and some late season storms, but he does not address the discrepency in ‘records’. When my wife and I were dating, the Keweenaw set an all time snowfall record of 390.4 inches (some 32.5 feet).  We spent a good deal of that winter shoveling her mother’s driveway in Mass City. Even the amount of snow I had to move back in the big snow winters of the early 1960s pales in comparison to what 1978-79 brought to the Copper Country. Soon after we were married, we resolved to buy her mother a snowblower as soon as we were able so we could clear her driveway and still have time to do more than shovel when we paid her a winter visit.

     There were other notable snow events that occurred over the years.  Another story related by Bohnak in So Cold A Sky was a blizzard that struck just as people were traveling home after Thanksgiving of 1966.  I remember this specific storm because our neighbors, the Bowers family, had taken a trip to Dixon, Illinois to visit his father.  On the return trip, they ended up stranded at the Idletime Tavern between Marquette and Escanaba when US 41 was closed by the fierce storm.  Mr. Bowers told my father that spending the night in a tavern wasn’t all that comfortable but it sure beat spending it in their car stuck in a snowbank.  Bohnak reminds readers that Escanaba is located in the ‘banana belt’ of the southern Upper Peninsula where the average snowfall registers a little below 60 inches per year.  Nonetheless, a storm that only drops seven or eight inches of snow can build drifts ten to twenty feet high when the unrelenting north wind blows. Such was the case of the Thanksgiving 1966 blizzard when the Copper Country received only a couple of inches of snow while the central U.P. got a foot of the white stuff that the wind piled into high drifts.

     December 21 – 23, 1968 was another memorable storm that some tag as “the worst since ‘38”.  The 35 inches of snow that fell across the western U.P. (Marquette and areas in the eastern U.P. received a foot of snow) clogged roads and cancelled school.  We were elated that our school Christmas vacation started early, but the raging storm pretty well kept us indoors. According to Bohnak, Ironwood business refused to close up shop in the middle of the Christmas shopping season and as a result, they did a brisk business in spite of the howling snow storm.

     Since arriving in Ontonagon in 1975, we have seen our share of snow.  The mother of all snowstorms, however, happened over a two day period in the early 1980s.  The storm dumped a whopping 55 inches of snow in the Ontonagon area. Our neighbor Bruce offered to pick up my brother (who was living next door to us at the time) and I to make a run to the grocery store.  When he drove down the street, the snow was flying over the hood of his pickup truck to the point where we decided maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea. The evening before we realized exactly how much snow would come down, I had cleared the driveway so I could drive my wife to her midnight shift at the hospital.  We got stuck at the end of the street and I ended up snowblowing all the way to the car and back just to get it back into the garage. The hospital sent an ambulance to pick her up and between digging by hand and towing the ambulance with another neighbor’s Dodge Power Wagon, it took two hours for them to navigate the mile between our house and the hospital.  My wife often says she should have donned her cross country skis and saved everyone all of the digging. Should we have another snow drop like this in the future, one hopes the village will be able to keep at least one lane open per street for emergency vehicles.  

     The next morning, the village crews were slowly making progress on opening the snow clogged streets.  The police offered to drive the hospital night shift home. The scene that greeted them downtown looked just like the historical photos of the aftermath of the 1938 storm that most consider the U.P.’s winter storm of the century.  

     I like to tell people new to the area that the earliest and latest snow days we have experienced at school were October 16th and May12th.  I had to cancel field trips planned for both days, the later date because a freak storm had dumped three feet of snow on our destination at the Porkies (and a hefty amount in the lowlands).  What I usually keep to myself is the fact that these two snow days did not take place in the same year. I don’t mind winter, but I would not like it to consume eight months of the year, either!

Top Piece Video:  In honor of Frozen 2 we will bring back that song from Frozen that seems appropriate for the topic… even though you probably had just gotten it out of your head!  Sorry (not really!)