Thursday, January 20, 2011

Snow? I Got Your Snow Right Here. . .

A little while back my friend Suldog (who only just gets upset when I try to say nice things about him, so I'll just say he's my friend and leave it at that. . . ;) ) posted some really spectacular photos of an 18-inch snowfall at his house. And that, as many things do, reminded me of a couple stories from my (mostly un-sordid) past. . .


I grew up in Northern Michigan (if I'm talking to someone from New York or Chicago, or heck, even Boston, I say I grew up in a small town; but truth to tell, we actually fancied ourselves as something like the Metropolis of Northeastern Michigan; at least, you had to drive 150 miles to find a bigger town in pretty much any direction). And Northern Michigan, being the northern part of a northern state, and being situated as it is in the middle of the Great Lakes (Michigan and the Great Lakes pretty much define each other, geographically speaking; if it weren't for Michigan, the Great Lakes would just be one Great Big Blobby-Shaped Lake, and Gordon Lightfoot wouldn't have any reason to write songs about that, now would he?). . .

Uh, okay, where was I? (Too many damn parenthetical comments, that's where. . .)

Oh, yeah. . . Being way Up North, and in the middle of the Great Lakes, we had the two most important ingredients in the recipe for Snow -

(1) Cold temperatures
(2) Lots and LOTS of water

In fact, around the Great Lakes, we get this thing called 'Lake-Effect Snow', which might not exist anywhere else in the world (any of my Siberian readers - do you guys get lake-effect around Lake Baikal? Just, you know, wonderin'. . .) I'm not sure exactly what the thermal physics of lake-effect are, but I do know that, if you live anywhere near one of the Great Lakes, and you get a lake-effect snow, you get snow Up the Yingyang (that's a technical term), like you've never seen. . .


Jen accepted my proposal of marriage in February of 1980, and a couple weeks later, I took her to meet my parents (who had moved to the Chicago suburbs roughly simultaneously with my high-school graduation). While we were there, I thought it would be fun to take her downtown to see some of the sights and sounds and smells of downtown Chicago. So, on a bright and sunny suburban morning with temperatures in the low/mid-30s (which, by late February in a northern climate, can feel a lot like Daytona Beach), we hopped on the commuter train and headed downtown.

As the train made its way toward downtown, the bright, sunny, cotton-candy-cloud skies gave way to something grayer and more overcast, and by the time we got downtown, it was snowing. Which didn't bother us too much, except that we'd both dressed for the sunny mid-30s we'd seen out at my parents' house in the 'burbs. By noon, there was six inches on the ground, and our sight-seeing plans had devolved into quick hops from one storefront to another, trying to keep our feet warm. By mid-afternoon, there was a foot of snow on the ground, so we gave up and headed back to the train station.

By the time we got back out to my folks' place (which is about 35 miles from downtown), it was bright and sunny again. I asked my mom how much snow they'd gotten, and she looked at me like I was nuts. "We didn't get any snow," she said.

So, 35 miles from a 12-inch lake-effect snowfall, it was bright and sunny all day. . .


In my hometown of Alpena, I think an average winter is something on the order of 90-100 inches of snow. Which, by the time it thawed a couple times, meant that we spent most of the winter walking in little canyon-sidewalks two or three feet deep. My parents' house was the last house on a dead-end street, about a block from the nearest house, and two blocks from the nearest paved street.

Our house sat on top of a little mound, so our driveway ran maybe 40 feet or so from the garage down to the street. When it snowed, my brother and I would shovel the driveway, so Dad could put the car into the garage when he got home from work at the end of the day. Our car was a nine-passenger Plymouth station-wagon (the car for which the term 'land yacht' was coined), so Dad held very exacting standards for what manner of shoveling job he required - first and foremost, the shoveled driveway had to be wide enough for him to get the car through.

Our mailbox was down at the bottom of the driveway, where it met the street; Dad rigged up a deal out of 2x6's embedded in concrete in a 55-gallon drum, to keep the mailbox from 'moving around'. And part of our shoveling duty was to clear out around the mailbox so the mailman could deliver our mail ('cuz if the mailbox was buried, he just wouldn't deliver it; 'neither snow nor sleet' has its limits. . .) When we had finished shoveling to Dad's specifications, our driveway/mailbox/front porch were a functional work of art; we liked to think of it as an 'Integrated Domicile Accessibility System'. . .

Now, I think it was my sophomore year of high school (which would have been the '70/'71 school year), we had a teachers' strike, which meant that we started the school year about three weeks late. In order to make up the lost days, school ran a week later into June than usual, Christmas break was shortened by a couple days, and they scheduled half-a-dozen or so Saturdays. Which really kinda rotted, but whatcha gonna do?

All of which is to set the stage for that winter, which, as far as I know, is still the snowiest on record for Alpena. One fine Monday morning, we arrived at school as we normally did on Monday morning, and shortly thereafter, it began to snow, and snow hard. So hard that, by noon, the powers-that-be decided to send us all home, while the rural kids who had to ride buses could still get through (I being a 'city kid', stayed at the school to play some pick-up basketball in the gym, since I lived five or six blocks from the high school).

It snowed hard all Monday night, and into Tuesday, until there were 24 inches on the ground. And this was not the light, fluffy stuff, either; it was the heavy, wet kind, that weighed roughly half-a-ton per shovelful. School was called off for Tuesday, since it was still snowing. My brother and I got up (or, more likely, Dad got us up) to shovel the driveway. I don't know if this was the time or not, but I do recall one time, Dad charging the car down the two blocks of snow-covered dead-end-street, only to get high-centered on a snow drift about halfway there, so my brother and I had to go down and shovel the snow out from under the car so he could keep going.

You can be sure that 24 inches of wet, heavy snow was no picnic. And every shovelful that came off the driveway had to be lifted at least two feet off the ground, just in order to pile it on top of the snow that was already covering the yard. By the time we finished, our driveway was a canyon about four or five feet deep.

And even at that, as much satisfaction as we derived from the creation of this snow-canyon, our work wasn't complete until the plow came, and dumped another couple feet of what we called 'snow hash' - the hard-packed chunks of plowed snow - across the mouth of the driveway. We wouldn't even shovel out the mailbox until after the plow came, because we'd just end up having to do it twice. Clearing out the 'hash' was, without a doubt, the worst part of the job; partly because you sorta felt like you'd finished, and then had to go clean up a mess somebody else made for you, and partly because it was just miserable stuff to shovel. Our street didn't even get plowed until Wednesday morning, so school was called off for Wednesday, as well, since the rural back-roads hadn't been completely plowed by then, either.

It looked like we were all set to go back to school on Thursday morning, but on Wednesday night, the snow started back up again. By Thursday morning, there was another six inches down, and it was still snowing like crazy. So school was called off for Thursday, too. It snowed all day Thursday, until we'd gotten another 18 inches on top of the 24 we'd gotten earlier in the week - 42 inches in all, in the space of four days.

When my brother and I went out to shovel this time, we faced a significant challenge in simply being able to throw the snow (which was pretty similarly wet and heavy to the first batch) high enough to get it on top of the piles that we'd made earlier in the week. When we finished, the piles on either side of the driveway were over seven feet high.

School was called on Friday, as well, and it was late Friday when the plow came and 'hashed' us again (Dad had us shovel an extra five yards out into the street, and along the street either side of the driveway; partly to try to help him get down the street a little easier, partly to try to decrease the amount of hash the plow would leave when it finally did come, and partly to keep a couple of teenage boys occupied).

Now, as it turned out, that Saturday was one of the 'strike-added' Saturdays, which was scheduled to be a school day. But nobody, including the principals and teachers, was much in the mood to go in for a single day on Saturday, after 42 inches of snow, so school was cancelled on Saturday, as well (and you know, I'm sure the 'back-county' roads still weren't plowed by then, anyway). So we actually had five-and-a-half snow days in a single week.

I think our final total for that winter was something close to 180 inches - roughly double our annual average. 15 FEET of snow, in a single winter. . .


(add 21 January)

Well, Suldog has done it again, putting up a post about the Blizzard of '78 (Boston version). Which, combined with what I've posted above, reminded me of this old post. . . (And, just for the sake of saying so, I remember reading, the following fall, that the birthrate in Lansing was 30% higher than normal in October '78; one new mother said, "Well, you can only play so many games of Monopoly". . .)


  1. Combine lake effect with also being in the highest elevation and you have my 'burb. Lord have mercy, indeed.

    Supposedly, Cleveland is ranked #2 in the country (behind Denver) for most annual snowfall with 60 inches, but that's only counting metropolises. To the east of Cleveland, in the real snowbelt, there are towns that get 120 inches/year.

    Oddly, the lake effect usually manages to pass right over downtown Cleveland and dump all its goodness to the east and south of the city. It's not unusual for us to get 12 inches during the day and not a flake downtown. Unless the lake effect starts building in Lake Michigan, which happened in December, thanks to warmer Fall temps. It took my spouse 3 hours to get home that night.

    I could go on all day about the 4 letter word, couldn't I?

  2. Cheer up; since moving to NY state, we've had more snow days in a week, than I had in my *entire* time at public schools, in St. Paul; in fact, I was talking with an old friend, and we couldn't think of a single solitary day that the school was "officially" closed, in High School. There was a couple days when the teachers would let it be known there was no attendance being taken, and so we left (Usually to find beer, of course).

    Here, my kids are upset if they don't get at least two or three days off, during the months of Dec, Jan and Feb; and they've never seen snow like lake effect plus an alberta clipper, poor kids.

  3. Those are some seriously good snow tales. Truth be told, I don't know what the average snowfall in the Boston vicinity might be. I'd hazard a guess of 50 inches, total, but that could be off in either direction. Let me check...

    According to, I'm about right. Eastern Mass. gets 40 to 50, Western areas total more, up to 75. We always seem to get one whopper each year, foot and a half to two feet, then get a follow-up a few days later that croaks everything again, then just smaller storms of two to four inches other times. We're expecting the follow-up storm tonight and tomorrow, so it sucks being here right now when you're getting older and can't dig out as easily as when you were, say, 30 or 40 or even 50...

  4. grrr.....just typed out a long comment and then my browser crapped out before i could post it.

    15 ft is one crazy amount of snow. don't know if i've seen that much but the winter we came back from trinidad we did have 17, no that's not a typo, 17 blizzards in one winter. quite a re-entry from the tropics, eh?

  5. Cocotte - Evidently. . . ;)

    I'm a little surprised that Cleveland would be above Buffalo on that list; 'cuz, the wind has all of Lake Erie before it gets to Buffalo. . .

    Sailor - Yeah, none of the Minnesotans I've known are fazed much by a few feet of snow. . .

    Suldog - Down where I live now, we don't get very many really BIG snows - anything much over 6 inches or so pretty much shuts things down for a day. The big ones, we get about every third or fourth year.

    (And I checked, too - the annual average for Alpena is 86 inches, so I was pretty close. . .)

    Lime - Awww, MAAAAAANNNN. . . You know Id've loved to see your whole big comment. (*sigh*)

    Seventeen blizzards in one winter?!? That's like, cruel and unusual, or something. Welcome back from the tropics, fersure! (And, just for the sake of asking - what did they count as a 'blizzard'?)

  6. Buffalo wasn't included because it is not considered a 'big city'

  7. Well, Buffalo is 'big enough' as far as I'm concerned. I mean, it supports professional sports teams in both the NFL and the NHL. . . ;)

    And, as long as we're talking about major snowfall, I should give a wave and a shout-out to the good folks (few as they are) who inhabit Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula (the 'ear' to the UP's 'rabbit'; if, you know, you're into that sort of thing), which juts out right into the middle of Lake Superior. THOSE folks get some SERIOUS snow! 300 inches or more is not counted unusual; nor are houses with second-floor emergency exits. . .

  8. This January just seems crazy in boston and the streets are already a disaster with potholes. I have no idea where to put the snow they expect on Wednesday. I feel like I should shovel the top of my snow banks tonight to prepare.

  9. We typically run between 100-120 inches of snow a year but because of our proximity to the Atlantic there are typically several thaws in there that pack down the snow so we seldom have to tunnel. However, the ice created from those thaws is often pretty impressive. There was a year when one of our cars got frozen overnight in 3 inches of ice. Took weeks to break it free without ruining the tires.

    North of us there's an itty bitty city called Syracuse that gets lake-effect from Erie, Ontario, and the Finger lakes. Now they get some impressive snows!

  10. Jason - Hey, thanks for stopping by!

    I've noticed that the Northeast has just been getting hammered with the snow this winter. Hang in there; spring's coming. . . ;)

    Xavier - 3 inches of ice just sounds absurd; yeesh. . .

    And the Finger Lakes get lake-effect?

  11. Miami is hot. It's ridiculous.

    And yesterday we had "tornado activity". It creeped me the heck out.

  12. I don't know what our annual snowfall is, but I do know that the snow banks alongside the driveway are over 5 feet tall. Which means that my shoveling duties are curtailed as the hubby is the only one who can fling snow that high.

  13. Annah - You poor thing; how can you stand it? . . . ;)

    And, uh, thanks for stopping by. . .

    Flutter - I was wondering if 42 inches was even enough for you to bother commenting on. . .


  14. i can't remember what the particulars for defining a blizzard were but we did have record setting amounts of snow that winter.

  15. Lime - Well, if we say that the months of Dec-Feb are 'blizzard season' (altho, I'm all too aware that March and even April can have blizzards, too), that's 90 days, give or take. Even if every blizzard only lasted one day, that's still roughly one day in five. Which is, to use a meterological term, a helluva lotta snow. . .

    WordVer = 'unhula'; which, I believe, is the Hawaiian snow dance. . .