391.9 inches of snow fell on Delaware, Michigan during the winter of 1978-79, according to
the Climatogical Atlas of Michigan. It occurs to me that 391.9 inches is a lot of snow; it
calculates out to just over 32 and a half feet, which is my wife's height six times over.
That is, incidentally, the record snowfall for Michigan. I grew up about half an hour's
drive south of Delaware, and we thankfully were not in as severe a snowbelt as that little
town is. Still, we were far enough into that same range that we probably weren't more than
sixty inches behind.
I remember some very severe winters from when I was a young child, but I'm not sure if what I am remembering is the winter of 1978-79 or not. I remember walking on top of the snow until finding a high spot, and then tunneling down into the snow to make a little cavern. My siblings and I sat down there in our snow-fort, complete with snow chairs and shelves for snowballs to throw at the enemy (our neighbors down the road who then built a snow fort of their own). It was very comfortable down in the snow. We heard the wind whistling overhead, and I remember watching the snow pellets rolling across and falling down into the tunnel. The air was warmer, and we could take off our hats and gloves without getting too cold. I fantasized about a warm fire down there, but I was suspicious about the snow melting too much and getting us sopping wet. Besides, the dead wood for burning was buried under many feet of snow.
Thinking about wood and snow, I do remember a few winters when, before the snow really started to fly, my older brother and I put together a ramshackle wood framed hut behind our garage. As the winter set in, the snow blanketed the hut in layers. We built the hut in a place that we figured would drift up fairly high and fairly soon, and when the hut had been covered by a few more days of snow, we tunneled into the face of the drift until we reached the snow covered hideout. The nature of snow is one of a shapeshifter, and every morning we had to dig out the mouth of the tunnel from the night's blowing and drifting snow. Once we lost the mouth and started digging in the wrong place. We were a foot or so off, and in the course of our digging we meandered over to where the tunnel actually was, and intersected it just a little high. Later, Pepper, our cocker-spaniel/poodle mix found her way into the fort and temporarily claimed it as her wintertime doghouse.
The old barn in our backyard was another winter doghouse for Pepper, but we used it as diving board. The northwest wind blew snowdrifts that rose up to the eight-foot back of the barn, and we climbed onto its roof to the twelve-foot high front edge. This provided my older brother, sister, and I an irrefusable opportunity to cannonball into the snow on the front and sides of the building. We balanced on the icy edge of the roof and then threw ourselves up into the air, holding our breath and hugging our knees to our chest with our arms, and then splashed into the snowdrifts below in small explosions of powder. The freezing snow found its way into any crevice it could find: wrists where the gloves weren't pulled over the arms of the snowsuit, up inside pant legs, underneath hats (knocking them off), down the neck, and even up into nostrils. It was disorienting at first, but it generally took barely two seconds to jump up out of the snow and struggle back around to the snowdrift at the back of the barn for another go.
Back inside, my mother yelled at us to not track snow into the kitchen, and to take our boots off before we came in. We didn't hear her because we were announcing, "Mom! I NEED some hot chocolate! I'm SO cold!" Mom groaned and pointed back to the entry as we swung open the kitchen door and brought the snowbanks in with us on our boots, gloves, hats, and suits. We froze sheepishly in mid-step and backed out the door. After knocking the snow from our boots, shaking out our scarves, and brushing off our snowsuits we traipsed back into the kitchen and living room (leaving marbles of ice on the floor from our socks). We stood in front of the fireplace in twos rotissering ourselves to warm up until Mom called, "hot chocolate," to us.
I remember sitting on a high stool at our kitchen window looking out at the sun as its light shimmered off the dry, crystalline snow. Sometimes the wind would blow up-sweeping walls of white powder; the wall rolled to the southeast, its top reaching twenty or thirty feet high and filtering back down. The sun would shine through and turn the powder into glistening, transparent curtains as it fell back down to the drifts. Then I would see similar walls of blowing snow in the currents of the wind farther away, and at those times I seemed to understand three-dimensions.
In the fields far behind our house and property I saw other, more ominous walls of blowing snow. When I was in elementary and middle school my parents would make all the kids go outside as soon as the school bus dropped us off; we had to ski off our post-school energy. So, my brother, two sisters, and I would strap on sets of skis and race around the old ten-acre apple orchard. We'd do laps and mark them in the snow in our backyard as we passed through. It didn't matter what the weather was. Mom and Dad would always point right back outside as soon as we came stomping up the back steps. We'd drop our backpacks and retrieve the skis from the basement, no matter if it was a blizzard or blue-skies.
Sometimes I chose to skip the laps and ski straight back into the Christmas tree plantation behind our property. After the Christmas trees was a stretch of woods that I'd ski through. One year, at the border of the stretch of woods and the adjacent clover field, a wolf hung by its hind legs from a tree. I don't know who roped it there, or why. Was it a message from a frightened farmer to the other predators out there? The following spring the hanging corpse disappeared. After the clover field were other farm fields, then another strip of forest, and then a sharp valley cut over the eons by what was now a seasonal crick. The valley was almost always the goal, because it provided more interesting terrain to rocket down and through.
The valley was the wintering ground for the deer that summered in and near our orchard. Sometimes as I was careening haphazardly down the steep slope on my thin cross country skis, I would see the craters in the snow stretched seven to ten feet apart where the deer would bound down the snowy hillside.
It was while returning from the valley that I witnessed the dark, much larger walls of snow that I referred to earlier. I've sometimes thought of desert sandstorms in similar terms to watching a snowstorm roll towards me. Habitually, when skiing outside, I look to the sky to monitor the horizons for dark clouds. One day after returning to the ridge above the valley, out of breath from herring-boning my way up, I saw a churning, dark and heavy mass of cloud rolling towards me from the west. Under it was a depth of darkness. Already the snow was beginning to fall lightly, and I pointed the tips of my skis east and shoved off at a quick and steady rhythm. I made it past the snow-covered clover field, past the strips of forest, and was in the middle of the Christmas tree fields when I heard the forest behind me start to shake.
I was really out of breath by this point and slowly glided to a stop, caught my breath, and took a look behind me. The storm was almost on me, the snow was coming down hard and the wind was cold and stiff, freezing my cheeks and nose where the scarf didn't cover them, and my hands through my insulated gloves. I looked through the snow, past the short Christmas trees, and saw the tall trees of the forest twirling on their trunks. Their branches were swaying and crackling. The loads of snow they held slipped off in mini-avalanches, and I could hear the wind moaning low-pitched through the tops of the pines, aspen, and maples. Then, all of a sudden, I could no longer see the trees. Thick strafing snow from the overhead clouds smudged them out. Fierce winds blew the snow from off the ground and mixed it with the snow from the sky. I was being buffeted and I noticed my skis beginning to disappear under the rapidly twisting drifts. With my scarf pulled higher and my toque pulled lower I started off again, feeling the wind sucking the air from my mouth. I could feel the wind snaking between my arms and my body, and between my scissoring legs, sapping the warmth from inside my winter jacket and snowpants.
But, the going seemed smoother, as I was with the wind. My strides seemed to take me farther than before, and before too long I rocketed from out of the orchard into our backyard. I slid down the bank from our yard into our back walk, pushed down on the clamp releases on the skis with my poles, and spiked the skis into the snowbank quickly, hurrying to get inside and out of the biting wind.
I remember many winter days sitting on a high stool at our kitchen counter warming up with a mug of hot chocolate and gazing out the kitchen window at the field of snow bordered a half-mile away by the forest-line. I knew back then that the snow was a mimicker of a different face of nature. I was mesmerized by the way the wind snaked or swirled the snow across the crusty surface, like I imagined the wind doing to the desert sands. Sometimes when it was really blowing I watched the snow rise up in fast-moving funnels, up to ten feet high, and saw a play of the desert dust devils I read about in science class.
My wife, who grew up farther south than I did, told me that 391.9 inches shouldn't be said matter-of-factly. She said that for some people it is unfathomable. This didn't ring true to me for a moment, but then she said, "think of what a person who has lived in the Sahara Desert all his life would think if you told him that it has snowed 391.9 inches. He wouldn't know what to think." Then it made sense to me, and I wonder now if someone in the Sahara has ever looked at the blowing sand and thought that snow must look like that, sometimes.