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Bragging Rights to Snowbound Memories

Bill Meredith

The Silly Season arrived on schedule last month. On February 2, reporters from all over the country converged on Gobbler’s Knob, Pa., to take photos and conduct interviews with Punxatawney Phil, the weather-predicting groundhog. Phil was dragged reluctantly from his winter quarters, blinked resignedly at his shadow, and eventually was allowed to return to sleep, no doubt thinking the pesky humans deserved whatever they might get as a result.

The Laws of Probability state that even a groundhog will get it right once in a while if he keeps at it, and this must be the year. The Baltimore Sun announced that the National Weather Service had proclaimed the President’s Day snowstorm to be "the worst winter storm to hit the Baltimore region since record-keeping began in 1871." BWI airport reported 28.2 inches of snow; presumably the two-tenths of an inch was a statistical artifact resulting from taking the average of several measurements, since nobody in his right mind would claim that kind of accuracy from just one measurement. In my yard the snow was over three feet deep near the house, where it had blown off the roof; several measurements farther out in the open centered around 22 inches. On top of Dan’s Mountain in Garrett County, my son spent the better part of a day looking for his truck, which he finally found under more than four feet of snow.

Much as I would like to blame the whole mess on the groundhog, honesty requires that I take some of the responsibility for the storm. A couple of weeks earlier, we had four inches of snow, and I got the snowblower out to do the necessary clearing; but I forgot to check the oil, and soon the engine ground to a permanent halt. The evidence is clear: for the past several years, when my snowblower was working flawlessly, we never had more than a few inches of snow at a time… and as soon as it broke down, we set a 132-year record. Mea culpa. It was inevitable.

Since we had to have a snowstorm, I was glad it was a big one; it would have been a shame to have to go to so much trouble and not set a record. I was glad for the sake of my grandchildren; now they, too, will have the opportunity, years in the future, to bore their descendants with stories of the Big Snow of ’03.

When I was a child, it seemed that big snows were a frequent occurrence. Of course, being 3 feet tall does alter one’s perspective; however, later on there were some legitimately memorable storms. The worst I can recall came on Thanksgiving in 1950. We lived on a dirt road at the foot of a hill; at the top of the hill, about half a mile away, the road ran through a cut in the ridge, some 15 feet deep. When the storm was over, the snow on open ground was about 3 feet deep, but the cut at the top of the hill was drifted full… 15 feet of snow in it, and another three feet on top of that, for good measure. All of the men and kids, and several of the women, from the half-dozen families who lived along the road had to clear the snow by hand. No one had a tractor; the available cars and pickup trucks were useless. There was one team of horses, which pulled a makeshift snowplow after an initial path was broken. It took us three days to get through to the hard road. In the meanwhile, everyone shared canned and frozen food, milk and eggs, but the supply of feed for chickens and pigs was exhausted. In one sense, it was the kind of "good old days" that one is glad to be rid of; but in another way, it was an example of a kind of neighborly caring and independence that is rarely seen any more.

Ecologically, the deep snows that come every decade or so can be limiting factors, as described in this column last month. The most extreme example I have seen occurred either in 1958 or ’59 (I no longer remember exactly) on a small island in Chesapeake Bay. In the 1920’s, someone had released about a dozen Japanese Sitka deer on the island, where they reproduced with abandon. A few escaped by going over the ice in hard winters (incidentally, they were the progenitors of the Sitka deer now found all over the Eastern Shore), but most were unable to get off the island. The population grew, and ate all of the available food; and in the big snowstorm of the late ‘50’s, large numbers of them starved. Biologists from the Solomons Island Biological Lab picked up over 150 skulls from the island the following spring.

That summer, when I was working at the lab as a research assistant, they wanted to know how many deer were left, so a population survey was organized. Everyone at the lab—researchers, maintenance personnel, students, secretaries, janitors, even the cook—piled into boats and off we went. We lined up at the south end of the island… it was about ½ mile wide… and started walking north, driving deer ahead of us as we went. The plan was that as we neared the north end of the island, the deer would have nowhere to go, so they would turn and run through the advancing line of people; and each of us in the line would count the deer that passed between him and the person to his right. As it turned out in reality, the deer were small and hard to see as they scurried through the underbrush; and when they finally panicked and turned, an absolute melee ensued. They not only ran between us; some jumped straight over our heads, and a few people were run over. It was an unforgettable experience, and the results were an educated guess rather than an exact population count. We figured there were at least 87 deer left on the island; thus the winter’s snow had killed about 2/3 of the population.

It has been a memorably hard winter. About the only ones enjoying it are the field mice, which are tunneling about under the snow, feeding freely without having to worry about predators, and probably even continuing to breed. Those who have to be out in it… deer, foxes, rabbits and the like… will find it to be a limiting factor indeed. Food will be at subsistence level at best; only the strongest will survive. Nature works that way. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for volunteers to organize a population survey next spring.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith