Friday, March 18, 2011

The archaeology of snow

When the land has been covered by deep snow for one-third of the year, you start to forget what lies underneath. Reminders emerge during this transition season, when winter begins decaying under the strong sun that holds temperatures above freezing for a few hours, then a few days, finally evaporating the snowpack an inch -- or a foot -- at a time.

And so the discoveries begin. Oh my, there's the pile of lumber we ripped out of the house during remodeling, and didn't have time to de-nail and stack under cover before the snow came! And there's the jumbled stack of pine boughs, hastily picked up during a blowdown between big snow dumps #1 and #2.

Why, there's the corner of a big planter I shoved clear of the anticipated plow path, now protruding from the pushed pile that just days ago was impenetrable to shovels and ice picks, and long since immovable by the plow.

Oh wow, that lump is actually a parked car! And here's the layer of turds that accumulated when the turkey flock came through a month ago, along with a layer of saturated niger seed below the finch feeder. Over there, summer tires we didn't get stowed in time after rushing to mount snow tires on the cars.

Around the countryside, white depressions are turning milky blue as softening ice defines ponds, and runoff channels are carving through to the snow surface, churning and brown and filling the air with damp noise.

Now, and for days or weeks onward, snow-and-ice underfoot changes to ice-and-mud and back again, making for challenging walking and sometimes driving. The infamous "mud season" turns frost-heaved roads into quagmires that, instead of busting vehicle suspensions, suck vehicles down to their belly pans to the point they can't move.

Spring may be sloppy, but the excitement of rediscovery cancels out the hassle. We're all crossing our fingers against the chance of a late-season blizzard -- the biggest snow we've ever experienced occurred the last week of March some years ago, burying us in 5+ feet (on top of 3+ already on the ground) in 10 days.

And yet: When it finally went, it happened in less than a week. Through melting, sublimation, rain, and fog, winter's snow gives way in a wondrous hurry when Nature signals "It's time." Already, the bird population is changing, and I can almost hear bulbs stirring below ground. A week from now, the landscape is certain to look completely different. Will it be buried beneath a fresh white blanket? Or be a green-and-brown mess with shoots poking through?

Sunday, March 6, 2011


This afternoon we saw the coolest thing. We live near a river that runs alongside the main road then turns 90 degrees to plunge down a steep gorge, over which hangs a suspension footbridge on the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail where they run jointly throughVermont.

In previous years, during spring thaw, we’ve visited this site and seen massive ice jumbles at the turn before the bridge, and wished we could see the power that creates it.

Today we finally did! Conditions have been right -- we’ve been scoping the river for days -- and this morning we went down to check progress. No, not ready yet, but break-up felt imminent. We decided to return after lunch.

At that point we donned our hardiest weather gear and went out into the rain. Temperatures were falling through the 30s. Crossing the bridge out of our village, we saw that we were too late: What had been an ice sheet with a channel snaking through it was now a bank-to-bank raging brown torrent. Damn!

Yet we continued the few miles to the gorge, thinking the spectacle would be worth it. En route, when the river came back into view, we noticed it was still iced over. Wait a minute -- we weren’t too late after all -- rather, we were running just ahead of the flood. Yes!

Within ten minutes, we were in position at the suspension bridge. Local people began arriving, saying their friends who live alongside the river had phoned. “It just passed the Ford dealership!” “It’s at the second Cuttingsville bridge!” And about 15 minutes later, a five-foot wall of ice-choked water roared into view and swung around the corner, packing the cove solid within seconds as it decimated the ice before us then raced under the bridge, filling the gorge to river height. The roar was so loud, punctuated by clunks, cracks, and rumbles, that we had to shout to hear each other standing shoulder to shoulder.

It reminded me of pyroclastic flows from volcanoes, and made us understand how people can be overtaken by flash floods and mudslides. For long minutes after the wall swept through, the river hurled ice floes into the air and busted them apart against boulders. Trees tore by like matchsticks. Gradually the ice chunks became smaller, the water browner, and its level sank back to seasonal norm, leaving scars and ice packs against and above the banks. On the drive home, we saw floes up to the shoulder of the roadway.

From door to door we spent a chilly and soggy hour. Arrived home just as the precipitation turned to freezing rain. Hubby got pictures plus a mini-movie, so we can relive the excitement and share with friends and family. It was a wonderful, surprising way to spend a winter afternoon!