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December 23, 2012

Snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I grew up in suburban Los Angeles, two miles from the ocean.  Some winters, there was a night when the temperature dropped below freezing.  Most winters were frost free.  It wasn’t until we took a trip to Big Bear, a small resort in the mountains that ring L.A., that I saw snow for the first time.  That was 1963. 

My parents didn’t trust the cars they had, so they borrowed one from one of my father’s friends.  Unlike the classic ’57 Chevy station wagon my folks had, this was one of the new generation with a square line.  The borrowed car had more and better equipment for winter and snow.  It was bigger, too.  Two parents, three kids, and all their new winter clothing were heading up into the mountains. 

Timing is everything.  My parents picked one of the two or three weekends each year during which a major storm blew through.  Southern California is a desert.  Mostly, it’s dry, but when it rains, the amounts are substantial---2”-6” from each storm.  Same goes for snow in the mountains.  That weekend the storm dumped somewhere between two and three feet on Big Bear.  Actually, all of it during the Friday night we drove up. 

I remember my father putting chains on the car just as the sun was setting.  We were still quite a ways below Big Bear, but it had started snowing.  The storm intensified and we climbed higher into the mountains.  The good news was chains worked really well.  The bad news was the defroster for the front window, not to mention the windshield wipers, didn’t.

One of the keys to travel and adventure is the ability to innovate.  I guess I also started learning that on that trip.  God knows why, but my folks brought a pair of ice-skates along.  What I am sure of is it had nothing to do with the use that they actually got.  About every five minutes, my dad would pull over and stop the car.  He’d turn to my mom and say, “You ready?”  She’d take a breath and say, “Yes.”  Then they’d jump out of the car, each with an ice-skate in hand.  On either side of the windshield, they’d lean over and use the blades to scrape and clear it.  Wind, cold, and snow meant they didn’t hang out long---ten or fifteen seconds---they got good with the skates.  And after slamming the doors shut, my dad would start the car again and we’d be off---for another five minutes.  By the time we arrived in Big Bear, I had been asleep for hours.  I remember waking up to go into the cabin, but that’s it. 

The next morning, bright and clear as often happens after a storm, I saw the tapestry of fresh snow on the ground, draping the trees, and a mountain blue sky for the first time.  Perhaps it was then that I fell in love with the winter and the snow.

It was while in grad school that I actually lived in a place that got snow at all, and that was Seattle. Some winters we’d get a foot or so.  Some winters, no more than a few inches.  My post-docs were in Colorado and Massachusetts, honest snow country.  After these I spent fourteen years in Silicon Valley and had to head to the Sierras for snow.  That was something I did fairly frequently.  There were two years that I didn’t reach any mountain summits, ‘89 and ’91, but there was never a winter that I didn’t put on my skis. 

In 1998, I got back into dogs.  Dawn and Tenaya joined my small pack.  Getting a pair of Siberian Huskies, one of whom was never going to be trustworthy off leash, along with a requirement of getting onto snow frequently left me with one real choice: mushing.  I did my first skijoring and first sledding during the 1999-2000 season.  It wouldn’t have taken a great prognosticator to predict that the combination of snow and dogs, particularly in the mountains, would hook me.

I now live in a place that develops a true snowpack.  Sometime in late November or early December, the ground disappears.  I won’t see it again until March or April.  During the winter, the snowpack builds.  Unlike the Sierras or Colorado Rockies, our average high is below freezing.  That’s for two months.  And while blue skies are infrequent, the soft white of fresh snow is a norm.  We don’t get big storms often, but do get an inch or two on many winter nights. 

And with the cold and frequent snow, I often see conifers dressed in snow.  Blue skies are rare mid-winter, like the rest of the northwest.  Still, we are far enough inland and we do get several a month and I see the same tapestry I saw nearly fifty years ago. 

As I write this now, it’s night.  Clouds have mostly disappeared and the moon is throwing shadows.  I did yard time with the dogs.  Even with the sky opening up, it was snowing lightly.  I could see reflections of my headlamp’s light from the small snowflakes.  It had snowed earlier, so everything has a couple of inches of fluffy powder on it----a cold storm.  The temperature had dropped to single digits.  I wore my zero degree outfit, and was snug in it.  And of course, with soft fresh snow and cold temperatures, the dogs’ lives are full.  The Silly Lake Pack is in a very good mood. 

   
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