Volume XI, Issue 9 ~ March 6-12, 2003

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Bay Reflections

Steve’s Snow-Rating Scale
by Steve Carr

First it was ice. Then came the snow. Enough already. I didn’t sign on for the Wisconsin winter wonderland vacation package. This is Annapolis. The Land of Pleasant Living and mild winters. Right?

I don’t know about you, but I measure snow by how hard it is to shovel. And the Presidents’ Day Blizzard was by far the worst thing I have ever seen. Hands down.

I’ve come up with a handy-dandy rating system, like the Richter Scale, that more accurately reflects the real power of a snow storm.

I started shoveling at about nine that Sunday morning. There was already seven or eight inches on the ground. It took well over an hour to clear the snow from my driveway, but I was feeling pretty pleased with myself — until I turned around and stared in horror at the two inches of new snow covering my recently shoveled driveway. So, here’s the first important factor: When it doesn’t ever stop snowing and is coming down at a clip of two inches an hour, you’re in big trouble.

Wind Speed: The wind was blowing a steady 20 miles per hour, non-stop, with gusts over 30. That’s called Siberia. Shoveling snow in a whiteout is not the same as shoveling after the storm has come and gone. Swirling snow turns humans into yetis. Factor number two: Wind and snow combine to make something deadly called “snind,” which is to be avoided at all costs.

Texture: We began with a fairly dry, powdery snow. As long as you kept pace by shoveling every few hours, you could stay on top of it without breaking your back. But just before midnight that Sunday evening, after almost 20 hours of steady snow, it began to sleet. This was, in many respects, a blessing because if it had continued to snow at that pace, we would have been buried under another foot of snow by morning. But the sleet saturated the snow and turned it into blocks of ice that had to be sliced into shovel-sized bits — each weighing about 10 pounds — and then lifted over the towering drifts of piled snow from the day before. Factor number three: Heavy snow is like lifting water with a shovel. I don’t want to think about this any more.

How sore were you when you woke up that Monday morning? I could barely lift a spoon to eat my breakfast because my wrists had turned to jelly. I was bent over like Mr. Magoo, and my back felt like I had been lifting pianos all day. Every bone in my body was sore. A full day of shoveling snow in the wind tunnel was like doing time in the Gulag. Alexander Solzhenitsyn would have been right at home here. It certainly put a new spin on the concept of “work.”

Measuring a snow storm is much more complicated than simply sticking a ruler in the snow and reading the depth in inches or meters. It involves context and some sense of perspective.

There are lots of ways to measure snow. We can tally the number of roofs that caved in from the weight of the snow. The cave-in at the B&O Train Museum is a disaster of incalculable magnitude. Or we can total up the millions of dollars it cost to clear the roads. But in the end, we remember great storms on a more personal level. How did it affect our lives? How did we manage to get out of our neighborhoods? What did it feel like?

It felt to me like the biggest blizzard of my life, a memory that will grow more powerful through the years. “Remember the Presidents’ Day Blizzard?” will become our refrain to future generations: our measuring stick for all future storms — and definitely something for the record books.

In the meantime, the beat goes on. The weather maps keep showing a never-ending snow-storm conveyor belt, mixing together the dreaded “Arctic air mass and wet Gulf moisture,” and dumping the whole mess on the Mid-Atlantic states. Every few days, the next batch of storms rolls through, leaving a few more inches of snow and tired arms and backs in its wake. You look out the window, and it seems like it’s always snowing. The wood piles and everything else are covered in a white blanket that has now been with us so long that it is starting to look natural.

Remember how it was before the blizzard and its many cousins came to town? We were all rather tentative about snow in those days. We rushed to the store to stock up on toilet paper and milk at the first mention of snow. We drove around gingerly, like we were operating a Zamboni machine on a frozen pond. Snow was intimidating back then. Not anymore. We don’t worry about being snowed in, nor do we hesitate to barrel off down a snow-covered street in our cars and trucks. We park in snow drifts. We all walk around in big, brown, rubber boots and goofy hats. We look and act like those rugged Scandinavian types from the Great White North.

The last few weeks of snow have altered the landscape. But it has also changed the way we look at winter and ourselves. We’re tougher. We’re not afraid of a little snow — even a lot.

But in the weathered words of the novelist Kathleen Norris, “There seems to be so much more winter than we need this year.”


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Last updated March 6, 2003 @ 1:57am