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A Yankee Notebook

January 13, 2014


MONTPELIER – My buddy Dudley and I were waiting for a morning flight to Wabush, Labrador. We shared the terminal with, among others, a few dozen Canadian natives. To my southern eyes, they appeared to walk strangely on the polished floor, in a kind of shuffle. “That walk must be a cultural thing,” I observed. “It can’t be genetic.”

Dudley’d spent a few years doctoring in Kotzebue, Alaska, just north of the Arctic Circle, and had an answer. “Imagine how you’d walk,” he said, “if you spent more than half your life sliding around on hard ice in mukluks with smooth sealskin soles.” He had a point; and now that I’ve aged a bit more, I find I’ve adopted the old Inuit shuffle myself wherever the footing isn’t dry, unfrozen, smooth, and secure. This past week or so, half of Vermont seems to have joined me.

We could see the ice storm coming, just as we can almost every weather system that marches across the country, wreaking havoc with the infrastructure. First we had that lovely polar vortex, a chunk of supercool air broken off the polar air mass by a mischievous jet stream and whirled our way across North America. Right behind it came a steady, drenching rain that washed all the salt off the roads, raised the streams and lifted and cracked their solidly frozen surfaces, and turned sloping driveways into anti-locking brake system tests. One video clip on Facebook showed a teenager trying to climb his driveway to the house with the day’s mail in his hand. By the end of the fairly long clip it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to make it till the January thaw.

Luckily, neither Mother nor I was going anywhere the day it hit. Schools were closed all over the state. It wasn’t bad right around our neck of the woods – just very wet – so I was surprised when the photos began popping up on the Internet, of sand trucks, an ambulance, and a state patrol car, off the road, some of them even rolled over. Somebody posted a note on Facebook saying that Interstate 89 north of Waterbury was “a long parking lot.”

As interesting as that was, even moreso were the comments of those who’d made their destinations safely or were watching from home. They ranged from outright Schadenfreude to disagreeably avuncular advice. Very little sympathy expressed, especially for drivers from away, who, it apparently was assumed, were driving too fast for conditions. Reminded me of the time I got into my truck years ago in my very slippery yard, slammed my door shut, and slid helplessly sideways about 40 feet right to the edge of the dropoff into the swamp. That was no doubt slamming the door too vigorously for conditions.

The problem is that the outdoor thermometers in contemporary vehicles are not so valuable in rising temperatures as in falling. Think about it: If you drip cold water onto a hot skillet, it dances around and vaporizes. If you drip cold rain onto a roadway frozen hard as stone six feet deep, it doesn’t matter that the air temperature is 38º. It freezes instantly. You’re tooling along at an indicated 40º and a prudent 65 miles an hour when something suddenly tells you that your link with Mother Earth has become tenuous at best. And then that horrible, uncontrollable looping begins. If you survive, and had a good English teacher, you remember Robert Frost’s “Brown’s Descent.”

It may be arguable, but ice is probably the most powerful of natural forces. Consider what it’s done to almost every mountaintop and valley field in New England. This week, after a really cold early winter and deep freeze, the rain and thaw have loosened up thousands of brooks and rivers and begun transporting ice downstream. The phenomenon gets really interesting when all that ice hits a rocky rapid, a narrow spot, or a mill pond, where it piles up so deeply that the water pushing it can’t all get through, and ends up on roads, field, and yards. Low-lying towns like Montpelier and Ausable Forks are especially vulnerable. My favorite memory of a millpond jam is from Willsboro, New York, where I used to teach. The mill pond there invariably jammed right in the middle of downtown. As I drove to work one spring morning a sudden movement to my left caught my eye; and there was little Zane Hathaway, one of my ninth-graders, running from behind the Methodist church as if demons were after him. Right behind him was a 4-foot-high wall of ice, rumbling across the church parking lot at a pretty good clip.

In the North, on canoe trips, we often encounter ice still on the lakes in late July. If it’s solid from bank to bank, there’s a portage or a drag in store; if there’s open water here and there, we very carefully pick our way through, keeping an eye on the wind, which has a surprisingly strong effect on the movement of the whole mass. One iced-in lake “went out” during the night, while we were camped just below it, and all night we listened to the ringing – like a hundred Caribbean steel bands – as the bits flowed past. Next day we accompanied them toward the Arctic Ocean.

As always, almost all New England phenomena have been visited by Robert Frost before the rest of us think to go there. Ice storms are no exception. Besides “Brown’s Descent,” among his funniest verses, there’s “Bending Birches,” with its ice-glazed branches thawing in the sun after a storm, the fragments falling onto the crust: “Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away you’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.”

Finally, his take on Armageddon: Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great, And would suffice.

Photo by Willem lange