Snowpack might not set records, but you can still get stuck

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald March 13, 2009 03:26 pm

This winter has gotten a reputation, around here anyway, as something of a skinflint. This allegation, whatever its meteorological merits, sounds like the cruelest sort of lie when you’re stuck up to your armpits in a drift.

Nor does it add to the tale’s plausibility that your forearms have to endure their frigid submersion with nothing but skin for protection.

And skin gives up a lot, insulation-wise, to wool.

What really galls you — well, besides being immobilized — is that you doffed your waterproof parka because the snow was so soft and so deep that your feet, though strapped into two-foot-long plastic shoes, plunged in past the knee with each stride. And even though you weren’t exactly overdressed for a 23-degree day you were within a few minutes of leaving the car literally soaked in sweat.

If you would please forgive my clumsy transition from the second person to the first, the “you” character in the preceding paragraphs is in fact “I.”

By which I mean me.

I put on the parka, and then pulled it off.

And I stupidly stepped on a juvenile lodgepole even though I knew the snow around its trunk would compress with the firmness of twice-sifted cake flour.

I foundered, then floundered, and finally came free.

I stomped my snowshoes a few times to compact a firm platform and then just stood there for a moment, wheezing, while the snow melted into teardrops on my goose-bumped arms.

My daughter Olivia, who supplied the 35-pound burden of toddler, toddler carrier, snowsuit and snowboots, seemed not to care that she had nearly been launched, missile-like, into the snow.

I suspect she might have gone all the way under, too, so loose was the 18 inches of powder that had accumulated in the past two days atop the old congealed crust.

Certainly any object that is smaller, lighter or less rounded than a 21-month-old would have disappeared, not to be found until May.

We’ve gone snowshoeing in the mountains at least a dozen times this winter but Sunday was the first day I felt the snow was actively conspiring against me.

This seems the opposite of what a person ought to expect, considering winter has been on the wane for weeks now.

But the seasons, I’ve noticed, tend to slink into the high country rather than barge in as they’re apt to do in the lowlands.

And none is as shy or as furtive in going about its yearly migration as spring, which often as not ignores the equinox altogether and fritters about until the brink of the solstice.

Or perhaps it is the stubborn nature of winter, rather than the reticence of spring, that is to blame.

In any case, my tussle with the implacable snow of the Elkhorns on Sunday was hardly the first instance in which I have been mired in the remnants of a March blizzard.

There’s nothing secretive about this.

Statistics show quite plainly that in our nearby mountains March more often marks the high tide of winter, as it were, than the beginning of the season’s ebb.

This can be a hard truth to believe, I’ll concede, when you step onto your front porch and see that the first crocus leaf has pushed its pale green blade through the soil.

Snow can linger well past St. Patrick’s Day even in our valleys, of course. But come March the stuff seems to me misplaced when it’s lying about town, like goldenrod that persists in blooming after the frost has blackened and shriveled most everything else.

March snow reminds me of a reclusive animal, a weasel maybe, that lurks in the cool shadows of fence posts and disdains being caught out in a sunny field.

No month is utterly reliable, it’s true, although some are more trustworthy than others.

You can count on July, for instance, to supply that one day which is the apotheosis of summer, when lemonade tastes sweetest and the drone of a distant lawnmower sounds as soothing as the sea rhythmically spending itself on the shore.

January, for its part, rarely fails to conjure, at least briefly, that ideal scene of blue sky, white snow and red-barked ponderosa pine.

March, though, belongs to that shady class of months which do not rest within a single season and thus owe allegiance to none.

These months excel at a particular sort of treachery, one which delights in sending in a snow squall to spoil a picnic or a tennis match.

This results, naturally, in a certain amount of frustration, and the occasional long trudge back to the trailhead in drenched boots.

Still, I wouldn’t care to live where the climate is more faithful. It would sadden me as deeply to forego our local fluctuations as it would to swap our mountains for a vast prairie.

There is something to be said for stability, I suppose.

But a person has lived less of a life, it seems to me, who never had to throw off the cold but gentle caress of a young pine that is up past its haunches in late snow.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.