Not long after I photographed buttercup blossoms I was trying to thaw my frozen nostrils and struggling to make progress against the sort of north wind typically associated with arctic explorers, teams of sled dogs and a sustenance diet of whale blubber.
This has not been a typical February.
Perhaps there is no such thing as a typical February, I’ll concede.
But the current version has been much too inconsistent to rank anywhere close to normal.
February’s first week felt more like spring than spring usually does around here, what with snow squalls and bitter winds possible well past the equinox (and occasionally — appallingly — beyond even the solstice).
I was hiking in the Powder River Canyon, not far below Phillips Reservoir, on Feb. 8 when I saw my first buttercup bloom of the year. It was not alone. There were at least a few dozen bright yellow splotches among the basalt boulders.
The place was a perfect nursery for buttercups — a south-facing slope with maximum sun exposure and an abundance of flat patches next to brown rock that holds the heat almost as effectively as an incubator. The soil was damp but free of frost and seemed as rich to me as the freshly turned furrows in a well-tended garden.
The temperature that day made it to 61 at the Baker City Airport. That was a record for Feb. 8.
My former boss, Kari Borgen, who has had a home in Sumpter Valley for more than 20 years and is a far more dedicated buttercup hunter than I, told me Feb. 8 is, by one day, the earliest confirmed blossom in her archives.
This botanical milestone was no great surprise. Feb. 8 was the 42nd straight day with a warmer-than-average high temperature at the airport.
But that streak, it turned out, was almost over.
Three days later the high was a much more wintry 37.
After a brief, and modest, warming trend, the arctic air that has been shunted east of the Rockies for most of this winter marched south for the first time since Christmas.
This Monday the temperature topped out at 24, the coldest high on record for Feb. 19 (the previous record was 27, in 2006).
But it never felt nearly that warm because the north wind blew strong all day, gusting above 30 mph and keeping the wind chill factor around zero.
I went for a walk in the afternoon and in deference to the polar gale I donned my down parka, a bulky and heavy garment that renders me about as agile as an arthritic sloth.
The coat seemed superfluous — I was actually sweating inside my cocoon of waterfowl — until the upwind part of my route. When I went around one corner and was exposed to the brunt of the wind I briefly broke stride and nearly stumbled, as though I had stepped in a patch of quicksand or molasses (at least that’s what I expect it would feel like to step in molasses; thus far my mishaps in the kitchen have yet to involve that especially sticky substance, although I have mucked around with pancake syrup a few times).
The coat was proof against the wind — not for nothing is down so renowned for its insulating abilities.
But the wind, as wind tends to do, exploited the tiniest chinks in my armor. I felt twinges of cold, as though I were being pricked by the tips of icicles, around my wrists where the coat’s cuffs didn’t mesh snugly with my wool mittens.
My wool-blend facemask protected my cheeks but it left my nose exposed. And my eyes began to leak, the tears turning as chilly as water from an alpine spring.
There was a dissonant quality to my walk due to the scarcity of snow, most of which, I presume, had been propelled into Malheur County or perhaps clear into Nevada.
We don’t as a rule have such cold weather here without at least an inch or two of snow on the ground. Snow reflects sunlight rather than absorbing it, so snow-covered ground doesn’t warm as much as bare ground does. The effects of snow on the air temperature is especially noticeable at night. All things being equal, the temperature on a clear night will drop farther — sometimes 10 degrees or more — when there’s snow cover.
But as I trudged west on Broadway, tilting my face away from the wind and trying, in my clumsy, overdressed way to dodge the occasional tumbleweed, it seemed to me plenty cold enough even without the refrigerating effects of snow.
And that afternoon among the buttercups seemed distant and strange.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.