This winter had been so benign that not only did I forget we owned two snowshovels, I couldn’t find the one shovel I thought we had.

This was back in balmy January, when a snowshovel was about as useless as a copy of the “Communist Manifesto” at a Trump rally.

I didn’t need the shovel.

Either of them, come to that.

But it occurred to me that although I remembered propping a shovel beside the back door several weeks earlier, when the prospect of snow was at least climatically conceivable, I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen the thing.

Turns out it was in the rear of our FJ Cruiser. I had put it there in the event — one all but guaranteed, actually, considering my judgment — that I got mired in a drift while messing around in the mountains and needed to unearth a tire or perhaps an axle.

You might remember January.

During the ostensible depths of winter, Baker County basked in unseasonable warmth.

The average high temperature that month at the Baker City Airport was 40.6 degrees — more than 6 degrees above average, and the sixth-warmest since World War II.

Much of the nation east of the Rockies, meanwhile, was slowly succumbing to the deprivations of the dreaded polar vortex, a term that TV weather people have taken up in a big way.

(And a term that, inexplicably, was never claimed by a 1970s punk band. At least not so far as I know.)

People in places such as Minnesota were being stopped for no gain by northerly gales.

Hardware stores were selling out of thermometers with the Kelvin scale.

In Baker, by contrast, the temperature rose most days to levels that we wouldn’t think terribly inappropriate in, say, May.

The high at the airport topped 40 on 18 of the 31 days. There were just three days — the first three of the month — when the temperature didn’t surpass 32.

The trend continued into February — but only barely.

The first three days were all warmer than 40, but then the first in a series of storms — actual winter storms — swept inland, propelled by the atmospheric bellows that is the jet stream.

These saturated storms were accompanied, at times, by pulses of that comprehensively chilled Canadian air that had lured so many parka-clad TV personalities onto Midwestern sidewalks and parking lots to perform such dubious experiments as trying to smash frozen eggs.

(They don’t do much, which apparently is exciting. I prefer my eggs fried over-easy, and served in a climate-controlled kitchen with a side of gently browned toast.)

Four days after the high reached 48 — on Feb. 3, the warmest day of the month — it plunged to 4.

And although it never got quite so cold again, much of the rest of February was more notably wintry than January.

The average high temperature was about 4 degrees colder than in January — by a wide margin the biggest difference between the two months on record at the airport.

Eventually I ended up needing the shovel.

One of them, anyway, as I lack both the strength and the coordination to wield two shovels, simultaneously, in a way that accomplishes anything except possibly grievous damage to my shoulders.

But even with the belated arrival of weather typical for the season, this winter fell short of the standard set two years ago.

The winter of 2016-17, with its 3-foot-deep drifts and many days of sub-zero temperatures in Baker City, remains the most memorable of the 21st century.

But it turns out that in the mountains, this winter has in some respects surpassed its predecessor.

(And in some cases the edge of the mountains. I have recently seen photos from Pine Creek, at the base of the Elkhorns, in which incessant snow has transformed entire automobiles into white humps.)

The blizzards of February have boosted the snowpack — the region’s greatest reservoir — in many places to levels above where they were two years ago.

The winter of 2016-17 stands out for what it wrought in Baker County’s valleys — even the Eagle Valley, normally the area’s banana belt, dealt with hip-high drifts — rather than for what transpired in the mountains.

The difference between the two winters has been especially noteworthy in the Elkhorn Mountains and in the southern half of the Wallowas.

At Schneider Meadows, in the Wallowas north of Halfway, for instance, the water content of the snow, as of Thursday, was 35 inches.

That’s 6 inches more than was there on the same day in 2017.

The water content now is also greater than it was two years ago at Eilertson Meadow and Bourne in the Elkhorns.

Still and all, it strikes me as interesting how different the effects of — and our perceptions of — weather can be over a relatively short distance.

The phenomena aren’t limited to snowpack, either.

On late Monday and early Tuesday of this week, for instance, the margin between winter and spring was quite narrow.

Warm air riding southerly winds pushed through the Treasure Valley but never quite made it to Baker City. At 5 p.m. on Monday, the temperature at the Baker City Airport was 32 degrees, while at the Ontario Airport it was 55.

The gap continued to widen after a cold front barged through Baker Valley late Monday. At 1 a.m. Tuesday it was 10 degrees at the Baker City Airport. At Ontario, where the front had yet to arrive, it was 44.

And at that very instant my snowshovel — the red one, that is — was occupying its accustomed spot beside the door, its scratched plastic surface encrusted with the icy remnants of my latest drudgery in the driveway.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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