For the record, I officially got fed up with the winter of 2014 at 2:27 a.m. Friday morning. That’s when the last piece of oak went onto the roaring fire that was keeping our old place about as warm as could be expected for a lone fireplace working overtime for eight hours straight.
Or possibly it was 1:15 Thursday with the telltale gunshot of a longleaf pine somewhere in the neighborhood giving way to the ice. Our lights suddenly stuttered and went off, causing the furnace to shut down and me to lose a very fine paragraph in the book I’m writing.
Whenever it was, I’ve had enough.
This is no small admission. I’m a son of winter who loves the cold and gray and snow — the snowier the better. Nothing shuts down a busy world and silences a noisy landscape quite like a good snowstorm.
But ice is something different. It encases the world in glass and makes every step potentially lethal. In Maine where we lived for two decades, a man who lived on a farm just down the road from us stepped out to his barn to check on a pregnant cow during the historic ice storm that swept up the coast in January of 1998 and died after a large chunk of ice slid off the roof and landed on his head.
One of the most surreal things I’ve ever experienced was during the height of that same freakish winter Nor’easter now known as the Great Ice Storm of 1998 that came out of nowhere and paralyzed most of Maine and the neighboring Canadian Maritime provinces and Eastern Ontario. It blacked out Ottawa and Quebec City and killed 35 people. The ice wiped out roughly a third of northern New England’s sugar maple and led to the largest mobilization of the Canadian military since the Korean War.
I stepped out onto my own porch the evening the storm rolled in to fetch an armful of split and seasoned wood for my woodstove around 2 a.m. and checked the porch thermometer because, weirdly, it appeared to be pouring rain. The thermometer read 22 degrees. I had no idea such a thing was even possible.
By then, ice was half an inch thick on limbs and shrubs and the existing two feet of snow cover, coating everything in sight and growing by the hour. Every few minutes from the vast forest around us came an explosion where another large oak, maple or hemlock split in half. Then the lights flickered and went out. I managed to get someone from Central Maine Power on my new mobile phone. She told me their emergency board looked like a Christmas tree and crews were already overwhelmed by the outages.
I sat running the woodstove the rest of the night — for the next 12 days straight, in fact — listening to the forest trees pop and snap like chop-sticks, dozing off now and then until another one crashed, waiting for dawn. The dogs curled up by the woodstove, finding the iced-over snow impossible to navigate. Fortunately it was the week my children were scheduled to be at their mom’s place in town.
Our post-and-beam house sat in a clearing on a hilltop surrounded by a 600-acre hemlock forest, up a steep 1,000-foot driveway lined by stone walls framed by a row of beautiful white spire birches, a Currier and Ives print when it snowed but a living nightmare whenever the ice came in late winter or early spring every year.
In the morning when I finally stepped out to assess the damage, I was horrified to find that every birch and evergreen was bent to the ground like a genuflecting Druid priest. The sun was shining brilliantly but the temperature was ten below and would rise only about 15 degrees over the next two weeks. I would lose all but one of my beloved birches — and it soon became diseased and had to be cut down.
Our driveway was a bob sled run that took me until noon to clear and sand. The paved road at the bottom of our hill that led to the state road into town was in equally bad shape. My neighbor Ron and I worked with chainsaws for several hours to remove a trio of large white pines that toppled over the road. When I finally reached the end of the road near sunset, the view down the hill from the big curve in the state road was heartbreaking. I saw several massive sugar maple trees split neatly in half, and Mr. Hanson’s apple orchard, glittering in the low Arctic sun, looked to be devastated.
It took me another full day to get into town. I counted at least a dozen century-old sugar maples shattered by the storm.
I showered at the YMCA, grabbed coffee with a couple friends at our usual place, stocked up on batteries and dog food and headed back to my ice-entombed hilltop where I sat tending my woodstove and cooking and reading by candlelight for the next twelve days during the coldest stretch of nights in memory. During this time I heard only bits of news from the outside world on my truck radio. Opportunists had poured into the state from lower New England with truckloads of generators they were selling for three times retail, news of which made me glad I lived like a hermit in the woods. That woodstove saved our house but turned me into Silas Marner.
Our arboreal Ilium looked like a glass cathedral in ruins and was among the last to get power restored. On day 12 of my vigil, with the temperatures reaching a balmy 20 degrees, I heard a truck engine and voices at the bottom of our hill and walked down with the dogs to investigate and found a crew from — of all places — North Carolina repairing the lines at the end of our road. They’d been flown in by Governor Angus King on military transports to assist in the massive effort to restore power to more than three-quarters of the state’s population.
One of the guys on the crew happened to be from Greensboro, my hometown. When the power came on — oh, how sweet the sound of an oil furnace rumbling to life, and the giddy hope of a hot shower in the near future — I invited them in to warm up in my kitchen and even gave them a very good bottle of brandy out of gratitude. The next summer, the governor flew those same crew members back to Maine for a big lobster bake in appreciation for their service.
The snow this week, I confess, made me uncommonly happy. But the ice that followed took me back to a place I don’t ever want to go again. Several years later, after a similar ice storm, the beautiful daughter of the neighbor who helped me clear our road was coming home from school after a similar surprise coating of thick ice when she lost control of her car on the big curve and crashed. Her death devastated us all.
By comparison, the Great Sandhills Winter storm was a piece of cake — at least for us. During the long dark night we banked up the fire, lit candles, uncorked a very good wine my wife and been saving for a special occasion and did what any other reasonably romantic married couple in the eve of Valentines Day would do at such an opportune moment: we watched a movie on my wife’s laptop.
Sometime around 2 a.m. I let the dogs out in the moonlight and was pleased to see stars and a full moon overhead, turning the world a deep marine shade of blue.
It’s times like these that make you feel very small but very much alive and surprisingly resourceful, reminding one of the mythic folly of taking ordinary things like electric power and running water for granted.
In the morning we went over to Pine Needles and showered and had a slap-up Valentines Day breakfast then returned home to dig out our ice-encased cars and our neighbor’s as well. The power company’s earliest projection of returning our power was midnight Saturday, so we made a plan to spend Valentines night at either Pine Needles or Mid Pines. An unplanned romantic getaway on ice.
Wendy went inside to get a second scraper and then stuck her head back out, laughing. “Hey, guess what? The power just came on.”
At first I was delighted, then mildly disappointed — kind of like my feelings about the Great Sandhills Winter storm itself. I was just getting used to being Silas Marner all over again.
“Don’t worry,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll make us a great Valentines dinner and a cherry pie. Any other requests?”
I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth.
“Spring would be nice.”