At winter’s end, it wasn’t much of one

Cold creek by Bruce Stambaugh
By Bruce Stambaugh

Here we are at winter’s end. Spring officially arrives March 20.

In reality, winter here in our area has hardly been winter at all, especially when compared to the past two. In case this mild winter has dulled your memory, the winters of 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 were bears, both fit more for polar bears than humans.

All of Ohio, and much of the Midwest for that matter, got dumped on. We measured snow by the foot instead of inches. Schools were closed, factories shut, roads declared impassable.
Patriotic snow by Bruce Stambaugh
Several snowfall records were set all across the Great Lakes region. They were winters of which children can only dream, and adults refer to, accurately or imaginatively, as snows like “when I was growing up.”

The snows were relentless. Once the snow from one big storm was cleaned up, another and sometimes bigger snow buried us again. Those winters never seemed to end. They began in November with below normal temperatures and above average precipitation and lasted into April.

Frozen crocus by Bruce StambaughEven the springs that followed were damp and cold. It really wasn’t until we had reached June in northeastern Ohio that spring’s fair weather had begun in earnest.

This winter, on the other hand, was indeed a different story. Old man winter never really showed his face. Yes, we had snow, but only a few times did it deposit enough to measure in inches, and even then, it was often a half an inch here and a quarter of an inch there.

Records were broken for precipitation this winter. The moisture was mostly rain, driven along by strong winds.

Those who cherish the winters of the previous two years had to hate this one. Snow skiing, ice skating, sled riding were all shelved for the most part. In Wisconsin, the vehicles of desperate ice fishermen sunk into a lake because the ice was so thin.
Birds galore by Bruce Stambaugh
The previous two winters brought birds galore to backyard feeders. This year, the birds were far and few between, preferring their natural foraging to human offerings. Sure the usual faithfuls appeared, but not in the numbers or frequency of harsher winters.

earlycrocusesbybrucestambaughThis winter was so mild that the first crocuses bloomed in February instead of March. The long slender stems of the weeping willow trees showed their pencil yellow early too. I even heard of one woman who planted sweet potatoes in February.

All the rain kept the dull, ugly brown of dormant yards at bay. Instead, lawns stayed some shade of vibrancy all winter long. From the looks of things, moles may have enjoyed the winter most of all. Their unsightly mounds dotted the prettiest of landscapes indiscriminately throughout the area.

Busy bee by Bruce StambaughAt my age, I was ready for an easygoing winter, although a weeklong cold snap would have been nice to help keep the insects in check. I’m fearful of the buggy consequences of not having a sustained cold spell. Perhaps the flycatchers, swifts and swallows will thrive if such an outbreak does occur.

I hear people saying that we may pay for the mild winter with a cold and snowy spring. That could happen, although the National Weather Service has forecast a warmer and wetter than normal March through May.

We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we can rejoice that winter’s end is near, and that spring, whatever she may bring, is at hand.

Amish sledding haiku

Amish farm in snow by Bruce Stambaugh
The fresh blanket of snow made perfect sledding conditions for children on this Amish farm.

The boy and the girl
took turns sliding down the hill
in a coal shovel.

Bruce Stambaugh
December 13, 2010

Enjoying the beauty of the first snow

Snowy lane by Bruce Stambaugh
The first snow of the season decorated the long, steep lane to the cottage.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We awoke on the first Saturday of November to a skiff of snow on the roofs, grassy areas and glued to the trees. The driveway and the road in front of our house were just wet.

Since the temperature hovered right at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, I figured we probably had had more than the dusting that remained. Not one to quibble with the weather, I simply inhaled the beauty as a drab dawn broke.

My wife and I were ready to head for our cottage for a post-election weekend retreat with some friends. After the tiresome multimedia blasts of campaign negativity, we needed a quiet place, and the cottage was it.

Just a few minutes down the road, we caught up to the menacingly low clouds that were still spitting snow. During the 75-minute trip, we were amazed at just how spotty the snow was. We drove in and out of the white stuff several times.

In some places, the snow was two or three inches deep. In most, the ground was bare. The snow had fallen in various depths in a long, narrow band stretching northwest to southeast from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

When we pulled onto the long steep lane that leads to our cottage, an inch of fresh, fluffy snow welcomed us. Initially the lane goes uphill. At the summit, the road dives into the woods, and quickly curves right, down a steep, straight slope.

Just as I began the decline, the car stopped out of respect. It couldn’t crush the beauty before us, not at least until I had taken some pictures of the virgin snow.

The limestone on the lane must have been warm enough to melt the snow on impact. Everyplace else, the snow stuck undisturbed, beautiful, mesmerizing.

Snowy woods by Bruce Stambaugh
The snow cover made everything appear black and white.

With the concealed sun unable to lessen the early winter grip on the landscape, the panoramic scene seemed basic black and white. The only variation came in the clay colored clouds.

I snapped a few photos and returned to the vehicle. I guided it ever so slowly down the straight slope, around the hard left-hand curve, under slow laden white pine bows, toward the lake that reflected the steely sky.

We made the final zigzag up the lane and into the drive to the cottage. This last leg of the trip adds a faux remoteness to the location. I had brought along a leaf blower to dispense with any remaining natural litter on the cottage deck. I should have tossed in the snow shovel instead.

The combination of the snow and the cabin’s chill called for a fire in the impressive sandstone fireplace. I obediently responded.

Snowy scene by Bruce Stambaugh
The snow created picturesque scenes all around our cottage.

With the fire underway, I cranked up the chain saw and headed out into the morning sharpness. Each time I exhaled my glasses steamed up.

There is something about snow, especially the season’s first, that exhilarates me. I have to plunge headlong into it.

The chain saw, which had not run in months, must have liked the snow, too. It purred right along, and the two of us accomplished our woodcutting goal in less than an hour.

The snow was still in place when our friends arrived late morning. They wore the same smiles as my wife and I. I don’t know if it was the snow, the blazing fire, the setting or the combination there of.

No matter how long you live where it snows, there is just something extra special about that first snowfall. This one was breathtaking.

Roaring fire by Bruce Stambaugh
A warming fire is always welcome on a cold, snowy day.

Competing in the winter Olympics, Texas style

By Bruce Stambaugh

I have had a long infatuation with the winter Olympics. This year was no exception. In fact, instead of just watching on television, I actually got to compete.

Coupled with the fatigue of the seemingly endless Ohio winter and the desire to visit our Texan grandchildren, my wife and I scheduled a trip to the Lone Star State right in the middle of the winter Olympic games. We were especially eager to see our four-month-old granddaughter, Maren. She was just a week old when I last saw her.

Just what does this have to do with competing in the winter Olympics? Plenty. Given the crazy weather of this weird winter, it didn’t snow in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Olympics were hosted. But it did snow deep in the heart of Texas.

Of course, like everything else in Texas, it snowed big. At times, the snowflakes were huge. In a location where snow is seldom seen, the accumulation reached up to four inches.

The school kids were ecstatic. When they arrived home from classes, the Texas Winter Olympics were on. The entire neighborhood joined in one event after the other. The only qualifying necessities were to dress warm and have as much fun as possible. The rarity needed to be enjoyed while it lasted, since the snow likely wouldn’t linger in the south central Texas clime.

And have fun we did, including Maren. However, she wisely chose to serve as the beautiful, babbling, blue-eyed commentator from the warmth and safety of her parent’s home.

I felt like a kid again. Often, when the grandkids visited Nana and Poppy in Ohio’s Amish country in the winter, we seldom had snow. Now we were in their southern home territory, and the snow was perfect for any and every kind of wintry game.

The gathered Olympians participated in sledding, snowball throwing, snowman building, and of course the ever popular snow tasting contest. The results, which required no sophisticated judging, were measured in enjoyment rather than technical point calculation.

The lead sledding team, kindergartner Nola and her energetic father, Michael, won that event hands down. They were the only ones on the block with a sled. Even then, they had a rather short slope to navigate, another neighbor’s diminutive front yard.

To no one’s surprise, the snowball throwing drew the most participants and thus was gauged a Texas-sized success. The awards were meted in smiles and laughter rather than shiny medals. Evan, our nearly six-year-old grandson, won the artistic award for creating the most symmetrical snowballs. They were perfectly round and hand-packed hard.

The ever-daring three-and-a-half year old grandson, Davis, ate more snow than he threw. He said it tasted better than ice cream. You never know what those lefties will say.

As for the snowman contest, Poppy was in the lead for most of the way until he realized that the large rolled up snowball was more of a load than he should be pushing. His back disqualified him, and he had to call in reinforcements to complete the job.

Not surprisingly, Davis was a good helper. However, true to form, he wanted to eat the carrot rather than use it for the snowman’s nose.

Next day, when the snow quickly disappeared with Vancouver-like temperatures, the Texas Winter Olympics were declared closed, at least temporarily. With this strange winter weather, it could snow again in Texas. Vancouver could only hope.

Davis and Evan
My grandsons with their Texas snowman. Davis and Evan are on the left.

Turning thoughts into actions

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of thinking while I’m shoveling snow. Given the amazing amounts of snow that have fallen this winter, my brain is about as strained as my back.

With two feet of snow on the ground, the most logical thought was obvious. Where would I put it all? The sidewalk already looked like the Grand Canyon, and the piles that lined the cement parking pad and limestone driveway were even higher.

As I shoveled my way around the house, making access to bird feeders easier, I realized my thinking strayed far from my physical task. My thoughts were so meandering that I absent-mindedly pitched the snow upwind.

Even with that rude awakening, my mind continued to wander. Is this a symptom of cabin fever or old age or am I just a typical man? Since I am not really expecting answers, we’ll go with all of the above.

I found Mourning Dove feathers in a couple of places. I wondered what predator dined on this prevalent and apparently delectable bird. Was it an owl, a hawk, a cat? I brushed the feathers aside and kept shoveling.

I thought about my friend, Jose, a coffee farmer who lived near San Marcos, Honduras where I visit occasionally. Jose, a tall, quiet, generous man, was killed recently in an accident while trimming a tree on his farm.

Jose was such a hard worker, a family man, dedicated to representing his little community the best he knew how. I’ll never forget the day I rode in the cab of his old, dented pickup truck, up the switch-backed, bumpy, one lane road to his two acre stand of vibrant coffee bushes growing on a steep mountain slope.

Though Jose knew no English, and I little Spanish, his non-verbal communication oozed hospitality. He turned our small group loose on those poor coffee plants and enjoyed the show, his welcoming smile continually flashing.

Several cardinals took flight as I rounded the house to the backyard. I had interrupted their lunch of cracked corn and oil sunflower seeds.

I thought about the Sunday morning service at the little church we attended while vacationing in Florida. I had already enjoyed some local birding opportunities, but never expected to be able to do so while at church.

The service was held in a room with large windows that faced a broad stream that met the Gulf a mile away. The faithful pastor had his back to what was happening outside.

While he preached, Black and White Warblers and Phoebes played in the banyan trees, live oaks and palms. Beyond the lush banks, Buffleheads scurried through the stream’s shallow water. Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons waded, too.

I had just about completed my shoveling when I thought about my new friend, Fritz. He and his family had survived the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and had miraculously found their way to our little corner of the world in Ohio’s Amish country.

I remembered Fritz staring straight ahead while he related his harrowing story as if he were reliving each horrific moment. All I could do was listen. I felt for Fritz and his family. They had lost everything, including close relatives.

Amid the natural beauty around me, in Sarasota, in the mountains of Honduras, even in ravaged Haiti, my contemplative jigsaw puzzle reminded that life wasn’t always pretty. My efforts resulted in much more than snow removal.

Long after this deep snow has melted, opportunities to help others in need will abound. That conclusion doesn’t take much thought.

Rushing home for the big snow

Our back porch
A foot of snow covered the bird feeders by our back porch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I think I am just going to quit going to Florida in the winter. I know it sounds selfish of me. But I really think it’s the right thing to do.

First of all, I am not a big fan of the Sunshine State. When I have visited in the summer, it’s always been way too hot and sticky for my liking. My experiences in the winter haven’t been much better. Both times that I have sought a sunny, warm reprieve from the sting of winter in rural Ohio, I got burned, and I don’t mean sunburned.

In 2008, my wife and I flew to Florida in March, mainly to see a few Cleveland Indians baseball spring training games before they moved to Arizona. Near the end of our brief stay, a rare blizzard hit the mid-west, including our home area. The magnitude of the storm was so vast, so consequential that no commercial airlines were flying to Ohio. Our stay in Florida was extended for three days. But it wasn’t much of a reward because the weather turned cool and damp, keeping us inside.

Instead of being able to take advantage of walking a pristine beach or go birding, we spent a lot of time watching The Weather Channel. Their meteorologist reported live from downtown Cleveland, showing firsthand the effects of the blizzard. As strange as this may seem, I really wanted to be at home, not in Sarasota. Part of that desire was guilt. I am a township trustee and I felt duty bound to be home to help dig out.

But more than that, I love storms. Weather is one of my major hobbies. In addition to being a severe weather spotter, I also measure the snowfall for our area for the National Weather Service. And here we were getting more snow that we had had in a long time and I wasn’t there to experience it, much less send in my snow reports.

Last month, we had another chance to visit Florida. Good friends invited us to stay a week with them in a house they had rented in Sarasota. Neva and I needed a break since 2009 had been such a draining year for us with all the family health issues we had had, most notably my father’s illness and subsequent death. This trip, though, we decided to drive instead of fly. When we arrived, the weather was very nice, our friends even nicer. We settled in and began planning our week’s activities.

We did the beach thing, which allowed me to both walk and take pictures, yet two more hobbies. We visited a lovely state park where I learned a lot about Florida floral, fauna and local history. Here, again, I was able to photograph several species of birds and some rather large alligators.

The last part of our trip was to be spent in Savannah, Georgia, a city I had long wanted to visit. We managed a trolley tour of the lovely historic city before our plans changed. Once again, a major winter storm was brewing in the mid-west, and once again my wife and I were glued to The Weather Channel. I saw the track of the storm and its expected arrival time. I knew we had two choices. We could cut our stay short and drive straight home or stay an extra few days until the roads were cleared. You can guess what we decided.

We returned in time for me to have the distinct honor of sending in my mundane but necessary snow reports. We were home, and I was happy to be measuring this big snow.

Tracks in the snow

Wing prints from the red-tailed hawk

By Bruce Stambaugh

I love when snow covers the dormant winter ground. The beauty is enhanced when the blanket is refreshed with daily snowfalls the way it was earlier in the month.

Snow illuminates everything, even at night. The defused light of a waning moon can still glitter the landscape like a mirror to the stars. A glowing sunrise, a rarity in the normally dreary Ohio January sky, sparkles the morning countryside all around.

The unbroken whiteness seems to connect everything it has touched. It softens the harshest angles of any nondescript building and compliments the already lovely evergreen bows with inches of powdery beauty.

The view beckons me outside. But I hate to make tracks in the snow. I don’t want to do anything that pollutes the purity of the picture perfect scene. Suddenly, the rumbling of the snowplow shakes me from my idealistic stupor. Reality is calling.

The birdfeeders need attended to, the sidewalk and parking pad must be shoveled. Disturbing the beauty isn’t an option. The garbage can has to be wheeled to the roadside and I need to replenish my inside stack of firewood. All of these activities require me to do what I do not want to do. I have to break the virgin snow.

I bundle up much like I did when I was a kid readying to go sledding. Only these endeavors fit the chore category. Still, I get to be out in the invigorating elements.

It doesn’t take long to realize my naivety. Other creatures have been out and about well ahead of me. Bird tracks are evident at the garage door. I didn’t even hear them knock. Rabbit tracks are obvious. Even deer have visited the yard.

Still, I step respectfully, trying hard to bother as little snow as possible. On repeat trips, I retrace my previous tracks. The cottontails seemed to have the same rule.

I feel forgiven for my obsessive/compulsive behavior. Every now and then, while I am doing something mundane, I witness something extraordinary. Recently while retrieving the morning paper from its plastic delivery tube, I found a rabbit flattened on the road.

I mercifully tossed it into the snow near the low bush at the end of the driveway. Later that day, I spied a red-tailed hawk sitting on the snow beneath the bare canopy of the sunburst locust tree in the front yard. The bird flew off before I could take its picture.

Curious, I went out to see why it had been on the snowy ground instead of perched in its usual roost in the pine thicket. I couldn’t believe what I found. The hawk had pounced on the dead rabbit and repeatedly tried lifting off with it. Evidence of that deduction was a crooked path that led away from the roadside shrub where I had pitched the deceased to the locust tree.

There in the snow, on each side of the furrowed trail, was a series of periodic wing imprints. They reminded me of the snow angels we used to make as kids. I must have discovered the beautiful raptor while resting from its numerous futile efforts of trying to get the frozen bunny airborne. Instead, it dragged its catch through the snow.

A closer look revealed that the hawk had begun to tear the rabbit apart, apparently hungry enough to cancel its instinctive routine of capture, fly, perch and eat.

Next day I returned to the scene of the crime. The rabbit was gone. Spots of blood stained the snow. No other tracks of any kind were apparent. The wily bird must have returned to claim it’s prized meal.

I learned an important lesson. Tracks in the snow tell dramatic stories.

Winter treasures revealed

If it were up to me, I would keep the ground
covered in snow all winter. But, like most things in life,
such a thought is frivolous, out of my control,
like many of life’s circumstantial worries.

But the snow, nice as it is, can’t and
doesn’t last forever. Its demise is inevitable,
as predicable as a January thaw, which is exactly
what eliminated the precious white blanket.

Thing is, I am always amazed at the treasurers
revealed once the snow seeps away, quietly
unnoticed until the ugly winter ground holds
only remnant piles, shoveled or blown, of the previously
fluffy stuff left to torment us of what once was.
With the snowy splendor gone, the yard becomes
a discombobulated rummage sale, strewn with
natural and unnatural items, once sandwiched unseen
between the serene snow and the frozen earth.

Colonies of earthy molehills, a windblown
ribboned evergreen wreath, mourning dove feathers
plucked and neatly deposited in a near perfect
circle on the back porch, where the long-eared owl
or Cooper’s hawk had sat on the railing devouring it.
A lone Budweiser Light can (this is Amish country),
indiscriminately tossed from a speeding car under the guise
of the new moon, now peppered with the snow’s enemy,
grit cascaded by the dutiful snowplow on the adjacent roadway.

There’s more, much more. No need to continue.
By now, you have the depressing picture of the expansive
treasure trove exposed by the sad vanishing of the beloved snow.

Bruce Stambaugh
Jan. 20, 2010

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