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The ‘Great Blizzard’ and the Naturalist celebrate 35 years

February 8, 2013

Long Pond, which was making such a racket before the Blizzard, was calm the day after, and great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on the snow-covered ice. (Photo by Bruce Fellman)

Last Saturday, Punxsatawney Phil, that fabled Pennsylvania groundhog, somehow did not see his shadow when he—or is Phil actually a Phyllis?—was roused from winter slumber early. Maybe, just for a time, the television floodlights were off. But while the prognostication from Gobblers Knob called for an early spring, some of the competitors in the groundhog weather forecasting business begged to differ.

For example, a pair of groundhogs named Grover and his bride, Sweet Arrow Sue, are trotted out on Feb. 2 by the good Pennsylvania Dutch folks from the Grundsau Lodge No. 5 in Pine Grove, a small town roughly between Allentown and Harrisburg. Grover and Sue are actually stuffed rodents, but they have somehow retained their magical abilities and, in direct contradiction of the Master, the couple saw their shadows, thus declaring that winter will be with us for six more weeks.
Their prediction was in agreement with that of General Beauregard Lee, the groundhog—this one’s a living member of the species—who resides at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, Ga. And Shubenacadie Sam, the fabled sage of Nova Scotia, concurred that Phil was jumping the gun.
Of course, it is possible that the Punxsatawney Prognosticator was trying to make up for last year, when he saw his shadow and suggested that we’d finally get winter weather; we know how wrong that one turned out to be. But, before we dismiss Phil entirely and suggest you’d do as well with a coin flip, that western Pennsylvania “whistle pig” certainly nailed it in 2011. January, you may recall, was one of the snowiest on record, and since February is typically the real snow month in our calendar, it took some genuine chutzpah for the Sage to buck the trend and predict that spring was nigh. But that year he was absolutely correct, so, in looking at these conflicting forecasts for 2013, about the only thing the Naturalist will note is that someone is going to be right.
And I’m not going to go out on a limb for anyone in the rodent quartet.
It is a lesson I should have learned right at the very beginning of my tenure as a chronicler of the natural history of various ridges—a tenure that began in early February 1978 and almost ended that month when, in my maiden effort, I predicted, based on the appearance of some tiny invertebrates called snowfleas, an early spring. For the record, Phil saw his shadow on Thursday, Feb. 2, and declared that more winter weather was on the horizon. I should have listened, and I certainly should have paid attention to the bitter cold that settled in over the next weekend—a weekend that had me traveling north to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on the northeastern coast of Massachusetts to look for crossbills, rare visitors from the boreal forests, and snowy owls, who had come to the Refuge from the Arctic. The presence of such birds might have led me to question the wisdom of the snowfleas, who are pushed up to the snow surface when temporary meltwaters saturate their habitat on the ground. And if the presence of such birds didn’t have me hedging my bets, then surely the groaning of nearby ponds from a fast-falling barometer that created waves known as seiches under the ice should have convinced me that something major was up.
That something came to be known as the Great Blizzard of ’78.
The epic storm, which remains the nor’easter by which every winter gale is measured, arrived on Feb. 6 and, well, you know the rest. We were living in Perryville then—this was the first ridge chronicled in these pages—about a mile north of Route 1. We were renting—it was more like care-taking—a weather-tight A-frame that looked out over a lake so pure that you could drink from it, and we were surrounded by woods and wildlife. I had two kids at the time, and I think they had a ball on Long Pond.
That Monday morning, when the TV meteorologists were suggesting that the end of the world was about to arrive soon, we’d gotten the kids off to various schools and, oh happy day, a supply truck from the Wakefield Branch hardware store had finally been able to navigate the dirt driveway and make it over the glacial moraine hills to deliver the propane that we needed to run the generator which powered the house. There were, at the time, no electric lines, so if the generator died, which was not uncommon—mice had a particular affection for wire insulation—we would not only have no lights, we’d be without our trusty gas refrigerator and our well pump. So the arrival of that truck was cause for major celebration.
Before the snowflakes started to fall, my wife Pam hopped in the old Ford pickup and retrieved our daughter Kirsten from preschool, but as the storm deepened rapidly, our son Caleb was on the bus somewhere between Matunuck Elementary—he was in third grade—and the start of our driveway, where I waited, increasingly nervous, in the trusty VW bug. The truly scary part was that I could not be sure that the bus hadn’t already arrived and let Caleb off in the snow, which was falling fast and furious. Perhaps, I feared, Caleb had started up the road and gotten lost. Periodically, I would get out of the car and dash through the woods, calling frantically.
There were no cell phones in those days—our house was also too far off the beaten track for phone service—so the best we could do was attempt to use the CB. The State Police sympathized but said that we, and everyone else in our part of the world, were on our own.
The bus finally arrived—no sight was better—but by that time, the driveway was impassable, and though Caleb was eager to try to walk through knee- to hip-deep drifts, he was in sneakers. Figuring that it wouldn’t work to stay in the car until the storm passed, I chose Plan B: I put my son on my shoulder and started trekking towards home. I am not implying that I now know exactly how the early polar explorers must have felt, but we are certainly, in a small sense, kindred spirits.
Eventually, I made it home, and there we hunkered down, safe and secure—we had plenty of wood and food, and with our new gas supply, we’d be OK for weeks—to watch the Great Blizzard work its way with the human and natural world. A few days later, some idiot writing in the Narragansett Times suggested that the presence of an obscure insect on the snow meant we’d have an early spring. If I remember correctly, there was snow on the ground until April that year.
A few years later, a former biology teacher of mine at URI dredged up that prediction when he noted how incredulous he was that I was still writing the column. Thirty-five years—and God only knows how many ill-advised predictions—later, I’d have to admit that I share a measure of incredulity. How’d it go by so fast? And will I ever get this prognostication business right?
There’s no snow on the ground. During the warm spell last week, a few daffodils pushed their leaves and buds out of the leaf litter. Phil, of course, spoke. I decided that I would just be reporting the message, rather than adding one of my own. Maybe, after 35 years, I’ve actually learned something. If nothing else, the abiding lesson is to be grateful to you, my readers. Thanks.

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