Bright sunshine promised a warm morning for snowshoeing. But the thermometer said the Sun was a deceiver: the temperature was 7 degrees below zero.
Sub-zero days have been commonplace this winter. The coldest day in our part of the North Country was -37, with gusts of 20-mile-per-hour winds that made the windchill temperature something like 60 below zero. By comparison, winter temperatures at ground level at the North Pole range from -30 to -45, so it is no exaggeration to claim we are experiencing some winter days that are literally as cold as the Arctic regions.
We are in the grip of the Polar Vortex. The Vortex, a 600-700 mile diameter area of cold, low pressure air that surrounds the North Pole, is a whirling mass that normally flows clockwise around the Pole as a contained atmospheric cap at the very top of the Earth. But occasionally the Vortex becomes unstable and expands, sending its frigid air southward across the Northern Hemisphere, carried by the winds of the jet stream.
The word Vortex is defined as a whirlpool of fluid (air is in fact a fluid), but to me the name calls to mind some cruel Dr. Seuss creature that brings misery and suffering to peaceful communities. And so the Polar Vortex does to our North Country homes. (There is a similar Vortex at the South Pole, but obviously it affects the Southern Hemisphere and does not extend its malevolence to our part of the Earth.)
The bitter winter cold caused by an “escaped” Polar Vortex is not a recent phenomenon. It has happened for millennia and has been known to humankind for hundreds of years. The term “Polar Vortex” was first coined by scientists in the 1850s. It certainly is not a symptom of, nor has it necessarily been exacerbated by, the Earth’s current climate change.Its strength varies from years to year, depending on the variation in temperature between the tropical areas of the globe and the polar regions. When the Arctic Vortex is strong it stays contained over the Pole, but when it weakens it becomes less controlled and can separate into two or more vortices. These unrestrained masses of Arctic air surge outward and the jet stream “buckles,” sweeping south into the mid-latitudes and bringing with it a rapid and severe drop in temperatures.
This climatologist’s explanation of the record cold fronts that have gripped the North Country this winter are good to know but did nothing to ease the bite of wind on my face for the first half hour of snowshoeing this morning. I pulled on a woolen facemask, braved frostbite, and trudged across the hayfields and into the woods to witness the state of the North Country in grip of the Vortex.
Once the body has adjusted to the cold there is much to enjoy in the North Country when its landscape is buried under a couple feet of snow and locked down by sub-zero temperatures. Abbey, my bird dog, joyfully accompanied me on the walk, moving much faster on her four furry feet than I could match on snowshoes. Taking a dog on a winter walk has its pluses and minuses: the dog needs the exercise and energy release, but I seldom see wildlife on a walk with the dogs because they precede me by 50 yards or more and all creatures great and small have fled or hidden before them.
Two days of high winds had sculpted the snow on the open stretches of the hayfield into a series of crests and dips that looked like an oil painting of waves on a storm-swept New England coast. I have tried a dozen times to take photos of these snow ripples but have never captured an image that truly showed their beauty. Sections of the field were blown bare, exposing tufts of grass and a few freeze-dried clusters of clover. Curiously, the deer do not seem to graze on this wind-freed forage; less than 50 yards away they had dug through more than a foot of snow to find a patch of grass and forbs to munch on. The browse looked no different to me, but it must to a whitetail.
The endurance of wild animals is amazing. I know the native species have evolved in this country over hundreds of thousands of years and have adapted to the most severe winter conditions, but I still wonder how they survive a week of 30-below zero weather and heavy snows. The surface of the snow was freckled with the tracks of mice and songbirds, and deer had made well-used trails of their usual routes from the woods to the cornfield to the south. Among the trees at the top of the bluff on the west side of the farm I saw the brush marks of a raptor’s wingtips astraddle the pock marks left by a leaping mouse. There was no blood on the snow, so maybe the mouse got away. I’d put my money on the owl, though.
The two-day blow had been from the west-northwest, and it was no surprise to find the bedding place of a doe and her grown fawn on the east edge of the shelterbelt. Three rows of thick cedar trees and two rows of shrubs had provided protection from the wind and blowing snow, and the deer had dug their way down into cozy burrows. The heat of their bodies had melted the underlying ice, now refrozen with tufts of their hair attached.
A coyote was digging into an old round bale in search of mice and somehow did not notice our approach. We were about a hundred yards away when he caught our scent and fled, 10-15-yard leaps through the snow. Abbey gave chase across the dome of the hayfield but was back in five minutes, panting and steaming. “Man!” she said. “Coyotes are fast.” Indeed.
Back at the Clubhouse I found I was sweated through and soon had to change shirts to avoid getting a post-walk chill. A cup of tea warmed first my hands and later my insides. Looking out the window I could see the sun was still as bright and the wind had died, but my legs had had enough snow adventure for one day.
The time will soon come when I can enjoy North Country winters only in memory. Until that time, I hope to spend many more days in the grip of the Vortex.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at Jerry Johnson Author Page at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.