The Great Blizzard of February 1st

Timothy Collins savors memories of a year ago, a far, keening cry from this winter in Illinois.

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A year after the great blizzard of ’11 that crossed the Midwestern U.S., the stark beauty of nature’s awesome power and splendor is a memory to share.

As storms go, it was not as bad as others I’ve seen. It was dangerous, but surprisingly, the barometer did not drop much in our area. The storm’s center tracked to the south. This meant we had less wind than expected, at least at the start, but we did get a lot of snow, 18-20 inches.

The approach of a major snowstorm brings out some semblance of my inner child, a high level of excitement and anticipation. Poor sleep before the storm isn’t just the result of late middle age’s aching joints. I rather like the high-voltage-wire kid part, but the aches (shoulders and hips) are not fun at all. It turns out, however, that the bones have been pretty accurate weather predictors over the years, right up there with those sophisticated models you see on TV.

So, I was not surprised when one of my Facebook friends, a meteorologist, wrote on January 28, 2011: “Maybe our 1st real snow of the season coming next Tues/Wed. Still 4-5 days out, but either here or somewhere close by is gonna get hammered….” A little bit of hedging here, but the experts were on alert.

My joints did not hedge the bet. In response to my friend on the morning of February 1, the day the blizzard hit: “When I woke up on the morning of January 28, before I’d read your post, my hips hurt like hell. That was nothing compared with yesterday and this morning, when my shoulders joined the ‘Low pressure’s comin’ chorus.’”

Timothy Collins
Weight of snow and shifting ice of Drowning Fork fractures drift. Glossy ice captures reflections of trees and light of waning sun.

My joints and the meteorologists were both right. The storm came late in the morning of February 1. In anticipation, many offices and schools were already closed, including mine. The inner child thought this was a really great idea, and the outer adult was happy, too: the thought of getting stuck out on a country road in blowing and drifting snow is pretty scary. 

When a winter storm comes, there’s plenty to do around the house, as long as the electricity stays on. These are good days for writing and reading, maybe watching a movie or playing a game. Mainly, I’m glad not to be out on the road. Driving in a blizzard is nerve wracking, whether in the Midwest or in the central Appalachian Mountains, where I lived for years. Been there, done that in my more foolish youth. It’s one of those thrills I prefer to avoid now.

But I also had fun lording the day off over my older brother. It was the first day of his retirement from the University of Akron, which also was closed for the day. He was ticked off that everyone else at his office didn’t have to work. Small comfort for him, but I suggested that all across the Midwest we’d been given a vacation to celebrate his big day. Yeah, right.

And so the heavy snow fell into the night, the winds changing direction and growing stronger as the storm passed to the east. Its aftermath? We had no significant problems. Our road crews in Western Illinois did a super job. The week after the storm was something to enjoy deeply as I re-entered the sun-swept, wind-blown countryside to go back to work. This is the best part of the memories.

Timothy Collins
Winds have woven snow into braids on field along Illinois 9, west of Bushnell.

Our Western Illinois landscape is relatively flat and wide open. Farms tend to be fairly far apart. As the wind sweeps from the Great Plains to our rich prairielands, it has plenty of room (and time) both to rev up and to start the old bones aching. Whether it comes with the snowstorm or afterward, the wind really does keen here. Before moving to this part of the Midwest, I had heard wind roar, but never keen. So now, I know the difference between roaring and keening. Roaring seems to happen in town. Keening happens in the countryside, a constant howl across fences, utility wires, and wide open spaces. It is real, definitely a wondrous part of our audio landscape.

After the snow stopped, constant winds sculpted and re-sculpted the snow. The changing sunlight from a nearly cloudless late-afternoon sky caught cold, devilish crystal swirls that sifted in weaving patterns across the cleared roads, open ice-covered farm fields stripped back nearly to bare soil, frozen streams, and small patches of woodlands. In some places, the blowing snow continued to threaten already-plowed roads, the wind currents made visible and truly devilish in their determination to slow people down.

Timothy Collins
Sun casts pink glow on drifts along Farmers Fork along 1600E in McDonough County, IL.

In reality, few people were out and about, so the late-afternoon solitude and beauty of winter demanded that I pull out my camera so these sights could be saved for posterity. The frosty-white land was tinted with warm oranges and pinks that belied the bitter cold temperatures. Varying shades of blue and gray in the hollows of drifts and frozen waves revealed a different, cold visual truth, more in keeping with this season of long shadows and short, freezing days.

The action of light and blowing snow was a delight, physically cold, but warming the mind with its radiance. The drive to work across this amazing landscape – so different from what it was a few months ago and so different from what it would be in a few months – inspired wonder at its grander mystery and, yes, even soothed the aches of bones once the storm had passed.

Winter is more than something to be endured. With keening winds and magical light, this land in seeming hibernation comes alive. 

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

Topics: Environment
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