In Montana, we know our snow, too


Cal Cumin

Depending on the consistency of the snow and the variability of the wind, who knows what you’ll get. A haiku in snow?

Snow. I know when it’s coming toward my home at night here on the prairie; the lights farthest away from my picture windows fade slowly one by one until there is only surrounding darkness. If there is no wind, the snow comes in great silence, the air and sound seemingly suppressed between the snow flakes and the ground.

I turn off the reading lamp behind me to rest my eyes from the exigencies of Lartéguy or James Lee Burke. My doxies are on my lap oblivious to everything and exactly where they want to be in the world.

The native people of the far north may have hundreds of words for “snow.” These same natives just changed the name of Barrow, Alaska, to Utqiagvik. If that’s close to one of their words for snow, I’m glad we farther south on the continent have a simpler vocabulary. Although, after weeks on end of cold and snow and wind, I tend to add pejorative adjectives when referring to the white stuff.

Barrow, named after Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker’s boyfriend (well, maybe not) was a fine old name, but Utqiagvik does have a certain cachet to it.

Even here in this mid-continent swath, we have several kinds of snow. First comes the overcast with large, floating snowflakes of every intricate pattern, which stick to branches, guardrails, and everything else they touch, including dogs and horses. This is the snow from the ponderosa that eventually falls on my bare neck as I shovel the walk for my two low-slung buddies.

Both my doggies are old now but still have the excited energy to charge gleefully out into the snowy yard, barking their goofy heads off and plowing through the snow on four-inch legs. However, on the way back, in single-digit temperatures, I may have to rescue them.

The next snow often changes into finer, harder flakes that seem to fall faster and this snow is more dense on the ground. Sometimes, as the temperature changes rapidly, the snow may suddenly harden into small pebbles that look like de-icer on the bare sidewalk and one can hear them hit the wood deck and windows.

After the snow on the roads is plowed, either by a neighbor with his skid steer or state or county road crews, the prairie wind takes over. Roughly it approaches the jagged hills of pushed snow that have violated its original art, smoothing the sharp edges, filling the endless small valleys and crevices.

Once the snow piles are featureless mounds, the wind now gently sculpts long curves and cornices that look like surfer waves frozen in white. This snow is compacted by the wind, good for burrowing snow caves or cutting blocks for snow forts and igloos. I think of these opportunities as I’m forced to cut, block and lift the three feet of snowbank that formed on my front sidewalk.

Beyond the now smoothly undulating roadside hills of snow, the wind clears some of the prairie land of any snow at all, piling up behind sagebrush where cottontails and grey partridges seek shelter. Eventually the sun melts the south side of prairie plants so that, looking north, lots of brown and gray bristles of sagebrush can be seen, while looking south, it’s solid snow cover. In the evenings, the setting sun paints all the western edges pink.

During the day when the sun appears, it adds a frosting of shining crystals to the snow cover, hardening the surface, and slowing some of the driven snow. Maybe tomorrow morning the wind will die down. What would really be nice is for a chinook, the snow-eater, to come.

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