Patti See

After last February’s record snowfall, I’m filled with more dread than usual about what these 29 days will bring. All of us who survived damaging ice dams are paranoid. Since November I’ve been shoveling our roof edges with my 25-foot snow rake. Drive around the Chippewa Valley, and you’ll see evidence of the same patterns on roof after roof. Poet T.S. Eliot famously claimed, “April is the cruelest month.” He never experienced February in Wisconsin.

I remember back when we had “temperatures” or “wind chills” and what they felt like was up to you. Now we get reports of this “feels like” temp. At my most crotchety — usually in February — I wonder, “What snowflake meteorologist invented that?”

Since 2012, snowstorms have been given names — Avery, Indra, Quiana, Xyler — which reflect current tastes. Does no parent (or National Weather Service official) like John or Mary anymore? We also constantly hear about the ominous polar vortex, a conspiracy to make winters seem more frightening.

A little research shows winters are worse in Wisconsin (and across the U.S.). According to Climate Signals, a nonprofit science information project, “North America is the only place on Earth experiencing far-below-normal temperatures.” One theory is that melting sea ice in the Arctic weakens the jet stream, which allows polar air to infiltrate farther south than usual. This means February temps in Cold Bay, Alaska, are warmer than in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, Marshall Shepherd, reminds us that “weather” is what happens this week, while “climate” is what happens this year and beyond — lessons many of us learned in fifth-grade science. The former president of the American Meteorological Society adds: “It is not ‘Where You Live Warming,’ it is ‘Global Warming.’”

I know we should never say which winter is the “worst,” so let’s say some are more “memorable” than others. The first time our pipes froze and burst, February of 2012, my husband was home alone. Water gushed through ceiling tiles in the basement. Our shut-off is behind a removable wall, a design flaw undiscovered until this emergency. Bruce called our neighbor, Jerry Sabaska, another homebody. These two retirees used to take turns “liking” each other’s Facebook posts across frozen Lake Hallie. They rarely left home in winter, so they were the perfect guys to call if you needed something.

Jerry thought for a moment: “Just kill the power to the well.”

When Jerry told me the story later, he laughed: “Bruce dropped the phone. He didn’t even hang up.”

A panicked Bruce ran down to turn off the breaker.

The second time a pipe burst, February of 2018, water leaked into a crawl space beneath the house. I cut the drywall out of our laundry room in the area we heard spurting water, and discovered the pipes were next to the cement foundation, then insulation and drywall — the opposite of what they should be. No heat was getting to them, another sign our cabin was built as a three-season. The former owner drained the pipes each fall and didn’t give them another thought as she basked in the Florida sun all winter.

We tore out the drywall five feet up from the floor, like some redneck wainscoting. I stuffed insulation behind each pipe, my thin fingers barely able to push the quilting through. In May those exposed pipes and tufts of pink and brown still remind us of our hardiness and the prize for surviving another February: glorious spring in Wisconsin.

Until our ice dams of 2019 (and leaking directly over our bed), Bruce and I called 2018 the “winter from hell.” Weeks of freezing and thawing meant our steep driveway became a luge by February. No amount of salt and sand allowed us to drive our Mini Cooper up the quarter-mile hill. AAA wouldn’t tow it because technically we weren’t “stuck.” Finally, I asked Jerry to pull our car to the top.

My first day of trudging up the drive to a frozen car in sub-zero temps, I stop my ascent and glance at the beautiful scene below — sun coming up beyond Jerry and Helen’s house across the lake, lovely puffs of smoke curling out of their chimney like an epiphany. I eyeball the distance from my dock to their back door: shorter than what I just walked.

I call to ask if I can park in their driveway.

That afternoon when I drop off the car, I go inside to leave my keys in case Jerry needs to move my vehicle to plow. He quizzes me about the Mini Cooper, as he has about every car I’ve driven since I was 16 and his daughter’s best friend. Now, 33 years later, I say confidently: “It’s a 4-cylinder.”

None of us knows this is Jerry’s last winter. By August, he’ll be dead.

“I could start your car in the morning,” Helen pitches. No uphill trek and a toasty car? Heavenly.

She reminds me that as a teen she made a daily trip past my house to get from her farm at the north end of the lake to work at her family’s dance hall on the other end (now the site of the Eau Claire Press Co. production plant.)

“I walked up and down your driveway sometimes four times a day,” she tells me. Today she doesn’t mention the 99 steps carved into the earth, which led from the lakeshore up to The Hoot, though she does tell me her same punchline: “I didn’t have a weight problem back then.”

The next morning, Helen calls me at 7:30. “Are you coming?”

“Just getting my gear on.” That takes time for 18 degrees below zero. I’m wearing my dress clothes under wind resistant sweatpants and three coats. Nanuk of the North wore fewer layers. Only my eyes are visible.

As I slog across the frozen lake, with each crunching step I consider what Norwegians say: Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær — “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” It sounds more convincing in Norwegian, perhaps because it rhymes.

I walk up a slight incline to Sabaska’s enclosed porch. Tall snowbanks mean the only way to access my car is through their house. Helen meets me at the sliding door: “I couldn’t start your Mini.”

“Is it dead?”

“I didn’t remember how, and Jerry’s asleep.” The push button start is confusing. She would have failed her motor-head husband’s car quiz.

I find Helen’s plate of cookies on my passenger seat; they almost thaw by the time I get to work.