A "Normal" New England Winter
I confess - I'm just a little kid when it comes to snow. When it starts falling, it is the most wonderful thing in the world. There is nothing finer than to watch the snow falling from the sky, covering the fields and trees with a new coating. When I wake up in the morning and find the world covered in white, I still get a the same thrill as when I was a kid (and, by the way, there is nothing in life that says you have to grow up and not be a kid anymore!).
I've lived in a lot of warm-brown and cold-brown winter places in my life, but I have never forgotten the winters of my youth, growing up in New England. Now that we are back, I am tickled that the "el nino/el nina" twins have wandered off somewhere, and we are having a "normal" winter.
Snowfall for the last four winters has been well below average. In Portland, for example, only 41" of snow fell last winter. Contrast this to the average winter where 60 to 70 inches of snow would fall on the city.
According to the snowfall data compiled from 1940 to 1989 by the National Weather Service, the Farmhouse is in a belt to receive 90 or more inches of snow in a "normal" winter. These are the kind of winters, where the snow comes and stays on the ground from the middle of December through March, that I remember from growing up.
This year, we are having a "normal" New England winter. As of February 7, Portland had received 51.4" of snow. Last month, George posted on the notice board at the Sebago Town Park "Total snowfall to date 36 inches". Since then, we've had at least 20 inches more in 2-3 storms and we can't see the board because of the snow piles over your head. And, Punxsutawney Phil has spoken, and has predicted six more weeks of winter ahead of us. Great!
We've had a number of snowstorms since winter began, and the temperature has been generally below freezing so that the snow has not melted, slumped, nor crusted much. There has been deep snow cover on the fields for more than a month, and the snow mantle is now more than 36" deep. The dusting of snow on the trees and bushes is like a Currier and Ives print, and has been staying for days and weeks after each storm. It hasn't been warm enough to melt off, nor windy enough to blow off.
I think all the snow is enchanting. I love to sit in the kitchen and just watch the snow fall in the back yard under the spotlight. Others don't share my romantic notion about snow, however. And the local weather persons go into hysterics as each storm works its way up the coast, or comes in from the Midwest or Canada. Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Tom Bell hits the nail on the head with his comments about winter in Maine:
I acquired a good-sized snowblower a couple of years ago, and keep it in the walk-in space under the kitchen. There are two large doors that I can drive the machine out through to the driveway.
Son Jim took one look at the arrangement this fall and said "You've got a problem here, you know."
"Both these doors open outwards - what are you going to do when there's a foot of snow in front of the doors blocking them? How are you going to get your equipment out?" he asked.
Taking his advice, I reversed one of the doors so that it opens inward. It was wise advice. Several storms have dumped a big pile of snow in front of the doors, and all I have to do is open the door inward and drive out into the storm.
The snowblower has been able to handle anything the winter has thrown at us so far. The snows have all been pretty light and fluffy, and keeping the driveway cleaned out has not been any big deal. Actually, I enjoy the task. Coming in to the warm kitchen for a hot cup of coffee after finishing the driveway - I feel like I've accomplished something.
Should I be out of town when a storm hits, we have an arrangement with Alan next door. Penny just has to call, and he'll come over with his plow and clean out the driveway for her. Its nice to have good neighbors.
Snow Loading and Ice Dams
Everyone is concerned this winter about the damage that the heavy snows may cause their homes and cabins. The weight of three feet of snow and ice can buckle or collapse a weaker roof. There is a brisk business locally in removing snow from camp roofs for the people "from away". We have been lucky so far in Sebago, but we see reports in the paper of people falling off roofs while they are shoveling the snow.
The build-up of ice dams on roofs is another concern. Ice dams are caused by melting snow that refreezes near the eaves and in valleys formed where two roofs meet. The snow melts both from the action of the sun on our bright, clear winter days, as well as from heat escaping through poorly insulated ceilings and roofs. The insulation in ceilings where the roof meets the ceiling is often thin, and the heat loss at the eaves is enough to melt the snow from the inside out. These ice dams cause pools of water to form on and under the shingles. When that water refreezes it makes the problem worse. Eventually, water makes its way behind and under the shingles, into ceilings and walls, and into the house.
The roofs at the Farmhouse are sturdy enough and are pitched steep enough (Remember I Hate Working on Roofs?) so I don't worry about snow overloading. The main house roof regularly sheds its load of snow and ice with a loud "whump". This is good for the house, but I always wonder if a load of ice and snow will choose to slide off the roof when either the dog or I are underneath it!
We try to clear any obstructions at the eaves so that the snow will slide off when loosened by the sun. I'm, however, a little concerned about the ice dams forming over the farmer's porch and the north side of the carriage house that doesn't get much sun. Here the ice builds up and could cause problems.
The usual solution to ice dams is to remove the snow before it builds up too deep, especially the lower two or three feet of roof at the eaves. Jim let me borrow his roof rake, and one weekend when he and Alison were visiting we put it to use. A roof rake is a 24-inch fiberglass or metal blade mounted on a long, sectioned aluminum pole. We removed the deep snow off the farmer's porch and the back side of the carriage house. Actually, I made an initial try at it and Jim then took over, showing me how it is supposed to be done. He'd had a lot of experience from the snow loading at their old place in Athens.
A roof rake won't make much progress against thick ice, however. Some folks swear by a liberal application of calcium chloride to melt the ice. Other homes have electrical heat tapes or cables on the eaves. Bob, down the road, has been doing battle with an ice dam for a week or more, and finally declared victory today - his weapon was hot water applied to the ice until it loosened and could be pulled down. He was getting leaking inside his porch from the build up, and was a little apprehensive about the storm coming through tonight.
Our contractor Paul offered another approach. Rather than climbing up on the roof and attacking the ice dam with an axe or ice spud, he recommends loosening it with heat from the inside of the roof. Putting a salamander heater or a kerosene heater in the attic will melt the ice dam enough so that it can be broken loose from the roof and slid off. This seems like a sensible alternative to falling off the roof, or chopping holes in the shingles with an axe.
I remember our neighbor when I was a kid in Hudson, NH. J.O. Baxter had attacked the ice build-up on his porch vigorously with an axe one winter. So vigorously that he made holes clear through the shingles, tar paper and roofing. The roof leaked so bad that he had to completely replace it the next spring. My father would remind me of "J.O.'s" folly every time I was tempted to climb up on the roof with an axe to tackle the ice.
The Birds Return!
All summer we had a wonderful variety of birds at our feeders. We even had several different types of hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeders on the farmer's porch. In anticipation of the chickadees, juncos, and other winter birds who are always around when the snow flies, I added a feeder in the back yard where we could see it from the kitchen window and the french doors in the living room. This bigger feeder had seeds as well as two suet cakes on the ends. When we lived in Albany, the birds would go through a suet cake each week.
When fall came however, the birds disappeared. I thought it was something I'd done, and I cleaned out the feeders and disinfected them. I filled them all up again with clean seed and suet. Nothing happened.
On my rambles through the woods, I would still see birds. But no visitors to the bird feeders. Our neighbors had the same experience, and it became a common concern across Maine - "where are all the birds?" The Audubon centers and bird food stores were flooded with anxious phone calls.
The Audubon Christmas bird count numbers this year were right up there. This winter 172,674 birds were spotted on land, in the water, and flying in the sky. This was up from 164,173 last year and ahead of the 15-year average of 140,953. So the birds are there - just not at the feeders.
Bird experts theorized that the abundance of wild seeds, nuts, and berries in the woods was keeping the birds well fed there, and they had no reason to visit feeders in people's yards. The songbirds found black cherries and white pine seeds, as well as the red berries of the mountain ash. There was even a good crop of acorns for the birds that can eat nuts, like blue jays.
The wild birds prefer wild feed over bird feeder seeds - this is what the experts were saying. I didn't quite believe this until I noticed a small flock of chickadees at the privet bush in the back yard. They ignored the bird feeder right next to the bush and spent an hour harvesting the red fruit from the bush. It was nearly a full month later, when snow was deep on the ground and the bushes were bare, that the birds start returning to our feeders.
"Don't worry - they'll be back." said the experts. Well, they were right. We are seeing large groups of birds, several different species, including chickadees, goldfinches, juncos, blue jays and others. Yesterday I even saw two mourning doves on the ground, picking up seeds beneath the feeders. All the birds are part of the winter scene, and are a pleasure to watch.
The Magic of Winter
All the snow means that the cross-country skiing and the snowshoeing has been a winter-lover's dream. Deep, unending powder. Bright blue skies. Crisp air. The "snowbirds" who go south every winter to escape the cold are missing one of the best of the seasons in Maine. Their loss, however, is our gain.
We have a number of friends in Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. When we have visited them we found that a favorite pastime of our Florida friends in the winter was to watch the weather unfolding up north on the news - and commenting on how glad they were that they were down in the sunshine and warmth. When my mother and father lived in Effingham, she added up one year what they spent on fuel oil and figured that they could pay rent to winter in Florida for the same amount of money. For several years they would close up the house, drain the pipes, and head to an efficiency they rented at Indian Rocks Beach. It worked for them. Perhaps later for us, but for now I am very content to spend my winters with the snow.
I've always liked the comment about Florida by Louise Dickinson Rich, in her "My Neck of the Woods" (J.B. Lippincott Co, NY, 1950). She asked her neighbors at Middle Dam, Larry and Alys Parson, how they liked their month's vacation in Florida.
"Nothing there but climate, and we've got plenty of that at home. Better here, too. More variety to it."
And that pretty well summarizes my view on Florida. A nice place to visit, once in awhile, but no place I'd want to live, thank you very much. I've lived in too many hot, sunny places with boring, consistent weather all the time.
For me, winter is one of Maine's best seasons. A snowy winter is like having a slab of sharp cheddar cheese on your apple pie - just the right finishing touch.
Again, Tom Bell has good advice on how we should face and enjoy winter:
Allen and Penny Crabtree
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Last updated February 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree