Of blizzards, snow drifts and ice


Hidden Springs Road 2014

I have always loved snow. When I was little, I imagined having a winter as Laura Ingalls in the Little House in the Big Woods – sitting under blankets with a horse drawn sleigh. Or as Laura in The Long Winter – digging a tunnel through the snow to get to the livestock in the barn. Clearly I both romanticized such experiences, and underestimated just how bitter cold it might be. As you might imagine, I do write a bit about Willamette Valley winters in My Music Man.

As we know, the reality of snow in Portland is different than what we think it might be. It’s wonderful when we have the luxury of being in a warm, dry spot with no need to get someplace: to look out over peaceful stretches of white. But if it happens before or during an attempt to get home or across town, we might just find ourselves sitting for hours on end, just to travel a few miles. (Or worse, to imagine being one of Portland’s homeless.) I heard from a friend who hopped off a Tri-Met bus just past the Sellwood Bridge, choosing to run the miles along Highway 43 towards West Linn rather than sit on a bus that wasn’t really moving. He was joined by a few others – a small brave minority eager to dash in the dark, cold for miles rather than sit. In defense we are sometimes quick to point out: we rarely get snow so aren’t prepared; Portlanders don’t know how to drive in snow and ice; we have so many hills; etcetera and etcetera.

Now as an adult who is always cold, I am realistic enough to question if I really would have survived in the frigid cold and deep snows back in Oregon’s pioneer days, as much as I still romanticize every flake we get.  I simply can’t imagine what the cold snow-carrying winds must have been like for those courageously crossing the Oregon Trail or attending to livestock in the midst of a blizzard. I’m really not sure I’d make it. Instead of bumper to bumper traffic jams you’d contend with pure survival.

We know that those attempting the Oregon Trail were on a race against time: winter snows would close the mountain passes and the final third of the trail was most difficult.  Before the Barlow Trail was opened in 1846, the overland part of the trail effectively ended in the Dalles. The Oregon Encyclopedia informs us that Sam Barlow, a fifty-three-year-old settler and leader of a wagon train, had been determined to find an alternative route to the Willamette Valley. He joined forces with another wagon train leader, Joel Palmer, and they began exploring the route that eventually led to the famous Barlow Trail: a route around Mount Hood. While Palmer and Barlow continued with their pack train, arriving in Oregon City at the end of that year with other travelers, they stashed their wagons and supplies at a place they named – appropriately – Fort Deposit near what we now know as Barlow Pass. I can’t imagine what a long, slow and bitter cold wait it must have been for those who were assigned winter guard duty to remain with the supplies until they could take off again in the spring.

While we’ve just had a couple of inches in this last storm, it still virtually locked our city down. Imagine if we got a real dumping! A decade before I was born, the winters of both 1949 and 1950 provided Portlanders with a couple of horrific winters and shattered records of both extreme cold and deep snowfalls. Bruce Johnson’s Oregon Photos website identifies these details: the average daily low in January 1949 was 21 degrees, while it warmed to an average of 21.2 degrees in January 1950 – both standing as “coldest ever.” More appealing, perhaps, to those romantics among us was that the winters of 1949 and 1950 had weeks-long snow on the ground, often deeper than 10 inches. An amazing 41 inches fell over the month of January 1950.

As this batch of snow and ice leave us, we move back into life as we know it. But I gotta admit – after a week or so, I’ll be ready to see those flakes dust us once again. Yep – blame the next storm on me.

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