One thing western New Yorkers pride themselves on is toughness, the ability to endure weather extremes as if it were all part of a day’s work. Areas of Chautauqua County get an average of 220 inches of snow annually and with the perversity of the climate crisis, it is only getting worse.
There is an explanation. Usually Lake Erie, the second smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, would be the first to freeze over, ironically because Lake Superior was much farther north. But the country of the Chautauqua foothills is situated so as to channel the storms brewed on Hudson Bay, 600 miles to the north. Hudson Bay, despite being an extension of the Deep Arctic, often, not always, freezes over a few weeks later due to its salinity and winds.
As any school kid knows, fresh water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, while salt water doesn’t become locked in a web of ice crystals until it reaches 29 or 28 degrees. Which doesn’t seem significant, but for a huge body of water – Lake Erie at nearly 10,000 square miles and Hudson’s Bay at nearly 475,000 square miles – those degrees make a big difference. .
This means that these Arctic storms brewing in late November, early December are picking up the huge rivers of moisture swirling around them to the south, gaining momentum as they gather moisture into the air ahead of them like a stampede. frost, cold and snow cyclones, across the flat, almost featureless expanse of the Laurentian Shield, until they reach the plateau of the Alleghany Mountains.
Many have heard of the famous lake effect storms. Fewer have heard of this peculiar and thankfully rare phenomenon of arctic snowstorms. During the winter of 1976-1977, he came too close to us.
By the end of December 1976, we were already on track for a record 300 inches of snow.
As good an explanation as possible is this Wikipedia entry, which I will quote liberally: Late on Tuesday, January 24, 1978, surface charts revealed a moisture-laden Gulf low developing over the southern United States, while an and an unrelated low pressure system was present over the Upper Midwest. In about 24 hours, the merging of the subtropical jet stream (containing a maximum wind of 130 knots) and the polar jet stream (containing a maximum wind of 110 knots) caused the low pressure system to undergo an explosive cyclogenesis as it was moving rapidly north. on the evening of January 25 (record lows were recorded in parts of the southern and central Atlantic).
To be classified as undergoing explosive cyclogenesis, a storm’s central pressure must drop by at least 24 millibars, or an average of 1 millibar per hour, over a 24-hour period; the Great Blizzard dropped a remarkable 40 millibars during this time.
It was the chatter in our house. Explosive cyclogenesis? That doesn’t sound good. The radio, tuned as always to 1410 WDOE in Dunkirk, New York, chattered loudly about the approaching storm system. We knew it was serious because Dave, the station manager and my mother’s boss, went on the air himself to warn people of the impending chaos.
My postman father, however, took his creed seriously.“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor the darkness of the night prevent these couriers from completing their designated rounds quickly.” It was life threatening for both of us in the Great Blizzard – in truth, a relentless pounding of multiple blizzards lined up one after another like a dark march of stormy infantry assaults.
The first half of the course on Wednesday was uneventful. Scanning the sky north across the lake in Ontario, we could see the clouds gathering, stacked with angry energy. But the sky only emitted the occasional gust and it wasn’t that cold – having warmed from its dense lair of subzero cold to a balmy 14 or 15 degrees. That should have been the first sign.
This Arctic front had merged with a Gulf front to create this cyclogenesis, which I had never heard before. But that meant no school.
While I hated school to death, a snowy day meant I would climb all over the snowbanks on my dad’s mail route while my college colleagues had fun with their sleds and toboggans.
I’ll save the excruciating ordeal of a snow day for another chapter, but suffice it to say that the constant freezing and thawing led to cruel and unusual misery.
My father stopped at the post office halfway through his route to pick up the second half of his load for his burnished leather mailbags. He sorted first class from second class and the dreaded third class of supermarket shippers and newspaper market full coverage shippers who went to every house. I don’t remember if there was anyone from the hated third class, but there was constant pressure on the postmaster, a brilliant man by the name of Mr. Van Rensselaer with one arm (the other lost in a sawmill accident) to deliver the goods as the post depended on commercial receipts. I know that no day was more feared than the day the Pennysaver fell.
I was unaware of the discussion that had taken place, but it was whispered and urgent. So we embarked on the second half of the route, up the other hill that framed our little valley of Walnut Creek to start at the farms on the east side of Highway 39. We had barely reached the crest of the hill to the first fork in the street where the maple syrup barons, the Degoliers, lived. The leading edge of the storm front was white, a swirling but surprisingly smooth gust, but then the black wall slammed us down with a fury of frozen sun, lifting our Ford Rambler and spinning the car and dropping us into the ditch . We hunkered down as best we could. I pushed and dad pressed the gas, half in and half out of the car, foot on the gas and shoulder against the door frame, hoping against hope for some traction.
It was the one saving grace of the day that we were able to fight the wind enough to get into the trunk, grab the snow shovel, and lift enough of the previous snowfall into the ditch to get that saving traction. While I was shoveling, my dad hit the gas, hoping for some bite for those spinning wheels. The car slowly pulled out of the ditch and back onto the sidewalk, which was quickly buried under the piling up snowdrifts.
We were able to turn around and fire up to head home, weaving our way through the whiteout conditions, the windshield wipers beating their fastest tattoo as we piled into the house, exhausted and relieved. Ready to squat. It took weeks before anything felt like normal again. More than 100 inches of snow in 24 hours will disrupt your routines. The effects were long-lasting – to get our required 180 days of classroom instruction, school was extended through June, until the July 4 holiday. Independence Day, indeed.
RESEARCH RECIPES — SOUPS AND FRESH BREAD
There’s nothing like a fragrant soup and a piece of fresh bread on a cold day. It warms the soul. I remember we ate a lot of soups during the 1977-78 Blizzard – mom experimented with flavors and ingredients. I don’t remember any being less than delicious.
The soup is surprisingly simple for all the complexities of flavors it contains. A favorite was potato soup, naturally, because in our basement we had a duck on trestles filled with these versatile bits of starch.
At that time there were only four of us in the house – Bruce and Bob were off duty and married with their own households to take care of, Sister Barbara was in Jamestown and Sister Betsy was on her rounds of duty in Germany. This recipe will therefore be enough for about six people – at that time I had a prodigious appetite.
¯ Four or five medium potatoes, peeled and finely diced.
¯ A cup of broth (we usually had a simmering pot with all the carrots, potato skins, cabbage tips, broccoli stalks, beef bones – whatever was left over from food prep)
¯ A chopped yellow onion.
¯ Three or four stalks of celery, finely chopped
¯ Half a stick of butter (four tablespoons)
¯ Four tablespoons of all-purpose flour
¯ A liter of whole milk (or you can mix the proportion with cream – more broth and less cream or vice versa)
¯ A teaspoon of salt
¯ Half a teaspoon of garlic powder
¯ A few good doses of freshly ground pepper
¯ A good shake of paprika (about half a teaspoon too)
¯ Boil the potatoes in a saucepan until tender (if cut quite small, do not exceed 8 to 10 minutes. In the same saucepan, sauté the onion in the butter until tender. until tender.Stir in flour until well blended, stirring constantly to get a nice roux.Gradually stir in milk until thickened, then add broth to taste.
¯ Serve in a bowl with a sprinkle of dried parsley (fresh is best, it was hard to get anything fresh in mid-winter in the 1970s. You can add bacon for an extra layer smoky flavor.Croutons are good too.
Serve with a slice of fresh bread, generously buttered. Hang in there and repeat as needed until spring.
Bret Bradigan is editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk about the city.”