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    Thursday, March 30, 2023

    No snow, no ice, no problem? Not really …

    Other parts of Connecticut have been having a real winter. A slippery, rocky trail ascends Soapstone Mountain in Somers. (Steve Fagin)
    A sheet of ice covers the floor of an observation platform at the summit. (Steve Fagin)
    Ice from a sudden squall coats tree branches. (Steve Fagin)

    Sure, it’s been a relief to hike all winter without having to don crampons, gaiters, an expedition parka, balaclava, facemask and overmitts.

    Likewise, kayaking on Fishers Island sound and the Connecticut River has been a lot more pleasant in air temperatures above rather than below freezing.

    This mild winter has brought other blessings. I don’t miss shoveling the driveway, scraping ice off the windshield, or having to spend half my waking hours making trips to the woodshed, and the other half stoking the stove.

    Therefore, it may be tempting to rejoice that southeastern Connecticut has been having one of the warmest, least snowy winters on record. But – and it’s a huge BUT – consider that benign conditions are due to climate change, which inevitably leads to more frequent, violent storms, wild swings between floods and droughts, and rising sea levels. A warm winter also has made it easier for ticks and other harmful insects to survive.

    So don’t get too giddy – we will pay soon enough for our “winter that wasn’t.”

    Except for one or two brutally cold days, and a couple of dustings that quickly melted or washed away, this has especially been a winter of discontent for skiers, snowshoers, ice skaters, and all of us who don’t mind bundling up to enjoy the simple pleasure of tramping on a soft blanket of dazzling white crystals.

    Our corner of the state seems to be an oasis – almost as if we’re surrounded by a weird meteorological force field that blocks out all snowstorms, as my friend, Bob Graham insists.

    I haven’t even had to wear winter hiking boots for regular rambles on local woodland trails. Last week, though, I realized that I had been lulled into complacency when I decided to venture out of the area and climb 1,075-foot Soapstone Mountain in Somers, near the Massachusetts border. My friend Phil Plouffe joined me.

    Since it was nice and sunny when we left home, we wore light jackets and didn’t bother to pack spikes or other boot-traction gear. Big mistake.

    A snow squall greeted us like a slap in the face when we arrived at the trailhead. A thick layer of ice coated rocks and the steep path leading to the summit, while powerful wind gusts shook icicles loose from tree branches, making the footing even less secure.

    “This isn’t fun,” I grumbled, as we slipped and slid our way up.

    “I’m colder now than I was hiking in New Hampshire,” Phil said. He had just come back from climbing snow-covered 4,358-foot Kinsman Mountain in Franconia, and also tramping up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to iced-over Hermit Lake at 3,900 feet.

    After reaching Soapstone Mountain’s summit, Phil and I clambered up a 30-foot observation tower, but didn’t linger to enjoy the view. Forty-plus-mph wind gusts had us clinging to the railing to avoid getting blown off the icy platform.

    On the drive back to southeastern Connecticut, we also had to make four detours because the wind had toppled trees across the road.

    Back home, though, all was quiet and calm. The force field was working.

    A week earlier, when I joined a group of seven kayakers on a favorite winter voyage from Noank to the eastern end of Fishers Island to watch dozens of migratory seals, it was so balmy we joked about having to apply sunscreen.

    Even the seals seemed lackadaisical, or at least indifferent. In past years, once they spotted us, several would swim close to our boats, popping up and diving back down with energetic splashes. This time, the colony kept its distance. Just as well; we try not to disturb them, and avoid staying too long.

    By the way, warm air temperatures do not mean leaving the drysuit behind. If you flip over in 40-degree water, hypothermia sets in within minutes; even in 50-degree water, you can die in an hour. So even though drysuits have tight, waterproof gaskets that make it feel like an anaconda is wrapped around your neck, and you need to smear dish soap on your hands before squeezing them through wristbands, and it often takes a second set of hands to yank the zipper closed, friends and I always wear them when heading out on open water in winter.

    Maple syrup production, a sweet annual tradition, also proved sluggish this winter. In past years I’ve collected as much as 50 gallons of sap from trees behind our house – a process that requires cold nights and warm days. This year, there have been plenty of warm days, but not enough cold nights. Result: Only about 15 gallons of sap.

    This was barely enough to produce a quart of syrup last week. No matter – friends gathered around the fire, where pots of sap, perched on a grate, boiled merrily. Then we cooked batch after batch of pancakes on a griddle over the flames, and topped them with hot syrup. If there’s anything better, I haven’t tasted it.

    Of course, I realize that there’s no more reliable way to inspire a blizzard than to complain about a lack of snow, just as it’s sure to rain immediately after you’ve watered the garden. No matter. Daylight Savings Time starts Sunday, and in less than two weeks, winter will be in our rear-view mirror.

    I just hope we’re not in for a long, hot spring, followed by an even longer, hotter summer.

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